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Not much to ‘Love’

| Thursday, February 25, 2016

love webSusan Zhu

“Love” begins and ends at a gas station. This is not where the first and final scenes take place, but it is the intentional starting and ending point for the romance — perhaps too strong a word for this relationship — at the heart of the Netflix comedy whose first 10-episode season dropped February 19.

“Love” plots the intersection of Gus (Paul Rust of Upright Citizens Brigade fame) and Mickey (Gillian Jacobs, Britta from “Community”), two 30-somethings rebounding from lopsided relationships in Los Angeles. Mickey smokes pot and works for FM radio. Gus wears graphic band tees and tutors child stars for TV. Though the title suggests something grander, the show stays true to its fairly singular goal of examining the slips and slides of its central relationship — a plodding, funny and frequently painful slow-dance.

Ten episodes afford plenty — maybe too much — time for that, but the show is easily (and best) consumed in its entirety or a few big chunks. The episodes usually span the course of a day, ending in the middle of the night and picking up either moments later or the following morning. This layout works to particular effect in a show like “Love,” where a great deal of forward motion depends on whether a character will get up the next morning and pick up the phone.

On texting: “Love” is very much set in the present, though it chooses, rather refreshingly, not to beat its audience over the head with the nuances of 21st century relationships. Yes, the show’s characters text, smoke and stream video, but the moments of contemporaneity are more atmospheric than anecdotal. That being said, a well-advertised moment where Gus hurls a box of Blu-rays out of the car window capitalizes in catharsis of the 2010s — DVDs just wouldn’t have been the same.

Gus’ insistence on Blu-rays and constant prioritizing of his “nerd” lifestyle over what Mickey would deem a “normal’ relationship is surely a leaf out of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” where Steve Carell’s character refuses to part with his mint-condition action figures. “You’re like a 40-year-old 12-year-old,” Mickey tells Gus in the show’s second episode. The statement could be aptly applied to lots of Judd Apatow characters, who directed “Virgin” and co-created “Love” with married couple Paul Rust and Lesley Arfin. The show wears the Apatow badge on its sleeve (which certainly didn’t hurt marketing), but Rust and Jacobs play characters entirely their own. Their chemistry makes the show, and although they fit the Apatow shell, they also frequently break out of it. (This might also be the appropriate time to note that in regards to TV, Judd Apatow is kind of like a less fat and less funny Dan Harmon. Jokes aside, “Community” fans will appreciate the shared neuroticism in Mickey and Britta, though Mickey is more lost and likeable.)

“Love” delivers laughs, and one of its great pleasures is how well it benefits from everyone involved. Not only is the show exceedingly well-cast, but fans of Rust will recognize pals from Comedy Bang! Bang! and the UCB who bring texture and range to the show’s humor. In all honesty, the show’s comedic center of gravity is closer to these supporting characters than to Rust or Jacobs; they give us something to laugh at, while their friends and co-workers give us a reason to laugh. No one outshines Rust and Jacob more than Claudia O’Doherty as Mickey’s overly-chipper roommate, and the relatively unknown Jordan Rock delivers some of the show’s best lines as the TV caterer: “I’m like that black guy in every movie who comes out and gives his white friend perfect advice. But for some reason when I go out for those roles, I never get ‘em.”

While the relationship at the center of “Love” feels honest, it’s fatally complicated by a subplot involving Mickey’s drug addiction. Critics have praised the show’s focus on addiction, but drugs are hardly the the centerpiece of “Love,” which spends far more time cracking awkward jokes and stumbling through first dates and workplace melodrama. Because of this diversion, worthy and interesting as it is, several of the season’s final moments feel unearned, leaving the show’s main characters in a situation that’s mostly just confusing. The gas station ending, if nothing else, reminds us that the show is inevitably going places —Netflix has already renewed the show for a second season (it took them much longer to renew “Master of None,” a decidedly better show).

The experience of binge-viewing “Love” is perhaps reflected most clearly in a scene where Mickey swallows a whole handful of Ambien and spends the rest of the night reevaluating her life. In all seriousness, “Love” does, especially in the season’s latter half, leave you a little empty — you pop the next episode not because you think it’s a particularly great idea, but because it’s that point in the night and, well, why the hell not.

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