Love: how Judd Apatow rewrote the rom-com rulebook

Judd Apatow, Lesley Arfin and Paul Rust have subverted expectations with Love, a thoughtful, funny and fearless Netflix series...

Love is one of Netflix’s finest original comedies. It’s certainly right up there with Master Of None and BoJack Horseman in the category of comedies that aren’t afraid to tackle tough topics.

The show’s vague title means that Love may have flown under your radar, but it also comes with benefits. Due to the broad scope of its moniker, Love is a show without a gimmick, allowing the writing team to go down any path they wish to develop their characters, mine for laughs and tug on our heartstrings. It succeeds regularly on all three counts.

The series, created by Judd Apatow, Lesley Arfin and Paul Rust (the latter of whom also stars in it), follows two thirty-somethings living in Los Angeles, and the various romantic entanglements, work disasters and personal problems they routinely wrestle with.

The idea of these two hapless individuals living happily ever after serves as an alluring but ostensibly unobtainable carrot on a string. The chance of a happy ending keeps us intrigued, but the show is far deeper than a vapid ‘will they, won’t they?’ situation.

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It has romance, and it certainly has comedy, but this is a far cry from the glitter-coated, unrealistic fluff you’ve probably come to expect from the term ‘rom-com’. Love is smarter than that, but doesn’t lose laughs as a result. If anything, it garners more chuckles than the average rom-com by making its characters so relatable and damaged.

Here’s how Apatow and co. rewrote the rulebook of the rom-com subgenre, and why you seriously need Love in your life…

The basics

One of the greatest things about Love is how real it feels. This isn’t a show where the characters live in perfect apartments, have high-flying jobs and still inexplicably have time to hang out with their friends every night and dispense zingers on demand.

Rather, this is a show where two unspectacular people live in affordable apartments, and have slightly-better-than-entry-level jobs that they often seem to hate. They manage to screw things up in their personal lives even when they’re trying to be nice. They fall out, they fail, and they aren’t always there for each other. Yet, somehow, it’s still a lot of fun to watch.

Community’s Gillian Jacobs plays Mickey Dobbs, a radio station employee with a number of addictions that she struggles to keep a lid on. The scripts delve far further into this than the usual ‘this person drinks too much, in the end they seek help’ cliché.

Paul Rust (who you might recognise from Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, which he also wrote) plays Gus Cruikshank, an on-set teacher to a child actress (played Iris Apatow, daughter of Judd). He’s cut in something of a ‘nice guy’ mould, but that’s not to say that he doesn’t have his own insecurities or issues. In fact, when the initial layer of geeky likeability ocassionally peels away, there’s some hard-rooted angst and uncertainty underneath.

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The pilot episode sees Gus and Mickey’s pre-meeting-each-other relationships crashing and burning in not-particularly-hilarious fashion, which sets the tone nicely. As does their first meeting, which isn’t exactly a meet-cute: there’s a tense situation in a convenience store where Micky is arguing with the clerk, and Gus stands by awkwardly before trying to help. It’s hardly a story you can imagine someone regaling to their kids.

From this jumping off point, Love pushes its characters into a number of tricky situations. I don’t want to say too much about the plot points that unfold, for fear of spoiling the ride, but suffice it to say that exes rear their heads, colleagues cause problems, tempers flare, bad decisions are made, and – as is proven in a particularly painful-to-watch season 2 storyline – a lengthy absence does a lot more than make the heart grow fonder.

The leads

Unlike the traditional rom-com, there’s no knight in shining armour or manic pixie dream girl here. But it’s still vital that we support and care for the core characters, regardless of the bad things they do and all the tough stuff they go through. This presents a tricky situation for the creators of the show: making us care for a truly damaged duo, without relying on clichés and shortcuts to get us there.

Casting was a vital component. With the wrong actors playing the leads, Love could have become a show about two people that it’s easy to hate. And if that had happened, a lot of what makes this show special would’ve failed to flourish.

Thankfully, Rust and Jacobs were perfectly cast as Gus and Mickey, so much so that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing them. They both bring vulnerability and rawness to their performances, ensuring that you’re willing to put your faith in the characters, relate to them and empathise at all times. You might want to shout at the screen at some points, but only because you have their best interests at heart.

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All those years that Jacobs’ Britta was the butt of the joke on Community seem like a real waste now. It’s obvious that she’s a genuine talent, with so many nuances to bring to the table. Few actors can convey an internal struggle like Jacobs does here, making it clear that Mickey’s intentions and actions aren’t always in sync, much to her own frustration.

Rust, to put it simply, was born to play Gus. He’s a highly relatable character, with his sense of humour and humungous heart regularly warring with the more anal elements of his persona. As much as I love him, Gus can be overbearing. He puts too much pressure on Mickey, and often makes things worse in trying to make them better. He also bottles things up and sometimes explodes with rage. But Rust ensures that there’s always an honest, decent human being underneath.

Like real people in the real world, these characters aren’t caricatures. They have traits that you like and they also have flaws. They behave inconsistently, and they make bad decisions, but you want to be friends with them all the same. Oftentimes, you wish you could reach out, osmose through your telly and give them a hug.

The supporting players

As well as exploring the idea of romantic love (which the show approaches in some really unique ways, especially for a comedy), Love also delves into friendship in a big way. The pilot episode sets this stall out clearly, giving Gus and Mickey their own chums, neighbours, co-workers and rivals. This might sound like an insignificant or obvious thing, but it’s actually vital to making the show unique.

Rom-com characters often feel like they live in a bubble, with only one or two super cool friends squeezed into it with them. And those super cool friends solely exist to dispense advice. Love swerves miles wide of that plotting pothole, introducing and gradually building upon a network of people that feels realistic.

When Mickey’s sort-of live-in boyfriend moves out in episode 1, she puts out an ad for a room and really hits the jackpot. Claudia O’Doherty’s Bertie is a joyous Australian who only has four numbers in her phone after moving to the US. She moves in with Mickey brings a nervous humour with an improvised feel to the show.

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Bertie tries her best to put up with Mickey while also battling her own problems: she gets her own toxic relationship at one stage, and flips out at a work colleague in one episode too. Yes, sometimes she gives advice, but Bertie is also a loveable character in her own right, with her own issues to address.

Although Gus does have some neighbours – Dave Allen (the teacher from Freaks And Geeks) is particularly memorable, as is Chris Witaske as Gus’ self-proclaimed best friend – it’s his workplace that really grabs my interest. Jordan Rock plays the laidback (except for when he thinks his job is on the line) catering guy, Tracie Thoms is Gus’ intimidating boss and Iris Apatow really impresses as the child star of the awful TV show Witchita, which Gus works on the set of. These three all bring laughs, but in very different ways. 

Also, Gus likes to have his friends over to write theme tunes for movies that don’t have theme tunes. It’s pretty much my favourite thing ever…

By having a cast so full of likeable and genuine characters, Love allows itself to dig a little deeper than the average rom-com. Gus and Mickey’s friends are there for more than just advice; they have their own stuff going on, they have their own opinions, and the bounce off the leads in a lot of fun ways. Plus they write damn good movie theme tunes.

Also, this show is as much about Mickey and Gus growing as individuals as it is them becoming a couple. Their separate workplaces are full of drama and laughs, and they take up a lot of the show’s running time, which makes the whole thing seem more layered and acutally-interested-in-its-characters-as-people than your average rom-com.

The crux of it

Rom-coms generally present us with a sugar-coated version of love and life, where there’s no problem that a makeover or a montage or a big romantic gesture can’t fix. Love, on the other hand, serves up a pure and honest depiction of its eponymous emotional entanglement without any of the sickly sweet cinematic fluff.

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We see date nights go horribly wrong (Gus’ idea for a big date is to go to a magic show, which actually looked pretty great from here. Didn’t go down well, though). We see the turmoil that a lengthy work trip can cause. We see two people deciding they should move slowly before ignoring their own advice. We see Mickey at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and Gus trying so hard to be supportive that it comes across as patronising. We see, in episode 2, Gus having a bit of breakdown after picking up a box of Blu-rays from his ex.

“Nobody ever just pulls you aside and goes, ‘hey, just so you know, relationships are fucking bullshit’”, Gus laments as Mickey drives him home from the pickup. “So I just keeping believing in this fucking lie, that a relationship evolves and gets better. It’s like, why do I believe that? Where do these lies come from? And it’s like, ‘oh, I know, fucking… songs, and books, and, you know, movies.” Gus starts gesturing at the box of high-def discs on his lap.

“All these movies I’ve watched, they’re not real. They’re lies like me and Natalie were lies. What am I doing with these?” He takes a look in the box. “Pleasantville? It’s like, fuck you Pleasantville. Just fuck off.”

He throws Pleasantville out the window of the moving car, before feeling a bit bad about it. But Mickey eggs him on, perhaps because she sees the cathartic value of what’s going on, or maybe just because it’s funny.

Gus looks in the box again. “Pretty Woman?! Pretty Woman is such a lie. A prostitute wouldn’t fall in love with you, she would just, like, steal your shit and sell it… for coke. Fuck you!” And Pretty Woman flies to the curb.

Sweet Home Alabama? Lies! What Women Want? Lies! When Harry Met Sally? Fucking lies! Homeland season 3?” Gus pauses, so Mickey jumps in. “Very confusing,” she offers, getting Gus back into the flow of it.

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“Yeah, like she could ever just sneak into Iran,” Gus adds. “Fuck off!” And out it goes. Mickey laughs. Gus throws the rest of the box out, and the two drive off.

They get back to Gus’ apartment, and Gus apologises for flipping out in front of Mickey. He’s embarrassed. Mickey reassures him: “Dude, I’m the queen of eating shit,” she says. “You should never feel embarrassed.”

And that’s kind of what this show is about: two people, both of whom have been through a lot, who don’t have much confidence in the concept of relationships, just spending time together and not feeling embarrassed. They’re aware that life is much more complicated than a rom-com, or even Homeland season 3, but they’re still into each other all the same.

They get close, they get annoyed at each other frequently, and they get things wrong an awful lot. You’ll find yourself wincing at certain moments, but willing them to stick with it anyway. The season 2 finale, in particular, has a real ‘watching through the gaps between your fingers’ tension to it. It’s certainly not a big romantic ending, which is very fitting for this show.

In real life, there’s no magic rom-com third act solution, where past problems dissolve away and the future is sealed with a big public snog before the credits roll. In Love, things are similarly complicated. This is rom-com as realism rather than escapism, and it’s ruddy brilliant for it.

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The first two seasons of Love are available on Netflix now. Season 3 is currently in production.