“Okay, so what—I mean, should I just bail?” – Darby Carter in Episode 1 of Love Life, and also coincidentally me watching Episode 1.
I was ready to write-off HBO Max’s flagship series Love Life as a waste of my time. I had convinced myself that new streaming services are destined to fail with their flagship series (See: Apple TV’s The Morning Show, ugh.) Heck, I had even flagged the above quote for the purpose of describing my feelings about the show. However, no other new streaming television content was being dropped on May 27th (when the first three episodes of Love Life dropped) so I kept going. I mean, I had suffered through worse: HBO’s Camping, the last season of ABC/CMT’s Nashville, and for the sake of really harping on my point Apple TV’s The Morning Show. And, hey, I’m glad I actually stuck with Love Life because it was actually kind of insightful?
The very beginning of this straight-to-series anthology series was super interesting. Our narrator is Phantom Thread’s Lesley Manville! We’re going to learn love statistics through her narration! Look, here are some photos of diverse couples! The average person goes through seven relationships before they meet the “love of their life.” Okay. The average person falls in love twice during this time and also gets their heart broken twice during this time. I don’t know if that adds up, but sure! Show me more photos of conventionally attractive people, and maybe I won’t think too hard about that!
Enter our average person and heroine: Darby Carter a.k.a Anna Kendrick with bangs. She’s a recent NYU grad wearing a Fjällräven backpack, and working at an independent art gallery (that looks too much like the Brooklyn Museum) where she can say things to her boss like: “f*ck you” after he says things like “you’re giving a tour to a bunch of assholes from Gawker.” If that didn’t give it away, we’re not in 2020. We’re in 2012. And the biggest problem with the first episode is that it can’t figure out much past the fact that it’s set in 2012.
Is it a raunchy romantic comedy? Maybe. Darby’s right-hand woman and roommate Sara (Zoë Chao) says things like: “all I’m doing for Jim’s birthday is karaoke and a blowjob.”
Is it a twenty-something cautionary tale? Perhaps. When Darby divulges about Sara’s nightly drinking habits, she is asked if she considers Sara an alcoholic. “If we were older, maybe,” she replies.
It is just a massive 2012 throwback post? Most definitely. Between a karaoke duet of Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love” (which yes is a 2007 song, but got a notable cultural boost from its use in 2011’s No Strings Attached), a Friday Night Lights reference, wink-to-the-camera political moments like “can you imagine if Romney was president?”, and the aforementioned Fjällräven backpack, it’s a lot.
So the show is having a bit of an identity crisis, but who isn’t when they’re 22? Enter our first love interest and title character of the episode: Augie Jeong (Jin Ha)! He works for Politico, loves Obama, and is turned on by the fact that Darby played an ensemble cat in a high school production of Cats. But before all that, he makes Darby wait by her phone for four days before he texts her. If that isn’t a red flag, I don’t know what is, but…Darby sacrifices her self-worth for “love.”
They go on a date and quickly fall in love. Darby gets her montage of happy dates, Darby invites him to her boss’ wedding, and oh wait…he’s moving to D.C. for his job.
It’s like someone tipped in a bit too much rom-com sugar into this recipe. We have a Serendipity reference, a joke about rushing to the airport, star-crossed lovers separated by a great setback, and a useless best friend with great throwaway lines.
Augie moves away, says something sentimental about Cats before he leaves (which makes Darby the first person to cry over something Cats related), and she’s on her own again. Lesley Manville plays us out of the episode with her soothing voice and tells us that Darby’s life is going to be okay and she will meet “her person.” It just won’t come together the way she thinks it will. Cut to future Darby (sans bangs) who is pregnant and carrying groceries.
When Exactly Does it Get Better?
Honestly, Episode 2 (“Bradley Field”) is also kind of a wash. Darby dates that boss (Scoot McNairy’s Bradley) who she said “f*ck you” to in the last episode, but in a joking way. Yes, she went to his wedding in the last episode with Augie, but guess what? That was a year ago! People get divorced in a year! Every 36 seconds a couple gets divorced, according to Lesley Manville’s narration at the beginning of the episode.
It’s a weird mixture of Darby floundering in her life since she now doesn’t work due to a loss of funding with her former-boss-now-boyfriend’s former gallery. She takes a failed photography class and roommates Sara, Jim (Peter Vack), and Mallory (Sasha Compère) have some witty banter that isn’t really character-defining. Oh, and Darby also attends a supremely awkward funeral for Bradley’s father which leads to their ultimate demise because Darby says things like “his son is also a tit man!” in her drunken speech.
Episode 2 starts to hint at something interesting that Darby is doing, which is throwing herself into Bradley’s life instead of dealing with her own. She’s spending all her time at Bradley’s place, withdrawing from activities and relationships that challenge her, and not working on herself. As our narrator puts it: “it was so much easier to just drift away on the raft of Bradley’s life.”
That really got me for some reason. Had I thrown myself into someone else’s life when I wanted to avoid the hard parts of mine? Yeah. Love Life Episode 2 starts to ask these hard questions and starts to give Darby some deep-seated flaws to grapple with.
Darby (and Sara) are Actually Terribly Flawed People
Episode 3 (“Danny Two Phones”) begins the shift of the show into more of a character study of Darby. The show is at its best when its characters are allowed to be terrible and flawed, which in Episode 3 is often. Darby has casual sex with, and then lies to, Danny Two Phones (Dickinson’s delightful Gus Halper) about a planned move to…Cleveland the next week. And that’s the reason she can’t go on a date with you Danny Two Phones, sorry.
This all blows up in her face spectacularly when Danny shows up to the Whitney and confronts her about not being in Cleveland. (She works at the Whitney now but she’s still doing menial tasks like moving headphones between floors.) Also terrible is Sara, who ends up kissing a random man at the rooftop party (where Darby meets Danny Two Phones) during a game of spin-the-bottle (supposedly we’re 24 at this point—not 14—but I digress). The guilt of this leads her back into the arms of boyfriend Jim who is at a family member’s bris. But hey, she still loves Jim and wants to be in a long term relationship and have kids with him even though she kissed someone else, right?
To watch Darby—this character who so desperately wanted a relationship (and to be loved) just episodes ago—sabotage the potential of something real with Danny is somewhat mind-boggling. On the flip side, Sara—a flat character until now—does something equally mind-boggling when she cheats on Jim. These self-destructive choices are an indication of something deeper going on within both of them, and when Love Life gives even a hint of that it feels the most real.
Sitting across from my therapist last year, I grappled with something similar. There was this biting unhappiness within me that I was suppressing. It started coming out in certain self-destructive behaviours in my work and personal life when I wasn’t dealing with it, like this demonic alter-ego. My therapist said something along the lines of “your body will find a way for it to come out if you don’t deal with it.” And maybe this is that for Darby (and Sara): pushing (and drinking) away their feelings only to have them come out in the form of self-sabotaging behaviour.
Darby Goes to Therapy (After Getting Engaged and Buying a $2,000 Couch!)
“You know, Darby…I want you to reflect on what it is that makes you feel like you don’t deserve to be loved.” – Darby’s Therapist in Episode 5
Not one for lengthy periods of self-reflection, Darby finds a relationship to throw herself into a few months later. Darby’s new boo is a chef, beekeeper, and actor named Magnus Lund (Nick Thune). He’s funny! He has tattoos and “zero-to-sixty intensity” like Darby! Darby’s mom loves him! Things are going well in 2015-land…too well. Enter some behaviour my first therapist would’ve called “yellow flags.” Magnus has a large number of unopened bills, he disappears randomly, and is texting this girl Tiffany all the time instead of talking to Darby about his feelings. How’s he gonna rectify all this—therapy? Nah. He gets a tattoo of Darby’s name on his chest AND they get engaged. Perfect! What could go wrong?
Nothing. Darby just goes to therapy after buying a $2,000 couch (and accompanying living room set) which Magnus “stream rolled” her into buying (the therapist’s words, not mine).
Of course, the couch is really not the problem. The problem is Darby is so deeply scared of rejection that she becomes a pushover for the sake of being “loved.” Enter Episode 5 (“Luke Ducharme”) which finds us back with 2006 Darby (Courtney Grosbeck) at boarding school (her idea) complete with a pink Motorola RAZR. She recounts the experience to her therapist about her first love, Luke. And, this is where Love Life really comes into its own because it starts to ask why?
Why is Darby the way she is in relationships? Is it because of her parents’ divorce? Kind of, but not really. Is it because Luke Ducharme (Griffin Gluck) kissed her in secret during Thanksgiving and then acted like she didn’t exist? Kind of, but also not really. I could give you a Sigmund Freud “we are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love” to sort of defend what 2006 Darby next does but let’s state it first: after Luke Ducharme has sex with her roommate, Darby lies to her entire boarding school and says she has cancer.
For starters, this makes the Cleveland lie all the more interesting because this now establishes a pattern of behaviour. Love has been a painful thing for Darby and to protect herself from that pain she incites pity from those around her. When she doesn’t feel loved by her parents, she signs herself up for boarding school. When she doesn’t feel loved by Luke Ducharme, she tells everyone she has cancer.
This kind of leads her into a defence mechanism as an adult: when she feels love or compassion coming, she sabotages it for fear of pain. When Danny expresses interest in dating her, she says she’s moving to Cleveland. When her therapist expresses compassion for her and concern over her relationship with Magnus, she marries Magnus and doesn’t return to therapy.
Growing Pains (and Abdominal Pains!)
The next three episodes cover a lot: Darby gets her appendix taken out, finds healing in her relationship with her mother, divorces Magnus, switches jobs, and has an intervention with Sara because Sara is actually an alcoholic now that they’re older. (Oh, and her other former roommate Mallory is getting married, but like when has this show actually given Mallory any complex material? Sorry, Mallory.)
In each of these events, Darby has had to have a conversation that might have rendered her unlikeable. She has also had to advocate and face her pain.
This is most overtly stated in her final conversation with Magnus (in “Magnus Lund Part II”) who issues her the classic “I’m the best you’re ever going to do” and calls her “f*cking crazy” when she throws a bottle of tabasco at the white-brick fireplace. Anna Kendrick finally gets to flex her acting muscles in this scene when she nonverbally eats a sunnyside egg after throwing the tabasco. Each tiny piece of egg white so neatly cut with a fork, while her gaze towards Magnus cuts something different entirely.
It’s powerful acting and refreshing to see her character be assertive. Albeit, I’m sad that it took sleeping with adult Luke Ducharme (John Gallagher Jr.) to give her the courage to leave Magnus and realize that love is still out there. But I’ve had friends do exactly that, and honestly, I’ve almost done that. I wish more time was spent in this moment because it is a bit of a breakthrough for Darby. She’s not just leaving a toxic relationship, she’s recommitting to herself, and yet the only way she gets there is through a night (er, afternoon) with adult Luke Ducharme. Why must a person use a different person to get over a toxic person? It’s a power dynamic and flaw I wish was interrogated here.
Instead, more time is spent on the healing between Darby and her mother. I’m not an expert on Freud—I just had a therapist who was—but I know there’s some connection between how we experience love and how we were shown love. The episode (“Claudia Hoffman”) makes a semi-successful observation about the passing down of love through generations: how Claudia’s mother impacted the way she mothered Darby. It’s an important point and an apt observation to make in a show about love, but I do wish Darby’s father was also put under the microscope here. That being said, I’m happy Love Life had the courage to go there. I’m happy Darby has a resolution with her mother. I question the oversimplistic way in which that resolution leads her to feel almost “healed” (because in my experience it takes years of therapy) but this is a thirty-minute episode. I’m pleased that both women are able to grow from the experience.
Thanks-Jiming, a Baby, & a Wedding
The last two episodes don’t exactly pack a reflective punch, but enough happens plot-wise to finish it off. Darby sees Augie at Jim’s Thanksgiving party (Thanks-Jiming) and they quickly jump back into old habits. They’re back together, life is blissful! Until it quickly isn’t and Darby realizes they’re back to old habits and there’s a reason they shouldn’t be together. Maybe they want different things in their life? It’s cliché, but also real and painful and a part of dating someone in your 20s. You can love someone and your love Lego can still not fully click together in terms of what you want out of life individually.
Darby has a mature conversation with Augie, who is also feeling a lot of the same things and they break up super amicably! High-five, bro! Oh wait, I’m also having your baby.
I don’t love the whole baby used as a device to instill maturity into the character and to fast-forward their growth for the audience (Girls and The Mindy Project did it, too). But, hey, here comes the finale!
Darby has a baby now! It’s 2019! She’s going up the subway stairs and no one is helping her with the stroller! Augie is a decent co-parent but not like an amazing one! And she’s a full-time curator now who’s discovering obscure artists who have been unknown for decades! (Which feels exactly like HBO’s Divorce, but whatever!)
More importantly, Sara is getting married and Darby is going to get a night off because her mom is going to babysit! We haven’t met Sara’s fiancé yet and neither has Darby, and Darby also isn’t one of her bridesmaids, which is super weird. I guess this is an oversimplified friendships-change-in-your-late-20s statement.
Anyway, Sara is sober now (yay!) and only serving nonalcoholic beverages at her wedding. But, wait, who’s that handsome man at Darby’s table holding a flask? Well, it’s none other than Grant aka Mac in Hulu’s High Fidelity aka Kingsley Ben-Adir holding the flask. He passes it to Darby and it’s the beginning of a beautiful evening together, which turns into drinks at another place, which turns into drinks in Darby’s hotel room. But, wait! He can’t have Darby paying the minibar price for what’s actually a $30 bottle of Grey Goose, he must go to the store. Darby falls asleep when he’s gone and doesn’t get up when he knocks at the door. Hell yeah, girl! You don’t need a man, you need sleep!
But at the same time, is Darby exercising old coping skills? Is she pushing away love for fear of pain? Darby is a character that learns after consistent failure, which I think is so interesting because I’m that way too. I wish we could sit in this moment a little longer because there’s something to be said for growing not being a linear process. There are slip-ups and hiccups along the way that knock us back and this is part of that growth. But this is the last episode, so no such luck.
I was ready to write-off Grant until she runs into him at a bodega (looking super disheveled because she spent all of the previous night sleep training her baby with Augie). He pays for her bacon, egg, and cheese because—oh my god—she forgot her wallet. It’s all a little too cute, and Lesley Manville lets us know that Grant is actually “her person” in the long-run. She doesn’t feel transformed by being with him, she can just be herself. There is something nice in that thought, but maybe I’m just too cynical to really be there with it. Or maybe I feel—like the ending of Sex and the City—that the ending of Love Life betrays what the show was about.
We end on a shot of Darby taking off her stilettos, sitting on the ground, and drinking white wine out of a plastic cup. She’s alone at the gallery where she curated the exhibit of that artist that she discovered. They just had a successful opening night! And she did all that!
It’s not a revolutionary ending by any means. It lacks a lot of the insight and questioning into Darby (and relationships) that the show started to get at, and does feel like it has the beginning and ending of a modern romantic comedy. You know, the one where the girl is successful in her career first, but also has a man in the background (See: Isn’t It Romantic, Trainwreck, Always Be My Maybe).
But there’s also something to be said for the fact that Love Life had (a brief amount of) courage. It went through statistics, interrogated a decent amount of thoughts in me, and also let the lead character be really, really unlikeable (and flawed) at times.
Do I wish it had bucked the statistics? Talked about when they aren’t true? Yes. Do I wish it had interrogated the correlation between happiness and marriage more? Absolutely. (But it looks like Season 2 might actually do that.)
But overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how smooth a viewing experience this was. Like love in your early 20s: it was curious, confusing, fun, messy…and a little too naïve…but altogether worth it for the lessons that came out of it. Or the lessons that at least attempted to come out of it.