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The reality is that Love Life probably earned the title of HBO Max’s first scripted series (not starring Elmo) because of availability and not some grand intended pronouncement that the Anna Kendrick-fronted anthology represents the very model of the streamer’s original content.
So you can choose how much of a mission statement you want to read into this: Love Life boasts an interesting and potentially innovative anthology structure but introduces that format with the most conventional and least interesting incarnation imaginable. It’s a toothless, dull proof-of-concept that any network or service could have produced, made more worrisome if it’s also meant to be a toothless, dull proof-of-concept for HBO Max.
Air date: May 27, 2020
The gimmick to Love Life, created by Sam Boyd, is that it uses a single season to chart a character’s emotional journey from first romance to last. For the first few episodes of the season, the story is told with a romance-per-episode structure, but that’s abandoned around halfway, with episodes that lay a flimsy foundation for the main character’s romantic patterns. So it isn’t even exactly a proof-of-concept so much as a proof of lack-of-conviction. Either way, it’s a pretty good idea for a show, albeit one that demands a dynamic main character with a dynamic set of dating experiences leading to an interesting personal evolution on the road to love.
Instead we get a bland story of a pretty 20-something white woman living beyond her means in New York City, going through a series of heteronormative relationships and one-night stands marked by minor incompatibility, temporary inconvenience and collective, muted banality.
Our heroine here is Darby (Kendrick), who aspires to do something nonspecific and boring in the city’s art world. Over the course of eight episodes sent to critics (out of the full season of 10), she works her way through a number of tangentially related jobs that she conspicuously doesn’t care about. You won’t either.
Darby lives with Sara (Zoë Chao) and Mallory (Sasha Compère), diverse roommates whose lives are vastly more complicated and perhaps more involving than hers, or at least I think their lives may be those things. It’s really hard to tell because the show’s myopic obliviousness to its supporting characters mirrors its main character’s obliviousness. I have no idea if that’s intentional.
The trek through Darby’s love life starts in 2012 with aspiring journalist Augie (Devs co-star Jin Ha, making a strong case that he’s ready for something much better than this). Along the way, we meet her first love (a bratty high schooler played by American Vandal veteran Griffin Gluck), a leering boss (insufferable, were he not played by the great Scoot McNairy), her needy mother (Hope Davis) and other functionaries present for conceptually graphic sex scenes — I don’t know how else to describe fully clothed face-sitting — and Darby’s personal growth.
I think the best version of Love Life would be one in which each episode functioned as a stand-alone romantic comedy, some with realistically bittersweet consequences. But maybe that’s me looking for contrivance when the creators of Love Life were acknowledging that lots of relationships don’t have an endearing meet-cute, never make any particular sense as they’re in-progress, lack even fleeting redeeming moments and aren’t the least bit appealing to be a part of unless you’re one of the participants. In short, each episode is a rom-com but without any romantic sparkle and without all that much comedy. Maybe it’s intentional, if not entertaining.
Similarly, I can’t say with certainty that it’s not intentional that through eight episodes, basically none of the men in her life have any chemistry with Darby, nor the actors with Kendrick. Jin Ha in the premiere is the only exception. Without having seen the last two episodes, I’m anticipating the return of that character, because otherwise I can’t imagine what the point of any of this was. That was just a guess — I’ve seen How I Met Your Mother, after all — not a spoiler.
But is there a big audience out there for a weekly dose of “Yeah, that’s a dumb relationship for her” hijinks? It’s very hard, in such situations, to introduce a preordained dead-end relationship and do it in a way that doesn’t undermine the main character. Or it seems darned near impossible here. For episodes to work, you have to invest in either the inevitably short-lived romances or in Darby’s ability to escape unscathed and improved. It’s hard to do either.
The semi-remarkable thing is how frequently Kendrick holds the show together. She’s funny even when the scripts aren’t, because Kendrick is a master of slightly askew line-readings. She’s sympathetic even when everything Darby does is nebulous and hard to rationalize. When she’s put opposite somebody as solid as Davis, she finds a dramatic core that the series, leaping around by months and sometimes years, can’t maintain. When she’s given decent scenes with Chao, you buy their friendship even if whole episodes have passed without Chao’s Sara doing anything other than drinking to excess. That character, incidentally, has the dramatic swings of personal fortune and a badly delivered, but conceptually rich, long-term relationship that might have been better fodder to be front and center instead of pushed to the fringe of 30-minute episodes.
It’s frustrating because so many of the people involved with Love Life are extremely good at what they do — and what they do could have been a good version of this show. Executive producers include Paul Feig, who directed one of Kendrick’s best performances in A Simple Favor, and writer Bridget Bedard, whose spectacular “Refugees” episode of Ramy could easily still be a template for a great season of Love Life. Ditto with co-executive producer Jack Moore, who wrote the stunning Gabe-Sam two-hander in the second season of Dear White People, as great a treatment of a strained relationship as you’ll see on TV.
I’m curious what future seasons of Love Life might be. But I’m equally curious why the team at HBO Max thought this version was what best represented the anthology or the streamer itself.
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Zoë Chao, Sasha Compère, Peter Vack
Creator: Sam Boyd
Episodes air Wednesdays on HBO Max starting May 27
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