Naturally, any show that gives itself a title as broad and generalized as Love is bound to inspire suspicion in some viewers: Will a series that calls itself something as fundamental to human experience as “love” be able to actually say anything of insightful substance about it? The miracle of the new Netflix series created by Judd Apatow, Lesley Arfin and star Paul Rust is that, even as it hones in specifically on two troubled characters—dangerously passive-aggressive Gus (Rust) and addictively self-destructive Mickey (Gillian Jacobs)—it does manage to impart some truths about romance and courtship, especially as it is conducted through the technological advances of the 21st century.
Eight such truths stand out amid the 10 episodes of the series’ first season:
A successful romantic encounter can be enough to give anyone a spring in his/her step the next day, and that’s what Gus feels in “Andy,” the series’ sixth episode, after Mickey essentially declared her love for him, in literal car-stopping fashion, at the end of the previous episode, “The Date.” Even the on-set actors he tutors notices his sudden animated disposition, in stark contrast to his usual no-nonsense manner. But oh, how such ego boosts can dip precipitously with one setback, as Gus experiences later that day when he doesn’t hear from Mickey again about a potential official first date until much, much later that evening. Such is, however, the whiplash nature of love in its tentative early stages.
Text-messaging—the now-common communication method for most—has added a layer of anxiety as a result of the medium’s lack of face-to-face real-time immediacy compared to a phone call, since it can apparently take people hours, if not days, to respond to a simple text. This anxiety provides the bookends of the series’ third episode, “Tested,” which begins with Gus, the morning after his unexpected day-long meet-cute with Mickey, deciding to text her in order to possibly ask her out…and then expressing various forms of unease throughout the day as he waits with baited breath for a reply from her. When Mickey finally responds in the late afternoon, his euphoria is palpable, driven home by the celebratory Elvis Costello song, “Lover’s Walk,” that plays out the episode.
The ubiquity of text messages has had another dismaying effect on courtship-based communication: the newfound popularity of “ghosting,” the non-confrontational method of letting someone you’re no longer interested in down “easy” by simply cutting off communication altogether. True to his passive-aggressive form, Gus employs this on Mickey after she causes a scene in front of his movie-studio workplace at a professionally inopportune time for him; not only do we see him angrily delete her number off his phone at the end of the ninth episode, “The Table Read,” but we see the many desperate text messages Mickey sends that he ignores throughout the season finale, “The End of the Beginning.” Granted, this turns out to not be the end of their relationship in Love…but in the real world, such silent treatment is usually interpreted as a clear sign of disinterest.
Communication is certainly important in any relationship, but at what point does the affection implied by frequent contact with someone cross over into a more annoying sense of hanging on that person too closely? Mickey—addicted not just to substances and sex but to the idea of an all-consuming love—threatens to cross that line as she begins to latch onto Gus as the one that will deliver her from her personal troubles. It all comes to a head when, in “The Table Read,” Mickey manipulates her Australian roommate, Bertie (Claudia O’Doherty), into going on a tour through the movie studio at which Gus works just so she can get closer to him—leading to the aforementioned heated confrontation between the two that lays bare their differences of ideology when it comes to love. Neither have yet discovered the kind of negotiation between two committed yet rational parties that is often needed for a relationship to work out in the long term.
Two episodes in Love’s first season are devoted to exposing fundamental differences between Gus and Mickey. In “Magic,” Gus brings Mickey on their first real date to a magic show, but soon discovers that Mickey finds the illusionism lame and the institution itself too rigid and sexist; he is barely able to hide his disappointment at her unwillingness to fully give herself over to the experience. The following episode, “Closing Title Song,” finds Mickey crashing one of Gus’s eccentric musical jam sessions—in which he and his friends improvise songs based on movie titles—even after she blatantly called the idea behind them “lame” earlier that day; the experience leaves her so uncomfortable that she quietly slips away after a while. Both episodes reveal the falsehood of the utmost importance of “similar interests” as the basis of a relationship (a misconception only furthered by online-dating platforms, which base their matching algorithms on such superficial similarities); in the case of Gus and Mickey, clearly there are deeper and more intangible forces that will bring them together.
There’s arguably a level of game-playing that goes into any potential courtship, with much of the success having to do with how well both parties are able to read often-nonverbal signals of affection. The series’ most acute representation of this, however, comes not between Gus and Mickey, but between Gus and Heidi (Briga Heelan), the latter an actress on the cheesy TV show for which Gus does on-set tutoring. Heidi’s signals of affection—asking if he’s interested in getting a drink later, inviting him into her trailer to run lines, that kind of thing—would seem head-slappingly obvious to most dispassionate observers, but they barely seem to register to Gus—until they have sex one night after he has invited her to the same aforementioned jam session that Mickey crashes (yet another reason for the latter’s discomfort). Also bound to be evident to most outside observers but not to Gus: her vanity, most apparent when, after Gus tells her about the spec script he’s written for the show, she immediately asks just how big a part she has in it. No wonder, when she’s finally written out of the show and loses her job, she quickly loses all interest in Gus.
In some ways, Mickey is a modern-day variation on Robert Cole, the romantic obsessive played by Albert Brooks in his 1981 masterpiece Modern Romance: a character who takes his ideal of an “all-consuming love” to discomfiting extremes. Granted, there’s one crucial difference between the two: Mickey expresses her hopeless romanticism through a whole slate of ex-lovers, while Robert latches onto one woman who ultimately can’t stand him. The emotional mechanism, however, remains similar: the endless pursuit of a genuine romantic connection with someone, anyone, despite all evidence suggesting that the two people involved aren’t a good match. As frustrating as the game of love may be, both Modern Romance and Love suggest, there’s no point in trying to force a connection that isn’t there just for the sake of being in a relationship.
This leads into the larger truth that animates the whole series: how difficult it can be to find and maintain a romantic spark long enough to lead organically into a relationship. There’s no love at first sight to be found in this show’s world; the relationship between Gus and Mickey is birthed out of a rough primordial soup of false starts, evasions and insecurities. Love’s brutal honesty about romance extends all the way into its somewhat ambiguous finale, which sees our two protagonists having finally achieved an understanding of the grinding emotional forces that have brought them together, but with the question of whether they’re officially an item still left hanging in the air. Happily ever after? Gus and Mickey’s future looks to be a lot messier than that.
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and the Village Voice in addition to Paste. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.