The romantic comedy Love debuted on Netflix in the winter of 2016. With the release of its third and final season, the series chronicling the courtship and coupling of Mickey Dobbs (Gillian Jacobs) and Gus Cruikshank (Paul Rust) clocks in at 34 episodes that, given their half-hour (give or take) run time, could all be consumed in less than a day. Given all that expansion and compression of time, and the way the series—created by the husband-and-wife team of Rust and Lesley Arfin alongside Judd Apatow—magnifies and spaces out the typical rom-com beats, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that Love depicts a very brief period in the life of its protagonists. “Five, six months,” Mickey measures it in the third season’s second episode, laying out a sequence of events that underlines how Love has been able to construct the illusion of a couple coming together in real time. This series of near misses, almost collapses, bad dates, a disastrous housesitting stint, infidelity, a long-distance thing, and a legitimate commitment rounds out to roughly half a year.
Which raises the question: How does a show so committed to realism in rom-com find an ending? Love will not be an extravagant-proposal type of show—such grand romantic gestures are roundly, and memorably, mocked during one of the final season’s best episodes. For this couple, pyrotechnics are a sign that’s something’s going wrong, or on its way toward going wrong, a characteristic literalized when a romantic retreat in the season premiere suddenly gains two additional guests and a trunk full of fireworks. The final 12 episodes trace modest highs and credible lows in Mickey and Gus’ relationship, at a pace that, though shambling, gives Love the time to honor the characters and performers who made the shambling worth tolerating.
It also manages to break a curse frustratingly endemic to Love’s single-camera contemporaries and their part-comedy/part-drama predecessors on the big screen. In the course of the third season, skeletons are suddenly introduced and then forcefully expelled from closets. And yet, miraculously, it doesn’t come across like the desperate, writerly scrambling that would, say, pull a suicide out of thin air during the closing chapters of a coming-of-age dramedy’s first season. Mickey and the audience simultaneously receive information about Gus that season three converts into narrative fuel, but it also gets everyone—Gus included—toward a better understanding of that character.
All through the series, we’ve seen Gus’ Midwestern aversion to confrontation get the best of him: It’s a mask he wears to hide an anger and a sense of superiority that have nearly cost him a job and a relationship. It follows, then, that he would also hide some deeper failures, even from someone he’s as intimately and emotionally involved with as Mickey. (It seeps into the physicality of Rust’s performance, a repertoire of defensively slumped shoulders and hands thrown back as if he’s being held at gunpoint immediately after touching a hot stove.) And Love finds meaningful ways of drawing these secrets out in season three, first in a wedding episode boasting guest star Vanessa Bayer and a number of uncomfortably tight close-ups, then in a two-episode getaway to Gus’ native South Dakota. Judging by the presence of Lady Dynamite’s Ed Begley Jr., One Mississippi’s Stephanie Allynne, Casual’s Kyle Bornheimer, and Bajillion Dollar Propertie$’s Drew Tarver, the Cruikshank homestead is where the casts of all streaming comedies go after their series die, get put out to pasture, or have their platforms disappear.
Another benefit of Love’s slow roll is the space it’s given to supporting players, be they Gus’ family of ringers or ensemble MVPs like Claudia O’Doherty, Chris Witaske, and Iris Apatow. As the end approaches, the scope of the series expands, an acknowledgment that the people at Love’s margins have been just as much a reason to watch as the central couple. O’Doherty’s chipper Bertie gets a well-deserved spotlight episode, while the show’s aspiration to look at modern romance from multiple angles feeds into a brief interlude about Apatow’s Arya and her feelings for a new addition to the freshly retooled supernatural TV series on which she stars and for which Gus serves as on-set tutor. (For all the recent shows set in and around the Los Angeles entertainment industry, few have captured the amount of grunt work holding up all the showbiz glitz as well as Love.) It’s a strange pivot to take so late in the run, one seemingly born of the indulgent side of Love’s pacing, but it’s a fitting farewell to the strong points of an overlooked series—plus it gives us one final set of fake movie theme songs from Gus and friends.
Depending on your patience with Apatowvian digression, this could look like stalling, or it could come across as a savvy acknowledgement that the Mickey-Gus story doesn’t need all 12 episodes to come to a conclusion. (This writer is of the latter opinion, though the case isn’t necessarily helped by the number of drawn-out, needle-drop montages that crop up throughout the season.) So much of modern TV comedy is about starting with a fundamentally broken person and moving them toward a point of repair and recovery, and Mickey’s pretty much there by the beginning of season two, with the caveat that her recovery is an ongoing and perpetual process, and thus a potential sticking point with her judgmental boyfriend. On a bowling-alley double date early in the season, Mickey’s rolling strikes, and Gus can’t stay out of the gutter, foreshadowing their individual trajectories for the remainder of the season. To that end, they wind up spending a lot of episodes off in their own stories: Mickey settling in to a position of greater authority and power in the world of satellite radio, and Gus (at Mickey’s urging) grasping at his filmmaking dreams. It’s really only in the back half of the season that Love stares down the last few relationship wrinkles and asks, “Well, can they be ironed out?”
More than the love story itself, Love’s greatest achievement might be that it managed to make Gus and Mickey feel like fully realized, complicated individuals independent of their love story. Through three seasons, their cringe-comedy fuck-ups showed why’d they’d initially found themselves alone; in small moments and Rust and Jacobs’ on-screen connection, Love demonstrated how these people were better together. It gave itself the time to do that, to bring Mickey and Gus and their friends to a satisfying point of departure, and that’s no small feat.