Television

It's Not Easy to Love Netflix’s 'Love'

Emily J. Smith
Paul Rust and Gillian Jacobs in Love (2016)

A hip, East L.A. backdrop, an indie soundtrack, fashionable faces -- yet Love is shockingly archaic in its depictions of heterosexual relationships.


Love

Cast: Gillian Jacobs, Paul Rust, Claudia O'Doherty
Network: Netflix
Amazon

When I saw the artsy Netflix ad for season 2 of Love, I was reminded how much I hated season 1. And then I pressed "play".

This show was made for liberal, urban, 30-somethings like me. The lineup of recognizable writers, the hipster-graffiti aesthetic, the focus on young but getting older people still figuring it out all make it impossible for me to not watch this show. Despite its board-flat leads, an enraging first season finalé, and generally being a caricature of modern romance, I want to like it.

Season 2 started surprisingly well. The first episode, "On Lockdown", is a speedy course correction from last season’s finale, "The End of the Beginning" where, in a much anticipated act of courage, Mickey Dobbs (Gillian Jacobs) admits her addiction problems to Gus Cruikshank (Paul Rust) and explains that she needs to be alone. At which point Gus, misinterpreting her clarity as a call for help, completely ignores her request and swoops in for a dramatic kiss, which we are left to believe is the start of a burgeoning relationship.

So I was pleasantly surprised when -- whether intended all along or in response to enraged feminists like me -- season 2 drops us right back into that scene, and Mickey, too, is outraged. “Dude, I just told you I wanted to be alone,” she grumbles (and I cheer from my couch).

Unfortunately, her new-found agency is not a trend, it’s simply an easy win in a much bigger battle. Following the opening scene, we see the start of a tediously long period of Mickey second-guessing her decision, which, sadly, seems to be the entire plot of the new season.

Minutes later we’re spiraled into a painfully absurd subplot that has nothing to do with anything except that it 1. shows us Gus will do even the stupidest acts for Mickey (whom we also learn is very prone to stupid acts, herself) and 2. places them in unavoidable proximity for an entire night so that the now established paper-thin plot can thicken.

I can get behind absurd storylines. I will follow writer Shonda Rhimes wherever her stories want to take me. But I need to feel something along the way. And there needs to be a reason behind the characters' actions.

Unfortunately, this ride is in pursuit of a plot so predictable and uninteresting that it makes the weather report seem more exciting. The main dramatic throughline of this story so far (I’ve only made it through episode 3) is this: a beautiful woman, in relationships her entire adult life, thinks she should spend some time alone, but a sensitive, dorky guy is obsessed with her. What to do?

Sorry, are you still awake? I know, I thought we were past this, too. Despite the hip, East L.A. backdrop, indie music soundtrack, and familiar list of fashionable faces, Love is shockingly archaic in its depictions of heterosexual relationships.

Here’s an unpopular truth: it’s not that hard to be alone. Actually it’s kind of great. I should note that Mickey is a self-proclaimed “sex and love addict”, which is presumably meant to justify the grueling challenge of not having a man by her side at all times. But positioning Mickey as an addict is just a lazy ruse for her complete lack of agency.

The clinicization of behavior like this follows a popular TV trend these days. Shows love to throw mental illness on female characters as an excuse to justify unpopular female traits. If characters are doing something that is socially awkward because they have a mental illness, we can’t blame them, they can still fit within the bounds of acceptable women. Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) in Homeland is a prime example of this. Mickey’s limitation as an addict isn’t an interesting plot trick, however, it’s an embarrassing loophole that allows the show to perpetuate dated tropes.

At a time when female empowerment is in the spotlight, we’re rooting for Mickey to be alone, and watching her inability to make this happen in her life is a painful reminder of how often single heterosexual women are viewed as incomplete. No matter how cute the car sex scenes, or how indie the background music, it’s hard to be touched by Mickey falling back into Gus’s arms.

I’m a Judd Apatow fan (of his female lead productions, a la Girls and Trainwreck, at least). I believe his heart is in the right place. He’s wants to empower women. There are some moments in Love when he hits us over the head with his attempts at feminism -- the surprise twist of Truman’s (Bobby Lee) boxing girlfriend, Lilly (Elizabeth Frances) being the sane female character, for example -- but the heart of his story is rooted in the oblivious conventions of a good guy who thinks he understands the female struggle.

Consider, for example, Mickey’s hobbies. Sorry, that was a trick. She doesn’t have any! While Gus is off writing clever songs with his band of buds, she’s staring at a single text message, deciding whether or not to send it, for the entire day.

Even if the plot could be revived and Mickey realized that watching a movie and ordering takeout or just embarking on literally any hobby ever isn’t an unbearable stand-in for the ultimate conquest of heterosexual intimacy, the characters still fall flat.

Gillian Jacobs is beautiful, but she, and the show, refuse to admit it. Her character operates like a person who feels constantly shunned and rejected. I know, I know -- that’s Hollywood. But even if we can get past the beautiful woman pretending to be a misfit thing, her only two emotions are those of exaggerated, unwarranted annoyance with other people and a mild, blameless frustration with herself. I'm desperate to find a thread of empathy for this character, but she’s nothing more than a manic pixie dream girl dunked in a vat of self-loathing.

Then there’s Gus. I couldn’t be more tired of dorky guys falling head over heels for beautiful women with which they have no real interests in common other than their chance adventures, while ignoring smart, average-looking women with which they have tons in common (e.g., the seeming advances of a Kali (Tipper Newton) in “Friends Night Out” whom, we discover after Gus rejects her, has a boyfriend and was just “trying to be nice” -- another example of Apatow’s feminism).

I want to love Love, I really do. I’ll keep watching in the hope that this season redeems itself. But a conventional sitcom is a conventional sitcom, no matter how hip the filter.

Emily Smith has published essays on gender, tech, and relationships in Huffington Post, Salon, Femsplain, and The Establishment, among others. Find her on Twitter @emjsmith.

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