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Love, the song states, is like oxygen, but Netflix’s new comedy series Love is made of less essential stuff.
Created by Judd Apatow, Paul Rust and Lesley Arfin and ordered up-front for two seasons, Love is an anti-romantic comedy, the story of two people fooled by Hollywood into believing in meet-cutes, grand gestures and the fulfilling simplicity of true love, only to realize that not everybody gets, or necessarily deserves, a storybook courtship. It’s a fairly insular story of maladroit young folks with Hollywood dreams spewing pop-culture knowledge and seeking companionship in the most awkward ways imaginable against an East Los Angeles backdrop.
AIR DATE Feb 19, 2016
Love is You’re the Worst in the style of Togetherness with an Apotovian tendency toward excess abetted by Netflix’s tendency toward letting creatives do whatever they want without limitations. It’s a variation on a common theme, but it’s also squirmingly effective, fitfully funny and carried by a great, uncompromising performance from Gillian Jacobs.
The first episode, which clocks in at an arduous-for-a-comedy 40 minutes, establishes romantically starved Gus (co-creator Rust) and Mickey (Jacobs). Oh, they’re in relationships, but they are relationships of near epic toxicity, the kind of ill-fated couplings you don’t bounce back from swiftly. He’s a tutor to the young actors (including Iris Apatow, effective as a nascent tween diva) on a cheesy supernatural soap about witches in Kansas titled, fittingly, Witchita. She works on a radio advice show with a host played by the always welcome Brett Gelman. Very early on, Gus and Mickey are extricated from their beaus and by the end of the episode, they’ve had their own meet-cute, which is really more of a meet-ugly.
The conceit of Love is that we know Gus and Mickey have hang-ups and flaws that make them ill-suited for each other. She’s an insecure, self-destructive addict and he’s insecure, deluded and dangerously passive aggressive. There’s also the problem where Mickey looks like Gillian Jacobs and Gus has a young Woody Allen vibe, but that can be solved by having the female lead muse, “Maybe I should try dating nice guys.” So Gus and Mickey are doomed, but they’re also charming together in a way that tempts them to ponder their pairing, because movies and TV shows have warped our perception of happiness. They’re having these delusions despite the existence of the shows mentioned above, but also the Apatow-produced Girls and the geographically proximate Transparent and a wave of shows in which affection and excruciation blend.
My notes across the 10-episode first season run are frequently punctuated with “Oy” and “Oh no” and “This is going to be awful” in response to the torrent of cringe-inducing moments, rather than quality, which will either be a sensation you enjoy or not. Sometimes the vein of humor running through the discomfort is all that prevents it from being unbearable, as with the date between Gus and Mickey’s Australian roommate (the marvelous Claudia O’Doherty), which achieves peak nightmarishness along with hilarity. Sometimes it just hurts and you’ll only continue if you’re there for the main characters.
On Community, the joke was that everybody called Jacobs’ Britta “the worst,” but despite a few annoying tendencies, she wasn’t so bad. Mickey is far closer to a true version of The Worst, a character who generates near-constant tension built around her poor decision-making. There’s a horror movie tendency to want to yell, “Go back, it’s an emotional trap!” whenever Mickey does anything, but Jacobs doesn’t mug for sympathy, nor does she ever let Mickey seem monstrous no matter how bull-in-a-china-shop she gets in the lives of other characters. She’s occasionally wounded, occasionally manic and consistently relatable, even if sometimes the scripts often feel weighted against her and in favor of the co-star who’s also the show’s co-creator.
Or maybe Love is a Rorschach test of a show in which your sympathies say more about you than what’s happening on the screen and because I relate more to Gus, I empathize with him more, but because of a tendency toward guilt, I lashed out and over-compensated and became protective of Mickey? Perhaps. Gus is also a wreck, but he just happens to be more prone to wish fulfillment and subsequent sabotage. Love seems invested in making Gus funny, but Jacobs seems determined to make Mickey human.
Supporting characters in Love are harder to come by, though Apatow, Gellman and O’Doherty all make impressions, as does Briga Heelan, as a Canadian aspiring starlet who also takes a shine to Gus. Jordan “Chris’ Brother” Rock is funny as a Witchita crew member who complains that he doesn’t want to be thought of as the advice-giving black friend, a winking commentary that would be funnier if his role, or any other minority role in the series, represented anything more than that. While not populated with his movie buds, the Judd Apatow Repertory Company is represented here by the likes of Charlyne Yi (as an advice-giving Asian friend), Dave Allen, Steve Bannos and Andy Dick, playing himself.
You might have seen these L.A. neighborhoods before or heard jokes about public transportation or the Magic Castle, but at least Love takes you deep inside. You’ve certainly had no lack of winking and nudging about the vapid TV industry, but the world around Witchita has many layers to chide.
Most of Love doesn’t feel new, but it’s committed and if you can shake the fact that there are a dozen shows with similar moves and if you can warm up to the prickly, but probably realistic, characters, there’s a lot to like, if not love.
Cast: Gillian Jacobs, Paul Rust
Creators: Judd Apatow, Paul Rust, and Lesley Arfin
Premieres Friday, Feb. 19 (Netflix).