Created by Sam Boyd
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Zoe Chao, Peter Vack, Sasha Compere
Streaming Service: HBO Max
There’s a lovely, gentle observational poignancy to Sam Boyd’s HBO Max series Love Life that proves irresistible.
At ten episodes, most of which run for thirty minutes, it’s a depiction of a life through the prism of romantic pursuit and manages to be simultaneously intimate and yet quietly epic at the same time.
Backed by a brilliant Lesley Manville narration (all of life should come with a Lesley Manville narration) that gives the series a sense of scope that maybe, just maybe, the events being depicted are part of some larger story, the series places its focus on central character Darby and the tribulations and dramas that greet her on the way to meeting that old standby from so many romantic comedies and dramas, ‘the one’.
Yet, ‘the one’ concept is a MacGuffin, and by no means the sole focus of the series. The history of romantic comedies is filled with stories about lead female characters that go through life convinced that they will never really be happy until they meet the man of their dreams. Heteronormative conventions state that it will always be a man that these characters are seeking. For five seasons we watched Ally McBeal deal with believing that she would never be happy unless she felt she was on the cusp of settling down with the personification of the perfect male partner, while across three books and subsequent movie adaptations, we watched Bridget Jones do the same thing.
Love Life threatens to fall into the same trap, and while the eventual destination of this first season is an episode entitled ‘The Person’, Darby is never really a character questing for a soulmate or ‘the one’. Many of the teleplays here present delicate romantic dramas that are stops on an eventual road, but Darby is never a character whose sole function in life to be happy with a husband and children. It’s too smart for that and the series treats her character as someone with ambitions beyond settling down.
Yes, a ‘Prince Charming’ shows up in the final episode, Darby has a child, but as its gorgeously crafted final image indicates, settling down with ‘the one’ isn’t the be all and end all of Darby’s journey.
That Darby is played by Anna Kendrick means two things; that this is a series launching a new streaming service (also see Noelle on Disney + and Dummy on Quibi) and the audience is very much going to be mostly on her side even when mistakes are being made by the character.
A charming screen presence no matter what she is appearing in, Kendrick has a frequent ability to be able to take the audience by the hand no matter the subject matter or material; the world of a capella college bands, finding ways to remove people from employment, or being best friends with a couple where one half is a vampire who sparkles in the sunlight.
Kendrick carries every episode wonderfully, bringing to life a character who is likeable yet flawed, complex but never falling into a trap whereby the audience comes to dislike her. She straddles a line between being lovable yet fallible, flawed yet never anti-heroic, capable of making the wrong decisions, but dealing with them in ways that never alienate the audience.
The series has a gloss to it like so many streaming service productions nowadays, but that gloss never overtakes any sense of emotional realism that rears its head throughout each of these ten perfectly crafted teleplays.
Romantic comedy dramas in the style of Love Life feel like they are seldom ever made anymore for the big screen, and with a bombardment of bigger budgeted spectacle having effectively replaced adult flavoured stories that put character, humour and drama front and centre, television has become a home for wonderful little stories like the one on offer here.
There is a danger with a series like this that Darby might fall into the frequent trap of entitlement simply because she is the lead character of a television series, one where her own story comes at the expense of everyone else’s, particularly the diverse supporting cast that makes up her best friends, but the teleplays here walk a nicely fine line where the focus is on Darby, but she shows genuine concern for those around her.
One of the most affecting ongoing plot lines involves best friend Sara (Zoe Chao) and her increasing dependence on alcohol and drugs, behaviour that peaks after the break-up of her relationship with Jim (Peter Vack) during a bachelorette weekend where her behaviour spirals further out of control.
After seven episodes of following Darby on a trail of relationships that peter out, including a failed marriage, the eighth episode shakes up the paradigm of the show by focusing on her friendships and the heartache that comes from watching Darby have to handle a troubled friend that is incapable of helping herself.
The series never becomes too maudlin thankfully and has a happy ending for everyone involved, and better yet, it never falls into the trap of having Darby’s discovery of ‘The Person’ in the finale be the final note of the story. That comes in the shape of a lovely final image that suggests the most important person in anyone’s story is themselves, their journey and their own ability to find a spot in the world that is theirs, but one they can share with someone that falls into the spot known as ‘the one’.
It brings Love Life to a lovely conclusion. More please.
Love Life is available to stream on HBO Max in the U.S and on BBC iPlayer in the U.K.