As the debilitatingly indecisive Chidi on The Good Place, William Jackson Harper was technically a romantic lead. But the afterlife love story between Chidi and Kristen Bell’s Eleanor was just one crucial element in a sitcom that had many. Plus, Chidi was such a nerded-up philosophy genius that, in that role, Harper didn’t necessarily come across as an actor destined for a rom-com. But he very much belongs in one, as proven by his performance in the second season of HBO Max’s Love Life, an unequivocal romance in which he gets to show off his full charms as a leading man.
Similar to the previous iteration of Love Life, which tracked the many romantic entanglements of Anna Kendrick’s Darby, this season follows a New York book editor named Marcus through various relationships over a several-year period. Part of the intrigue is trying to guess which partner will lead the protagonist to their happily ever after, but as envisioned by creator Sam Boyd, who acts as co-showrunner alongside Bridget Bedard and Rachelle Williams this season, Love Life isn’t all froth and hand-holding montages, especially this go-round. While it’s entertaining and a mostly breezy watch, it’s also committed to showing the realities of being one-half of a couple. Love requires work, introspection, and pushing oneself to be bigger and better for the sake of another. Love Life does not shy away from showing that.
When we first meet Marcus, it’s 2016 and he’s married to Emily (Maya Kazan) in a union that is stable but spark-challenged. While attending the wedding of Darby and Magnus (Nick Thune) — a thin strand of connection exists between the seasons vis-à-vis the idea that Darby and Marcus are linked by mutual connections — Marcus meets Mia (Jessica Williams), and the kind of sparks he isn’t feeling with Emily start to dance between them. They exchange contact information so he can share a book project with her. Pretty soon, Marcus and Mia, who has a boyfriend, are regularly texting and hanging out in a way that is theoretically platonic but also very much not.
Since the premise of Love Life is based on the idea of watching its main character navigate multiple relationships, it’s not a spoiler to acknowledge that Marcus’s marriage disintegrates. He fumbles his way through the split and into a new existence that involves awkward hookups, promising relationships, and affairs predicated entirely on sex. Observing and advising during the journey are his two best friends, Yogi (comedian Chris Powell) and Kian (Arian Moayed, a.k.a. Stewy from Succession), and his sister Ida (Saturday Night Live’s Punkie Johnson).
In a series structured so much around one character’s experience, it’s imperative that we connect with and enjoy that person. Harper makes that easy. He’s a handsome, natural star — like The Good Place did, Love Life makes sure the audience is aware that Harper is absolutely jacked — and incredibly skilled at capturing every stop on Marcus’s emotional journey. You root for him. Somewhere along the line in the interpretation of scripted television, rooting for a character became synonymous, for some, with agreeing with all of their choices. Marcus makes some bad choices in this series. He treats his wife pretty abysmally, and he can be stubborn and impulsive. But you still like him, because he’s doing what most people do in their everyday lives: try to do their best, then try again when they don’t meet their own standards.
The same can be said of Mia, who is a dry-witted, equally hardheaded match for Marcus, brought to life with complete authenticity by Williams. She and Harper have a fizzy and easy chemistry together, though Love Life reminds us that chemistry does not guarantee that a relationship will last. Two people have to be wired in a certain way that makes them fit, or they have to be willing to undergo some minor surgery to get there. That’s a concept that the series explores, particularly by contrasting the relationship Marcus has with his still-married, college-professor parents (played by John Earl Jelks and the OG Vivian Banks from Fresh Prince, Janet Hubert) and Mia’s more fraught relationship with her sometimes-scattered mom (Kimberly Elise) and her father (Blair Underwood), who was barely around to raise her. The idea that our relationships with our parents set expectations and patterns for our future romantic commitments is hardly new, but Love Life touches on it with a delicacy that illuminates how it feels for Marcus and Mia to realize this about themselves.
One not-so-delicate thing about the series is its narration, a device also used in season one, when Lesley Manville provided omniscient insights into Darby’s story. This season, the all-knowing voice is provided by Keith David, whose low baritone sounds rich and authoritative. The problem is the show doesn’t need this element — it didn’t in season one and it doesn’t now. The narration heightens the tone and gives Love Life an almost fairy-tale or epic quality that cuts against its greatest asset: the loose and honest way it allows itself to unfold.
Luckily, the narration isn’t so overused that it ruins this season, one that deserves extra praise for incorporating the pandemic into the story — yes, the timeline eventually coincides with the present day — in a way that doesn’t feel forced or hack-y. It also deserves it for enabling individuals who don’t always get to shine in this genre to just glow. Traditionally, rom-coms have tended to skew pretty white, but like Insecure and Run the World, this is a TV rom-com about Black people and people of color, period, full stop. The few white people who are in season two — Darby, Emily, Marcus’s boss — are on the periphery in a show that also cedes the stage to actors who haven’t always gotten to play roles this large in a series this high-profile. That applies to Harper and Williams, but also to Powell, who is very funny as a married dad constantly trying to steer Marcus toward monogamy; Moayed as a sly entrepreneur; and Johnson, whose onscreen charisma is utilized here far better than it usually is on Saturday Night Live.
As you watch the ten episodes of this season of Love Life (the first three drop this Thursday), you’re happy for all these actors and you’re happy for the characters they play when they eventually find some version of contentment. The idea that there will be something akin to a happy ending to this season is, again, not a spoiler. Rom-coms are designed to end happily. Love Life works according to that design while also acknowledging that getting to that happy ending involves challenge, struggle, and unexpected snags. It excels in a genre that can often detour into fantasy by staying grounded in reality.