‘Love Life’ is reinventing the romcom for a new generation

The show understands that old romance norms have evolved.

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As HBO Max sought to establish itself as a new streaming service worth a subscription in 2020, its first scripted series landed without much fanfare. Love Life, the first season of which was produced by and starred Anna Kendrick, didn’t have a splashy press push and was released to middling reviews. Written and created by Sam Boyd, the show had a straight forward conceit: closely following the love life of a main character as their relationships evolve through the natural phases of growing up. The show is lightly narrated by a wise, charming storybook voice that gives insight into the statistics of dating and the complexities of human behavior, and each episode is framed like a chapter, with a specific supporting character as the focus. It felt like the logical evolution of the twee mumblecore romcoms that came out of the early 2010s — a show tailored to speak to millennials who at this point are no longer young, but not yet old either. But as its second season has now come to a close, it’s proving to be something else entirely. Love Life is Sex and the City for millennials.

Perhaps that is in no way what Love Life intended to be, and at its current level of fandom, it certainly isn’t yet the cultural juggernaut that SATC had established itself as after two seasons. But it could become that if people give its smart dialogue, pithy cultural commentary and honest portrayal of dating a chance. Because Love Life features what worked about SATC, but evolves what didn’t — it brings the subversive cultural commentary and relatable portrayal of honest sex lives of SATC into the modern age, while letting the show’s gross pitfalls, like its singular focus on white people, racist undertones, queerphobia and classism, fall away. And of course, the excitement of watching young professionals wade through establishing careers and managing social lives in New York City is a thread that connects both narratives.

Part of what makes LL compulsively watchable is the fleeting nature of its plot lines that mirror the way people naturally weave in and out of our lives. Much like in real life, the drama of the show can hinge on a misinterpreted text just as easily as a chance run in with an old flame while you’re moving your current partner’s car. Where SATC saw its main characters, especially Carrie, in an exhausting, constant search for “the one,” LL shows its characters feeling their way through a series of “ones,” which is much more reflective of how picking a partner works these days. Additionally for millennials, the old traditions of marriage are less weighty, gender stereotypes have evolved and concepts like soulmates are generally understood as antiquated, and LL seems to deeply understand that evolution. For SATC life was what happened while you looked for love, but in LL love is what happens while you live your life.

Some criticisms of Love Life have focused on how it doesn’t deeply delve into its main character’s motivations, nor its supporting characters — but I find that to be part of what makes it so compelling. We get to know LL’s characters through their actions, not in a string of over-analysis like we did in constant SATC “I couldn’t help but wonders.” Love Life is honest about the fact that life sometimes really is just what happens to you; it’s random and out of our control. And while we can pursue our interests and passions, and live by our values in search of others who vibe in a similar way, things seem to work out best when you let life run its course. The characters in LL find their person almost by happenstance, where as the characters on SATC pretty much forced it once they set their sights on a significant other that fit in the perfect box they’d imagined.

LL does an excellent job of reflecting how relationships ebb and flow for a generation of people who are now mostly in their 30s and career-oriented, but were raised at the dawn of tech distraction and internet culture. Millennials are a mix of the cultural hangover our boomer parents imparted us with, and the gusto of what it meant to forge an adult existence at a time when no one knew what the fuck the digital age was for — and LL understands that. Part of what made both of its seasons endearing was that its examination of relationships wasn’t just spent on those romantic in nature; LL takes whole episodes to consider our parents and close friends as deeply shaping forces that sometimes play just as intensely into our romantic choices. SATC barely mentions Carrie’s deadbeat dad, and spent one episode of six seasons on the death of a parent. And while SATC certainly pioneered the idea that your friends are your family, it glossed over the intense influence friends can have on who we are.

The most exciting facet of Love Life picking up where Sex And The City left off, is the way the show is flipping the script on the idea of the main character. While Kendrick led the first season, the surprise was that season two is a completely different story led by William Jackson Harper (with a captivating Jessica Williams in a supporting role). While thematically and structurally the same, season two of Love Life exemplified that a compelling romcom can be about a white woman just as easily as a black man (which should be obvious, but *points to the history of romcoms*). LL reinforces that our love lives are human stories, not demographic stories. And with the show revealing that its seasons will continue to be capsule stories in one larger collection, the biggest downfall of SATC — the overindulgence of Carrie’s narcissism — gets entirely avoided. If people had doubts after the first season of Love Life, its second effort certainly proved not just its innovativeness, but that it has the potential to be a reflective and representative piece of pop culture that speaks to its millennial audience the same way Sex And The City did to its own in the 90s and early aughts.