It was perhaps overambitious to call a TV show Love. Like a show co-creator Lesley Arfin’s prior gig, Girls, the title suggests a universality that the content can’t satisfy. Love, which concludes its run with its third season (now streaming on Netflix), concerns a man and a woman (Gus and Mickey) who meet and fall in love. This season, which takes place less than a year after the show began, continues the show’s pattern of a handful of scenes relating to Mickey and Gus’s burgeoning relationship surrounded by long stretches of comic setups with no payoffs. While this season does provide some satisfying conclusions (particularly to one of the show’s secondary relationships), it reinforces how much better the whole thing could have been as a slightly overlong movie instead of a meandering, often dull and aggravating TV series. In Love and life, events unfold seemingly at random, never building to any revelatory chaos. Conflicts arise and then dissipate. The show has its share of insightful moments – particularly in this, unquestionably its best season – but if there’s a takeaway about the nature of love and romance, one might be hard-pressed to identify it.
Love was co-created by Judd Apatow (with real-life-married-couple Arfin and Paul Rust), which should surprise no one who’s watched a moment of the show. It certainly contains many of his trademarks, like casting his daughter in a prominent role and scenes of massive hordes of interchangeable white guys hanging out and occasionally hiking, but the most Apatow thing about it is its insistence that most relationships should be lived through, regardless of how unhappy the people in them are. The best example of this may be his 2007 movie Knocked Up, which featured two miserable couples forced to stay together through movie contrivances. In an interview with The New York Times, Apatow said, “There’s something honorable about holding out for love and not breaking up for the sake of the baby. I see people get divorced, and there is a part of me that thinks, I wonder how hard they tried?” This attitude is boring in romantic comedies and poisonous in real life, and it gets painful to watch Gus (co-creator Paul Rust) and Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) hurt one another repeatedly and know that they must stay together, for the show and for Apatow. Unlike in Knocked Up, or even the superior relationship comedy Catastrophe, Mickey and Gus don’t even have a kid to stay together for. This season has Mickey and Gus in a considerably better place, and their late-in-the-season fighting feels more grounded and honest than many of their earlier conflicts, but it’s hard to imagine anyone watching through the first two seasons and still rooting for those kids to make it.
Gillian Jacobs does some of her best work as Mickey. Mickey is caustic, suspicious, and dealing with alcoholism and sex and love addiction. A second season episode featuring Daniel Stern as her caustic, suspicious, alcoholic father demonstrated how well Jacobs can portray a hurt person who’s unpleasant to be around (far better than the latter seasons of Community that reduced her character to a punching bag). The major issue with Mickey’s characterization throughout is that her emotional journey relates almost entirely to her addictions, while leaving any ambitions almost entirely unexplored. She experiences some career success this season, but it’s never clear what she wants to be doing. This is in sharp contrast to Gus, who not only has ambitions within his job (an apparently very highly-paid studio teacher) but also for his career (to be a screenwriter), and has issues both pathological and personal. This season does a great job of finally addressing what neuroses make Gus such an obnoxious presence, but it does little to ameliorate how unpleasant almost all of his scenes are. Paul Rust is a talented comic performer, but this role does him no favors. Gus is whiny and cloying and barely ever listens to anyone around him. He also repeatedly (and awkwardly) addresses how often he gets mistaken for Jewish because of his big nose. His coworkers are horrifyingly abusive to him, but it’s hard to sympathize for long because of how annoying Gus is.
That Gus is a studio teacher also represents one of Apatow’s better trademarks – portraying interesting industry-adjacent LA jobs. This would be plenty interesting even if Gus weren’t constantly stumbling into and then screwing up incredible opportunities to advance his career. In the first season, he makes an absolute mess of his first chance in a TV writer’s room. In the second, he finds immense favor with a prominent action director and almost immediately pisses it away by getting into a big argument on set. In the meantime, he refuses to put any of the real work in to educate the teen star (Iris Apatow), so he finds himself cheating on standardized tests for her. It’s made abundantly clear that being a studio teacher is a difficult job, but it can’t be any easier when Gus doesn’t even try to engage his students with the material, and ultimately pesters an adolescent rising star (his student) to appear in his self-financed “erotic thriller.” Predictably, fumbling a chance to produce his own screenplay leads to new and exciting opportunities for Gus, because he can’t really fail (outside of clunkily-delivered backstory). Common to fictional portrayals of Los Angeles, Mickey and Gus live very well on apparently very little, and have friends with even worse jobs who also seem never to face real money troubles. The show’s one character without any job at all, Randy (Mike Mitchell), has apparent money troubles but they only matter when they put strain on his relationship with his girlfriend Bertie (a terrific and winning Claudia O’Doherty). Los Angeles is expensive to live in, and it would be nice if television writers would at least pretend to understand that.
Love pads out its season with many storylines that go nowhere, like drama with Brett Gelman at Mickey’s work (Gelman plays a blowhard radio sex and relationship therapist whose career spirals this season) or Gus’s friends hanging out with a C-list horror actor for a day. The series end turns this into a strength by leaving many stories unresolved in a way that feels genuinely honest and real. Many characters, including and especially Mickey and Gus, end the show without working out some of their bigger problems. After Mickey travels to South Dakota to meet Gus’s family, many of Gus’s insecurities and anxieties begin to make a lot more sense, and the two of them are finally able to work through some of them together. There’s no suggestion that the future’s exclusively sunny for them (as Mickey says of her own sobriety, “You think in twenty years I couldn’t fall of the wagon? There are no guarantees!”), but starting to address these issues demonstrates Gus’s growth. Similarly, the problematic Bertie-Randy relationship only gets more complicated, but in a way that suggests all involved can have better things ahead.
It’s hard to pinpoint what it is that Love has to say about love. Mickey and Gus are just two people, whose company is pretty difficult to enjoy, who meet and begin a romantic relationship. They face challenges, like Mickey’s addictions and Gus’s self-destructive secret-keeping, but otherwise their days are filled with long walks around the mall and weekends away to not-quite Palm Springs. It doesn’t really seem like three seasons of this story were necessary, particularly with the finale reveal that only eight months have passed since the pilot. The show is full of potentially comic setups, like Gus accidentally blasting porn on a bluetooth speaker, or Mickey and Randy’s Abbi-and-Bevers relationship, but few of them pay off as funny scenes or sequences. It never approaches the impressionistic comedy of Man Seeking Woman or the grounded meanness of You’re the Worst. Life and love can feel confused and drawn out sometimes. So does Love.
Photo by Suzanne Hanover/Netflix.
Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout based in Riverside, CA. He is the creator and writer of the web series Doing Good.