Despite its name, HBO Max, the new streaming service that launches next Wednesday, is not HBO. Yes, they’re both part of WarnerMedia, yes, HBO Max will feature HBO content including HBO’s defining series “The Sopranos,” and yes, HBO Max (at $14.99 a month) is aiming to be the classy HBO of streaming services among competitors such as Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon Prime.
But no, HBO Max is not HBO, and its first original scripted series, “Love Life,” is proof of that. While HBO curates with intellectuality (“Westworld”), invention (“High Maintenance”), intimacy (“Insecure”), and edge (“Euphoria,” “Barry”) in mind, “Love Life” indicates that HBO Max is going to be the home of more familiar and more easily binged originals. It’s latte versus drip. Not that there’s anything wrong with drip, and “Love Life” has its mild virtues for rom-com addicts who enjoy a good meet-cute every now and again. But the anthology show, starring and executive produced by Anna Kendrick, trades in tropes that are as overused on TV as the word “tropes” is in TV criticism.
The first season of “Love Life” is 10 half-hour-long episodes, and each future season (assuming the show is renewed) will track the romantic progress of a different person from first love until they find their true one (or don’t; only eight episodes were available for review). Kendrick’s Darby is the first subject, and she begins as a young woman who has a lot of Big Lessons About Love and Self ahead of her. In the manner, kind of, of Hulu’s “High Fidelity,” each half-hour zeroes in on one of Darby’s pivotal relationships, and what she learns from it. At times, months and years pass between episodes, so that the season seems to span almost a decade. We see Darby in relationships with a variety of different men including a big baby, a too-busy bee, and an older dude, all while she simultaneously pulls together her career as an art curator.
Suffice to say, the show gleefully fails the Bechdel Test (which asks, basically, if women talk to each other about something other than men), especially early on as Darby literally sits by the phone with her girlfriends waiting for a call back. (A painful scene, that one, delivered without irony.) There are points when it’s hard to root for her, as she makes bad choices and fails to pick up on obvious problems. When she attends the wake of her older lover’s father, she blathers on superficially and you want to shove a piece of grief casserole in her mouth. Also, Kendrick doesn’t always appear to have a handle on her character, who can be frustratingly bland at odd moments. Fortunately, as the season progresses, as Darby begins to get perspective on the importance of independence and grows less obsessed with finding a husband, she becomes more appealing — which, I guess, is the point.
The flatness of the plot turns, many of which recall the less sexual arcs in “Sex and the City,” is compensated, to some degree, by the characters and the actors surrounding Darby. Zoe Chao is a big plus as Darby’s friend Sara, who brings layers to the stereotype of the party girl sitting on a lot of sad baggage. As one of Darby’s boyfriends, Jin Ha (from “Devs”) is a standout, and so is Scoot McNairy as the older dude. Also, as Darby’s mother, Hope Davis is phenomenal — cruel, needy, nurturing, and more, all at once. Her presence goes a long way in explaining some of Darby’s blind spots and why she’s too eager to please her men. The only misfire is Sasha Compere as friend Mallory; Compere is fine, but the part is woefully underwritten.
One strange flourish is the voice-over narration, and not only because, like so many of them, it is largely unnecessary. For some reason, our guide through Darby’s love life is Lesley Manville, the English actress who was nominated for an Oscar for “Phantom Thread.” Is it supposed to add class to have a British accent in the forefront of the show? Or perhaps make it all seem like a magical fairy tale told by Mary Poppins? The accent may charm, but ultimately it can’t upgrade or add much distinction to the material, which is stubbornly garden variety.
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Zoe Chao, Sasha Compere, Jin Ha, Scoot McNairy, Peter Vack, Nick Thune, Hope Davis
On: HBO Max. Three episodes available on May 27, then one per week