Since premiering on Netflix last year, the Judd Apatow produced original series Love has asserted itself as the latest in a long line of tragicomic works from the tireless comedy super-producer. Co-created by the husband and wife duo comprising lead actor Paul Rust and former Girls writer Lesley Arfin, Love tackles its eponymous subject with an especially abrasive tone. As the two central figures of mutually semi-exclusive attraction, Gus Cruikshank (Rust) and Mickey Dobbs (Gillian Jacobs) flirt with a reckless abandon. Gus and Mickey don’t fall in love with one another so much as they offer backhanded compliments ironically meant to endear themselves to each other.
It’s been some twenty-plus years since When Harry Met Sally, and in that time the willful optimism of the rom-com as written by Nora Ephron has become a thing of the past. In its place is a far more pessimistic string of big screen romances in the forms of such contemporary favorites as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and (500) Days of Summer. Ephron once waxed poetic about the madcap flights of fantasy that was love in the late 20th century. Following that tradition, the 2000s have seen fit to upend that self-same effervescence in the pursuit of a more deprecating view of subjective beauty and longing.
Intimacy in Love is fraught with the generational listlessness of the Millennial era. In their dependency on smart phones, pictographic shorthand, and emotional detachment, Gus and Mickey circle aimlessly around one another in a modern dance of promiscuity. Even when Rust and Arfin allow their surrogate lovers to embrace one another in carnal union, Gus and Mickey find new ways to disconnect and repel. Whether they’re frantically coupling in full view of two forlorn greyhounds, passive-aggressively supporting one another, or emotionally degrading themselves in the arms of other lovers, Gus and Mickey are never going to nostalgically recall any singular moment wherein they might be called star-crossed lovers.
Yet over the course of the show’s first two seasons, Love has become one of the most truthful cinematic depictions of romantic intimacy, most crucially in its ability to represent how personal ambition works alongside—and more often than not against—interpersonal desire. In season two, both Gus and Mickey are seen coming into their own in their respective professional lives in big ways. Mickey cements herself as a business savvy radio show producer, and Gus needles his way onto bigger and bigger movie sets and TV productions. But as the two begin to develop their own talents and abilities, the marrying of their respective aspirations appears incompatible.
To add insult to injury, Gus and Mickey take wild detours along the way towards domestic bliss. Mickey spends far too much time micro-managing the lives of other male friends—most notably well known comic actor and social recluse Andy Dick and a deviant co-worker played by former Mad TV star Bobby Lee—while Gus languishes in a prison of self-involved repression and rapprochement. And when the two spend time geographically separated towards the end of the second season—with Gus working as the on-set tutor for returning guest star Iris Apatow as rising Hollywood starlet Arya Hopkins—the fractious tension is taken to new heights during a few botched Skype sessions and a particularly heated phone call.
Despite finally arriving at a moment of guarded optimism at the end of season two, cringey is definitely the word that will continue to be most popularly used to describe Love. Apatow has never veered towards the conventional end of the spectrum when it comes to producing romantic fare in the past, and with Rust and Arfin he continues in that vein. Most notably reminiscent of past awkward turns from Jason Segel in several Apatow productions—including Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall—Gus and Mickey turn courtship into a freakish social satire.
By the end of the show’s current twenty-two episode run, Love leaves little room for a happily ever after to appear with the same mawkish convenience as it did in When Harry Met Sally. Gus and Mickey are thoroughly of their own time, and in that historic distance from the latter rom-com cornerstone Rust and Arfin mount an adjacent effigy to fickle feelings. In Love, Gus and Mickey are almost doomed to fail, as they watch and listen to those around them disparage and critique each and every misstep and mistake they make. Acting as a reluctant pseudo-Greek chorus, Brett Gellman plays radiotherapist Dr. Greg Colter like the kind of person either Gus or Mickey might become if they continue to skate around unequivocal transparency.
Gus and Mickey aren’t perfect, and at the end of season two Love shows no clear signs of stopping when it comes to putting its two lovebirds through hell. Comparatively as ill-matched as their two friends Bertie Bauer (Claudia O’Doherty) and Randy Monahan (Mike Mitchell)—whose own contentious relationship serves as the equally devastating sub-plot to the latest slate of episodes—Gus and Mickey may or may not wind up together. Rust and Arfin may have found some kind of happily ever after together in real life, but in their insistence on tracking the vicissitudes of human volatility, Love is defined by instability.
Apatow has never been a stranger to making his viewers feel temporarily uncomfortable, and Love seeks to further challenge its own audience into entertaining a reevaluation of intimacy. Offering brief appraisals of a dating world dominated by shallow superficialities, Gus and Mickey provide for an interpretation of dating in the 21st century that feels as frustrating as Tinder. Falling in love feels like it’s never been harder, and Love manages to get at the mundane reality that inspires that mindset. Gus and Mickey are another in a long line of Apatow malcontents, and in Rust and Arfin’s hands modern love is given another narrative spin worth remembering for its undisguised grievances and complaints against an inherently idealized depiction of monogamy.
Featured Image: Netflix