Love is a weird little Judd Apatow show that premiered on Netflix February 19. The set-up seems predictable enough, with Paul Rust as an anal-retentive weenie (Gus) and Gillian Jacobs as a “cool, but a little scary” radio show manager (Mickey). The first episode bounces back and forth between the endings of their respective long-term relationships in what is probably the most conventional part of the show. Gus’s initial falling-out especially feels like something straight out of the romcom playbook. His girlfriend Natalie (Milana Vayntraub) accuses him of being overbearing and “fake-nice,” the sex is lame, and he’s obsessed with the miniscule details of the two of them moving in together. An especially touching and pathetic moment comes when Gus orders a rug (blue, not orange, per his girlfriend’s request) on his laptop in bed while ex-to-be Natalie sleeps beside him. Gus is grinning, but the domestic bliss exists entirely in his own head. Mickey’s failing relationship is a little more fun — her on-and-off boyfriend is a cokehead with abandonment issues, who breaks off morning sex to go pants shopping with his mother. We roll our eyes less at her person and more at the bullshit she has to deal with. Where Gus is a slightly-better-developed-than-average nice guy, Mickey is a profoundly weird and fairly deep character, and probably the most well-developed female protagonist Apatow has ever written. The prospect of the show, if you haven’t guessed it yet, is that Gus and Mickey meet and, against the odds, (maybe) fall in capital-L Love.
The first few episodes feature some pretty conventional plot devices, but the characterization and dialogue have a loose, awkward, and very human quality to them. The humor isn’t quite as tight as in, say, Superbad (i.e. there are fewer punchlines per minute), but this seems intentional; the character interactions feel less scripted and more realistic as a result. When the jokes do come, their punchlines typically take a few seconds to sink in, or are so cloaked in embarrassment that one has to unwrap them to find the humor. The loose humanness of the writing creeps into the plot by the second episode; Mickey walks to the corner store to buy a coffee after a weird and sleepless night out but forgets her money, then decides to take the coffee anyway. Gus steps in to pay before the uppity store owner can call the cops.
The entire second episode’s plot runs as follows: the two of them walk back to her house so she can find her wallet to pay him back, she realizes it’s not there, they go to find it. That’s it. They get high on the way home, and Gus gives Mickey his ex’s address by mistake. He picks up his old shit. Mickey takes him home, tucks him in. But these are mere foibles in what boils down to thirty minutes of walking and talking. Everything in the episode (plot, movement, cinematography) is just a vague setpiece, background noise to the two of them talking shit about their exes. Along the way, of course, each character deepens, reveals its quirks and foibles, presenting a certain Apatowian philosophy of love. Gus, after picking up a cardboard box full of Blu-Rays from his ex’s, gets belligerent on the ride home when he realizes that the lies he told himself during his ill-fated relationship all came from movies. High, he tosses them one by one out the car window. “Bullshit!” he squeals. “It’s all bullshit!” Mickey, less high and more cool than Gus, enjoys the performance and gently encourages his newfound rejection of trope and cheese.
The question is what real life has to offer Gus instead of bullshit, and what the show has to offer us. This is where the ten-episode season falters. The show is excellent at rendering these characters and their worlds, but offers little in the way of solutions to their problems. It’s entirely possible that this is intentional—that the purpose of the show is to present characters and their situations rather than another marriage plot. If this is the case, however, Love shows us a lot of the same situations, featuring the two same characters, again and again. Gus’s only discernible personality traits (though manifested in myriad ways) are that he worries, is unassertive, and likes movies. The latter point is belabored in his career as an on-set tutor for child actors on the campy network show Witchita (which features witches, in Wichita, in the fifties). The bit is funny and self-conscious, but takes up a bulk of the space of the latter half of the season—Gus’s squirming ambitions as a screenwriter and his incompetence as a teacher get stale rather quickly. Mickey’s problems, meanwhile, seem to revolve around drugs and sex and having too much of both. Her coolness, we realize, springs from some deficit of empathy and self-esteem. Even her job offers no reprieve from the show’s main theme (and title), as she manages a show called “Heart Work,” the radio-station equivalent of a romantic advice column, hosted by an appropriately creepy sweater-wearing “love doctor” (Brett Gelman).
This stuff is all funny and sometimes touching, but it’s all the same sort of thing. The show is named for love, it is about love (or at least what we call love), and every facet of each character’s life seems to be an arrow that points back to, once again, love. Apatow brings the style requisite for the ten episodes (the dialogue is almost always funny, realistic, awkward, the cinematography is better than most network TV, and the entire show feels slick and millenial-marketed) but doesn’t bring enough material to riff on. Sameness, however, is not the greatest of the show’s sins — it’s hypocrisy.
The show’s low-key structure and pacing throughout make the conflict of the last few episodes feel manufactured and melodramatic. Gus sells a script for Witchita, then gets a big head about it, then starts fucking one of the actresses on the show. Mickey is rude to Gus, then decides she likes him, then is rude to him again. Somewhere in the last episode the writers give her a sex addiction, a twist that feels tasteless and shoehorned in. The ending, which leaves the two of them maybe-broken-up, is an unsatisfying and unnecessary cliffhanger. It’s clear that Apatow’s team began with a vision in mind, one designed to upset the orders of romcom and scripted television alike. If Love had presented two intertwining character studies, with all the weirdness and sad funniness the show occasionally exhibits, it would have had the potential for transcendence. As it sits, Love feels like a dream that got its wings clipped.