Love is the ultimate cliché. I’m not talking about the new Netflix series created by Paul Rust, Lesley Arfin, and Judd Apatow, but rather the actual experience of love, something that has defined nearly the entirety of human existence. Relationships grounded in love — be it familial, fraternal, or romantic — are so plentiful, so wide-ranging, and so universal, there are few love stories that haven’t been experienced by someone, at some point in time, somewhere on this planet.
And yet every new relationship we enter feels unique, like something no one else has experienced before. Because it’s ours. Relationships aren’t about the linear narrative of first meeting, first date, first fight, first reconciliation, and on and on and on. They’re about the characters within that narrative. The combined experiences of two unique people — their formative traumas, their personality quirks, their past relationships — make every relationship unlike any before it. Which is both beautiful and terrifying.
Love understands this. The series’ title is, fittingly enough, both perverse in its simplicity and maddening in its implied complexity. Watching Love based on its title is like heading off on a trip around the world with nothing but an inflatable toy globe to guide you. We know we’re getting a story about some form of romance, presumably between characters played by Paul Rust and Gillian Jacobs, the two people who appear on the series’ key art, and … that’s about it, as far as the basic premise goes.
What’s important to know is that Love isn’t a story about a romantic pairing. It’s a story about two individuals struggling to achieve a romantic pairing, often despite themselves. Consequently, the first ten episodes are ultimately more interested in unpacking those two individuals as individuals than as a pair.
Love’s first episode holds firm to this approach, denying Gus (Rust) and Mickey (Jacobs) their preordained meet-cute until its final moments. In fact, the episode cuts off mid-meet, even denying viewers the emotional catharsis it builds toward. It’s as if Apatow, Rust, and Arfin are saying, “This isn’t the story! Everything that came before this moment is the story!”
So, let’s review the prelude to the inevitable. As Love begins, Gus and Mickey are staggering through the dying embers of their respective relationships. Gus’s girlfriend, Natalie (Milana Vayntrub), has grown weary of his South Dakota–bred niceness, that particular sort of performative respect that feels smothering if you can’t stand the person expressing it. Mickey has a come-and-go boyfriend/sparring partner, Eric (played by comedian Kyle Kinane, the first in a long line of crack comedic talent occupying Love’s outer edges), who brings out the worst in her addictive, self-loathing personality.
Following the inevitable implosions, Mickey and Gus sift idly through the leftover pieces of their textbook “aimless L.A. 30-something” lives. Gus moves to an enigmatically depressing apartment complex and flounders through his job as an on-set tutor at a supernatural TV period piece called Witchita, which I’m just going to assume airs on the CW. Mickey looks for a new roommate and picks the first person she can tolerate, a bubbly Australian named Bertie (played by Claudia O’Doherty in a performance that will quickly make you love her if you don’t already), and flounders through her job at a satellite-radio station, where she produces a love-advice show. (Hopefully viewers are intrigued by Gus and Mickey’s work situations, because Love spends a good chunk of its time in those worlds, as evidenced by the number of vaguely recognizable faces populating them, including Apatow’s daughter, Iris, as the difficult child star Gus tutors.)
As they wallow in their respective depressions, Mickey and Gus are both presented with “opportunities” to embrace different (better?) versions of themselves. Moments away from slipping into an Ambien coma, Mickey receives a text from Eric to come to something called “Bliss House.” She assumes it’s a bar, but it’s actually a culty sorta-church that dares her to believe she’s deserving and capable of receiving love. And Gus, after partying with a bunch of youngsters and mourning a life wasted “acting like a grown-up,” is presented with the rom-com’s favorite symbol for carefree, youthful indiscretion: a threesome. But in the end, neither Mickey nor Gus give themselves over to these experiences. Their insecurities are too deep to allow for such simple methods of personal reinvention — and that is the mind-set in which they stumble upon each other.
So far, so standard rom-com. As with so many modern variations on the genre, however, Love is willing to ignore both sides of that hyphenate for stretches of time. It would be an exaggeration to say the show does something groundbreaking within its familiar universe, but it’s certainly trying to say something distinct — and often manages to do so quite poignantly. The premiere episode takes its time to develop Gus and Mickey into two specifically difficult people, and their specifically difficult relationship will follow suit.
Admittedly, Mickey is a character very much in the vein of Gretchen from You’re the Worst, but watching Jacobs plumb the depths of a deeply complicated, often unlikable character is one of Love’s phenomenal pleasures. Gus’s character won’t reveal his deeper shading until later in the series, and defaults too readily to the “put-upon nice guy” mode, though Rust occasionally hints at the darker side of his milquetoast character. The moment during Gus’s breakup when he cries, “Being true to myself, I want you to fucking die,” gets at the heart of this character. He is so concerned with being liked that he allows negativity to fester inside of himself. Mickey, on the other hand, openly wears her negativity to hide the part of herself that cries alone at night. Both characters wear emotional armor, and Love will focus on how that armor attracts them to each other. But more boldly, the show will also question whether this makes them fundamentally incompatible.