Show Hide image

Netflix’s Love is just the latest in a long line of not-your-typical-romcom romcoms

Misanthropic, self-impeding, and downright irritating antiheroes are the genre’s new bread-and-butter, but not necessarily its inversion.


“I have money. I can pay you back.” Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) says sulkily, minutes after meeting Gus (Paul Rust). The protagonists of new Netflix series Love have had less of a meet-cute than a meet-tense, after Mickey shouts abuse at a service station cashier for not letting her have a coffee on credit. After Gus buys her the coffee and a packet of cigarettes, Mickey insists he come with her to flat so she can reimburse him: “Don’t be a fucking hero.”

As we know from Girls, Knocked Up, Bridesmaids and more, Judd Apatow doesn’t do romantic heroes. Love, co-written by Apatow, Rust and Girls writer Lesley Arfin, self-consciously rejects the very idea of them. Smarting from a break-up, Gus throws films from his prized Blu-Ray collection from the window of Mickey’s car as she drives. “Relationships are bullshit [...] Pretty Woman? Such a lie. Sweet Home Alabama? Lies! When Harry Met Sally?! Fucking lies!”

As the inclusion of these early lines in the trailer shows, Love wants the viewer to know from the outset that, despite its title and mid-February release date, this isn’t a roses and chocolates piece of television. In some ways, this is true: Love weaves a story of anxiety, addiction, professional disappointment and wasted potential. Its meandering pace means that we frequently go entire episodes without ever seeing our two lead characters in the same room, and they dance around each other so tentatively that we never get a chance to get to love. Instead, we get leering bosses, embarrassing parties and awkward dates.

I liked Love. I liked that the characters were not particularly likeable. Gus is a whiny, entitled “But I’m a nice guy!” not-nice guy. Mickey, well... Mickey swears on her friend’s baby’s life that she didn’t cheat on her ex (she did, a lot). But I don’t find any of these things particularly subversive.

A really good romantic film is never about two capable, gorgeous, charismatic individuals, who meet, are attracted to each other, behave appropriately and kindly towards each other, and begin their exciting, life-long relationship. The genre thrives on obstacles, and, while romantic dramas tend to focus on external ones (Romeo and Juliet, The Notebook, The Time-Traveller’s Wife), romantic comedies tend to look inwards.

Our heroes need to make mistakes: they embarrass themselves, they cheat on each other, they screw up their priorities, they make bad choices. Emma is both intrusive and self-centred; Bridget Jones has bad habits and a lack of conversational filter; Hugh Grant made a career out of fatally repressed characters; When Harry Met Sally inspired a generation of slobby male leads. The romcom protagonist is his or her own worst enemy. Heroes, hardly.

Romantic comedies with self-destructive leads are often branded “not your typical romcom” (google the phrase’s ubiquity if you don’t believe me), but they form a very concrete type indeed. The natural extension of this trope is a graduation from acknowledged imperfection to acknowledged absolute fucking disaster. From Hollywoods Trainwreck, Greenberg, and Obvious Child,  to TV’s Girls, Catastrophe and You’re The Worst; misanthropic, self-impeding, and downright irritating antiheroes are the genre’s new bread-and-butter, but not necessarily its inversion.

Love is just the latest in a long line of not-your-typical-romcom romcoms. Its characters may not be staggeringly original, but they are nicely-drawn and well-acted. There is a subtlety and charisma to Gillian Jacobs’ performance that prevents Mickey from becoming a one-dimensional sardonic hipster. (When her gross boss says of his ex-girlfriend, “We were sexually incompatible: I liked sex and she didn’t,” Mickey gives an imperceptible smile that says, “She didn’t like sex with you,” that countless women have surely had to perform.) The relatability of Gus’s desperate attempts not to be seen as desperate soften his frustrating personality. (He spends a day redrafting texts to Mickey:“It’s Gus (the Blu-Ray guy)” is swiftly deleted, as is “Remember when you tucked me in bed? WEIRD.”) But their humour and human interest almost inevitably comes from their status as romantic comedy leads, not in spite of it.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496