The searching, heartbroken singles at the heart of Love don’t “meet cute.” They meet grungy. Mickey (Gillian Jacobs), a talk radio producer, is a trainwreck personality locked in a shame spiral of substance abuse and hate sex. Gus (Paul Rust), a wannabe TV writer, is a freaksy-geeksy, too-nice type in free fall after getting dumped. The morning after a gnarly night that culminates a gnarly stretch of life for each of them, these two walking throbs of need cross paths at a quick-mart. She wants coffee and smokes and doesn’t have money and can’t understand why the clerk won’t just let her come back later with cash. Gus offers to pick up the tab just to move her along or because he’s really that nice. Might he be instantly, instinctively attracted to her, too? Mickey takes his money – and keeps caustically barking at the clerk. So Love begins. And… love, too?
What’s for certain is that all of this is actually quite funny, albeit somewhat familiar. Love, now available for binge at Netflix, is yet one more ironic romantic comedy with a most unromantic view of love, greasy with likability-challenged leads, lewd irreverence, and cringing, quotidian satire. It joins a glorious glut of shows that chase rom-com subversion from different angles: You’re The Worst, Man Seeking Woman, Girls, Togetherness, The Last Man On Earth and more. Love comes from Rust, Lesley Arfin (Awkward, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), and Judd Apatow, whose salty-sweet, R-rated smashes (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Trainwreck) have made him our potty-mouthed poet laureate of modern romance. Their deconstructionist ambition is hardly new — the Reality Bites ’90s alone was rife with it (see: Kevin Smith, Cameron Crowe, Richard Linklater, the Farrelly brothers, Charlie Kaufman) – and the sensibility that has accumulated from these varied expressions might even deserve its own deconstruction. Everything’s infected with it these days – even Deadpool. Love can’t completely escape the not-so-fresh feeling, especially when it’s calling out its own subtext, like the scene when Gus trashes his Blu-ray collection while decrying Hollywood phoniness. And yet, the scene is also one of my favorites from the five episodes screened for this review. Love entertains, often immensely, with great performances, nuanced perspective and a form that creates meaning over time.
The first half of Love’s 10-episode first season is really a pair of character studies. Just as Apatow and his collaborators don’t rush the Mickey-Gus meet-grunge in the premiere, they don’t rush Mickey and Gus toward coupling in the episodes that follow. Love wants these two to earn their love by having them gradually recognize their need for each other as they simultaneously figure out other issues in their lives. Mickey in particular has a whole lot of them. She’s got addictions. Drugs. Alcohol. Sex. People. Her radio shrink boss, Dr. Greg (Brett Gelman), is prone to inappropriate demands as well as inappropriate advances. She has a sunshiny and slightly clingy new roommate from Australia, Bertie (Claudia O’Doherty). And she’s got bitter ex-boyfriends up the wazoo who either provoke or enable her worst parts.
Love’s episodes vary in length, usually between 30 and 40-something minutes. They often pick up where the previous episode left off and follow Mickey and Gus separately or together toward a fixed point on their winding road to relationship. One episode sends them on a lazy day drive-about as they get high and then come down. Another episode keeps them apart and examines their fraught workdays (Gus pays the bills tutoring a terrible child actress, played by Apatow’s daughter, Iris). The narrative is a wandering vine that goes where it needs or wants while always moving forward with felt purpose.
Put another way: Love is Apatow to the max. He’s famed — and frequently criticized — for shaggy storytelling and long running times that result from improvised scenes, a pursuit of authenticity, and an inability to kill darling bits. But if you fall for the ambition of watching the gradual, fraught bonding of these two people, then Apatow’s tendencies work to the Love’s advantage and create form that mirrors its meaning, love as a meandering, messy process.
Who cares if Love isn’t funny, right? But it is. Apatow and his writers have great imagination for satirizing courtship, for the ways we go about filling or numbing our need for relationship (in all forms: friendly, romantic, erotic, spiritual) and how we meet those needs in others, for better and worse. Gutbusting lines and set-pieces abound, most of them either describing or depicting sex acts. At least two episodes are wire-to-wire gems: episode 2, in which Mickey and Gus bond over doobies, fast food and an encounter with Gus’ ex, and episode 5, one of the more inspired date-from-hell stories I’ve seen in awhile.
None of this works without great acting and chemistry, and Rust and Jacobs bring both in abundance. Rust finds the right balance of sadsack and strength in Gus and rocks the awkward cringe comedy. He brings all his gifts to the part, from an amazing face capable of an endless array of expressions to legit musical chops. (In one sequence that I hope becomes a recurring gag, Gus gets together with his friends to write title songs for movies that don’t have them. I can’t get their take on The Perfect Storm out of my head.) Jacobs gives a bold zero f—s performance as Mickey. She wantonly embraces the rawness and ribaldry and Mickey’s damage, yet her natural charm and comic bent keep us connected to Mickey and rooting for her, not alienated or appalled by her. Playing addiction in comedy or for comedy is a tricky challenge. I’ve only seen 5 of the 10 episodes, but so far, so good.
The moment that sold me on Love comes in the premiere, when Mickey, wasted, attends a New Age-y church service with an ex and responds derisively to the idea that those who ask for love — from others, God or the universe — shall receive. “I’ve been asking and asking and I haven’t gotten f—ing anything,” she says. “Hoping and waiting and wishing and wanting love… Hoping… Hoping for love has f—ing ruined my life.” The confession reveals a lot about Mickey, but also speaks to the flawed fantasies that Love seeks to grieve or deconstruct — that love is easy; that love is bliss; that love is all we need. Like You’re The Worst, Love models the work of dismantling the received wisdom and the received B.S. about relationships, intimacy and love, finding and claiming their meaning, and rebuilding them for ourselves. It’s not a new story. But it’s a lovable one. B+