Love in the Era of Netflix

Why filmmakers like Apatow are finding greener pastures in the medium of television...

Mainstream comedic film is in an extremely stale state. Today, it seems the trend is to pair talented improvisers with a hackneyed script and a point-and-shoot director in hopes the performances of actors can levy the rest of the film to a watchable standing. In many ways, this trend is a bastardization of Apatow’s brand. His films like The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up are heavily reliant on improvisation, but also have a well crafted narrative, character depth and heart, that these derivatives (Horrible Bosses, Sisters, and Date Night being some of the more successful recent examples) are sorely lacking. Even Apatow’s last two directorial efforts, This Is 40 and Trainwreck, succumbed to much of the laziness plaguing these offshoots.

Love’s style has some of what has become known as Apatow’s signature trademarks, albeit in a way that feels more “indie.” Its naturalistic dialogue, occasional casting of non-professional actors, and semi-autobiographical nature – co-creators Rust and Arfin are married and have stated that the events of the series are at least somewhat indicative of their relationship’s genesis firmly establish the series  within the mumblecore scape of filmmaking. This subgenre, which used all of these techniques as a way to cope with the inherently low budgets of amateur filmmaking, could in many ways be seen as the independent counterpart to the rise of Apatovian comedy in the mid-late 2000s. This isn’t the first time Apatow has noted mumblecore’s appeal, either. Before Lena Dunham created the Apatow-produced Girls, she was considered a fixture in the scene, with her film Tiny Furniture among the most famous examples of mumblecore.

As a romantic comedy, Love plays off of both its adherence to and subversion of the genre’s tropes as it follows the dawn of a relationship between Gus (Paul Rust) and Mickey (Gillian Jacobs). Upon first glance, these characters are rom-com cliches down to a T: Gus is the dorky “nice guy” who inexplicably gets the noticeably more attractive and zany Manic Pixie Dream Girl-type, Mickey.  It doesn’t take long for the narrative to engage with this convention and for the audience to realize it’s doing so. Gus’ proclaimed “niceness” is constantly confused for his passive-aggressiveness, as he often plays the victim, feeling like the world is against him. Meanwhile, Mickey’s aloofness and non-conformity masks her fear of commitment and her substance abuse. Developing these characters to have obvious flaws adds an interesting dimension to Love, the occasional stilted dialogue notwithstanding.

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Paul Rust (left) and Gillian Jacobs (right)

Where Love falters is at its reliance on the viewer to be sympathetic towards the characters’ more unlikeable actions. There’s nothing wrong with exploring the more unsympathetic facets of the human condition – in fact, it’s one of modern televisions defining traits. It’s when Love expects the viewer to side with a protagonist simply because they are a protagonist that it all starts to feel a little ham-fisted.

While Love does adhere to conventions of the typical romantic comedy, which Apatow and most of Hollywood followed throughout the 2000s, the way in which the characters drive this series is a bit different.  In most romantic comedies, only one protagonist is wholly exposed for the audience’s viewing, while a counterpart is implemented on a set of narrative beats to further the plot. With Love, each half of the relationship shares character rank, screen time, as well as the audience’s admiration.  Both Mickey and Gus live their own fully formed lives outside of the relationship that they share—developing a series of intertwining narratives.  This makes their relationship feel far more organic when compared to Love’s filmic doppelgangers as neither the man, nor the woman is solely a narrative device engaged when a scene comes to a close or when there’s a plot point to be realized. This style of closely following each half of an advancing relationship  was explored in a similar capacity in Judd Apatow’s 2007 romantic comedy Knocked Up—a piece that could be seen as a prototype of this shared narrative format. Some viewers may argue that the story belongs to Katherine Heigl’s female protagonist, Alison, while others may affirm that the story is told via the perspective of Seth Rogen’s Ben, the father of Alison’s unborn baby. Both characters are equally developed and share more or less equal screen time, but the viewer’s perception of what a romantic comedy is – usually female-oriented if not female-fronted, may skew their take on the film. Love takes on this same equal character dichotomy as Gus is as fully formed an individual as is Mickey.

Love also takes full advantage of the television series format. As far as pacing goes, Love is slow and methodical. Almost every step of the way, the show makes sure to note that the character’s motives are determining the plot rather than the other way around.  This warrants some degree of unpredictability. The formula of the modern romantic comedy is so predictable that a viewer could detect what’s going to happen upon viewing the poster. Mickey and Gus, however, subjugate the narrative. Instead of using 10 half-hour (give or take) installments to explore a relationship beyond the scope of what a single 90-120 minute long piece can, Love instead chooses to put a fine point on the intricacies of the early phases of a relationship. The characters don’t meet until the end of the first episode, their first kiss doesn’t happen until episode five, etc. Love uses the extra time and serialization of television to chronicle the minutiae of everyday life and how falling for a person affects (or doesn’t affect) someone’s perception of everyday regularities. This works more often than not, watching facets of these characters’ lives change and stay the same can be very rewarding, but on the same token, there are boring parts to meeting a new person, and Love occasionally includes these truisms.

Love makes a point of giving both protagonists equal focus

As a Netflix series, the entire first season of Love was dropped on the service wholemeal, ready for a binge watch. A television series going straight-to-binge— a fairly recent innovation, starting with House of Cards’ premiere in 2013 – has changed how viewers perceive and discuss these shows. A show being watched by viewers weekly capitalizes on a fostering of discussion and letting plot points ruminate, while a show designed for a binge-watch is either a solitary experience or that of a competition. Often viewers feel compelled to watch an entire season over the course of one of two days to keep up with friends or the internet. Love exposes the flaws and advantages to this change in discourse. On one hand, perhaps it might be better to view the first months of Mickey and Gus’ relationship in a more real-time manner via week-by-week consumption. On the other, having the entire season at disposal allows a viewer to look at a season as one body of work.

Love might not mark a new wave in television, but it is a solid representation of its current trends. By assessing the freedoms allotted by a multi-episode presentation: a variety of directors, the potential for several seasons, and releasing an entire season on its premier date are all equally valued elements of streamable contemporary television. It is a direct authorial statement from its creators, and in being one notes the pros and cons of making a television series as opposed to a movie. As a Netflix series, it shows how the service has created an environment that allows for a skewing of the status quo, warts and all.

Images Via Apatow Productions