Titles don’t come too much broader than “Love.” It’s the kind of name you could fit onto many, many TV shows, especially with the help of a little creative punctuation. For the straight-ahead “The Mindy Show,” the title could be “Love!” For the twisty “You’re the Worst,” it could be “Love?” For the synthetic “The Bachelor,” it could be “ ‘Love.’ ”
For “Love,” a warm, appealing new comedy from Netflix, I think I would alter the case and make it “love.” The show, created by Judd Apatow, “Girls” writer Lesley Arfin, and comic Paul Rust, is about the kind of ordinary love that’s built on mixed signals and awkward missteps. The love on “Love” develops clumsily and slowly between an unlikely pair over an extended time, that commodity that TV shows are swimming in. It’s definitely a love story between Rust’s Gus and Gillian Jacobs’s Mickey, but with the kinds of cringes and wrenches — this is Apatow country, after all — that discourage us from elevating ardor into an upper-case phenomenon.
The nice thing about “Love” is that the characters are as specific as the title isn’t. Gus is a geek with a wholesome streak, the kind of former Boy Scout who can deliver a sermon on the greatness of “Spaceballs.” His job is tutoring kids on the set of a bad teen TV drama about witches called “Wichita,” but the kids — one of whom is played by Apatow’s daughter, Iris — know how to push him around. Rust is endearing and very watchable, with an unusual face whose oval shape and long nose take on a rare grace. In one scene, he and his geeky pals invent theme songs for movies, and it’s sweet as can be. When we meet him, Gus is in an unhealthy relationship with a woman who can’t stand being with someone so gentle. She’s nasty to him, hoping he’ll stop saying “I love you” as often as he does. Once they break up early in the first episode, Gus needs to deal with the fact that he was attracted to a woman who didn’t appreciate his virtues.
Mickey, too, is with the exact wrong person. A party girl who has been very sloppy in love, she has found a coke freak who outdoes her in the dissolute department. Far less intelligent than she is, he is an ugly vision of her future. When they break up, Mickey is left wondering why she goes for men who mistreat her, why she thinks she doesn’t deserve someone nice. Jacobs, so wonderful on “Community,” makes Mickey’s flaws and her insensitivities seem human and forgivable. A producer for a satellite radio psychologist (Brett Gelman) who has a crush on her, Mickey is moody and sometimes nasty but consistently sympathetic. Her new roommate, Bertie, is one of the show’s best supporting characters, a lovably cheery Australian played superbly by Claudia O’Doherty. At one point, as she fights her attraction to Gus, Mickey sets up Bertie and Gus on a date that is fantastically agonizing.
Gus and Mickey are a bit like an LA version of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall,” as they come from very different places socially and culturally, and as they challenge each other’s weaknesses. He needs to be more assertive and confident like her, she needs to find humility and honesty like him. In a way, “Love” is about niceness — how Gus needs to be less indiscriminately nice; how Mickey needs to be nicer to others and to herself; how niceness in general is essential to successful human relationships, except when it’s fake.
None of this common-themed show would work very well without the right couple at the center, and Rust and Jacobs pull it off beautifully. They have loads of chemistry in spite of their superficial differences. The question that hovers over the show isn’t “Will they get together?” We basically know they will. The real question is “Can the show bring them together in a believable way that makes their connection seem natural?” I vote yes.
Starring Gillian Jacobs, Paul Rust, Claudia O’Doherty, Brett Gelman, Dave Allen, Steve Bannos, Iris Apatow, Jordan Rock, Chris Witaske, Chantal Claret, Charlyne Yi.
On Netflix, available FridayMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.