In comedy, they say timing is everything. That goes double for romantic comedy. The genre is built on the tension between fate and circumstance: Two people are meant to be together, but the plot keeps them out of sync until divine order is restored.
But what if fate is just a concept we impose on accidents of timing? What if love is never “meant to be,” so much as it’s the product of will and coincidence and hard work? These questions, not so much cynical as realistic, connect “Love” on Netflix and “Togetherness” on HBO, a pair of bittersweet candy hearts about romance among the Los Angeles creative class.
“Love,” whose first season arrived Friday, is created by Judd Apatow, bard of the pop-savvy rom-com, along with Lesley Arfin (“Girls”) and Paul Rust, who also co-stars. Sweet and awkward, hopeful and cringe-inducing, it slows down the arc of a single romance like a frame-by-frame replay of a car crash and asks whether that collision is a disaster or a happy accident.
The first episode spends around 40 minutes — the sitcom equivalent of one of Apatow’s supersized movies — bringing Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) and Gus (Rust) together.
Mickey, a self-help radio-show producer and sometime 12-stepper, is dumping her latest bad-choice lover, a coke addict living with his parents.
Gus, a nebbishy aspiring screenwriter and tutor for a TV child star, is being forced out of a dull relationship by a girlfriend (Milana Vayntrub) tired of his “fake nice” passive-aggressiveness.
Mickey is a little self-centered and a lot self-destructive. Gus hides his own nice-guy toxicity under a smooth layer of victimhood. (As he puts it, “Sometimes, if a waiter’s really bad, I’ll just tip them like 30 percent, so they go like, ‘I didn’t deserve this.’”)
They make a connection, but if they go together, it’s not like a hand to a glove; more like a foot to a doormat.
The 10-episode season brings Mickey and Gus together and apart, together and apart, until they confront the possibility that they really hooked up to satisfy a conception of themselves: he dating the erratic Mickey so he can feel more dangerous, she seeing a “nice guy” so she can feel she’s getting her life together.
It’s a heavy recognition, but it doesn’t have to be the end. Sometimes, “Love” suggests, romance doesn’t need candlelight to grow so much as an honest fluorescent glare.
If “Love” is the before picture, the vastly improved second season of “Togetherness,” which returns at 10:30 p.m. Sunday on HBO, is the after: after kids, after 10 years or so, after all the entanglements and investments that turn romantic comedy into romantic dramedy.
“Togetherness,” created by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass along with Steve Zissis, has a title whose meaning became clear only over time. At first, it seemed like a play on the initial premise: Brett (Mark Duplass) and Michelle (Melanie Lynskey), a stressed-out married couple with two young kids, took in Brett’s struggling-actor friend Alex (Zissis) and Michelle’s sister Tina (Amanda Peet), who developed a friendship and on-off attraction. One house, four adults pushing 40, barely room to breathe among all the baggage.
But as the show grew, the title seemed to refer to the elusive ideal of any long-term relationship: being in the same emotional space at the same time.
In the first season, Brett and Michelle knew their marriage was in trouble, but they were out of sync: she feeling overwhelmed and neglected, he, lost in a funk. It was as if he were having an affair, but with himself. (Duplass’ placid manner makes him a good introvert, a personality type TV has a hard time with.)
By the time Brett was ready to work on their marriage, Michelle was in a hotel room with David (John Ortiz), a single dad she developed a crush on while working on a charter-school project.
“Togetherness” wasn’t an easy series to like at first; it seemed like a show about self-involved whiners (lightened by Zissis’ and Peet’s sharp comic turns), but revealed itself as an empathetic story about how circumstances can turn you into a self-involved whiner.
This year, “Togetherness” has positively bloomed. It’s sadder and funnier, welling over with feeling. It’s insightful not just about marriage but friendship; as Alex lands a big movie role, Brett feels them drifting apart, too. Meanwhile, Tina is seeing an older man, who’s simpatico in every way but a big one: She wants kids, and he doesn’t.
For all that, “Togetherness” is no downer. Like “Thirtysomething” or “Parenthood,” it knows when to leaven its heart-heaviness. (A running story line in which Alex and Brett plan a puppet-theater production of “Dune” is a font of great sight gags.)
It’s not necessarily the stuff of a mass hit, even by HBO standards, and the season ends on what, if necessary, could be a satisfying, cathartic series finale.
Love, “Togetherness” suggests, is not about being constantly together. It’s about having bonds that stretch as you inevitably drift apart, and faith that they might eventually snap back.