The romantic comedy was once one of cinema’s dominant beasts. With clockwork regularity and focus-group pleasing titles, these films presented the latest iteration of some Bland Immature Guy (usually Harry Connick, Jr. or someone who might as well be Harry Connick, Jr.) who needs to Get It Together so he can be saved by a Modern Woman (usually Sandra Bullock, Meg Ryan or Katherine Heigl). The woman, of course, had some sort of hang-up (insecurity, workaholism, a past heartbreak) herself, but it was nothing a nice climactic kiss couldn’t fix.
This genre fell out of fashion both due to the audience’s boredom with its increasingly formulaic nature (even the most ardent fan couldn’t tell you the difference between Something’s Gotta Give and Because I Said So without consulting Wikipedia) and Hollywood’s resistance to the idea of making films not explicitly targeted towards teenage boys. But the romantic comedy never really died; it just moved to the world of indie film and boutique television, where creators like Lena Dunham, the Duplass Brothers and Lisa Cholodenko have attempted to bring it back down to earth.
Netflix’s new series Love, created by comedy overlord Judd Apatow, writer-actor Paul Rust and writer Lesley Arfin, has been presented as the latest entry in the nü-com canon. It’s right there in the title, after all. And while the series does follow two cute singletons through the ups-and-downs of modern dating (never has a television show been so interested in the painstaking art of the witty text message), what makes Love great is that it’s not remotely romantic. If anything, Love views love as absolutely terrifying.
Gus Cruikshank, a tutor and aspiring screenwriter (played by Rust) and radio station manager-drone Mickey Dobbs (played by Girls/Community actress Gillian Jacobs) aren’t, as per the custom of the genre, lovable losers who just need the right person to see how special they are before they can become the person the need to be. These are damaged individuals who need some serious therapy and self-reckoning before they should be allowed to date anyone.
Though Love hits many of the classic rom-com plot points that this story archetype requires (the Meet Cute, the Awkward First Date), every step forward takes them one step further to a toxic relationship that threatens to destroy them both.
Much like Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen examined what superheroes would be like if they actually existed (damaged sociopaths, for the most part), Love thoroughly deconstructs two of cinema’s most cherished archetypes: the Loveable Nerd and the Cool Girl. Gus is awkward and capable of kindness, but he’s often perilously close to classic Nice Guy territory, wherein a sweet exterior masks mountains of unresolved hostility. He gets resentful that his genius isn’t taken seriously at work (his meltdown in the writer’s room as his script is torn apart is the most unbearable scene of 2015) and becomes passive aggressive that his date doesn’t appreciate the special evening he planned for them, but really just for himself. (Come on, Gus. No woman wants to go the Magic Castle.)
For her part, Mickey initially seems like free spirit Amy Dunne attacks in Gone Girl, but as the series progresses, we see the pain that drives her party girl persona. When Gus ghosts on her after they sleep together, she doesn’t want him back because he’s the One, but because her addictive personality demands that she not let it go. She needs something, be it male attention or a drink, to quite the storm in her mind, and it’s clear that if Gus wasn’t around to obsess over, it would be someone else.
The kiss that comes at the end of the season would, on any other show, be a sign of hope that these two screw-ups might stop getting in their own way. Here, it’s one last twist of the knife, a terrifying indication that these two damaged souls aren’t done spiraling out together. Love might not be of much use for date night (unless both parties really love cringe humor), but as a 10 hour-plus horror movie, it will turn your blood cold.