In Love, Netflix's new Judd Apatow-produced comedy series about the first stirrings of a tentative romance, the broad statements about love pile up quickly, and they all look like potential themes for the show. "Love doesn't just happen, we have to choose it," says a preacher in a culty love-themed secular church. "Hoping for love has fucking ruined my life," another character shoots back. But the real money quote pops up midway through the show's 10-episode run, as protagonists Gus (Paul Rust) and Mickey (Community's Gillian Jacobs) talk over a failed attempt to get together for a date. They both try to take the blame for everything that's gone wrong, and Gus winds up pleased that they've both failed so badly: "I guess we're both fuck-ups," he says, "so it's cool."
The moment is played casually, but it defines the series, their relationship, and possibly all Apatow-related comedy. Love doesn't openly sell the fantasy that two damaged people who fall for each other can fix each other. But it's lurking there, under every scene where Mickey turns to alcohol, pot, or sex to distract her from her problems, or whenever Gus is painfully needy and ineffectual at work. Maybe love will make them a little stronger. Maybe they'll be better people if they aren't so painfully alone.
The films Apatow has directed, like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People, and Trainwreck, all center on the struggle to define relationships, overcome adolescent impulses, and figure out what growing up means in the modern world. Love also gets its comedic sensibility from its other two creator / writer / producers — co-star Paul Rust, a former Arrested Development story editor and Comedy Bang! Bang! writer, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine story editor Lesley Arfin. (The two are married.) Rust's anti-comedy leanings are particularly apparent in the show's early plotless wandering, which spends more time establishing the setting and the characters than moving them forward. But Love is still packed with well-known Apatow signifiers, from the comedian-packed cast to the Los Angeles setting to the immaturity of the mismatched central couple.
These are not appealing people
The big difference is in how seriously the protagonists' damage is taken. Gus and Mickey aren't just quirky, they're both catastrophic, in different ways that enable different kinds of humor. She's a selfish, impulse-driven addict with little social awareness, but she's also principled, and decisive in her job as a satellite-radio program manager. He has a large circle of friends and a comfortable sense of himself, but he's easily manipulated, and painfully incompetent in his job as an on-set tutor for spoiled 12-year-old child star Anya (Apatow's daughter Iris). Mickey enables big, messy crisis situations. Gus enables slow-burning, knife-twisting scenes where he escalates his terrible choices one moment at a time. Even in comedy, they're opposites.
Love's central problem is the same one that plagues so many Apatow movies, and so many rom-coms in general: these are not appealing people, and their relationship appears to do more damage than good to both of them. It's hard for viewers to take a rooting interest in such a terribly unsuited couple, especially when their relationship seems to exacerbate their problems rather than soothe them. In some romantic comedies, the leads' sheer unpleasantness is part of the humor. But here, the leads' problems are subtler and more persistent.
And Gus and Mickey really are bad for each other, in ways that aren't conducive to comedy. They meet at a convenience store where Mickey, who has forgotten her wallet, is throwing a screaming, profane tantrum at the clerk. Gus offers to pay for her coffee, and she immediately ups the ante: "And a pack of cigarettes," she orders. Gus immediately capitulates. This isn't a meet-cute, it's her at her entitled ugliest, and him as a nice-guy pushover who doesn't see he's being used.
This isn't a joke-heavy series. It's dry humor at best, discomfort humor at worst. The way Gus and Mickey alternately badger each other for attention, then neglect each other in favor of more convenient and familiar comforts, rings true for the early stages of any relationship. And the series also captures the power of infatuation, the feeling of limitless potential, the risky thrill of the first shared sexual experiences. But it still hurts each time one of them lets the other down. And the way they offend each other by openly dismissing or attacking each other's little pleasures provokes plenty of squirming, but relatively few laughs. In most of the episodes, the directors (familiar names like filmmaker Joe Swanberg, Mad Men's John Slattery, actor Steve Buscemi, and Parks And Recreation producer Dean Holland, also a producer here) keep the action quiet and low-key. There's much more focus on baffled facial expressions than big emotional blow-outs.
Sometimes, Love does fall into a more relaxed, absurdist vibe. One particularly terrific scene has Gus deliberately trying to bomb on a doomed date with Mickey's sweet, puppyish new roommate Bertie (Australian comedian Claudia O'Doherty). Mickey lets Bertie know he's sabotaging the evening on purpose, so Bertie tries to outdo him by being even more awful. For a while, everyone's a little unhappy, but at least they're having fun — and their efforts to behave badly make for lively comedy.
Love may be strongest when it isn't focused on one of Gus and Mickey's disastrous encounters, and takes its time establishing them both as people with friends and lives. Gus in particular has a large circle of friends and co-workers, familiar from Comedy Bang! Bang! and the LA comedy scene in general; his best friends are played by Second City vet Chris Witaske and writer-comic Charlyne Yi. Mickey, meanwhile, has Kyle Kinane as a toxic ex, and Brett Gelman as a pushy boss. Even the smallest speaking roles — a waiter, an AA member, a glowering Witchita writer — bring in familiar comic names. And the scripts are so sprawling, they leave plenty of space for one-time character cameos. That includes Andy Dick showing up, possibly as himself, to take Ecstasy on a long subway ride with Mickey.
But the show's called Love, and necessarily keeps coming back to Gus and Mickey and their poorly justified interest in each other. They're a familiar Apatow couple, with the usual genders reversed, as they were in Trainwreck: she's the desperately immature one trying to figure out whether there's life beyond sex and drugs, he's the uptight one who has his act together, but still isn't remotely happy. In all Apatow movies, this combination ultimately leads to big revelations and a successful relationship.
It's unclear whether Love is headed in that direction. Mickey and Gus both have less self-destructive options in their lives, and the series' most daring and resonant route might be to acknowledge that love isn't in the cards for every couple who test the waters together. But by the final episode of the first season, the show banks sharply away from that idea, and into familiar rom-com waters. A second season, this time 12 episodes, has already been green-lit for 2017, so there's still room for Love to take a more unconventional route. It wouldn't be out of left field, given its already unhurried pace, its seriousness, and its confrontational bluntness.
But 10 episodes in, viewers will have a good idea of who Gus and Mickey are, and no idea why they belong together, or why watching them cautiously circle each other is meant to be fun. At times, Gus and Mickey's misadventures read like a series of object lessons, a moral and personal guide for millennials building their formative relationships: Hey. Stop blowing each other off so casually. It's damaging. Stop obsessing over the meaning of a text. It's embarrassing. Say what you mean. Listen to other people when they say what they mean. Drink less. Ask more questions. Care about your partner's pleasure. Think before you act. They're good messages, but watching people fail to heed them, and fail spectacularly at life as a result, isn't much fun. As Gus points out, he and Mickey are both fuck-ups. That isn't necessarily as cool as he wants it to be.
All ten episodes of Love premiere on Netflix this Friday, February 19.