In the first season of Love Life, the HBO series created by writer and director Sam Boyd, Anna Kendrick starred as Darby Carter, an insecure but optimistic twentysomething desperate for the big love of her life. By the end of Darby’s season, she’s gotten married and divorced, healed some old wounds, and shed enough of her insecurities that by the time her big love shows up in the last episode, she welcomes him with a confidence that borders on indifference, rather than the desperation of her younger years. The season’s best episodes, in which Darby grapples with her best friend’s addiction and confronts her self-centered mother, aren’t directly about her love life, but contribute to her emotional development. In carefully chosen snippets we see Darby learn to prioritize self-love over romantic love.
The second season follows a new character, Marcus Watkins, portrayed by Dallas native William Jackson Harper. We meet him at Darby’s wedding (to a man she’ll soon divorce), hovering just outside her circle of friends. It’s 2016 and Marcus is a thirtysomething book editor comfortably married to his grad school sweetheart, Emily (Maya Kazan), and too busy dealing with an influencer turned writer to put down his cellphone at the wedding. He escapes outside to check his phone and meets Mia Hines (Jessica Williams). There’s an immediate chemistry and attraction between them. Mia, with an easy laugh and a few flirty jokes, ignites a spark in Marcus that he hasn’t felt in years (or ever) with his wife. Soon the two are swapping emails and wrapped up in endless text conversations that eventually lead to a pseudo-date that ends before either of them makes a mistake (Mia has a boyfriend who always seems to be out of town).
Although nothing happens between them, there’s enough of a shift in Marcus for Emily to notice and go looking through his texts. What she finds is damning. Marcus reveals to Mia that he feels a disconnect with Emily, partly because she’s white. “I feel like I can’t show her who I really am,” reads one message. In another, Marcus tells Mia that she understands him better than his own wife does. As a teary-eyed Emily reads these messages to a horrified Marcus, it’s clear that their marriage is over. And that’s just the first episode.
The next episode picks up a month after their divorce, with Marcus sleeping on his sister’s couch and trying to figure out what to do with his life. He can’t date Mia, because she still has a boyfriend, and they part ways after an argument in which he blames her for blowing up his marriage and she denies any responsibility. Instead, he has a cringey hook up with an undergrad student, which is just the first of a series of unfortunate dating choices he’ll make as a new divorcé. But Mia never really disappears from his life. She shows up throughout the series as Marcus stumbles from one ill-advised relationship to another, until the two, both finally single at the same time, get together. Their “too perfect” relationship doesn’t last long before Mia (reeling from her parents’ dysfunctional relationship) breaks up with him with no explanation. By the time they get back together amid the pandemic in 2020, at least one of them has changed enough to know how to make a relationship last. But the person who did the changing was Mia, not Marcus.
Love Life isn’t Harper’s first turn as a romantic lead. After starring in The Good Place as the Chidi Anagonye, the moral philosophy professor turned soulmate to Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), he played Doug in the movie We Broke Up, about a couple trying to keep their split a secret through a weekend wedding. In these roles, particularly as Chidi, Harper imbues his characters with a sensitivity and humor that makes them lovable as they navigate emotionally and morally challenging situations. But Harper has his work cut out for him with Marcus, a man who wants to believe he’s a good person although his actions often indicate otherwise. Harper plays Marcus with a sort of helplessness that almost hides how destructive his character’s habits can be. Almost. Key to Marcus’s character is something a girlfriend, Ola Adebayo (Ego Nwodim), points out during their breakup: He is “a man who can’t even be honest or direct about what he wants.”
Part of the reason for this is that Marcus wants his bad ideas to work out for the best, like moving in with Ola after a few months of mostly long-distance dating or marrying a white woman primarily to rebel against his parents. But even when it’s shown that avoiding the truth can be more harmful in the long run, it’s a habit Marcus can’t seem to shake. From Mia’s first gentle jab when Marcus points out his wife in episode one, Marcus’s relationships with white women keep coming up, often as a source of jokes between him and Mia, but it rarely goes beyond that. In one conversation, Marcus admits that he always assumed he would end up with a Black woman, but “was always afraid of f—ing it up with them.” Rather than being honest about what he really wants, he simply hopes things will work out in his favor. It’s not until an unexpected pregnancy with a white woman (who tells Marcus that she doesn’t understand what “race has to do with anything” and exclaims, “Mixed babies are so cute!”) that he really begins to be more intentional with who he gets involved with.
Or you would think so, except that by March 2020, after the unexpected pregnancy is lost and he’s broken up with Mia, Marcus is once again living with a non-Black woman he met three months prior at a New Year’s party. At least this time, he ends their relationship and kicks her out before things get too stressful in pandemic living. This is where the structure of the series seems more like a hindrance this season. With only thirty-minute episodes to explore years of someone’s romantic life, there are whole chunks of time, months and even years, that viewers miss. This wasn’t too much of an issue in season one, when Darby’s trajectory from insecure recent grad to confident career woman and single mother was easy to track, even with the gaps in time, because we had enough scenes that showed her growth. With Marcus, a character who finds himself repeating the same mistakes, whatever growth is happening offscreen doesn’t translate onscreen. During the pandemic, when Mia reaches out to Marcus to apologize and come clean about her infidelity, and later recommits to their relationship with a self-sacrificing dedication, she mentions that it took her ten months of therapy to get to that stage. It happened offscreen, but she put in the work. It’s easy to see why Marcus would want to be with her. Less so to see why she would want to be with Marcus.
We don’t see it until the last part of the last episode. By that point, Mia and Marcus have a newborn, and Mia’s spent the past two years working excessively to support their family so that Marcus can focus on writing his debut novel. When his book is published and his press tour is winding down, Marcus finally sees how the past two years have worn Mia down. She mentions hating her job and he steps up to support her, encouraging her to quit and promising to hold them down. It took several years and right up to the very end of the ten-episode season, but eventually Marcus learns that being the man he wants to be can’t happen by assuming things will work out. He needs to show up for others, not just one time, but repeatedly, forever. By the time this realization finally clicks into place for him, the journey to get there feels too long to be rewarding.
The conceit of Love Life’s structure is to give a fuller picture of modern romance by following multiple people’s journeys, because there’s no universal truth about love. But in two seasons, the show hasn’t said anything new. Darby’s love life was a manifestation of the sometimes grating adage about loving yourself before you can give or receive love from someone else. From watching Marcus, we learn that a man can fail to grow but still become successful because of the love and sacrifices of those around him. There’s nothing novel about that truth.