Binge-watching, unlike the binges of gluttons and addicts, has positive associations. When a TV show is described as bingeable, it is a compliment. The idea that binging is something one does when a show is good, and not just something one does when a show is good enough, is the foundation upon which Netflix has built its heady reputation. But most binge-watchers know from experience that the available is as easy to devour as the excellent. As with eating and drinking all but the rankest stuff, the very act of guzzling stories is intrinsically pleasurable, so we do it more indiscriminately than it is flattering to admit. We consume fresh bread and stale chips, good wine and flat soda, great television and time-passing junk. But the analogy between television and comestibles breaks down the more we imbibe: the more middling television one guzzles, the better it tastes, not worse.
Love, a new 10-episode Netflix series about two seemingly unsuited people who begin a relationship, arrives in bingeable form this Friday, a perfect example of an OK show that gets better the more of it you watch. Gillian Jacobs stars as Mickey, a charismatic, alcoholic mess, and Paul Rust as Gus, a high-strung nerd who seems like he’s a “40-year-old 12-year-old” (he’s 31). She thinks he’s the nice guy who might help her get her life together; he thinks she’s the cool girl he’d be lucky to land, but neither of them is quite the alluring stereotype they assume the other to be. The plot of the show, such as it is, involves the two learning each other’s complications as they barely begin to date, in protracted fits and starts.
Love was created by Lesley Arfin and Rust, who are married in real life, and executive-produced by Judd Apatow, who also co-wrote a number of episodes. Arfin was a writer on Girls (and may be best known for an ill-advised tweet defending Girls’ lack of diversity), which is presumably how she knows Apatow, an executive producer of that show. Love has similarities to Girls, but they are stronger on paper than in feeling. Both shows explore the quotidian lifestyles of urban white people and feature a female character with selfish, cringe-inducing tendencies, but Love has a stronger sitcom flavor. Love, to steal a phrase from Jill Soloway’s writers’ room, is very much a traumedy, but it has less anthropological verisimilitude than Transparent and less anthropological satire than Girls. Tonally, it is a bit closer to You’re the Worst, FX’s great comedy that is also about love between dysfunctional people, but more meandering and less concerned with laughter.
We meet Mickey and Gus when they are in failing relationships that synopsize their respective flaws: Mickey, who is from Jersey, is having ill-advised sex with her coke-addict ex who lives with his mom and isn’t even cute. Gus, who is from South Dakota, is smothering his girlfriend with kindness, passive-aggressively trying to keep her close with sweetness, so she cheats on him. (He’s the goofy version of Girls’ Charlie, Marnie’s ex, who, at the show’s start, suffocated her with his devotion.) Mickey is such a forceful personality that her boss at a radio call-in show—a man she will sleep with in a few episodes, just so he can’t fire her without risking a sexual harassment suit—has her ax an employee, which she does from an Uber. Gus is so mild-mannered that the child actress he tutors (played by Apatow’s younger daughter, Iris) easily pushes him around.
Love’s first episode is its weakest, which hardly matters because the show is on Netflix. (Netflix has proved that first episodes are bad not just because of the extended rigmarole that is the network pilot process, but because they are hard. Master of None’s first episode was also its worst.) It’s so easy to watch another episode, viewers will probably do so despite the first being a schematic and familiar character sketch capped by an unforgivable almost-threesome in which two college girls temporarily proposition Gus because he seems nonthreatening. Love may be created by a woman, but somehow the gorgeous Gillian Jacobs’ character keeps screwing perfectly-fine-looking-for-a-regular-person guys, while the majestically beaked Paul Rust keeps getting propositioned by super-hot-because-they-are-really-actresses women. A little eye-candy reciprocity does not seem so much to ask.
The plot of all 10 episodes could easily be contained in one episode of another show (the first episode of You’re the Worst, for example). Mickey and Gus don’t even set eyes on each other until the end of the first episode; she doesn't even consider him romantically until the end of the fifth episode; and two days later, in Episode 9, they’re on the rocks. The slow unfurling of action leaves lots of time for Mickey and Gus to become more than the caricatures they first seem to be. Jacobs is excellent as Mickey, consistently underplaying a reckless woman who often does things that are over the top. Her Mickey is both shiny and sad, appealing and self-sabotaging. Gus, for all his Midwestern manners and tendency to arrive everywhere too early, has some swag; he’s comfortable enough with himself to have fun wherever he goes, be it a party full of strangers or a date with a woman who is not into him. (One of the best things about Love is that it doesn’t treat niceness like some dull, drippy quality. Mickey’s scene-stealing Australian roommate, Bertie [Claudia O'Doherty], and Gus are both considerate, kind people and, in Bertie’s case especially, that positive attitude is presented as admirable and uncanny.)
Love improves as it goes on, but that is almost like saying that Love improves because there is more of it. Love ultimately features two psychologically complex characters, which is no small accomplishment. But in this, the show gets an assist from binge-watching itself—a style of viewing that encourages audiences to invest in the characters as people, regardless of how little artistry surrounds them. It’s like being told a story, any story: At a certain point, you just want to know what happens next. If Love aired every week, you could take it or leave it. But Netflix makes it so easy to watch three episodes in one sitting that it’s tempting to keep plowing forward on the force of curiosity alone—just how are these crazy kids going to get together? Binge-watching provides a show without much plot all the necessary momentum. By the time you stop hurtling forward, you’ve already seen it all.