On Wednesday, HBO launched HBO Max, a streaming service that’s enticing to viewers who want access to its extensive Warner Media catalog, including all eight Harry Potter movies, countless Studio Ghibli classics, Friends, The West Wing, and more. Those viewers will also be enticed by a few original titles, elevated by the HBO name affiliation. They may even hit play on a millennial love story titled Love Life, starring Anna Kendrick as Darby. If they do, they’ll find themselves disappointed by its all too familiar plot: a wealthy young white woman’s journey from boarding school to NYU to lost 20-something. That the series is ultimately uninspiring and inoffensive is a shame. Throughout the milquetoast narrative is a subtly beautiful one, between mother and daughter, coming to a head in the penultimate Episode 7, the only one worth watching.
Each episode of Love Life chronicles a relationship in Darby’s life, a device the not-so-great High Fidelity reboot used more effectively earlier this year. That comes to a head in Episode 7 when fresh out an unhealthy marriage with a man she hadn’t loved in years, Darby’s appendix ruptures. For help, she calls her mom, Claudia, a tertiary character previously only pictured as a self-involved, insecure divorcee, the kind who gives her daughter the advice of “I bet no one will remember you,” following a traumatic and embarrassing high school experience. Her mom obliges and heads to Manhattan to assist Darby in her recovery from surgery. It’s a tiny gesture from both parties and a salve for their bond. Darby shrinks herself in relationships and soon learns her mother does the same. They’ve finally begun to communicate.
But not quite. Claudia speaks over Darby, turning her daughter’s accomplishments into her own when presented with the opportunity to show off. She brags about her advancements in therapy and gifts Darby books by a “shame and vulnerability researcher” that go unread by her daughter—as the voiceover narrator reveals, it’s unfortunate because the book included a passage that would’ve helped rectify her understanding of her mother: “narcissism, when examined with compassion, is a trait that comes from not feeling special enough to deserve love, belonging, or a sense of purpose.” Instead, the pair continue to misunderstand one another until Darby confronts Claudia at a mattress store, telling her she’s long felt rejected by her, the same feeling that drove Claudia to reject her daughter in the first place.
The dialogue in the scene, like much of Love Life, is overtly expository—but here, instead of being exhausting and far too fictional, it’s revealing and impactful. In the love story between a mother and daughter, decades in need of repair, the only solution is through direct and meaningful communication. It also seems to suggest that Darby’s only hope for functional romantic relationships is to use what she’s learned from empathizing with her mother, a good enough lesson that doesn’t get enough shine in rom-com formats. I imagine that’s because it’s not very flashy—seeing a mom as a person outside of her familial role is far too rare, or written off with middle life crisis, or tongue-in-cheek wine-induced book club nights—but here, it’s a romance.
I’ve often wondered why shows that explore romantic love don’t dig deeper into other intimacies—the connection between a life-long best friend, or a sister, or a mother—and maybe that’s because when placed next to each other, most viewers would opt for the sexy story where the end game is marriage. In Love Life, the latter is boring. It’s only when a mother’s love for her daughter and a daughter’s love for her mother is viewed with the same sort of depth and drama and excitement as a romantic affair that the show gets good.