TV

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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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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