Netflix’s ‘Love’ Gives the Judd Apatow Rom-Com Formula Exactly the Update It Needed

Love isn’t necessarily what you think it is.

Prior to its release on Netflix this Friday, the series has mainly been heralded — by this site as well as others — as the first true Judd Apatow series since the writer, director, and all-around comedy don found mega-success at the box office. Between movies, he’s helped shepherd a few HBO comedies (Girls, Pete Holmes’ upcoming Crashing) into the world, but Apatow is credited as a co-creator on Love; he even co-wrote the pilot. And an Apatow comedy, particularly an Apatow romantic comedy, comes with some baggage.

We all know the story, because there are few narrative templates whose influence has been more notorious or all-encompassing. A fuck-up stumbles, somehow, upon a love interest; that love interest, somehow, is willing to invest the time and emotional energy required to “fix” the fuck-up. It’s not always clear that either the fuck-up or the movie they star in sees the love interest as much more than a means to that end, or whether that end is even sustainable rather than a roadmap to resentment down the road. And with one notable exception, the fuck-up is always a straight dude, his love interest/plot device a straight woman.

But while the posters and trailers for Love certainly showed warning signs of some Apatow pitfalls, particularly the gap between the photogenic qualities of its leads, this show is considerably more equal opportunity in its ability to communicate that both of its main characters are fuck-ups — and therefore neither of them will be forced to play the role of babysitter, or worse yet, mother for their potential partner. It’s a leveled playing field that reflects the involvement of Apatow’s co-creators, who also happen to be husband and wife: Girls alumna Lesley Arfin and former Comedy Bang! Bang! writer Paul Rust, who also co-stars as Gus, a Nice Guy a mere fedora away from becoming a sentient Reddit comment.

Part of the reason Love makes such a strong impression is that it’s so easy to see who Gus would be in another show or film. He’d be the bespectacled dweeb who just can’t catch a break, stuck with a job babysitting — sorry, “tutoring” — a child actress on a schlocky “supernatural period piece” called Witchita and a girlfriend who’s clearly not into him. Except here, Gus’ stale, crumbling relationship is almost entirely of his own making, and his soon-to-be-ex isn’t a user or a cold bitch, but a woman justifiably fed up with her clingy, emotionally manipulative boyfriend. “You’re not nice, you’re fake nice, which is worse than being mean!” she tells him, and it’s true. Gus is the kind of dude who blurts out “I love you” because he needs to hear it back, not because he means it.

Not that his new partner in crime is any better. Between Community and Girls, Gillian Jacobs has perfected a certain strain of charming insufferability; here, she reprises her role as Walking Hipster Relationship Poison, but for the first time, her character has the spotlight and complexity of a true lead. Like Gus, Jacobs’ Mickey is an LA transplant (she from Jersey, he from South Dakota, hence the Midwestern fake-niceness) who’s managed to land an adequate, creative-adjacent job by her early 30s. She’s the program manager for a Dr. Ruth-like call-in show hosted by yet another beta male unaware of his own slimy brand of entitlement, a specialty of both Love itself and actor/comedian Brett Gelman.

The arc of Love‘s particular moral universe, as of the first season’s halfway point, bends toward Gus and Mickey ending up together. But even though all of its ten individual episodes move quickly in spite of their 30-plus-minute runtimes, the show itself moves at a remarkably slow pace. Gus and Mickey don’t even meet until the closing scene of the pilot, when Mickey throws a temper tantrum during a mutual hangover-supply run to a gas station convenience store; the two have an immediate, believable rapport based on a mutual jadedness, not mention a shared taste in accent rugs, built up over the second installment, which documents their first few hours hanging out together. Later episodes center around a single house party or misbegotten date between Gus and Mickey’s insistently peppy roommate Birdie (Australian comic Claudia O’Doherty).

Love, like the genuine article, takes its time, and the result is a romantic comedy somewhere between the acid cynicism of You’re the Worst and the deceptively aimless dives into white, affluent Los Angeles’ semi-urban ennui found in Togetherness or Transparent. Frustration with the latter is both mounting and genuine; there’s no inherent reason for viewers to care about yet another story set in the upper quadrant of Maslow’s hierarchy. But the second-most common complaint about these shows — the boring but seemingly unbeatable concerns about “likability” — quickly emerges as one of Love‘s best qualities.

As anyone who’s spent time with the Pfeffermans, or Hannah Horvath, or Rebecca Bunch, or Jimmy Shive-Overly knows, a creator’s willingness to leave their characters open to loathing is directly proportional to the audience’s ability to find them lovable. The more Mickey self-sabotages, the less Gus is idealized as a nerd up for his due, the more their feelings and behavior reflect the decidedly non-ideal lives most of us lead in our day to day. And there are few things less ideal than Gus cheating on his charge’s behalf and asking to be thanked for it, or Mickey blatantly inviting Gus to a party so she can feel pined after, then imploding when her plan backfires.

Above all else, though, Love‘s unflinching view of both its characters and its namesake allows it to be funny. This is a series that functions as both a broad comedy about relationships and the complementary flaws that can make for a good one (“You should never be embarrassed.” “I’ve been waiting for someone to say that to me my whole life!”) and an extremely specific satire of its endearingly insufferable microverse (complete with ostentatious jam sessions and expensive patio furniture). Not bad for a first date.

Love is available to stream on Netflix beginning Friday, February 19.