Television Review: In spite of its frustrating elements, Netflix’s “Love” is ultimately rewarding.
Whether or not you like Judd Apatow, it’s hard to dispute that he’s had a substantial hand in shaping the comedic language of the 2000’s. But what’s often neglected in conversations regarding Mr. Apatow’s considerable influence in the world of comedy is his contribution to T.V. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I think “Freaks and Geeks” is one of the all-time great American shows: a loving ode to the losers of the world that eventually shed its sitcom skin to become something greater. He also created the underrated “Undeclared,” another show about fast-talking young people with sex on the brain who are too old for adolescence and yet too socially unformed for the real adult world. The 48-year old writer/producer/director was also instrumental in getting Lena Dunham’s “Girls” off the ground, though I would argue that “Girls,” more often than not, serves as an extension of some of the more unfortunate symptoms of Mr. Apatow’s later career spell — you know, solipsism, self-pity and humiliation masquerading as substantial comedy (seriously, have you guys seen “Funny People”?)
What’s more or less impossible to dispute is that Apatow’s democratic and generous creative philosophy have molded the landscape of small screen comedy to a degree that is practically immeasurable. The improvised banter, the bursts of spirited filth and of course, the tender soul that he pretty much invented on “Freaks and Geeks” has now become a standard go-to alternative for shows like FX’s “You’re the Worst” and arguably “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” which has the same kind of rambling, communal vibe as something like “Undeclared,” but with a mean streak a mile wide. You don’t have to like the guy, or his style of comedy, but there’s really no ignoring him.
“Love” is Mr. Apatow’s latest addition to the world of T.V. comedy. As if it was somehow possible, “Love” — created by Lesley Arfin and starring the one-of-a-kind Paul Rust, (they’re married in real life) as well as “Community’s” Gillian Jacobs — is even looser and less plot-oriented than Mr. Apatow’s recent movies. It’s in absolutely no hurry to get anywhere, which is at once refreshing and also kind of problematic. Like many of Mr. Apatow’s earlier, more human pictures, (“The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up”) “Love” is a story about a boy and a girl, neither of whom really know what’s good for themselves, or for each other. It’s a series filled with awkward pauses, bad sex and the occasional profane tirade. Sometimes it’s funny, other times it’s painful and heartbreaking. Like falling in love itself, “Love” is a tumultuous and often messy ride, at once incredibly rewarding and cathartic and also sometimes maddening.
The show is very much in keeping with smart 21st-century urban sitcoms like “Girls,” “Broad City” and “Master of None”. There’s a sort of “Annie Hall”-era Woody Allen vibe to these shows — they are fundamentally concerned with the dreams, failures and sexual hang-ups of a middle-class and mostly (except for “Master of None”) white demographic; the kind of people who eat at trendy restaurants and live in well-decorated lofts replete with urban/rustic knick knacks. A lot of “Love” is shot in the quote-unquote hippest corners of Los Angeles, including the hipster boroughs of Echo Park and Silver Lake, but thankfully, the show doesn’t depend on any sort of supposed cool factor to be successful. When “Love” really works, it’s unlike anything else on T.V. at the moment. When it doesn’t, it can be tough to sit through.
Things don’t get off to a great start. The two protagonists of “Love” can be winning when they are together, but when they are introduced separately in the show’s pilot, they are all sorts of fucked up. Mickey (Jacobs) is a toxic personality struggling through the various stages of AA and sleeping with an obnoxious tattooed nutjob who cuts their sex short so he can go shopping with his mom. She’s pushy, abrasive and largely oblivious to social cues. Gus, comparatively at least, is more appealing. There’s a touch of 1970’s Woody Allen in his oversized spectacles and substitute teacher wardrobe, but he’s more laid-back, even downright cool at times. The trouble is, Gus has a habit of making those around him feel deeply uncomfortable. He’s lovable but also dense, never really easing himself into the appropriate wavelength for any given conversation. It feels lazy to use the word ‘awkward’ to describe Gus, but oh man, if ever there were a living, breathing advertisement for the infamous “A” word, Gus would be it.
Part of the fun of “Love” — and what may drive its detractors crazy — is just how long it takes for Mickey and Gus to eventually enter each other’s orbit. The pilot is actually the lone dud of the season so far: the storylines are bifurcated into individual plotlines where Mickey attempts to go straight and Gus deals with a bitter ex, but both characters are painted as being so selfish and insensible that it becomes difficult to believe they could tie their shoes on the way out the door, much less work in well-kept office spaces that and live in homes that would cost a couple million dollars in real life. Things pick up considerably in the second episode “One Fine Day,” which assumes the shape of a leisurely walk-and-talk in the vein of Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise”. Gus and Mickey gobble down junk food at the Rally’s in Glendale, walk through the picturesque hills of Elysian Park and ramble on like a pair of lovers who’ve been married for years. During these scenes, “Love” becomes something piercingly honest — a model of how to do a rom-com right. The show is also not afraid to go for the jugular, though I find it to be less successful in its more vicious moments. And when “Love” plays rough, it leaves you black and blue, as in the fourth episode “Party in the Hills,” where a friend’s impromptu gathering forces an inebriated and nervous Mickey to confront an angry slew of her exes while Gus bonds with an older, cooler group of people (you almost want Gus to tell his new lady friend “please baby, no more parties in L.A.”).
The sixth episode, “Andy,” might be the gem of the season so far, adopting a languid, discursive tone that’s joyously divorced from some of the unfortunate sitcom set-ups that bog down the lesser installments (it, not coincidentally, also features a pretty spectacular supporting turn from Andy Dick, who sheds his typically grating mannerisms and gives a real, moving performance). Like a relationship, “Love” is filled with ups and downs, breakthroughs and fallouts, moments of sweetness and moments of jaw-dropping cruelty. It’s not very consistent, which would be a problem if it weren’t so easy to watch: like “Master of None,” this is a show you could easily binge-watch in an entire day if you had the time. As brutal as the show can be, it never forgets to be funny, which has been a problem with some of Apatow’s later films.
As Gus, Rust is magnificent. His is a performance of astonishing observation and depth. It doesn’t hurt that Rust is a natural clown, earnest and self-deprecating: he’s like the coolest nerd in biology class. As Mickey, Jacobs gives us a lacerating display of self-loathing that’s undercut with moments of shocking tenderness. She’s a knockout, and one of the more consistently underestimated comic actresses in her age range (a scene in the seventh episode where her tantrum gets both her and Gus thrown out of the Magic Castle is a master class in comic passive-aggression). The show is stacked with faces from the alt-comedy community, including Bret Gelman as Mickey’s creepy boss, Charlene Yi of “Knocked Up,” Will Sasso as a suspiciously friendly waiter and even Judd’s little girl Iris as a pampered child actress who, wouldn’t you know it, ends up having a heart after all. The show is largely directed by sitcom vet Dean Holland, though guys like Joe Swanberg — who’s great at this sort of low-key, relationship-driven material — and Steve Buscemi, who’s no doubt been chomping at the bit to direct after watching his pal Louis C.K. do it with the uneven “Horace and Pete,” sometimes step into the director’s chair. But none of this would mean a thing if the show weren’t as soulful, sweet and charming as it ends up being. Like its characters, “Love” is imperfect and proud of it. Perhaps it’s better that way.
Grades: “Pilot,” C+. “One Long Day,” A-. “Tested,” B-. “Party in the Hills,” B. “The Date,” B+ “Andy, A- “Magic” B+
If you like what you’ve read, be sure to hit the recommend button below, to pass the story along to your followers. As always, consider following Panel & Frame for more emerging voices in Film, Comics, Literature, and Art!