One thing that’s instantly striking about HBO Max’s rom-com anthology series “Love Life” is the exacting period detail for each year of the 2010s it depicts. When the show declares an episode is set in 2012, the iPhones and text messages actually look like they did in that exact year. This even extends to a 2006-set flashback episode where a pink Motorola Razr, chunk HP inkjet printer, and needle-drop to D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” conjure a period in time with stunning specificity. It’s rare to see something shot contemporaneously that also manages to have the veneer of a time capsule. If only creator Sam Boyd applied the same level of attention to the plot mechanics of his show at large.
Seeing old, familiar plot points and relationship dynamics does not hold the same exciting, nostalgic appeal. As both a modernization of the romantic comedy and a millennial odyssey through 2010s New York, “Love Life” treads well-worn ground without blazing a unique path for itself. Like most outings in the genre, it’s not without a fair share of charm to make the time enjoyable – although these pleasures stem largely from star Anna Kendrick and her earnest embrace of the middling material.
The dynamic screen presence of Kendrick provides a sturdy glue that holds together the show’s rough assemblage of clichés. At 34, she’s a tad too old to sell hapless twentysomething Darby Carter with much authenticity, though a cultural arrested development of the millennial generation helps stretch the plausibility just enough for the show to skate by. Still, she’s a recognizable and relatable ball of energy—if that energy is the self-doubt, self-absorption, and self-delusion that seems endemic to that period of time in life where one is neither someone’s child nor someone’s parent. But for most of “Love Life,” that energy is potential rather than kinetic. Darby remains largely static while a conveyer belt of stock boyfriend types speeds past her. Only in the backstretch of the season does she begin to show much in the way of movement, development or introspection.
Each episode of the show, with some variation sprinkled throughout, examines a different relationship in Darby’s twenties on her way to finding a soulmate (as the show hints she will find in the premiere). They usually begin as boilerplate encounters or introductions, only to get interesting when the honeymoon phase ends and leaves Darby to confront the lingering dissatisfaction—whether it’s with the campaign reporter (Jin Ha) who chooses work over her, an older ex-boss (Scoot McNairy) who provides stability as well as an in-unit washer/dryer, or an old boarding school flame (John Gallagher Jr.). Kendrick is at her best when futzing through uncomfortable or awkward situations, especially when she’s forced to communicate the feelings she has yet to develop a vocabulary to express. When the show leans into her talent with cringe comedy, it’s easy to get caught up in her romantic misadventures and forget some of the banality inherent in the situations.
But one of the show’s biggest issues is her personality void at the center since she’s defined primarily by her relationships to other people, specifically the men she dates. The creators attempt to compensate by drawing her as an avatar for an entire cohort of white, upper-middle-class young adults still trying to get their sea legs in a turbulent Gotham professional and dating scene. By making Darby a cipher for a larger population, “Love Life” winds up just making her generic. She does not have experiences so much as she represents them. The show tries to force what other decade-defining shows like “Girls” and “Broad City” arrived at organically.
The show underscores this insistence on capital-I “Importance” with heavy-handed narration by a removed, omniscient Lesley Manville. “Love Life” uses her not only to comment on something grander than the show but as a crutch to spoon-feed details that Kendrick, an Academy Award- and Tony-nominated actress, is more than capable of conveying through her performance. The narrator ebbs in prominence throughout the series, and it’s no coincidence that the better episodes make scarce use of the outside commentary. If ever there were an illustration of the value of “show, don’t tell,” this would be it.
The narrator is not the only part of “Love Life” giving the audience too much, though it’s certainly the most condescending element. The overall concept of the show feels stretched to paper-thin lengths in order to create a larger volume of streaming content for the fledgling streaming service HBO Max. While online platforms have revitalized the miniseries format and liberating many a novel from being compressed into the format of a two-hour movie, they’ve also led to a glut of stories getting needlessly expanded. Storytellers are left with no choice but to find a home on streamers given that major studios seldom finance romantic comedies anymore. But the freedom of this space comes with a hidden cost: extended durations exacerbate any structural deficiencies in the material.
A movie version of “Love Life” could handle subplots with Darby’s mother (Hope Davis) and her closest roommate Sara (Zoe Chao) – their third apartment-dweller Mallory (Sasha Compère) gets predictable and disappointing short shrift as far too many Black women and lesbian characters do – in just a quick scene. Here, their perfunctory arcs get full episodes to meander. Lost on some streaming series is the humble virtue of concision. Even though Boyd and the creative team have more time to use, that does not always mean they should luxuriate and dawdle. “Love Life” makes the mistake of conflating a greater quantity of insights with the quality of that information.
There’s merit in a television series taking the time to stand in place and observe the finer details of a character, relationship, or moment. But that unique value proposition for the medium vanishes for “Love Life” because there’s so little new to see in the first place. In many ways, it ends up resembling the nature of dating in the period it chronicles – seemingly endless options and varieties of romantic prospects but few opportunities for authentic, meaningful connection. [C-]
“Love Life” premieres alongside HBO Max’s launch on May 27.