Episode to episode, there’s plenty to like about Love, Netflix’s new Judd Apatow–produced, Gillian Jacobs–led quasi-rom-com. And if it were released week to week, maybe that would be enough to keep it afloat. But because it’s released as all ten episodes at once, and because that’s how I watched it, those strong moments get lost in an expanse of blah. Occasional glimmers of originality get bulldozed by “Isn’t Hollywood terrible?” clichés, and solid performances get undermined by character incoherence. Any given half-hour of the show can elicit a “Hey, this is pretty good” sensation, and considering the characters’ affinity for getting high, maybe that’s appropriate — because the follow-up feeling, moments later, is “Eghghgh, what did I just do?”
Jacobs stars as Mickey, our miserable heroine. She weaves in and out of sobriety — not just abstaining from substance use but participating in AA or NA meetings — and spends a few early episodes extricating herself from a very crummy romantic relationship. She works at a call-in Frasier-esque radio show, which we’re supposed to perceive as ironic, since she herself is kind of a mess. But she’s so underwritten that we never quite get a handle on what motivates her, exactly. She’s self-destructive, and often just destructive-destructive, and she calls herself “a piece of shit,” but the show never really pushes past these vague assessments. Jacobs’s absorbing performance leads us to believe there’s a full person under this fidgeting and posturing, but we don’t get to see her.
Her counterpart is the equally underwritten Gus (co-creator Paul Rust), an on-set teacher for the teen star (Iris Apatow) of a witch-oriented television show. He gets dumped early on in the pilot, and he and Mickey quickly and coincidentally enter each other’s orbit. Gus is the kind of guy who considers himself nice but really isn’t: He’s ineffectual as an educator, judgmental as a suitor, and hot and cold as a companion. Lucky for him, very beautiful women are constantly trying to have all kinds of sex with him.
Love comes from Rust, Apatow, and Lesley Arfin (Girls). Rust and Arfin are married to each other, which perhaps to some degree explains why Gus’s behavior is framed as okay or even charming when, to an outsider, it feels maddening and immature. Mickey and Gus form the central romance of the show, but the (seemingly) accidental thrust here is not “opposites attract” but, rather, “oy, everybody, keep your hands to yourself.” Here are two people who both have a lot of work to do before they’re really going to hatch into the people they want to be. Want to watch them date? Sorry, Love, but the answer is, “Uh, not really.”
Especially when they’re surrounded by people who are lightyears more interesting. Mickey’s dirtbaggy ex-boyfriend (Kyle Kinane) joins a weird church, which Mickey begrudgingly attends. I’d watch a show about that weird church. Brett Gelman plays Mickey’s volatile and confounding boss at the radio station. I’d watch a show about him, too. Or about Kerri Kenney’s neighbor character. Claudia O’Doherty plays Mickey’s quirky Australian roommate; that character could have her own show, though honestly, O’Doherty would be better off with a separate endeavor. Apatow’s signature is how much humanity he tends to find in even minor characters — think of the desperate Jonah Hill in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, or the valiant integrity of Mellie on Freaks and Geeks — and we see glimpses of that over and over in Love, except in our main characters.
Then we have Gus’s professional life, which takes up a significant part of the show. For someone who’s had staggering, genre-altering success in Hollywood, Apatow sure does not care for aspects of the entertainment industry. Gus’s job on the set of Witchita— okay, fair is fair, that is a funny title — sets up over and over how craven showrunners are, how dumb writers are, how competitive actresses are, and how difficult teen starlets are. Even if I’m willing to grant all those premises, I’m still not sure what this setup is doing on this show. It doesn’t illuminate Gus’s interior life, it doesn’t deepen our understanding of the show’s worldview, and it doesn’t put anyone in a new light. If it’s a metaphor for something, I have no idea what it’s representing. Mostly, it just made me wish the series were set anywhere other than Los Angeles.
Given the show’s creative team, one feels compelled to compare Love to Girls; given its home on Netflix, to Master of None; given its be-sad-and-smoke-pot-in-L.A. vibes, to You’re the Worst. When it’s working, Love can almost sit at that table. The direction is top-notch, and the show is incredibly immersive. Its awkwardness can be searing, and when its characters teeter on the edge of genuine introspection, you can see the glowing potential within the show. When it’s its nastiest, poking at the worst parts of its characters’ psyches, there’s an addictive, sadistic glee at play. But unlike its brethren, Love doesn’t feel like it has much to say. I like you, Love. But i don’t like you like you.