a new age
Watching season two of Love on Netflix, I found myself in a familiar position. I loved what I was watching, even as I spotted its flaws. I would roll my eyes at one scene, but melt into a mushy puddle come the next, helpless in the face of Gus and Mickey’s mercilessly endearing, constantly tormented relationship. A series of jokes would earn only pity-chuckles, but just as I got restless, Gus and his friends would gather to sing their made-up theme song to The Cider House Rules and send me into a cackling frenzy. And, in the most tangible signal of viewer approval, I would eagerly click “next episode” as the credits rolled.
Love’s story revolves around the relationship of Gus and Mickey, two aimless 30-somethings living in L.A. Gus (Paul Rust) is a straight-laced, nervous Midwestern boy desperate to be liked, whereas Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) swaggers through life with a cigarette in her mouth and a bottle in her hand, wearing her cynicism like a badge. It’s an age-old opposites attract romantic paradigm.
After finishing Love, I felt as though I owed myself some self-reflection. Why had I enjoyed it so much? The story was nothing new, and its storytelling was unfocused—it devoted an entire interminable episode to a not especially revelatory experience on shrooms, for God’s sake. Its perspective was not exactly unique, either—sad white people in L.A.! But I couldn’t stop watching.
I thought of another work of art that occupies a similar place in my heart: The Last Five Years (2002), a musical by Jason Robert Brown later adapted into a film starring Anna Kendrick. It tells the story of a romantic relationship between Cathy, an aspiring actress, and Jamie, a wildly successful young novelist. It has an intricate chronology wherein, through alternating songs, Cathy tells her story from the end of the relationship to the beginning, while Jamie tells his from the beginning to the end.
The Last Five Years and Love have a lot in common. They’re flawed works of art. They’re romantic. They pepper their romance with comedy, favoring a slightly neurotic brand of humor, like Woody Allen but with less despair. They’re about straight white people. They’re firmly attached to the pop-culture and entertainment firmament. And, maybe most importantly, they depict a kind of life I’d like to lead. In a word, they’re fantasy.
The prospect that this may be the reason I love them so much is a bit embarrassing. Am I really just another lonely white boy living vicariously through television and cast albums? Dear god, say it isn’t so. In my defense, though, both works make moves toward realism that suggest something more complex than a Sleepless in Seattle redux. But, if I’m being honest, I’ll admit: They’re rife with fantasy. It’s just a new kind, for a new age.
This new fantasy has emerged over the course of the last few decades. Annie Hall (1977) is the most obvious precursor. Since then, it has wormed its way into various artistic projects, finding especially fertile ground in indie films, until finally reaching the levels of saturation we see today. The Last Five Years came out in 2002, before the current deluge, but Love, along with many other contemporary shows, from Transparent to Girls, has similar traits. They don’t have the extravagant and rosy storylines often conjured up by Hollywood. The characters and the things that happen to them feel scaled to real life, not the grandiose visions of old-timey studio execs.
The fantasy that inhabits these works, then, is not defined by events and characters. Instead, their fantasy lies chiefly in their contexts. Wealth, fame, and success shimmer around the edges of their characters’ lives, promising that even when things go awry, the rest of the world will be there to comfort them.
Take, for example, the world that surrounds Gus, the affable but deceptively manipulative dork in Love. He works as an on-set tutor for a child star. It’s not exactly glamorous. It also kind of is. After all, he works on a TV set. He meets quasi-celebrities. It seems as though he gets paid well, since his apartment is astoundingly large. He even gets a “Story By” credit on an episode of the TV show that his tutee stars in.
It’s easy to see how for Hollywood professionals, like co-creator and comedy tycoon Judd Apatow, making Gus an unimportant background figure on a TV set would feel like a cold splash of reality. Compared to Apatow’s, Gus’s professional life is dismal. But for the average person, a story credit on a TV episode doesn’t seem like such a modest achievement. It’s certainly closer to celebrity than most people will ever get.
There’s nothing modest about the success that comes to Jamie, the leading man in The Last Five Years. While in his early 20s, he writes a novel that gets published by Random House to great acclaim. He sings about it to obnoxious effect in “Moving Too Fast.” As a counterpoint, his girlfriend, Cathy, struggles to find success as a musical theatre actress. She also sings the first song in the show, “Still Hurting,” where we learn that the relationship is over: “Jamie is over and Jamie is gone / Jamie’s decided it’s time to move on.”
This sense of tragedy, along with Cathy’s frustrated dreams, tempers the exuberance that comes from Jamie’s achievements. Like Gus’s job as an on-set tutor, it suggests an attempt toward modesty on the part of the writer. And also like Gus, it’s only modest in a certain light. Cathy may be a struggling actress, but she doesn’t have to hold down a day job, or live in a typically cramped New York apartment, because her boyfriend is a successful novelist. Not being a waitress and having a reasonably-sized home may not sound like the stuff of Hollywood fantasy, but when combined with the exciting prospect of living in New York and working to become an actress, it’s hard to deny that Cathy’s situation has a certain appeal.
The elements of realism in these works only makes them more intoxicating. While listening to The Last Five Years or watching Love, we don’t feel like we’re suckers for more heart-warming, happily-ever-after Hollywood schlock. The characters mumble! They have weird sex! They hurt each other! They struggle with insecurity! In other words, they ride the emotional rollercoaster that is the human experience as awkwardly and painfully as anyone. This strain of realism deludes us, or at least deluded me, into thinking that we’re not watching fantasy.
For me, the ruse was up the moment I interrogated my love for these shows. As I tried to defend them critically, I found myself faltering. I love The Last Five Years, but I can’t deny that it has significant problems. Jason Robert Brown’s lyrics are full of confused, maladroit metaphors and drearily prosaic language. For example, I’ve never been able to take seriously the lyric “I open myself / I open myself one stitch at a time.” It evokes some kind of unpleasant, self-inflicted medical procedure, like Matt Damon stapling himself in The Martian, and yet it’s set to pretty and uplifting music, intended as an earnest emotional affirmation for Cathy. Maybe I’m being picky here, but I find the lyric laughable.
Aside from issues of craft, the problems of The Last Five Years include a fear of suburban provincialism that smacks of condescension and mildly regressive gender dynamics. Like last year’s La La Land, The Last Five Years grants the man a greater artistic seriousness. In “A Part of That,” Cathy sings with amazement at just how magical, awesome, and inscrutable Jamie is as an artist and how she takes satisfaction in somehow being part of it. It’s hard not to hear this as an exercise in vanity on Jason Robert Brown’s part. (Hint: Jason Robert Brown is Jamie.) All of these thoughts occasionally pop into my head when I listen to it. But do I stop listening? Of course not.
The same goes for Love. I saw its problems, but I kept watching. I watched it despite the fact that the constant seesawing of Gus and Mickey’s relationship got a bit old. I watched it despite its comedic unevenness. I watched it despite its uncreative approach to addiction, selling AA as the be-all and end-all of treating alcoholism.
The reasons why, I think, are twofold. One is that, despite their flaws, these two works are genuinely enjoyable. In Love, Paul Rust and Gillian Jacobs turn in appealing performances, and their relationship is funny and sweet, even if it’s not always profoundly rendered. And though plenty of its jokes miss, many of them land with a walloping punch. In The Last Five Years, something is on display that is often missing from many modern musicals: a distinctive voice. Sure, the voice often says stupid things, but it’s unmistakably Jason Robert Brown’s. His music and lyrics have an infectious and unique style that, at their best, can be funny, smart, and deeply felt.
The other reason comes back to fantasy. Their worlds are alluring. While my problems with these works are largely intellectual, my attraction to them is emotional. My heart pulls me where my mind tells me not to go. My inner critic has won the argument—Love is no great TV show, and The Last Five Years is no great musical—but I don’t care. Living in their worlds is a tremendous pleasure, and I’m not about to deny myself that based on some lofty ideal of critical integrity.
So I won’t try to stop the problematization matrix from whirring inside my brain. I won’t try to defend the artistic merits of works that don’t have all that much to begin with. I’ve accepted the reasons I watch or listen to them, and it’s not because they’re brilliant or challenging. I can, and will, go elsewhere for that. But these works have their own purpose. They’re fun. They’re fantasy. And for now, that’s good enough for me.