TV

Review: ‘Love’ Is A Romcom As Frustrating, Bleak And Interesting As The Real Thing

You'll probably love this show and hate everyone in it.

How much patience should be exerted for love? Or, indeed, Love? Both questions are equally important when watching the new ten-episode Netflix dramedy, which aims to dig deep on the topic via the early strained days of one fateful relationship. In the case of love, the creators of the show would argue that compromising over, putting up with, and/or embracing neurosis, passive aggressiveness, addiction issues, differing experiences, attitudes, varying senses of humour, and general emotional out-of-whackery is necessary to achieve this big, crazy, stupid thing we’re all programmed to want.

But does that make for an enjoyable show?

Love And Likability

How much patience you have for characters that possess all of the above qualities will probably determine how long you stick with this show. The leads, Gus and Mickey, are not “nice” people. Gus (Paul Rust, Comedy Bang Bang and a writer for Arrested Development) is nerdy, needy, pedantic; a guy who uses “being a goofball” as an excuse to avoid consequence and conflict. Mickey (Gillian Jacobs, Community and Girls) is selfish, has addiction issues, and an impulse for quarrelling (or, when an equal and opposite force can’t be found, for just straight up yelling). That being said, I found neither of these characters any less likable than most sitcom creations, from Friends to How I Met Your Mother… although that might be setting a pretty low bar.

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Has anyone pitched this crossover/spin-off? It could take place in a small lead box at the bottom of the sea.

There’s been a slate of romcoms on TV over the past few years, each with their own angle (or pre-emptive defence) for tackling the much-maligned genre. The Mindy Project winkingly embraced the conventions and tropes; Catastrophe leapt over the courtship and dumped its protagonists in the chaos of pregnancy, marriage, and family. Girls and Please Like Me both have realistic and astute romcoms arcs amongst a larger coming of age drama.

You’re The Worst is the show Love most closely resembles, and has already been repeatedly compared to it because of its LA locale and unashamedly splintery characters. But while You’re The Worst characterises the loveably unlikable central couple with unashamedly sharp tongues and a tart outlook, Love’s unlikely lovers are realistically sketched people still in the progress of finding their best selves. They’re dishonest with their emotions and unsure of how to move forward. He’s in therapy, she’s attending AA and nowhere near sober, and there’s no reason why we, or they, should want them to form any kind of union.

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Except that they have such crazy chemistry! Sparks! Flying!

What pulls the show together is the realism of its unlikely and unhealthy setup. Co-creators and writers Paul Rust and Leslie Arfin (also a writer for Girls) are married in real life, and though it’s not declaratively autobiographical, if you’ve heard Rust speak on podcasts or remember Arfin’s ‘Dear Diary’ excerpts from Vice, you’ll spot how closely this follows their lives. Is this a unique enough relationship that it was worthy of Judd Apatow’s comedy godfather green-lighting touch? Probably not. But considering how acutely queasy some of Rust’s scenes are, and how affecting Jacobs own-worst-enemy antsy-ness can be, I’m glad it was.

An Old Story In A Real World

There’s lots to enjoy about Love, some of which you’d expect from an Apatow production. Hang-out scenes have a feeling of realistic liveliness — with sketch comedy buddies The Birthday Boys making up much of Gus’ crew, and Kerri Kenney bringing a weary experiential realness as Mickey’s neighbour. Australian Claudia O’Doherty’s glazed optimism makes Mickey’s roommate Bertie a highlight, and depending on your cultural cringe, she may well get an ambassadorship/her citizenship revoked for revealing our drinking song ‘She’s A Pisspot’ in full. Minor characters and walk-by extras feel like fully fleshed out people, and for a show that focuses on two people, it feels like it takes place in a much bigger universe.

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Hi Claudia! It’s so exciting to see you after watching your comedy for years in Sydney, so proud! Please stop exposing us as a horrible nation with deep-seated issues over alcohol consumption, okay thanks!

The scuzzy feel of downtown L.A. is also beautifully captured by a killer roster of television directors and indie auteurs (Joe Swanberg, John Slattery, Michael Showalter and Steve Buscemi all helm episodes) and the score and soundtrack bleeds one scene into the next with canny lyrical commentary. Take the scene where Gus finds out that his friends called him ‘Major Gus’, not for his love of classic Bowie, but because he dully asked everyone about their major at every college party. He then psychs himself up in a bathroom mirror to “be a man” and go flirt with Mickey, before ending up jamming out with a group of partygoers to Wing’s woozy rocker ‘Jet’. The line Rust sings while the camera zooms in? “I thought the major was a lady”. Beyond the track, which feels synched to the entire show, with its ominous bass line and manic up-beat chorus, it’s a perfect lyric for Gus, a character obsessed with his own masculinity.

There comes a time when a certain type of story feels blasé, no matter how well it’s told. Maybe Enlightened, an emotionally quirky series starring an award-winning actor, got ignored because we were burnt after Weeds, Nurse Jackie, and The C Word. Maybe we’re not talking much about new dramas Vinyl or Billions — both about dark, drug-fuelled alpha males with surprisingly deep souls — because, well, I for one never want to watch that kind of show again. Love is about a dweeb who meets a free spirit. Paul Rust, god bless him, is not a matinee idol, and Gillian Jacobs, even in baggy sweaters and with tired eyes, is still a very pretty lady. There is every reason to say no to this show, because on some level it is another retread of The Apartment, and The Graduate, and Garden State, and Elizabethtown. On another level, it’s a tired comedy about backstage Hollywood drama, and on a third it’s a love story between two straight white people. Sure, the show is aware of its DNA, but acknowledging these traits even as it enacts them shouldn’t encourage patience in viewership.

But ultimately, I think there’s a pay-off to sticking with Love. Mad Men took the time to build Don Draper into an icon before shattering the image — by the end of its run it was only the least astute of viewers who thought we were meant to find the actions of its lead anything but pitiful and toxic. After its first episode, I think Love takes for granted that viewers know yelling at shopkeepers isn’t cute, and that hiding your feelings behind an aw-shucks awkwardness is rarely charming. The show calls both characters on all this shit, and in the final episodes they have to take ownership of their issues. Gus and Mickey felt real to me, and their actions were crummy, and their timing was terrible, but long-standing real relationships are sometimes built on all of that and worse. I want to see where they go with it next.

Love is on Netflix now.

Matt Roden works at non-profit writing centre Sydney Story Factory, and co-hosts Confession Booth. His illustration and design work can be seen here.