A Thin Line
Much as the leads of Netflix’s series Love have mixed feelings upon meeting — it’s really not so much what you would call a ‘meet cute’ as a ‘meet indifferent and slightly hostile’ — I had mixed feelings about the series itself. This was largely due to its pedigree. Love‘s creators are Judd Apatow, Paul Rust, and Lesley Arfin; the former has done good work and, er, well, less good work, but enough solid material to his credit that I had no particular reason to think he wouldn’t bring his A game. About Paul Rust I knew next to nothing, other than that he’s a goofy-looking fucker who seems to have a proclivity for playing nerdy man-boys of the sort that I have increasingly less patience, but I learned soon enough that he was the husband of the third creator, Lesley Arfin.
I first encountered Arfin’s work when she was a regular writer for Vice, and, back before that media conglomerate’s recent reinvention as something that purports to be taken seriously, she typified much of the approach that made its work so insufferable: callow insights into the frivolous sexual mores of young people, ironic casual racism, and the sort of gross cultural extremism that people get into when they’re young enough to judge themselves by the degree to which they can shock their parents. Her book, Dear Diary, was more of the same; I got a copy to review and found it a turgid, unfunny bore, the plaint of someone in love with her own self-perceived damaged quirkiness but oblivious to her own faults as a writer. I knew nothing of her work in the meantime, or to what extent she’d be contributing to the show, but once I learned the story was a barely fictionalized version of her own relationship with Rust, I went in with no small degree of angst.
Love is one of those shows that can take no middle path. I’ve read critics who really enjoyed it, and others who felt a lot more like I did, but it doesn’t seem to have triggered many neutral reactions. It concerns itself with the slow-to-develop relationship between Mickey Dobbs, a chronic fuck-up addicted to pretty much everything, and Gus Cruikshank, a nerdy goofball with a high degree of blindness to his own emotional insecurity. Mickey (played by Gillian Jacobs of Community and Girls) is the producer of a syndicated radio chat show, and Gus (Rust) tutors the pre-teen star of a supernatural romance series; their soft occupations lend them the kind of time and money to operate in the demimonde of L.A. ‘creatives’ that is a small part of why they’re so easily detestable. Neither one is easy to love; Gus’s long-term partner lies about cheating on him just to be rid of him, while Mickey sleeps with everyone she encounters, managing to make even her boss, a tortured psychotherapist and borderline sexual harasser, seem sympathetic by comparison. But are they the same kind of damaged to make each other happy? It takes ten very long episodes to find out.
Jacobs is tremendous as Mickey, turning in what may be the best performance of her career, but to what end? Mickey isn’t just difficult to like, she’s almost impossible to like, pissing away every single moment of goodwill she earns with pointlessly self-destructive behavior. Some of this can be pretty amusing (her willingness to put up with her useless cokehead ex Eric, played by Kyle Kinane, is good for a lot of laughs), but at other times, it’s downright frustrating: invited to a get-together with Gus and his friends, he provokes them in a way that makes her seem like she either doesn’t understand how social interactions are supposed to work or just goes out of her way to piss people off. Gus’ character isn’t much better developed; early on, it seems as if he’s being drawn as the unaware ‘nice guy’ whose self-image as likable and agreeable masks the fact that he’s actually a resentful doormat, but that never seems to go anywhere, and leaves him seeming curiously incomplete.
This is a big part of the problem with Love, which otherwise has a lot going for it. The cast is exceptional; Jacobs, as noted, is fantastic, and there are terrific supporting roles from Kerri Kenney, Brett Gelman, and Dave (Gruber) Allen, as well as a ton of other members of Apatow’s central casting and the L.A. alternative comedy scene. Claudia O’Doherty, as Mickey’s new roommate Bertie, is a huge find who should have a great career ahead of her; she’s so goofy, likable, and present that I constantly found myself wishing I was watching a TV show about her instead of the two unpleasant creeps whose orbit she’d fallen into. Love isn’t really about the comedy of humiliation (and, in fact, it’s at its best when it keeps things light and breezy, as in an early episode where Mickey and Gus get stoned and just cruise aimlessly around L.A.), but it depends heavily on our identification with two characters who very frequently cross the line from unlikeable to openly awful. So when big dramatic moments come — most especially when Mickey goes through an awfully tacked-on-seeming epiphany at a sex addiction group, and when Gus has a nearly violent meltdown at his job and completely sabotages his career — they feel utterly unearned, and only tenuously attached to the characters and narrative we have come to know.
The big moment when Gus and Mickey finally come together doesn’t come until the last scene of the last episode, and when it finally comes, it’s exhausted the patience of all but the most tolerant viewers. There are a lot of solid laughs along the way, but not enough to conquer the way the script almost dares you to not like the leads; the length of the show (about 10 minutes over typical sitcom length) doesn’t help, nor does the inexplicable choice to have Andy Dick play himself as an unapologetic jackass of a drug addict. His scenes are beyond creepy for anyone aware of Dick’s actual history of abusive sexual behavior and ruinous drug habits. The show is returning for a second season, with two more episodes, in 2017; it’s worth saving, but the creators are going to have to address the imperfection of their creation, or leave us wishing that it had been set mercifully adrift on an ice floe.