“It’s funny, though,” says Gus Cruikshank. “When something like this is going really well, I get super nervous, like, ‘Oh, when is something bad going to happen and it’s all going to end?'”
This is the central tension in the relationship between Gus (Paul Rust) and Mickey Dobbs (Gillian Jacobs), and throughout Love, the Netflix comedy that chronicles their profoundly messy affair. When Gus, a people-pleasing screenwriter wannabe, and Mickey, a radio producer who’s a recovering sex addict and alcoholic, are clicking, their chemistry is so overwhelming that the rest of the world barely exists for them. And when Love (it returns for its second season on Friday; I’ve seen all 12 episodes) is depicting those moments of low-key coupled bliss, it’s an utter charmer.
But as Gus points out, it’s impossible to fully enjoy any moment they have together, because some mortifying faux pas is always just around the next corner, and he, she, and the audience are all painfully aware that what’s sweet is inevitably going to turn painfully sour.
That emotional anvil hanging over the heads of Gus and Mickey is what makes Love — created by Rust, his wife Lesley Arfin, and comedy mogul Judd Apatow — an ongoing series rather than a movie about the nerd who connects with the damaged beauty. And it’s what makes the show simultaneously fascinating and excruciating, a romantic comedy whose operating principle seems to be based on the famous Alfred Hitchcock line about how a bomb that explodes without warning in a scene offers 15 seconds of surprise, while a scene that begins with the audience seeing the bomb offers 15 minutes of suspense. In Love, we can always see the bomb long before Gus or Mickey do, and episodes often take me twice as long to get through than their 30-ish minute running time because I have to frequently pause to psych myself up for witnessing the explosion of humiliation that I know is coming.
Why subject myself to that level of discomfort again and again, in a series to designed to be watched in a concentrated burst of embarrassment-by-proxy? Because Gus and Mickey — and, for that matter, Rust and Jacobs — are so good together to make the awkwardness worth enduring. There’s an ease and specificity and charm to that relationship when it’s at its best that creates the feeling we’re just eavesdropping on two people enjoying a great day together in the City of Angels.
Season one ended in a fascinating place for the genre: Mickey and Gus broke up, she accepted that she needed to get help with her various addictions, and when she went to tell him about this epiphany, he kissed her. It was like an anti-romcom climax: a reunion between a couple who, at this moment, had absolutely no business being together. That wasn’t a mistake by the writers, but the whole point, and much of season two is devoted to Mickey struggling to balance her feelings for Gus with her desperate need for self-care.
In a bit of a meta comment from the heroine of a Netflix series, she tells a support group friend, “I don’t want to binge on him. I want to do this right for once.”
Season two’s also a bit more emotionally balanced between the two leads. Mickey is always going to be the more complicated figure — and Jacobs continues to impress with her vulnerability and emotional candor in the role — but there were times last year when Love seemed to be treating Gus as a sympathetic, if neurotic, man getting dragged into an emotional abyss by a woman he’s too good for. Late in that season, we started to get signs that Gus is no day at the beach, either — that he can be incredibly judgmental and co-dependent, and that he’s largely to blame for the sorry state of his professional and romantic lives. Season two smartly pulls even more on that thread, as Mickey begins to question Gus’s behavior as her sobriety cheerleader, and Gus has to confront the many flaws hidden beneath the nice guy armor he wears so proudly. The equation has moved from wondering why he puts up with her to wondering if either of them is healthy for the other. It’s a smarter, better combination, and the second season is much stronger all around.
Last year, Love was frequently guilty of Apatow-style storytelling at its absolute shaggiest, with one episode running 40 minutes and several others coming close. This year’s episodes feel a bit tighter overall, even though a few blow past the half-hour mark. Where it tends to drag the most are in the stories that have little to nothing to do with the central relationship. Mickey enduring the scorn and manipulation of her radio shrink boss Dr. Greg (Brett Gelman, who between this and Fleabag is really coming into his own as a comic villain who hides his malevolence under a clownish facade) — with whom she had sex last season as part of a misguided effort to save her job — works because it’s still a commentary on what she sees in Gus, whereas Gus’s day job tutoring a child actress (Iris Apatow) usually comes across as a separate, inferior show: all the embarrassment of the romantic material, with none of the emotional or comic highs. And the stories that focus on supporting characters work best when Gus and Mickey’s worlds are intersecting, like when his friend Randy (Mike Mitchell) dates her roommate Bertie (Claudia O’Doherty, whose joy is infectious).
Few series on TV lead me to question my continued desire to watch it the way this one does. Once, I thought it was because it was a fundamentally flawed show that just had a compelling relationship at its heart. It’s still not perfect, but the questionable viability of the whole thing now feels like part of the design. Gus fears disaster around every turn, and so do I, but when it works, it’s magic.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org