Just when you thought there couldn’t possibly be anything left to mine from stories about overly romantic 20-somethings looking for love in New York City, HBO Max comes along with Love Life, a new TV show starring Anna Kendrick as love-hungry protagonist Darby Carter, which is part of the first wave of original content offered by the nascent streamer.
Love Life is borderline appalling in its familiarity. Very much a “watch a white woman try to find love in New York City while finding yourself” in the vein of Sex and the City, Girls, The Bold Type, and numerous movies, almost every trope imaginable is present and accounted for. You want two best friends of color there to mentor our white heroine through her love rollercoaster? Check and check: Their names are Zoë Chao and Sasha Compère and they play Darby’s BFFs Sara and Mallory, respectively. You want a withholding mother and lovably daffy dad, both of who are poor role models for strong, stable partners? Check and check, again, as Darby’s divorced parents are played by Hope Davis and James LeGros. Does Darby have some weirdly specific, lucrative job that literally nobody has, especially in the Big Apple? Of course she does — she works in the art world and nearly always employed in her chosen field! Add in a ridiculously #GoalsMaterial apartment and a string of love interests in extremely familiar flavors (down-to-earth intellectual; wealthy entrepreneur; high school fling who could be a new sweetheart; wildly romantic but flaky bad boy…) and I can already feel you bracing for the worst.
And yet, somehow, some way, Love Life avoids being a genre-reliant retread or wimpy conglomeration of plot points from better movies or shows. Perhaps that’s thanks to co-showrunners Sam Boyd (In A Relationship) and Bridget Bedard (Transparent, Ramy), who have experience on smart, critically well-reviewed projects. Maybe it’s down to the writing on all 10 episodes or very keen and enticing table-setting in the pilot directed by Boyd. Maybe Love Life is good and watchable because of Kendrick re-teaming with her A Simple Favor director, Paul Feig, and Someone Great‘s Dan Magnante, all of whom serve in executive producer capacities. Perhaps credit should be equally spread around. Not matter which way you slice it, it’s evident from the first seven episodes I was able to screen the team behind and in front of the Love Life cameras is a shrewd one keen to freshen up a very familiar premise.
First thing’s first: Yes, Kendrick is very good as the hero of this piece. The Pitch Perfect star has always had a way of bringing a sarcastic bite to her performances without it seeming overly affected or try-hard, and this is exactly the case with her performance in Love Life. As you watch, you begin to see what lies behind the walls Darby has put up around herself through failed relationship after failed relationship after failed tryst, which means Kendrick really has to bring it when expressing those tender, fragile parts of Darby’s heart. In this task, Kendrick excels. In this actor’s hands, Darby is never grating or silly or wimpy or frustrating. Instead, Darby is immediately recognizable as — at least, in my case — the kind of precocious Millennial 20-something who knows exactly what they want but has absolutely no idea how to get it. Instead, Darby stumbles through the romantic wilderness of New York City, occasionally finding good guys but often finding the wrong guy. Every man Darby takes up with is eerily familiar, whether you’ve dated a guy like the one she dates or have simply observed from afar, making this Love Life protagonist’s Season 1 arc are the more relatable.
Also, as far as performances go, it would be egregious not to give a major shout-out to Chao, who succeeds above and beyond what we’d expect out of the traditional best friend archetype in this kind of story. As the season progresses, Chao’s BFF Sara becomes more and more integral to Darby’s story. With every romantic twist Sara endures, Chao’s playfulness and soulfulness shines through. Paired onscreen with Kendrick, these two make for a hell of duo.
The twists, turns, and complications which arise as Darby searches for the one person she can settle down with (and luckily, blessedly, the premiere episode gives us a good reason to believe she will succeed in finding “the one”) help break with expectations and keep you hooked. The season is cut into chapters, with each episode named after the person Darby is dating or, as we see later in the season, a person whose relationship to Darby is undergoing profound and transformative growing pains which illuminate within Darby a part of herself she needs to work on in order to become the person ready to accept the kind of love we see she deserves. This, in combination with Kendrick anchoring the show in a reliably strong, seemingly effortless performance, makes Love Life is both a breezy, bingeable watch as well as a worthwhile viewing endeavor.
A note from HBO’s press materials teases a vision of more seasons to come, revealing how Love Life “will follow a different protagonist’s quest for love each season, with each half-hour episode telling the story of one of their relationships.” This first season from Love Life is a promising start as it takes what we know and freshens it up just enough to keep your finger hovering over the mousepad or remote so you can hit the “Next Episode” button. For these same reasons, Love Life‘s inclusion in the first wave of HBO Max original programming is a smart one. Potential subscribers looking for something comforting and escapist will have a damn good time digging into Love Life and current subscribers will feel as if they’re stumbling onto a gold nugget of goodness amidst the streamer’s vast library of titles.
The first three episodes of Love Life premieres on Wednesday, May 27 on HBO Max. New episodes will then be released every Thursday afterward.