Roush Review: 'Love Life' Launches HBO Max With a Bittersweet Valentine

Matt Roush
Love Life HBO Max
Review HBO MAX

Where's Carrie Bradshaw when a single girl in the big city could really use her help figuring out love, sex and a series of messy relationships?

Instead of perky Sarah Jessica Parker posing the big questions, the romantic highs and lows of Darby Carter (a luminous Anna Kendrick) — the sympathetic subject of the first season of Love Life — are narrated in the plummy tones of Lesley Manville (PBS's World on Fire). Her omniscient and occasionally intrusive perspective is designed to comfort, even at Darby's nadir: "It will all happen for her," we're assured, "just not the way she thinks it will."

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If the course of made-for-TV love ran smoothly, there would be little incentive to watch. And there are plenty of reasons to fall for Love Life, a romantic-comedy anthology that's the bittersweet centerpiece of the launch of the new HBO Max streaming service. While comparisons to HBO's own cultural phenomenon are inevitable, and no doubt welcomed, Darby and her fellow millennials experience a far more relatable and less glamorous side of New York City life.

She and her colorful (if underdeveloped) roomies are still figuring out their goals and desires; Darby, a fickle child of divorce who's working her way up in the art world, changes jobs as often as she does boyfriends. Love Life, which will focus on a new protagonist each season, tracks her encounters over the last decade, from serious to casual, star-crossed to toxic, ill-advised to if-only. Sometimes she's the one being hurt; other times she's the hurtful one. (In a particularly resonant episode, she lies to keep a random hookup from getting more complicated and is properly called out on it.)

Love Life Anna Kendrick

(Credit: HBO Max)

Endearing even when she's being aggravating—although who could possibly be distracted when treated to aisle seats at Hamilton?—Kendrick lets us in on Darby's deep-rooted insecurities. A flashback to a mortifying teenage incident at boarding school is especially painful., although when her crush grows up to be an actor familiar to HBO viewers, you just might swoon.

As Darby learns to accept the flaws of others, including a self-absorbed mom (Hope Davis) and a self-destructive BFF (Zoë Chao), she begins to realize she must forgive her own shortcomings in order to allow herself a happy ending. (Only seven of 10 episodes were available for preview, so I’m going on faith that Darby will find, or perhaps reconnect with, her true soulmate.)

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I knew I loved Darby by the end of the first half-hour episode, after she tells a friend, "When you talk about love, you turn into Coach Taylor." Anyone who can toss off a Friday Night Lights reference deserves all the happiness she can get.

Love LifeSeries Premiere, Wednesday, May 27, HBO Max