He's a "nice guy," she's "a wild child"; will they ever make it work?!
That's the question at the core of Love, a new comedy-adjacent series from Judd Apatow and writers-slash-real married couple Paul Rust and Lesley Arfin. Aspiring writer Gus (Rust) and adrift radio producer Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) repeatedly and hesitantly weave into and out of each other's lives, as if trying to determine whether they're looking at a life raft or an anchor that'll drag them into the depths of their worst selves.
It's not an uninteresting premise. The problem is that Love just takes way too long to get to a place that makes you realize why Gus and Mickey's relationship merits its own television series.
Early on, it meanders just as aimlessly as Gus and Mickey. It moves so slowly that it almost feels like watching their emotional horrorshow in real time, which sounds audacious until you consider that its first four episodes span a combined 142 minutes of screen time. If I weren't committed to watching all 10 episodes of Love for this review, I would have tapped out after the second episode — and that's a shame, because the back half of the series is so much stronger than the early episodes that it's actually shocking.
So to make sense of the confusing bundle of insecurities that is Netflix's latest original series, let's get into the good, the bad, and the "wait, what?" of Love.
The good: Addiction is incredibly difficult to portray. As Mickey, Gillian Jacobs digs in deep.
In Love's shapeless first few episodes, Jacobs's Mickey is by far the more interesting character to watch, even if her constant cursing left me — a New Jersey native whose own mouth tends to run NC-17 — feeling exhausted by the end of the series premiere.
The character is a clear proxy for Arfin, who turned her frank "Dear Diary" column for Vice into an equally frank book that discussed her heroin addiction; she's now been sober for a decade. Playing Mickey affords Jacobs the opportunity to stretch in all sorts of unflattering directions, and she rises to the occasion with obvious relish. And once Love peels back Mickey's protective layer of disdain to get to the addict underneath, she's a lot easier to understand.
Addiction is tricky to portray accurately; it's even trickier to portray both accurately and comedically. Working through self-destructive valleys to achieve lasting sobriety is an excruciating, maddening, constant process. Thus, it's a huge challenge to depict addiction on television shows, which depend on the audience connecting to characters in some way or another. But that's not to say it can't be done: CBS's Mom, for example, has found a way to tackle this tricky balance — and on a weekly multi-camera sitcom — to both devastating and hilarious effect.
Very often, Mickey is a tough character to swallow. But it makes perfect sense that she's unstable, erratic, selfish, and hungry for validation in the context of her addictions. So while it takes some time for Love to fulfill its potential, the moments when Jacobs gets to rip into what drives Mickey — and what keeps her stumbling backward — are truly great.
The bad: Love takes its sweet time to get anywhere particularly interesting
Television shows that assume their audience will binge-watch several episodes at once walk a very shaky line. On the one hand, they can lean into a slower, maybe more satisfying burn like few other mediums can. On the other hand, they risk devoting too much time to various characters and stories, just because they can.
So I get it, Love. You had 10 episodes to fill, and Netflix didn't restrict their running time, so you took that freedom and ran with it. But assuming that just because people have the opportunity to binge-watch, they'll stick with your show for a while — no matter what — is a dangerous trap. Airing on Netflix gives you more breathing room and flexibility, but it should in no way stop you from producing compelling, tightly edited work.
TV episode runtimes are fluctuating now more than ever, thanks to streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon, but the standard episode length for any show that's not a drama is still around 30 minutes at most. (On a show that airs with commercials — basically anything that's not on premium cable — episodes usually top out around 22 minutes.) All but two episodes of Love run at least that long, and a handful run longer.
It's one thing if you can justify a longer runtime with crucial character work, or a particularly funny bit. But on Love, those extra minutes hang like extra weight the characters have to drag around. Without any purpose, their banter is just kind of ... there.
Maybe Love should have looked to its Netflix peer Master of None for an example of how to balance extra room with smart editing. In its first season, the Aziz Ansari comedy could have easily pushed the boundaries of the 30-minute episode, but kept every episode under that mark.
At the recent Television Critics Association winter press tour, Ansari's co-creator Alan Yang even said that their "Mornings" episode — a highly ambitious collection of moments spread over a couple's first year living together — was originally 52 minutes long, or about twice as long as the final cut. As much as I loved "Mornings," a loose 52 minutes of that material very likely would have been a slog.
That Love slacks off on editing isn't particularly surprising, given that Apatow has a co-creator credit. His direction often yields projects that are two-thirds great and one-third superfluous, from 2009's Funny People to last summer's Trainwreck with Amy Schumer. At the same TCA winter press tour, Apatow got defensive when questioned about Love's 40-minute pilot, saying it's really the show's only longer episode — but with three other installments surpassing 36 minutes, that's just not true.
And so Love doesn't really click into gear until its fifth episode, after laying over two and a half hours of groundwork. In "The Date," Mickey resets her sober clock to "zero," and Gus goes on a disastrous date with her roommate, Bertie (a completely delightful Claudia O'Doherty). From that point on, every episode is noticeably more focused, and therefore, way more effective as a chapter in a love story.
The "wait, what?": Outside of Mickey, Love isn't sure where to direct your sympathy
Naturally, Love would like you to feel at least a little sympathetic toward both Mickey and Gus, since they're the main characters and all. But you can feel the show struggling to define both characters before that fifth and crucial episode, and in the meantime, it's just about impossible to know how the series itself views them.
Gus is very simply presented as a standard, somewhat dorky nice guy. He's less of an overt jerk than the egomaniacs Mickey usually goes for, but he's certainly got his own emotionally manipulative tendencies, and it's not clear until somewhere around the seventh episode whether the show realizes that or not.
Episode six serves as another weird interlude, sympathy-wise, as it sees Mickey going on a bender with actor and comedian Andy Dick, playing himself. In "Andy," he and Mickey get trashed together, and as they come down, he confesses that he believes drinking has destroyed his life from the ground up.
Dick has had very messy, publicly documented addiction issues, and his heart-to-heart with Mickey certainly feels like an honest, significant moment. But it's muddled by a vague story about going out with Vince Vaughn that "probably" ended in Dick "getting gropey" — an eyebrow-raising detail in the context of Dick's real-life, alcohol-influenced encounters, some of which resulted in sexual assault lawsuits as recently as 2012. It's difficult to know exactly what the show thinks of Dick in this moment, but if you're aware of the real-world accusations that've been against him, this tossed-off allusion to his "gropey" tendencies is even harder to understand.
The verdict: Love — both the show and the concept — is a promising mess
I've rarely been as frustrated by a TV show as I was while watching Love. I could tell it was trying to appeal to me — a 20-something writer who lives in Los Angeles — but all it did was remind me that this portrayal of Los Angeles can get insular and self-indulgent, fast. Most annoyingly, as the later episodes of the season eventually revealed, there was an incisive and witty show hidden all along beneath the sludge of its opening few chapters.
In fact, Love's first four episodes are so overstuffed with bland filler that episodes two, three, and four could've been cut altogether, and the show could've skipped right from the pilot with "The Date" without the plot losing much importance. The show's saving grace is that the far more interesting end of season one is a promising sign for season two, which Netflix ordered months before the show even premiered.
If there's one piece of writing advice that's stuck with me, it's the one delivered by a college professor who chopped three introductory paragraphs off a paper and told me I should do that with everything I write: "It's just clearing your throat before you get to the good stuff." I couldn't get that idea out of my head while watching Love; it just kept clearing its throat, over and over again, until it finally realized what it wanted to say.