I took my time watching ”Love” — the Netflix series produced by Judd Apatow — because it’s a series where the characters aren’t entirely lovable. Gillian Jacobs and Paul Rust play Mickey and Gus, a couple who meet at a mini-mart after going through breakups with either a long-term relationship or just a sex buddy situation. Gus is a nice guy, but clings a little too much to his girlfriend, Natalie (Milana Vayntrub). They break up after Natalie tells Gus she’s been sleeping with other men. Mickey’s ”break up” with her sex buddy happens after she realizes the guy she’s sleeping with still shops for clothes with his mother (i.e., he’s total loser). Starting the characters at their emotional nadir is a wise move because it shows that even after a break up, the rebound doesn’t always happen right away. In fact, the characters are kind of lost for a few episodes as they get on with their lives and find some kind of stability in their new situations. For Mickey, her new roommate Bertie provides a more reliable housemate and potential friend. And for Gus, it’s living alone in a new apartment that teaches him it’s okay to be alone. Both Mickey and Gus have jobs, but they seem more like place-holder jobs to pay the rent until they can find their dream career. Gus wants to be a TV writer and works on a television show as a tutor to the child stars — who are generally assholes to the adults around them. Mickey works as a producer/program manager for a satellite radio call-in show. She’s okay at her job, but clearly not passionate about it — except when she beds her boss in an effort to sexually blackmail him from ever firing her.
Gus and Mickey eventually do get together and things are good for awhile as the characters start to stretch out in their new living situations. Gus gets less clingy and more comfortable with hanging out with friends and understanding the politics of his job. Mickey, however, starts to rely too much on her roommate Bertie for emotional support to the point that Bertie (the ever-optimistic, but also realistic Australian roommate played by Claudia O’Doherty) knows she’s being used. With romantic comedies, there are only so many narrative roads you can go down, but it seems you must have the ”boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” arc. ”Love” is inventive at times with the way the characters grow (and regress), but ultimately there’s no real way to break out of the ”boy meets girl” convention. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but after re-watching Judd Apatow’s brilliant ”Freaks and Geeks,” I thought his influence over ”Love” would push the series in more innovative directions, but it remains fairly conventional — with some colorful flourishes that keep things interesting.
Rust and Jacobs bring the right amount of nerdiness and cynicism to their roles, but they also show growth as circumstances force them to break out of their shells of ”nice guy” and ”cynical girl.” The extra heft in the show comes from its supporting players — who, for the most part, are more fully drawn. The exception being some characters who are ethnic minorities. Too often, minorities in rom-coms are there to show the audience the white leads are socially liberal, and the supporting players are completely assimilated to white culture. This is evident in Charlene Yi’s character, Cori, Bobby Yee as Mickey’s stoned co-worker, and even Jordan Rock as Kevin — a caterer at the
TV show Gus works at. Their roles on ”Love” are to give Gus or Mickey advice and support so they can succeed in both life, love, and work, but they exhibit almost no evidence they have ethnic experiences that are different from Mickey or Gus. That’s not to say people from non-white ethnic backgrounds live in islands apart from the mainstream culture, but in L.A., the multicultural nature of that region is quite pronounced. Bringing that out in a way that’s not stereotypical is possible. One of the better examples –and it’s not a very strong one — is Susan Cheryl (Tracie Thoms). Susan is the show runner of the TV show Gus works on as a tutor (and later gets a writing credit), and she’s a ballbuster who just wants to make a show that can stand out among the competition. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly and shows herself to be both impatient, egoistic, threatening, and condescending at times. Now, these are characteristics of a “Hollywood producer type” who show up in movies and TV shows — but the fact that Susan is African-American and a woman is supposed to make it novel. However, what ends up happening is that a stock character gets shoehorned into an atypical gender and ethnicity, and that’s supposed to pass as novel. Tracie Thoms plays Cheryl with as much depth as the script allows, but there’s only so much she can work with. However, the role of Bertie — who was initially drawn as kind of an odd Australian — is shown expressing some of her cultural uniqueness throughout the series. Bertie even stands up to Mickey in her friendly way to call bullshit on Mickey’s ill-conceived and totally transparent “let’s spend the day together as friends” outing for what it is: a ruse so Bertie can be an emotional crutch while Mickey tries to find a way to confront Gus about their deteriorating relationship at his workplace.
Characters like Bertie are the kind of deviations from standard rom-com storytelling that should be accentuated in ”Love.” Instead, they often get sidelined only to remind viewers that there’s potential for more interesting storytelling of a familiar and well worn tale. “Love” is slated to return for a second season in 2017, so time will tell if the writers are able to push their characters and their stories in more innovative ways — ways that Netflix series are generally known for.