We’re all familiar with romantic comedies. It’s fun to indulge in the hopeful world of rom-coms, where stories are simple and happy endings are guaranteed.
“Love,” the hardly-new-anymore series produced by Judd Apatow is technically a romantic comedy, but is unlike all its predecessors. The show is an experiment in form, made possible by the fact that it is not a movie nor a conventional television show, but a Netflix show.
Minor spoilers ahead.
Many reviewers have praised “Love” as an anti-rom-com, since the show seems set on rewriting almost every stereotype and narrative trope of the genre. Instead of casting a nice guy and a manic pixie dream girl, “Love” tells the story of Mickey, a cool girl with a history of impulsive and addictive behavior, and Gus, a sweet midwesterner with a penchant for neediness and codependency.
The series refuses to glamorize the characters’ lives, giving them mid-level jobs and apartments that match their means. The arc of the relationship is similarly messy, opting to let Mickey and Gus meander through a clumsy first dates and ambiguous feelings.
It’s funny, subversive, and it feels real. But Netflix’s “Love” is not a regular television show or a feature film. It is not merely subverting the rom-com: it’s reinventing the genre. There’s an old communication axiom: “the medium is the message.” The vehicle for a message has an impact on the message itself. In other words, if a creator tried to tell a story in movie form, the result would be vastly different from a television series.
The impact is such that the rom-com is structurally distinct depending on whether it is packaged as a film or television series. The cinematic rom-com is trope-avaganza. In a movie rom-com, lovers meet, fall in love, become estranged, and rejoin happily. The arc is neat and driven towards finality.
Romantic TV comedies struggle with telling stories centered around romantic leads. Serialization is the law of the land, which means writers have to constantly avoid absolute resolution, unlike rom-com movies. Instead, we get are protracted character arcs that develop over dozens of episodes, with lots of twists and backtracking. Where relationships are concerned, they must live in a constant state of turmoil to keep viewers guessing.
Think, for example, of “Sam and Diane” in the classic NBC sitcom “Cheers.” Sam is a blue-collar sports bar owner, and Diane is a blue-blood, overeducated barmaid. Their will-they-won’t-they dynamic became equivalent with unresolved sexual tension, and for some, a synonym for a forced romance without a speck of believability.
Another, more recent show made the necessary withholding of romantic conclusion its entire gimmick. “How I Met Your Mother” is framed as a father telling his kids a drawn-out story of romantic misadventures, which will conclude with how he met their mother. It is a series that understands that medium’s inability to end.
The standalone nature of movies makes rom-coms predictable and formulaic. TV’s serialization makes their version of the rom-com a noncommittal affair. Neither feature film nor sitcom, “Love” is somewhere in between, which lets writers pick from the best of both worlds.
“Love” has the decisiveness of a movie: it sets up two lovers and clearly works towards a narrative conclusion. Thanks to multi-season storytelling, it can make stops along the way, prodding subplots that lend nuance to what would otherwise be a predictable progression.
This patience allows the series to truly honor its dual-protagonist structure. “Love” seems interested in how two people can live through the same sequence of events, but experience entirely unique, even opposite emotional moments.
In most protagonist-driven narratives, story beats tend to align for the characters. The lows are low for everyone, and so are the highs. Not so with “Love.” If you were to chart the emotional peaks and valleys for Gus and Mickey in any given episode, you’d find that they’re often in completely different places.
While on a date at a magic show, Gus delights in the performances while Mickey is unimpressed, even uncomfortable.
During a poolside exchange, Gus feels connected when Mickey gossips with him meanwhile, Mickey feels intimate only once Gus lets her pop a zit on his back.
Many stories achieve this contrast by having one character knowing some secret that their counterpart doesn’t. “Love” simply allows personal experiences to inform how each person processes events, and how they find their intimacy.
“Love” has hybridized the different forms of rom-com to tell a story about the tangled mess that is intimacy and the confusion that comes when we try to bring others into our circle. It shows how we each see the world through impossibly different lenses, only at times overlapping, gaining little glimpses into each other’s lives. And those little moments — maybe that’s love.