When William Jackson Harper turns on his warm, steady charm, he proves an impossible actor to resist. Even when portraying a neurotic breakdown, as he did frequently as an ethics professor on “The Good Place,” or embodying someone who makes questionable decisions, as he does on “Love Life,” Harper imbues his characters with a grounded sincerity that shines through their darkest days. That “The Good Place” eventually bet the house on Harper’s ability to anchor the most significant romance in the universe came as no surprise, even as that romance threatened to swallow the entire series whole. Harper was simply that charismatic, justifying the gambit with every focused gaze and tender smile.
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. 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.
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When Sam Boyd’s “Love Life” first debuted on the brand new HBO Max, it starred Anna Kendrick as Darby, an improbably named white New York City woman whose jaded pragmatism constantly clashes with her yearning for true romance. And yet, despite its typical rom-com trappings, this installment of “Love Life” quickly proved deeper than meets the eye. Darby doesn’t just learns what she likes in a partner, but, through failed dating and an abusive marriage, what she doesn’t. She confronts her outgoing best friend (the excellent Zoe Chao) about her excessive drinking, leading to a rupture between them that never fully heals. She starts a family in a way she never expected but which works, despite the odds. Even as Darby’s story ticks plenty of rom-com cliché boxes, the show subverts expectations by allowing her romantic life to get truly, humanly messy.
The same holds true for Season 2, now narrated with fitting gravitas by Keith David and co-showrun by Boyd, Bridget Bedard and Rachelle Williams. Here, Harper plays Marcus, a book editor with tenuous connections to Kendrick’s Darby, but who otherwise operates in a completely separate orbit from her and the first season in general. (Kendrick, an executive producer alongside Harper, appears just a few times in passing throughout the season.) The series also picks up with Marcus much further into his “Love Life” than it did with Darby, who began a somewhat naïve New York City transplant on the precipice of adulthood. The first time we meet Marcus, he’s in his thirties and at the tail end of a marriage that isn’t terrible, but isn’t exactly right, either. This immediately more mature story establishes that the Marcus chapter will be entirely different from Darby’s in just about every way but one. This season of “Love Life” also owes enough to the long established rom-com template to belong to the genre, even as while turning it inside-out.
Marcus, like Harper’s Chidi before him, is a deeply thoughtful person who constantly overthinks himself into knots. He is, somewhat paradoxically, an optimistic skeptic. He’s a bit of a coward, especially when faced with potentially upsetting a woman. He’s smart, frustrated at his own stagnation, and kind when it counts. He’s a romantic who wants to be settled down, even as he implodes his marriage by indulging an emotional affair with Darby’s enigmatic coworker, Mia (Jessica Williams, rising to the occasion of this breakout role). 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. This season of “Love Life” also does well to give its supporting cast room to shine, including Punkie Johnson as Marcus’ sister, Janet Hubert and John Earl Jelks as his parents, and Arian Moayed and Chris “Comedian CP” Powell as his best friends. And while the season technically belongs to Marcus, Williams’ charismatic performance as Mia quickly makes her a beguiling co-lead in her own right. As Marcus and Mia circle each other and intertwine throughout the years, Harper and Williams make it easy to understand why neither of them can ever let the other go.
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. One of the season’s best and most revealing moments, in fact, happens in the first episode when a young Black writer (Jordan Rock) immediately dismisses Marcus as exactly the kind of Black guy who white people find pleasantly neutral. “I’m not trying to insult you,” he insists. “We need guys like you to translate guys like me … safe and nonthreatening. Al Roker, Levar Burton, Samuel L. Jackson.” Marcus protests, but the comment sticks in his brain, nagging at him for reasons he can’t quite articulate. When Marcus asks his then-wife for a Black celebrity he reminds her of, she says Barack Obama, and the marriage is over whether either of them fully realize it. It’s a beautifully honed bit of character development that lays bare Marcus’ deepest insecurities and provides crucial context for the narrative yet to come.
Over 10 episodes, “Love Life” and Harper’s performance tell the compelling and believably frustrating story of a man trying to weave love into his life with intention. It’s a smart showcase for a talented actor who seizes it with both hands, giving the rom-com genre a jolt as welcome as it is overdue.
The first three episodes of “Love Life” are now streaming on HBO Max.
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