HBO Max’s new series sees Anna Kendrick in a show that compounds quirky millennial clichés around her onscreen talents.
Love Life uses the anthology formula we’ve seen before with shows like Hulu’s High Fidelity. Still, where Fidelity took the opportunity to say something about human relationships and gave its characters room to be messy, Love Life is a much more watered down variation. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its charms, though. It looks great, it’s evident that a lot of care and skill went into making the show, and Anna Kendrick leads a charming cast of characters.
There has been a slew of “the millennials guide to growing up” offerings lately, from Shrill to Netflix’s Someone Great and Set It Up to the aformentioned High Fidelity. There’s a lot here that some viewers will find relatable, even enjoyable. On the other hand, there is nothing new in another blandly quirky white woman managing to live in NYC on a series of jobs in the ambiguous art world while looking for love in the big city. Add to that a diverse (and frankly, more engaging) cast of supporting characters who the show shunts aside in favor of Kendrick’s Darby, and the result is more ho-hum than day-um.
But while it might go against the laws of the universe to dislike a character played by Kendrick, Darby never scratches deep enough to leave any marks. Instead, she is more of a caricature of the needy woman, someone Don Draper might dream up to sell pantyhose or Xanax. She’s the latchkey kid so desperate to be loved she allows her lovers, her friends, and even her mother to use her as a doormat.
These interactions wouldn’t be so frustrating if Darby were capable of having an honest conversation or moderately heated argument. She’s a people-pleaser almost to the point of masochism. Even more disappointing is how Love Life affectionately portrays Darby’s paramours, even as they’re trying to tell us these men are overgrown children and bad choices for her. (Scoot McNairy, who plays Darby’s ex-boss-turned-boyfriend Bradley in the second episode, gets a lot of loving closeups as he struggles with the emotional weight of having such a boring girlfriend.)
Bradley himself is a sketchy character, and yet he’s the one the viewer is relieved for when things with Darby finally implode. Maybe it’s McNairy’s brand of personable malingering that makes him more sympathetic than the would-be heroine of the story. It’s at this point that the voiceover—yes, there’s a voiceover, in case you forgot that this was all just a fairytale of New York—tells us, “It was so much easier to just drift away on the raft of Bradley’s life.”
And that’s what all of the flaws of Love Life boil down to: that Darby is not enough of a character and doesn’t have a real sense of self. There’s never a feeling of really knowing her. There are vague impressions, mostly through her interactions with her mother (Hope Davis) and her best friend and roommate, Sara (played marvelously by Zoe Chao). Still, those interactions are sketched so lightly they’re hardly visible. No one in this show ever feels three dimensional with the possible exception of Augie (Jin Ha), who we meet in the first episode when he’s a correspondent for Politico.
There’s real chemistry between Darby and Augie, an artless sort of honesty and desire that feels unforced and authentic. There are hints peppered throughout that imply things may not be over for the two, but even if he returns in the two episodes not available to critics, it wouldn’t be enough to course correct the eight or nine episodes without him.
It takes no real risks and, as a result, leaves no real impressions, only a vaguely vanilla aftertaste.
If showrunners Sam Boyd and Bridget Bedard had spent more time exploring Darby’s non-romantic relationships throughout the series, we might have gotten a better sense of who Darby is and why we should care about the workings of her inner life. The relationship between Darby and Sara is a particularly ripe offering left withering on the vine.
The most glaring error of Love Life is that there isn’t enough time spent with Sara and Mallory (Sasha Compere), both of whom Darby is living with for the first half of the series. Sara’s struggles with depression and substance abuse and Mallory’s life as a gay black woman would have given Darby’s misadventures in love more texture and weight. Just as Sex and the City could not have stood on Carrie Bradshaw’s story alone, Love Life would have benefited from spending less time grappling with Darby’s neuroses and more time watching her be a friend to the other women in her life.
While it’s challenging to feel this level of ambivalence for Kendrick (who executive produced the series along with Paul Feig), there may be some who find Darby’s life and search for love relatable, even fun to watch. Still, it’s neither accessible enough to enjoy the success of Sex and the City nor is it sufficiently niche to be the next Girls. It takes no real risks and, as a result, leaves no real impressions, only a vaguely vanilla aftertaste.
Love Life is now streaming on HBO Max.