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Like most of modern America, I've heard one thing a lot lately: Did you see that new show on Netflix? This question will follow you to the office, to the salon, to a barn in the middle of rural Arkansas. I'm not kidding. The reach of Netflix, a global provider of streaming entertainment with 75 million subscribers, is impressive.
In recent months, the small talk was all about Aziz Ansari's "Master of None," then "Making a Murderer," then Chelsea Handler's four-part docuseries, "Chelsea Does." Last weekend, Netflix released its latest conversation starter, "Love," produced by Judd Apatow ("Freaks and Geeks," "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up"), in which newly single, nice and nerdy Gus (Paul Rust), and newly single, cool girl Mickey (Gillian Jacobs), serendipitously meet and fall in love ... .
Or do they?
I hesitate on the love part, rather than on the falling, because this show is centered on circumstances that involve its characters stumbling and tripping over themselves. Gus and Mickey are 30-something professionals living in L.A. with no real sense of themselves, let alone each other. Gus is a polite pushover unafraid of outbursts. Mickey is a tough-skinned addict unafraid of crying. Their meeting provokes a particular type of drama that caters to its audience: the forever young and overthinking millennials who are endlessly fascinated by the type of exploratory self-consciousness at the root of the series. In the pilot, Gus, an on-set television tutor and aspiring writer, asks his friends, "Who am I? Where do guys like me live? Where do the repressed, hostile nerds whose girlfriends accuse them of being fake nice live?" A friend suggests cheerfully, "Santa Monica?"
It should be funny, watching two attractive trainwrecks date. But the best scenes pair Gus with his weekly music crew, or Mickey with her Australian roommate, Bertie. The scenes with Gus and Mickey are rarely funny or romantic — they're gritty, dramatic and often cringe-worthy. You could argue that this makes the series more realistic, since relationships often involve a slow and messy buildup. But does anyone want to watch a series about two often unlikeable, incompatible 30-year-olds romantically duking it out? I can name a dozen Netflix titles more binge-worthy than that.
This is not to say that "Love" has no redeeming qualities. In the second episode, Mickey is driving Gus back to his apartment after a cinematic screaming match with his ex. Gus is holding an expansive collection of Blu-rays, boxed up, about which his ex taunted him. Like most rom-com characters, Gus begins ranting about love. Suddenly, he's tossing "Pretty Woman," "Sweet Home Alabama" and the rest of his collection into the streets of L.A., blaming Hollywood for his doomed belief that love could conquer all. "All these movies I've watched, they're lies," he says, insisting his belief in happy endings is over. But his infatuation with Mickey, which comes on strong around episode three, suggests he hasn't quite given up the dream.
"Love" claims to navigate the "thrills and agonies of modern relationships" and, I admit, it has the modern part down. An intoxicated Mickey calls an Uber, and later cyber-stalks Gus on Facebook. Bertie FaceTimes her new love interest, and is proudly paper-free ("I only use credit cards and Apple Pay"). Gus types two long texts to Mickey before deleting and rewriting them and finally sending just, "Sup?" The preteen that Gus tutors postpones her schoolwork by showing him videos on her smartphone, then asks him to take a photo of her for Instagram. These characters are digitally linked but emotionally disconnected — a mantra so familiar it's become a cliche. Standing outside Mickey's house, a man running with a dog passes Gus on the sidewalk. Gus calls out, brightly, "Morning!" The runner turns his head, irritated, and answers, "What?" Gus repeats himself, soft and hesitant now, but the runner doesn't acknowledge him a second time.
There's much that the 10-episode first season of "Love" could've done better: characterization for one, authentic comedy for another. But there is an enjoyable rebellion in seeing Gus and his friends — of refreshingly varied ages and ethnicities — jamming out, laughing. Or Mickey and Bertie leaning into a mirror, cursing, picking at their pores. These are the moments that seem genuine, even striking.
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