Judd Apatow’s Netflix show Love adheres to many recognizable rom-com tropes. In feature films the romantic plot points are forced into a two-hour timeline, rushing factors like individual character development. Because Love is structured as a binge-friendly sitcom with ten episodes, it has the temporal flexibility to develop characters and enhance the plot at a slow-burning pace.
Judd Apatow’s Netflix Love (2016) enters the world of romantic comedies with a few recognizable tropes: the nerdy nice guy, the pretty girl with issues, the odd circumstances that bring them together, and their cute and confusing relationship. Apatow is famous for rom-com-inflected movies like This Is 40 (2012) and Knocked Up (2007), among others. He is known for depicting the tolls of a relationship, bringing comedy out of real situations and instilling laughs through familiar circumstances. In a romantic comedy feature, all of this is accomplished in a two-hour timeline, which can feel rushed or lead to shallow, forced moments and characters due to the lack of breathing room. That is not a problem in Love.
Because Love is formatted as a multi-episode Netflix-style sit-com, which encourages us to consume multiple episodes at once, Apatow can take the time to develop characters and enhance the plot naturally. He has ten episodes to show us what he wants, and the varying length of each episode— anywhere from 27 to 40 minutes—is ample time to give the audience an organic storyline with characters that we can grow fond of. Given this lack of time constraints, Apatow has the freedom to delay the inevitable meet cute. In the first episode, we see the protagonists, Mickey and Gus (Gillian Jacobs; Paul Rust), but we do not see them together until the very end of the episode. We see their lives and get a sense of who they are as individuals, but we aren’t forced into a scenario of the pair already being together or immediately meeting. The various scenes within the episode steer us on the natural course of their eventual encounter.
By devoting the time to make us understand the characters, the show gives us greater opportunity to feel more invested in a story and a relationship. Apatow succeeds in doing so by showing us the contrasting lives of the leads—Mickey with her disorganized and animated approach to living, and Gus with his calm, almost “too-nice” one—a juxtaposition that immediately makes for fun situations because of the difference in personalities.
Even though the couple meets by the end of the first episode, unlike in many rom-com movies or even sit-coms, their relationship develops organically. They start out as acquaintances, sharing a few hilarious moments in the second episode, such as meeting Gus’s ex while Mickey and Gus are stoned. They exchange numbers by the end of the episode, yet there’s still no expectation of their getting together anytime soon. We notice that we’re over an hour into the show, and neither protagonist is head-over-heels for the other.
The third episode is devoted to Gus awaiting a reply to his first text to Mickey. Scenes like these are relatable for people in the contemporary dating scene; seeing Gus’s anxiety and frustration makes the viewer empathize with and root for him. Also, seeing both the characters at work is rare in sit-coms (they aren’t just sitting on a couch in a café or in a bar) and demonstrates the show’s naturalistic tone and structure. Clearly Mickey and Gus have other priorities; not everything in their lives revolves around the other person.
In the fourth episode Mickey invites Gus to a party, a convenient setting for potential rom-com fodder. This is where we might think that we will get to see some sparks, maybe an accidental drunken kiss. But no: Mickey contends with two of her exes, gets too drunk and jumps in a pool, and the story takes a twist when she sets Gus up on a date with her Australian roommate, Bertie (Claudia O’Doherty). Notice again that we are almost halfway through the season. Although Gus has begun to develop feelings for Mickey, he accepts the idea of dating Bertie.
Only by the end of the fifth episode (after a disastrous date between Gus and Bertie) do Mickey and Gus realize that they have great chemistry and that they should go out together. By now we see that the first five episodes were targeted at helping us understand the characters individually, before setting up the next five to develop Gus and Mickey’s romantic relationship. Arguably, it is during these final five episodes that the show gets most interesting, as the writing starts to explore the destructive and addictive tendencies of the titular “love.” The turns that these later episodes take are more powerful and surprising because the show builds slowly, delaying the more explosive and dramatic plot-driving moments.
Through this slow-burning pacing of the plot in order to allow character development— and the careful attention to showing the couple’s good, bad and nasty sides—we realize that they are not glossy, idealized partners: they are messed up, much like anyone else.
Mickey and Gus might not be the most likeable characters, but that is not the point. It’s not a story wherein the nerd wins over the heart of the beautiful girl with his whimsical charm. Love feels ground to reality, largely thanks to its unrushed and often indirect, wayward progression. The powerful performances by Jacobs and Rust bring life to these characters, and they do so by keeping things simple and true, not larger-than-life. They are portraying lives that seem real, an achievement made possible by the creators’ command of structure and willingness to slow down.