Judd Apatow has been trying to figure out what love is about for years, and in 2016, he’s studying it through two series on two very different platforms. “Girls” is in its fifth season on HBO, and the first season of “Love” was released on Netflix last month. They share the irreverent, often bleak tone of many other Apatow productions, and the reactions to the series have been similarly mixed, but there are distinct differences between the two that reflect more than the diverse interests of Apatow and the artists he works with.
“Love,” created by Apatow, Lesley Arfin, and Paul Rust (who also stars), feels like a film, and apparently it was originally intended to be one. What it gains from being a series is the ability to slow down to near-real time, especially in the first two episodes, during which you may occasionally find yourself assuming we’ve jumped ahead a few hours but then discover that it really has been exactly five minutes. Because it’s not a film, “Love” is in no rush to get to the point. This also fits with the format – Netflix, where the best shows give you just enough in each episode to keep you watching for half a day.
But the format doesn’t just make for a more meditative experience; it contributes to the style and tone of the show. “Love” is stark, slow, and painfully awkward – worse, often, than real life. As a series, it can meander and linger and repeat itself. Because it’s on Netflix, however, it has to accommodate binge-watching, and this means that it has to have some of the continuity and movement of a film, or watching it all at once just wouldn’t work. The effect of the combined pacing of an unrushed series and a movie that builds to a climax gives “Love” a sense of immediacy and even gravity. It can be unsettling to settle so fully into every terrible, uncomfortable moment, but we always feel as if we’re moving towards something. (This feeling is almost certainly reinforced by the show’s name).
“Girls,” on the other hand, is playing the long game. Where “Love” feels self-contained and it’s hard to say how it could benefit from a second season, this season of “Girls” has the confidence of an established show with long-term storylines and a knowledgeable audience. It’s not a study so much as a forward-moving story – not aiming for a particular goal so much as a future. At this point, this makes it feel more hopeful than “Love” and even its own previous seasons. Three episodes into the fifth season, some situations have already turned out surprisingly well, like Marnie’s wedding (ill-advised as it may be), whereas on “Love,” everything goes unbelievably wrong every time: cell service goes out, work goes late, women show up to the protagonist’s parties all at once or not at all, etc. “Girls” has matured to the point where viewers can enjoy watching it rather than wonder how much discomfort and complaining they can take in one sitting.
“Girls,” disturbing as it can be, shows us with new pairs Adam and Jessa and Hannah and Fran that there’s always a chance things will work out. The final scene of the last episode of “Love,” a clever, upsetting twist on the typical Big Kiss moment, makes one wonder if it’s even worth bothering. Is the first season of “Love” meant as an introduction to a show that gradually becomes something subtler and less relentlessly distressing? Or are its makers taking an opportunity to give a deeply pessimistic perspective on romance?
And what does this say about people, particularly the protagonists we’re meant to identify with (to some degree)? “Girls” and “Love” both reflect Apatow’s penchant for adult characters who might as well be children. “Girls” is, notably, more focused on female characters, and these characters do grow over time – while “Love” mostly follows Gus, a man and a subject who so far is utterly hopeless in terms of growth. He’s so destructive, in fact, that he manages to exacerbate his love interest’s already dangerous issues by cutting her off before she’s even able to attempt to try something different. The final scene of the season sums it up: Mickey tells Gus that she’s finally decided to focus on herself, and it’s a heartening, cathartic moment – until Gus kisses her, taking everyone back to square one.
We’ll have to wait and see if Gus ever grows up (allowing Mickey to do the same). For now, viewers of “Love” are left with that strange, Netflix-induced feeling of intimacy with and grief for characters in a series, the feeling that comes from consuming these people’s stories in one or two sittings and knowing that there’s more to come, after a long wait. If they’re in need of comfort, maybe they can try (strangely enough) tuning in to “Girls” every week, to get a smaller – and somewhat hopeful – dose of dysfunction.