The “Nice Guy” is a myth. Women have been breaking down this jerk in disguise for years, who takes many forms, all of which involve a pose of sincere, sympathetic, concern and interest intended to get you to be with them. When you don’t comply, look out! The mask comes off and what’s revealed underneath is usually a bitter angry dude who doesn’t understand why you won’t fuck him, because by all accounts, he checked every box to earn it. Trouble is, we rarely see the darker side of the so-called nice guy in popular culture, which tends to take him at face value.
One exception is Judd Apatow’s Netflix show Love — now in its third and final season, and created by Lesley Arfin and Paul Rust, loosely drawn off their own real-life meet-cute — which takes the Nice Guy apart and bats him around a lot to see what’s really underneath.
The show is mostly about a central relationship between nice guy Gus (Paul Rust) and usually sober fuckup Mickey (Gillian Jacobs), but it offers one of two rarities: one is that it’s a rare camera trained on a relationship in the messy middle instead of the beginning or the end, and second, it shows a slew of male characters who offer a master class in the toxic masculinity of the nice guy.
Before we get to them, we should note that this darker handling of Nice Guy-ism is a bit of a departure for Apatow compared to his oeuvre. When Love debuted in 2016, critics noted that this was a much-needed upending of Apatow’s typical nice guy characters, as found in Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd in Knocked Up and This Is 40, to name a few. While those characters certainly had to grow by confronting their own selfishness by credits time, neither reads as being all that dark or troublesome, or the result of some wrenchingly serious, soul-searching revelations about the real-life limitations of the Nice Guy.
That may be because with Love, Apatow was freed from the typical rom-com constraints of the Hollywood ending that forced cheesy, tidy, perfect endings. But it’s also just as likely a result of the fact that you can’t really make a show about the middle of a relationship if the middle is good. If every fight is easily resolved, if every character is self-aware and good at anticipating their partner’s needs, if everyone is self-actualized, present and attentive, well, that’s a Hallmark card, not a television show.
What’s left in the show to flank Mickey and Gus making a sloppy, chaotic go of it is a series of Nice Guy characters who are flawed to varying degrees, and who all push the boundaries of Apatow’s typical bumbling characters in their pathologies. From worst to best, they go in this order:
Dr. Gregg: Toxic Nice Guy
Brett Gelman plays Dr. Gregg, a (self-involved narcissistic creep) radio psychologist at the station where Mickey works as a producer. She sleeps with him to avoid getting fired, but he in turn mistakes it for genuine interest and pursues her relentlessly in between negging her and taunting her attempts at sobriety. He seems concerned for her basic humanity, and eager to help people face their problems, but in reality he’s a bitter, wounded borderline MRA who gives bad radio advice and is prone to fits of rage. Gelman plays Dr. Gregg as a perfect mixture of a smarmy blowhard egomaniac who is clearly controlled by women, but also despises the power they have over him. In one episode, he flips out and throws condoms at a woman’s head when she disagrees with him.
Gus: People-Pleasing Nice Guy
Gus is introduced in season one as a bit of a sad sack dumpee whose live-in girlfriend is sick of his accommodating people pleasing. Then he meets Mickey, a fuckup cliché party girl who jumps in swimming pools to kick things up a notch. They embark on something like a relationship, but something keeps getting in the way. We’re led to believe it’s her unstable addiction issues, but as the seasons go on, it’s clear it’s actually Gus thwarting real intimacy. He’s not a toxic asshole, but he’s often a jerk masquerading as a Nice Guy. He loves her, but he’s addicted to his own little menagerie of coping mechanisms. He lies near constantly to her about the realities of his own past and current issues. He’s addicted to people pleasing and conflict-avoidant to a fault. Plus, there are serious rage issues underneath the fact that he never gets his needs met by catering to others.
In Love, this isn’t always played as an angry, funny outburst as it would be in other Apatow vehicles — it’s sometimes dark and sad. Gus is extremely ambitious, but his foot-shooting personality means he loses jobs, derails his career, wrecks his car, and damages trust by alternating between amiable Jekyll and pissy, shitty Hyde. And, again, he straight-up lies: about what he really thinks, about his past, about what he really wants, about whether he’s actually happy. He says cruel things without thinking, and is the worst kind of Nice Guy: The guy so “nice” you can never really know him. (Semi-spoiler: the final season gives him a lot of redemptive depth.)
Randy: Clueless Nice Guy
Mickey’s roommate Bertie (Claudia O’ Doherty) is an Australian boozehound who loves to party, have sex, and be a pushover. Her boyfriend Randy (Mike Mitchell), naturally, is an unemployed loser who mooches off her and has no ambition, but is supposed to be a good guy because he loves her. Loves her like, puppy dog cheesy smothering love, not mature stable contributing partner love. He lies most of the time to her, too — about his financial situation (broke), living situation (car), and what he does with his days (sleep). He’s the guy who never figured out her birthday, and can’t do anything last minute because he just happened to have scheduled a colonoscopy that night and will be shitting out the contents of his intestines for the evening. He’s slow, buffoonish and basically a clown, but he loves his Bertie-bear, which is supposed to pass for an actual good boyfriend. He sucks, but he’s too stupid to be as deliberately dishonest as Gus.
Chris: Actual Nice Guy
Chris’s ambitions to be a stuntman are derailed by his insecurities and self-defeating attitude, but contrary to the other characters in the show, he’s a good, reliable friend and mostly does the right thing. He increasingly realizes he’s falling for Bertie, but attempts to do it the right way. He shows interest in her by actually listening and remembering her stories, and picking things to do that she will actually enjoy. He’s supportive and responsive, and actually cares about her, while straddling the complexities of being friends with Randy.
Taken together, each male character is its own piece of the kaleidoscope of the way men try to aspire to achieve masculinity while reconciling their human personalities and flaws — insecurity, fear, conflict avoidance, and almost no good modeling for how to be honest and deal with the women in their lives. But in a strange way, they each represent the full spectrum of what masculinity looks like in the wild. It’s a shame the show is wrapping up, but it could only go so long operating on the little transgressions and victories of love in the middle, while still showing men as they really are, warts and all, and not as most Hollywood endings would have them be.