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William Jackson Harper Helps Love Life Raise the Stakes in Season 2

Harper takes over for Anna Kendrick in a new season of HBO Max's rom-com anthology.
  • William Jackson Harper proves he's leading man material in a leveled-up new season of Love Life. (Photo: HBO Max)
    William Jackson Harper proves he's leading man material in a leveled-up new season of Love Life. (Photo: HBO Max)

    When Love Life debuted last May, critics seemed to agree that the romantic comedy was pleasant enough, but lacked real bite, like a confection in a carousel of endless streaming options. The first season followed Darby (Anna Kendrick), a 20-something living in New York, over the course of a decade as she moves through various relationships, each of which teaches her something different about her own journey of love and self-discovery. With its focus on an upper middle class, heteronormative white woman, Love Life’s inaugural outing wasn’t exactly a beacon of diversity, but it did scratch a very specific itch, particularly for home-bound viewers desperate for a mindless escape from the pandemic’s early days.

    Eighteen months, a dozen variants, and one racial reckoning later, Love Life Season 2 responds to its critics with a new story, this time centered around William Jackson Harper. Harper, best known for his Emmy-nominated role as Chidi Anagonye on The Good Place, plays Marcus Watkins, a book editor who must rebuild his life after his marriage suddenly implodes. Four years prior, Marcus married his grad school sweetheart, Emily (Maya Kazan), but when he meets Mia (Jessica Williams) at Darby’s 2016 wedding to Magnus (Nick Thune) — the event serves as the main point of connection between the two seasons — he realizes his relationship has been on autopilot, and the differences between husband and wife become clear. By the end of the Season 2 premiere, Marcus is single, but his commitment to finding lasting love is stronger than ever, and over the course of the ten-episode season, he searches for it everywhere possible, from one-night stands to serious relationships to threesomes.

    In telling Marcus’ story, Love Life Season 2 follows a similar structure as its predecessor, with each episode focusing on a different romance in his life (although some carry across multiple episodes). Like Augie (Jin Ha) before her, Mia serves as a recurring presence in Marcus’ life, even when his thick-headedness drives her away. Creator Sam Boyd does a great job of establishing this pivotal relationship — the premiere features the most effective use of in-show texting I’ve seen in a while — and Harper and Williams’ crackling chemistry only deepens the sense that these two are endgame, regardless of their respective issues.

    Marcus and Mia’s friendship also leads Love Life into one of its biggest Season 2 themes: the reality of dating as a Black man. Before meeting Mia, Marcus rarely questioned his marriage to Emily, a white woman, but when he and Mia joke about “ugly white babies” or being “on display” in a “room full of white people,” he instantly appreciates their shared experiences and identity. Love Life Season 2 is funniest when it explores the racial dynamics of dating (think Insecure-lite), but that's also when it's at its most profound. It’s rare to see conversations about dating outside your race on television, and it’s refreshing to see a series address it so directly — especially when that series was criticized for centering whiteness just one season prior.

    In the Season 2 premiere, Marcus (Harper) and Darby (Kendrick) cross paths at her 2016 wedding. (Photo: HBO Max)

    Love Life's second season would be nothing without Harper, who’s so convincing as a leading man that it’s hard to believe this is his first headline role. As you might expect, the women Marcus meets throughout the season are all incredibly different — Mia is laugh-out-loud funny, while SNL star Ego Nwodim’s Ola is an earnest crystal-lover, and Leslie Bibb’s Becca is a self-possessed single mother — but Harper deftly navigates these shifts in tone, and his nimble performance helps make each relationship feel genuine. Flirty, awkward, confident, self-loathing, the Good Place alum can truly do it all, and if nothing else, Love Life exists as a reel for his future leading man auditions.

    The show also features a dynamic supporting cast beyond the women in Marcus’ life. His sister Ida, played by SNL's Punkie Johnson, is an ideal foil for Marcus, particularly at his low points, although the show could have benefited from diving even deeper into her story. In his time of need, Marcus also relies on his married-with-kids best friend, Yogi (Chris Powell), and their fuckboy buddy Kian, played by none other than Succession’s Arian Moayed. And in Episode 3, the action moves from New York to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where viewers are introduced to Marcus and Ida’s parents (Janet Hubert and John Earl Jelks) in a storyline that further explores what Marcus lost when he married Emily.

    Love Life has clearly learned a few lessons from its debut outing, but there’s one area that remains unchanged from season-to-season: its omniscient narration. In Season 2, Keith David takes over for Lesley Manville as the narrator of the protagonist’s story, but the commentary adds little to the show. David’s heavy-handed dialogue seems to generally exit to recap what’s happening on-screen, but in its worst moments, it offers “insight” that seems completely at odds with what we’ve just seen. When you have a performance as strong as Harper’s, there’s no need to slow-walk the audience through his character’s thought process; let it play out on screen at a natural pace, and trust viewers to follow along accordingly.

    Unnecessary narration aside, Love Life Season 2 is a welcome improvement from the show’s fluffy, predominantly-white first season. The HBO Max series is still a conventional romantic comedy at its core, but it displays flashes of brilliance when it leans into the concerns of its diverse characters. Here’s hoping the rom-com’s third season, should it return for more, continues to move in the right direction.

    HBO drops the first three episodes of Love Life's second season Thursday October 28. The season's remaining seven episodes will be released in batches Thursdays through November 11.

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    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Love Life, HBO Max, Anna Kendrick, Jessica Williams, William Jackson Harper