Love Life review: this romantic drama is a keeper

It's not quite a next-generation Sex and the City, but it's still a worthy watch

Anna Kendrick as Darby Carter in Love Life on HBO Max.
(Image: © HBO Max)

What to Watch Verdict

What starts out as a milquetoast Sex and the City is threatening to become fairly introspective and entertaining at the same time. And it definitely stands out amid the small number of new originals available on HBO Max.

It was easy to look at Love Life — one of the first six new original series on HBO Max — before it became available and think "OK, it's Anna Kendrick doing 'Sex and the City.' That should be perfectly cute and watchable, because Anna Kendrick."

Get through the first three episodes that dropped on launch day and you might think "Yep, this is perfectly watchable and entertaining. And I'm actually looking forward to seeing where this goes."

Good thing, then, that HBO decided to release episodes 4, 5 and 6 at the same time.

A show like Love Life has a little bit of a handicap because you know things are going to end badly. (And not just because of Flanagan's Law .) Each episode looks at a chapter in the love life one one Darby Carter. It works pretty well as a 30-minute anthology. We all love to watch a train wreck, we just don't want it to go on too long.

The strong supporting cast balances Anna Kendrick's usual pluck perfectly.

Things kick off in episode 1 with Auguie Jeong (Jin Ha), a sort of skater-looking who's not at all a bad dude. And it's the kind of relationship you look back at later and say "Yep, that was a decent go and I learned some things. Cool." Which is great until he shows up again later and briefly causes a little trouble, but only in Darby's mind. Disaster avoided, for now.

Episode 2 picks up a year or so later and is where you start to think "Things could get really interesting," as Darby shacks up with her older (not, like, ancient, just older) boss, Bradley Field. (Bradley is played by the always-excellent Scoot McNairy.) He's more grown-up and much more well-off, but also damaged in his own way — and more importantly, damaged in a way that Darby just isn't equipped to deal with.

Then there's her "Danny Two Phones" (Gus Halper) fling. He's hapless but mostly harmless. And also not quite aware enough to see a rebound when it climbs on top of him.

So we made it through the first three chapters with a fair amount of reality, a good bit of drama, some uncomfortable PG-13 sex scenes (whether it's more uncomfortable for us or for Darby is up for debate) and a desire to see where things go next.

That brings us to Magnus Lund. We all know someone like Magnus (Nick Thune). He's really good at a lot of things when things are really good and really bad when they're not. The good times are great. The jaunt to upstate New York and the dreaming of how things could work out there allow him to ignore the more immediate problems he faces. The partner he's got in Darby, whose ambition is more than enough to let him hide behind excuses. But all in all, things are better than not, even as the blemishes are starting to show ... and he pops the question as a means of distraction.

But back to Magnus in a minute.

Episode 5 is a flashback. Darby hits up a therapist to try to get to the bottom of what's wrong with her and Magnus — or at least go through the motions. And that takes us back to her high school-age time in boarding school, where she's brilliantly portrayed by Courtney Grosbeck. This episode's all about her first big rejection.

Darby is stuck at boarding school over break, and her company is pretty bleak. (Or at least very nerdy, which for her is the same thing.) She's young and inexperienced in love, much to the amusement of her roommate. "It's not supposed to be comfortable," she tells Darby while packing a thong for the upcoming romp at her boyfriend's place.

Darby's bad boyfriend of the past meets her bad husband of the present.

But things look up when Luke Ducharme (Griffin Gluck) strides into the room. He's Ferris Bueller-meets-Zack Morris (or whatever the non-old person equivalent would be today). He's not at all serious, but also a serious thespian. He's almost certainly a player if the partially unbuttoned robe didn't already give that away. And he and Darby have a blast on break. It's just the two of them, with the full campus at their disposal.

But when class resumes, he ghosts Darby. His reappearance is even more painful than the disappearance. Not helping matters is Darby's reaction to all this, compounding one big mistake on top of another and ultimately causing her to leave school.

Darby's done with therapy at this point.

John Gallagher Jr. as Luke Ducharme

Source: HBO Max Luke returns with a beard, a law degree, and an apology. (Image credit: HBO Max)

Episode 6 picks back up with Magnus. They're married. It's not going great. Her job is picking up, though, which makes up for the problems at home. And the problem at home is Magnus, who still doesn't have a job after being fired from his upscale restaurant gig by someone he thinks wronged him. (The possibility that Magnus was, in fact, the problem, never once crosses his mind.)

When things are bad at home, though, you start to wonder if they're bad for everyone. That leads Darby to Facebook, which leads her to Luke, who's now a lawyer in Boston, and now played by John Gallagher Jr. (Westworld, The Newsroom). Luke's a changed man, apparently. (I say "apparently" because do any of us really change?) He's caring. He's contrite for how things ended 15 years ago. And he and Darby have that sort of reconnection that only happens in movies. And you know what? Good for them. But bad for Magnus.

The final four episodes were a bit of a mixed bag, but they also took Darby in a very different direction and relied less on the funny and more on the feelings.

First, there's Claudia Hoffman, who happens to be Darby's mother. Claudia is a mess. She's narcissistic and quite possibly living with manic depression. It's also maybe the most real relationship we've seen so far. Darby sees herself in her mother and her mother in herself — both good and bad. It's almost too much to take, both for the viewer and Darby, which very much is the point.

Episode 8 gets the gang back together. Darby's former roommate Mallory is marrying her girlfriend and it's bachelorette party time, somewhere upstate. Fellow roommate/friend Sarah Yang is the crux of this episode. She's still very much broken up with Jim after declaring that there was no way she'd move to the suburbs with him. She's coping with way too much booze and cocaine and quickly becomes that old friend whose life is just going in a different — and far more destructive direction. This one's also a hard watch, but it's done very well. 

Then there's the return of Augie. Yes, he's back, and he and Darby pick up pretty much where they left off. Which is to say they love the great times and ignore the little things that tend to doom relationships. But they also both separately come to the conclusion that those things are moving them in different directions and so it's time to hang things up. But that conversation also includes a pretty massive detail from Darby that sets up the season finale.

And that brings us "The Person" in the season finale. That person is Grant (Kingsley Ben-Adir). We're a year and a half beyond Darby and Augie Part II and Darby has been invited to Sarah's wedding. She's cleaned herself up and is getting hitched and smartly seats Darby and Grant (a friend of the groom) at the same table. They very quickly hit it off and head back to Darby's hotel. But she falls asleep on him in an excellent spoilerific way and that ends that. But they reconnect in a bodega in New York City and that's that. He's the person. The forever person.

And that's it for Darby's season of Love Life . HBO has announced the show will be back for Season 2 , but Darby (and therefore Kendrick) won't be the focus, though she'll still make an occasional appearance. We don't yet know who we'll follow in the second season, but it'll be someone in the circle. And hopefully it'll be someone we'll also look forward to knowing.