You may think you’ve seen HBO Max‘s Love Life already in countless permutations, and you might even believe that you’ve seen a few of these variants (Girls, Sex and the City, Insecure) on HBO. That assumption might even persist for a few episodes, but as the Anna Kendrick-led, romantic-dramedy series continues to unfold, Love Life evolves into a complex affair. Yes, we’re watching another young New Yorker looking for love in almost every wrong place. This protagonist, Darby, is also one of those 20-something New Yorkers who happens to live a life that resembles a lot of romcom heroines (good job, nice apartment). She pushes through disastrous relationships with all the wrong men while supportive presences float in and out of the frame. The set-up certainly feels familiar, but somehow, the show still feels novel in many ways.
Feeling fresh is a tricky balance to achieve. Yet there’s a hell of a lot of talent involved, both in-front-of-and-behind the camera, with Love Life. It also happens to be an interesting choice for HBO Max to slide into their first wave of original offerings that are timed to the streaming service’s launch. Will original shows weigh into people’s choice to pay for HBO Max (if they’re not rolled in through existing subscriptions)? That’s tough to say because the 10,000+-titled library will also get people in the door. Yet follow-up moves will grow more competitive for the Netflix and Disney+ rival, including the decision to release the nerd-divisive “Snyder Cut” of Justice League. And first impressions matter a lot, so Love Life has a large burden to shoulder, much like Darby, who the show follows for a decade, almost like a case study. (See, the title makes sense in that context.)
“Case study” sounds sociological, but it fits here and is treated almost tongue-in-cheek from the start with very British narration from Lesley Manville. This feature is also the one of the stranger aspects of the show. I don’t know if this ended up being an Inglourious Basterds-type of deal where Samuel L. Jackson actually narrated much of the film, but then his part got cut back (for runtime’s sake) to a few interludes. That may have happened here to crop things down to “comedy” length. All I can conclude there is that the narration is inconsistent and maybe the most pretentious and “off” aspect of this show. Somehow not pretentious, though? Scoot McNairy with a martini.
Scoot portrays Bradley, who I cannot reveal too much about, other than to say that he’s a slightly older man to Darby and a successful entrepreneur. As an artist, McNairy must have enjoyed lighthearted subject matter after the heavy stuff he’s done lately (True Detective, Narcos: Mexico), but Love Life is very much the type of show that you’d expect from Kendrick playing a protagonist. I don’t even say that because she’s done a lot of romcom-ing. Rather, she’s both an Oscar and Tony-nominated actress, and her presence here — sweet but also with an acerbic edge — along with the scripts, elevate this project from simply being “somewhat damaged Caucasian woman seeks love.” Kendrick’s presence acts as an anchor while the show’s players swirl around Darby, each of them (often inadvertently) helping her navigate difficult transformations in life. Kendrick weathers the bumpy ride in a way that feels, well, natural. And relatable.
Again, the writing is sharp, with several scripts from co-showrunners Sam Boyd (In A Relationship) and Bridget Bedard (Ramy). Each half-hour episode covers an astounding amount of ground as Darby fixates upon a different formative relationship — during which she experiences varying degrees of love — within her life. It’s escapism, sure, but there’s a lot of truth here. There are moments within Love Life that feel too close-to-home, when we get the classic feeling of “if Anna Kendrick can’t find happiness, what hope is there for the rest of us?” Fortunately, those are fleeting flashes. And since this season follows an anthology-inside-an-anthology structure, each episode takes the name of a particular love interest, family, or friend in Darby’s life. Several of these relationships last quite awhile, but some men float right in and out of there.
As the season progresses, we learn more about Darby’s background and why she is how she is, and how she must choose what kind of person to be. Given what we find out about her history, this is far easier said than done, and no shortcuts exist. Settling down with a romantic interest for the sake of settling down is a mistake that a lot of people make and never move past. Yet within Darby’s journey, we see honest-to-god growth, as mistakes are made, sometimes repeatedly, and lessons are learned.
The cast is appealing, especially when it comes to Zoë Chao, as Darby’s best friend, Sara. She’s a trainwreck, but a lovable one, and she fiercely supports Darby (and vice versa) in a manner that’s far beyond the stereotypical BFF in these type of stories. Beyond that, we see an array of love interests slide in and out of (and back into) Darby’s life: Jin Ha is Augie, an intellectual with wanderlust; John Gallagher appears as a high-school crush who’s all grown up; and Nick Thune, well, he plays the probably-too-good-to-be-true guy. All contribute significantly to Darby’s ultimate development. Still, this is overall lighthearted fare, so the series does gently bat around romcom tropes, while outcomes are grounded in reality, striking a nice balance. Other than the odd narration, Love Life is very watchable and a fine start for HBO Max Originals.
The first three episodes of ‘Love Life’ premiere on May 27 with the launch of HBO Max.