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With William Jackson Harper as lead, Love Life tells a story of a Black man falling in, out, and back in love -- without ignoring his race

  • "It’s tempting to say that it was only a matter of time before Harper landed a romantic comedy role worthy of his talents, if only because he so clearly deserved it," Caroline Framke says of Season 2 of the HBO Max romantic comedy anthology series. "That assumption of inevitability would, however, be ignoring Hollywood’s long history of sidelining, flattening, or else entirely dismissing Black men in romances. There are of course exceptions: Courtney B. Vance in The Preacher’s Wife, Omar Epps in Love and Basketball, the men of Waiting to Exhale. But making a multi-dimensional Black man the central focus of these stories is a much rarer thing. With Love Life, Harper gets the chance to explore a much more detailed story of a Black man falling in, out, and back in love in a way that allows the character to be far more complex than most." Framke adds: "It would have been very easy for the show to make Marcus a generally amiable guy who can’t quite find the right girl; instead, Love Life creates a character with specific flaws who questions his place in the world with just enough self-awareness to feel real shame. Marcus is, in other words, a much more complicated character than a single movie might have allowed, and Harper takes every opportunity to make him feel as real a human being as possible....And while many shows in recent memory opt for the kind of inclusivity that involves casting non-white actors and telling general stories that practically ignore the character’s race, Love Life makes a point of being frank about how Marcus’ Blackness functions in his everyday life. From feeling hesitant to be honest with his white ex-wife, to falling for a Black woman who calls him out on it, to being his office’s token Black guy, Marcus doesn’t ignore his race, because he can’t."


    • The problem with Love Life Season 2 is that William Jackson Harper's character is kind of off-putting: "All of Harper’s innate charms and nuanced deliveries can’t fully distract from his character’s innately selfish and shallow nature, even if they do create a slight disconnect between what we see him do and what we hear he’s done," says Ben Travers. "This is a guy who texts an attractive 'friend' of a few weeks that she understands him better than his wife; a guy who has a moral awakening after he sleeps with a college senior (who he’ll never speak to, or even text, after sneaking out of her dorm room); a guy who’d rather hook up with a girl he used to tutor than be with his parents on their big anniversary. And these are just the early, non-spoiler-y character traits. It’s not that Marcus is a mess or unlikable — messes can make for great characters and likability is an errant basis for judgment; it’s that the scripts don’t acknowledge how his actions affect others, and he doesn’t either. Not really. He recognizes what they mean to him and his path forward, but Marcus just coasts through the pain he experiences and inflicts until he doesn’t feel bad anymore. Love Life is just self-aware enough to recognize Marcus needs to regret much of what he’s done, but not courageous enough to force any real retrospection. Its structure gives the show a free pass from any awkward conversations or tricky transitions it wants to avoid, and it leaves Marcus a bit hollow as a result — an archetype you don’t want to see yourself in, yet the show insists you should."
    • The shift from Darby to Marcus feels quite revolutionary considering the character succession is built directly into Love Life’s concept: "Romantic comedy as a genre is overwhelmingly populated by white women trying to have it all in the big city," says Joshua Alston. "So it’s more than a notion to make a Black man the protagonist of a show that could have just as easily continued apace as Sex And The City’s worthiest spiritual successor, along with the blinkered perspective that implies. But it’s a smooth transition, thanks in part to creator Sam Boyd’s sturdy format, which remains shot through with the giddy unpredictability of a drunken night in Hell’s Kitchen. Love Life is essentially an episodic anthology nested inside a season-length anthology, with each episode capturing one of Marcus’ most consequential relationships until he finds his 'person,' as did Darby in season one. With only those bookends in place, the episodes in between can take on different tones and textures while using Marcus’ search for companionship as a season arc. And each episode has its own mojo and threatens to turn into something else at any given moment, like a slightly less transgressive Atlanta. Boyd’s other wise decision was to recruit writer-producer Rachelle Williams as his co-showrunner, thereby avoiding the potential of creating in Marcus a Black character that could just as easily not be Black. From the first episode, Marcus is exploring his racial identity and grappling with double-consciousness. (To drive the point home, the reins on the show’s fairy godparent narration are handed from Lesley Manville to the mellifluous Keith David.)"
    • Season 2 deftly incorporates Marcus into the familiar romcom architecture without blandifying who he is: That's mostly thanks to Mixed-ish writer Rachelle Williams, who joined co-showrunners Bridget Bedard and series creator Sam Boyd for Season 2. "At one point someone dubs Marcus an 'off-brand Hugh Grant,' but remove the insult from that label and you're basically describing Harper's warm appeal," says Melanie McFarland. "He's an actor who personifies a refined, confident intellectual masculinity, and he stands out without needing to be the loudest voice in the room. Marcus is, in fact, the type of safe, attentive and well-meaning romantic hero Grant honed to brilliance in '90s flicks like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. He isn't awkward, exactly; it's more like he's used to being in spaces traditionally thought of as being the province of people who are white and well-off while also being accustomed to being judged for that. This surfaces as a no-win situation in Marcus' career as a book editor: he does his best to bring new Black authors into his mid-level publisher's fold, but his boss often rejects them while burying Marcus in assignments that are beneath him."
    • Season 2 doesn't work as a romcom: "Though structured like a romantic comedy, Love Life is paced like a never-ending story and these two qualities tend to work at odds with one another," says Nina Metz. "There’s nothing wrong with the episodic nature of each episode, but taken together they tend to feel like narrative stall tactics and filler, especially because the character keeps us at arms length. Even when we spend time alone with Marcus, we’re not invited into what he’s thinking or what motivates him or why he sours on a partner. Maybe he doesn’t know these things either. 'I’m hiding,' he says in the final episode. 'I’m always hiding.' This opaqueness is a fundamental aspect to who Marcus is, but the show has him acknowledge this too late in the season I think, when it might have been more meaningful to see him try to sort through and name some of those feelings much earlier in the story. I’m all for longer, deeper looks at the intricacies of relationships (HBO’s Scenes From a Marriage is just one recent example) but that would make Love Life a drama instead of a rom-com. It’s not that a show can’t theoretically be both, it’s that this show hasn’t found a way to blend these genres together more seamlessly. Tonally, the Before trilogy that Richard Linklaker made with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke is a pretty good example of what that can look like when this kind of mashup works, but even those films ultimately leaned into drama. Stylistically, rom-coms often have an unrealness about them, which is a result of how they’re shot and how they look, but also how they’re written and how they’re paced. Rom-coms are a simulation of life, only heightened, and these specific tropes and qualities can start to feel like impediments when shoehorned into a project that’s also aiming to say something more raw and honest about the complexities of romantic attachments."
    • Harper is a magnetic leading man, spreading his wings in the main role just as one would expect after seeing him in The Good Place and The Underground Railroad: "He makes Marcus likable despite some textbook bad choices — including an emotional affair, rushed intimacy, and a night with a college student — his comedic cocktail of fumbling awkwardness and boyish charm keeping us somehow in his corner," says Proma Khosla, adding: "The show is still Lovesick lite in its best moments, but there are worse things than resembling a beloved series that isn’t even making new episodes. Improved as it is, Love Life is still clinging to the safety of its roots. Marcus is a book editor, a career pulled straight from the romcom job bucket (or the shared TV universe I am convinced is occupied by both Younger and The Bold Type). He’s a successful, lovelorn millennial from the Midwest who makes a mystery salary that can afford a spacious one-bedroom apartment in New York City. He's the show's second cisgender, heterosexual lead, and won't be its last. This show still has so much to explore in terms of sexuality and gender, age, socioeconomic status, disability, and more — but there’s a very real chance now that it will try."
    • In a series structured so much around one character’s experience, it’s imperative that we connect with and enjoy that person -- Harper makes that easy: "He’s a handsome, natural star — like The Good Place did, Love Life makes sure the audience is aware that Harper is absolutely jacked — and incredibly skilled at capturing every stop on Marcus’s emotional journey," says Jen Chaney. "You root for him. Somewhere along the line in the interpretation of scripted television, rooting for a character became synonymous, for some, with agreeing with all of their choices. Marcus makes some bad choices in this series. He treats his wife pretty abysmally, and he can be stubborn and impulsive. But you still like him, because he’s doing what most people do in their everyday lives: try to do their best, then try again when they don’t meet their own standards."
    • How Love Life landed on Keith David as Season 2 narrator: “His name was up there. There was a short list and we went through different ideas,” says co-showrunner Rachelle Williams, explaining that they initially thought of a number of British people to voice Marcus’ thoughts in similar fashion to the way the English actress did for Anna Kendrick’s character, Darby. “I love British narrators. And so, we thought, ‘Should we get a British man?’” But then after thinking about it more, Williams says it was a no-brainer. “It was like, ‘Duh. Keith David,’” she recalls. “He’s fantastic.” 
    • Anna Kendrick and executive producer Paul Feig say Love Life will have an LGBTQ lead at some point: “That was something we talked about when we were running around pitching the show from the jump, so obviously that’s something we would be really excited to do,” says Kendrick. Feig adds: "We want to tell stories about people whose voices aren’t normally heard."
    • Up until five years ago, William Jackson Harper was struggling to make it as an actor: “Just before booking The Good Place, I was at this place in my career where I was like, ‘I’m not sure that I like this anymore,’” he says. “‘I’m not sure having several roommates and living paycheck to paycheck and being in my mid-30s and wondering, 'Is this what my life is going to be forever?' is it. Where I’m just always a little bit scared about rent, and I can never take the vacation, or I can never visit home for weddings or a funeral. I can’t do any of the normal stuff people do in life because I have to make sure I’m making money to get to next month and also auditioning enough to get the job that will give me the money to get to next month.’ I was always just a little bit freaked out.”
    • With When Harry Met Sally as its guide, Love Life Season 2 tests the limits of the show’s premise by suggesting “that there is no one": While the 1989 film written by Nora Ephron and starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan wondered if men and women can ever be friends as it followed the lives of the characters over a decade of chance encounters, Love Life gives the story a modern spin. “It’s a long journey with a lot of very strange detours,” says Harper. "But in the midst of that, it's very funny and it gets very real and gets scary at some points. The stakes get very high in a lot of episodes.”  
    • Harper on his character's conversations about LeVar Burton and Barack Obama: "When it comes to the view that the world has of him, I think that it’s somewhat at odds with how he would like to be viewed," says Harper. "Granted, I think LeVar Burton is a national treasure. I think Barack Obama is also a national treasure. But there is something about that, which, I don’t know, for me personally, it’s this question of white acceptance. And I wonder if there is a part of him that bristles at being the kind of Black person that white people just tend to gravitate to — and what is that? And just questions about what that is. And it’s a long conversation. And I think that it’s a journey that he’s on. And I think that there’s a frustration … This is the way I interpreted it, is there’s a desire to have a certain level of — I don’t ever want to be the person, personally, that ever feels like they’re vying for white acceptance. And I think that there’s a question in his mind of, am I that kind of person that has vied for and gotten that? It’s one thing to be who you are and the world in general, at large, just accepts you, regardless of race. It’s another when you feel like you’re pursuing the acceptance of a certain group. And I think that, in Marcus’s head, there is an idea that those two men in particular have probably garnered that acceptance in a way that maybe was pursued. And I think that he bristles at it a bit. Now, I don’t think that Barack Obama and LeVar Burton have pursued white acceptance, by any stretch. But I think that there is an idea of that and there’s an idea that maybe they have, or maybe that there’s a part of that in their status that Marcus sort of bristles at, in certain ways."
    • Harper can relate to Love Life's Marcus: “Marcus, first of all, is a much better dresser than I am,” Harper quips, admitting his uniform is jeans and T-shirt versus his character’s suit and tie. But wardrobe aside, Harper can relate to his character’s internal struggle: “I am the very definition of a late bloomer. Here I am at 41, just feeling like I know what my life is," he says. Love Life also marks Harper's first time playing lead while also serving as an executive producer. "Honestly, everything about producing was a challenge," he says. "People were asking me questions and actually cared about my opinion on certain things, and I’m not used to that. As an actor, I’m used to getting the script and trying to figure it out. It’s negotiating when I should speak up and when I let people who’ve been doing this longer than me do their job. But it’s really great to throw in little grace notes as the thing is being created."

    TOPICS: William Jackson Harper, HBO Max, Love Life, Anna Kendrick, Bridget Bedard, Paul Feig, Rachelle Williams, Sam Boyd, LGBTQ