Netflix's 'Love' and Its Loathsome, Thoroughly Unpleasant Male Lead
(Spoilers for the series below, although it’s not really the kind of series in which plot points are important).
Netflix’s new series, Love, from creators Judd Apatow, Lesley Arfin, Paul Rust, begins with familiar rom-com harmlessness. Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) breaks up with her substance-abusing loser of a boyfriend, a man in his early 30s who still lives and goes shopping with his mother. Meanwhile, an incredibly dorky guy named Gus (Paul Rust) is dumped by his girlfriend because he’s “too nice,” and “too needy,” but there’s something more to it than that. Gus’s soon-to-be ex also faults Gus for being “fake nice, which is worse than being mean.”
Because Gus’ ex-girlfriend is super cute, and Gus looks like this …
… the “fake nice” line doesn’t immediately register. In fact, when a troubled Mickey — who has her own addiction problems — comes into Gus’ orbit and ends up falling for him because he’s sweet and non-threatening and not just another one of her asshole boyfriends, it feels like another Apatowian 40-Year-Old virgin fantasy, an awkward nerdy guy who gets the hot woman because he’s not like those other guys.
But as the series unfolds, and as we learn more about Gus and Mickey, it’s hard not to keep returning to that line from the opening episode: “You’re not nice. You’re fake nice, which is worse than being mean.”
Love is not The 40-Year Old Virgin. It’s not even another iteration of Can’t Buy Me Love, where the hot woman looks past the nerdy guy’s looks and falls in love with his personality, because underneath Gus’ 90’s Seth Green hair, dorky glasses, and awkward, nice-guy exterior is the heart of a manipulative, narcissistic asshole.
Gus is worse than the douche-bros and good-looking cads, because at least they are transparent. Gus presents himself as something he’s not, and he uses his non-threatening looks and his awkward nice-guy shtick to exploit lonely women searching for love and steady, drama-free relationships.
By the end of the first season of Love, I absolutely despised Gus, because Gus may seem like this guy:
But underneath it all, he’s just another one of these guys:
That’s not to say that Love is not a worthy series. Gillian Jacobs’ Mickey is a fantastic, yet troubled character, who is a selfish asshole in her own right and she, too, takes advantage of those around her (in particular, her angelic Australian roommate Bertie (Claudia O’Doherty)). Jacobs is amazing in the role, and in spite of her Id-driven destructive behavior, she brings enough goodwill from Community to remain sympathetic, in part because at least Mickey has addiction to booze, drugs, and sex to partially excuse some of her behavior and elicit our sympathy.
Gus has no such excuse. He’s a terrible person, although that is not immediately apparent, because it’s hard to overlook his super uncomfortable social interactions, his bad luck with women (which we soon realized is earned), and his earnest dorkery. But even his dorkiness is used as a weapon, such as when he forces a magic show onto an unwilling Mickey and then emotionally manipulates her with passive-aggressive pity when she doesn’t immediately take to it, which ultimately sends her on a downward spiral of insecurity, which Gus no doubt would have taken advantage of had he not been busy fucking another hot lonely woman in need of a nice guy in her life.
Of course, while Mickey is on a downward emotional spiral looking for anything steady to hold her balance, there are some misguided presumptions in her behavior, as well, because she assumes that a guy who look like this …
… will be so smitten with a woman who looks like this:
… that she can use him until she regains her footing and then find a more suitable, attractive partner. But, when you look like Mickey and a guy who looks like Gus rejects you, it only hastens the downward spiral. There’s a part of Gus that knows that, that exploits that, that takes advantage of those vulnerabilities.
It’s messed up, and dysfunctional, and ultimately, Gus and Mickey should stay as far away from each other as possible, because they’re not only lousy for each other, they are lousy to each other, which makes Love a really interesting, subversive entry into the rom-comedy sitcom. It’s not a typical will-they-won’t-they series, and it’s not even the anti-rom com represented by You’re the Worst. It’s something else new and entirely different: A love story about two people who are currently incapable of love and who would be better off alone. That makes it an interesting series, but also a maddening and frustrating one. Thankfully, the writing is so good, the characters are well drawn, and the humor so relatable that irritation with the characters is not detrimental.
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