“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.