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‘Love’ Is a Romantic Comedy in Slow Motion

The Netflix series’ charm lies in its leisurely pacing

(Netflix)
(Netflix)

A common criticism of late bloomers, from Buffy to Halt and Catch Fire, is that their second season should have been their first. Yet the sophomore effort of Netflix rom-com Love, released last Friday, proves the deliberate world-building of its predecessor was worth it. The latest batch of episodes enters a less tentative, more committed chapter without negating its meandering prologue. Held up against faster, funnier series in TV’s attention economy, Love’s low-key charms can be self-defeating. But good things come to those who wait: Love’s molasses drip of a plot is responsible for most of its redeeming qualities.

Upon its initial release last year, Love’s slo-mo romance tried some people’s patience. The series asked us to dedicate a weekend’s worth of bingeing to yet another tale of white Angelenos’ dating woes and took until the final seconds of its (40-minute) pilot to introduce its central couple. The leisurely pacing is Love’s litmus test, indicating whether you find the show insufferable or endearing. Co-created by leading man Paul Rust and former Girls writer Lesley Arfin (with Judd Apatow as their patron), Love takes the shaggy, lackadaisical vibe of Apatow’s features and, in the absence of natural barriers like episode running times or robust network supervision, gets even shaggier.

Take the tortoise-speed progression of the central couple. Late in Season 2, Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) casually mentions, in the favorite phrase of commitment-phobic millennials, that she’s “been seeing” Gus (Paul Rust) for about a month. This abbreviated time frame is both shocking and not. On the one hand, by the time Mickey says this, we’ve spent nearly 10 hours bearing witness to this burgeoning relationship. On the other, many of those hours took place in a single evening. One episode in Season 1 followed a single, disastrous date — not even between Gus and Mickey, but between Gus and Mickey’s cheery Australian roommate Bertie (Claudia O’Doherty). The second season’s standout episode sees Mickey, a recovering addict, play sober supervisor as Gus and some friends take shrooms at her house. All those moments only added up to a few weeks. No wonder there’s no sense of urgency to them: We’ve been watching two uncertain people in the earliest phases of scoping each other out.

Love’s greatest triumphs are its characters and their chemistry. Both are dividends of the investment of time that Rust, Arfin, and Apatow are so willing to make. Early in the second season, it becomes clear that because we’ve seen so much of Gus and Mickey apart (when we last saw them before the break, they’d only hooked up a few times), we better understand what it means for them to be together. We know what they have to offer each other, and the red flags they don’t (or won’t) see. We’ve learned a lot — more than we might have on another show: Mickey is in recovery for a dependency on sex and love as well as drugs and alcohol. But sweet, Midwestern Gus has plenty of toxic feelings bubbling beneath the surface. He’s codependent and condescending, an ugly combination. He’s seen all the movies where the wild child settles down with the dependable nerd and can’t deal with his own life withholding the easy resolution they promised.

Those pitfalls would sink the relationship — they certainly come close — and the show along with it if Jacobs and Rust didn’t sell the peaks as well as the valleys. Gus and Mickey have a natural rapport that some of the shallower “Why’s she with him?” insta-takes belie, with a loose comedic rhythm built from meandering, good-natured conversations more than punchy one-liners. “I remember when I saw Knocked Up, thinking, ‘Oh, you can get jokes out of the fact that these characters in this world are funny,’” Rust told Vulture last week. “I think that’s where we get some comedy out of the show, too. If you met her in life, you’d go, ‘Mickey’s funny. She cracks me up.’” Love’s slow-and-steadiness is a feature, not a bug, trading rapid-fire cracks for a gradually built foundation. At their best, Gus and Mickey feel like actual people expressing actual affection for one another.

Not all of this mumblecore-adjacent approach works, of course; there’s a reason this show has its critics. Gus’s cloying whininess works in the context of courtship, but when he’s marooned on set in his dead-end gig as a child-star tutor, it’s slo-mo cringe comedy without any sparks to offset the pain. The fate of Mickey and Gus feels weighty, both because the actors sell it, and, as the name of the show indicates, the entirety of the action revolves around it. A hack (who the script seems to indicate isn’t especially talented) serially humiliating himself doesn’t clear the same bar. But spending time in Mickey and Gus’s separate worlds helps us get their shared one.

Of all TV’s protracted romances, Love alone gives the feeling of watching a real, human-scale connection in (halting) progress. There’s no artificial accelerant like Catastrophe’s pregnancy or Gretchen’s move-in-prompting apartment fire on You’re the Worst. There’s just two complete, charismatic people circling each other. Nothing more dramatic happens on Love than simple, everyday issues like infidelity, or insecurity, or texting anxiety; the Season 2 finale is cleverly structured around a would-be blowup that never really happens. It doesn’t need to. What happens on Love is all we need.