Review: Gillian Jacobs finds 'Love' in Netflix's new Judd Apatow comedy
Love is dumb. Love is irrational. Love defies all logical arguments against it. It can make you act in terribly self-destructive ways. It's not math. It's love, and when you feel it, nothing else matters.
Which brings us to Netflix's Love, a romantic comedy series created by Judd Apatow, Lesley Arfin, and Paul Rust, starring Rust and Gillian Jacobs as a pair of Angelenos who meet awkward, date even more awkwardly, and seem determined to make a go of things despite ample evidence warning them not to. (Its 10-episode first season debuts Friday; I've watched the whole thing.) Love is messy. It's shaggy. It takes weird detours that only sometimes work, and on occasion it seems to be daring its audience to not only root against the central couple, but to question how many more episodes they might want to watch.
I can see all those issues, and more. I just don't care. When you feel it — as I very quickly did with Love — nothing else matters.
First, the warning signs. As a comic storyteller, Apatow has always favored looseness, not just in encouraging actors to improvise, but in letting scenes and entire films run long rather than trim individual bits. Give Apatow a show on Netflix — which has no timeslots to fill, few creative constraints, and executives who are more than happy with anything that keeps viewers watching longer — and it only exacerbates that tendency. The Love pilot is over 40 minutes long, a few others clock in at close to that, and it's surprising when an episode ends before a half-hour is up. These are not ideal lengths for comedic storytelling, even if the show is meant to be binged a few episodes at a time. Scenes frequently run out of oxygen two-thirds of the way through, even if they were clicking to that point. That premiere in particular is not only the longest episode, but the most difficult to sit through, as it spends most of its time getting Jacobs' Mickey (producer for a satellite radio call-in show) and Rust's Gus (a wannabe screenwriter who works as on-set tutor for a child actress, played by Apatow's daughter Iris) out of previous relationships and bringing them to mortifying lows — including some pretty explicit sex gone awry — before their first encounter at a gas station convenience store.
And in Mickey, Apatow has a heroine even more suited to the title Trainwreck than the one in his last movie. She drinks too much, gets high too much, and jumps from guy to guy with no breathing room in between. Though her exes are for the most part awful themselves, you get the sense that some of them only got that way because of Mickey; "You destroy everything you touch," one of them tells her, at a point in the season when we can understand where he's coming from. She uses not only the men she sleeps with, but everyone that she meets. She takes on a roommate named Bertie (the delightful Claudia O'Doherty), a cheerful Australian who quickly becomes Mickey's sidekick in all matters Gus, whether she wants to be or not. Mickey is at times so caustic, so self-destructive that it's almost as if Apatow felt Hannah on Girls wasn't a divisive enough protagonist for him.
But Mickey's dysfunction is also what makes Love so much more than just a cliched rom-com about a hot mess redeemed by the affections of a nice nerd. Mickey is keenly aware of all that's wrong with her — after her umpteenth attempt to sabotage the relationship, she confesses, "I'm just, like, this piece of shit. And I just wanted to save him from me." — even as she struggles to pull herself out of her usual spirals. On Community, Jacobs kept getting better and funnier the more pathetic her character became, and she finds the vulnerability underneath Mickey's sarcastic armor. It's a terrific, vanity-free performance that renders Mickey, if not lovable, then at least profoundly understandable.
And Apatow, Arfin, and Rust do a nice job of balancing the relationship, and of exploiting the abundant chemistry between Rust and Jacobs. (It's here that the binge aspect really helps, because that sketchy first episode is followed by a much more appealing one that's just a half hour of the two of them getting to know each other, which at times resembles Before Sunrise in miniature.) Gus is the more sympathetic of the two, but the show also points out how aware he is of the power of his own niceness, and goes back and forth between who's responsible for the latest bump in the would-be romance. When Mickey and Gus finally have their first official date, the moments when it seems on the verge of disaster are often when things go the best, and vice versa, and blame is never a black-and-white issue.
It's telling that perhaps the sweetest thing Mickey, and maybe anyone on Love, says, is when she sums up her first day with Gus by claiming, "Normally, I hate meeting people. But I don't hate you."
Love is also smart in the way it doesn't let itself, or its characters, be defined solely by where things stand at any given moment between the central couple. It gives the supporting characters agency and personality, so that Bertie, for instance, can call out Mickey for the unbalanced nature of their friendship (and also have her own amusing adventures with Gus when Mickey's not around), or so Heidi (Briga Heelan from Ground Floor and Undateable, who will hopefully get her own Apatow vehicle down the road), an actress who begins to flirt with Gus, can turn out to be much more complicated and strange than she seems at first. Gus periodically gathers together his large group of friends to write and perform theme songs to movies like Carlito's Way and The Perfect Storm, and you get the sense that Love could follow any of those people home after the party and find an interesting and funny story to tell about them.
Mickey is such a walking disaster that her boss, radio psychologist Dr. Greg (Brett Gelman), occasionally uses her as a fake caller so that he can diagnose her very real problems on the air. During one of those calls, he compares her sexual pattern to binging, where she dives into each new relationship as quickly and deeply as she can so she can ignore her abundant demons. In that scene, he's not only describing Mickey, but the whole experience of watching a streaming show like Love, where the flaws are real and unmistakable, but where the experience is so entertaining and (thanks to the Netflix interface) easy that they become almost irrelevant.
In the run-up to winter press tour, I got sent upwards of 100 hours of screeners for new and returning series, including entire seasons of several shows. With that much content in a short span of time, the rational, responsible thing is to do a lot of triage and only sample a little bit of each. Instead, I watched all of this one before I'd devoted a minute to anything else. I couldn't always defend or explain that choice, but I was very pleased with it by the time I was done. That's Love.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org