Love, Judd Apatow's new rom-com series now streaming on Netflix, presents an interesting, complex twist on the Nice Guy -- the stock character who uses being nice as a way to passively manipulate women into sex and/or a relationship -- where he's both an archetype and a realistic person.
Gus, played by show co-creator Paul Rust, uses acting nice as a tactic to control his girlfriend Natalie's (Milana Vayntrub) behavior. By acting nice -- buying Omaha Steaks to send to her dad on his birthday and telling her he loves her constantly, for example -- Gus makes Natalie feel like she can't address problems in their relationship because there's nothing wrong on the surface. Consciously or not, he's manipulating Natalie into staying with him.
In the first few minutes of Love's pilot, Gus and Natalie break up when she can't take it anymore. The breakup starts when he tells her he loves her and she says "you say 'I love you' too much."
"I'm so sorry to be affectionate to you," he replies sarcastically.
"It's not affection, it's pressure, because then if I don't say it back, it becomes a thing," she says.
He gets mad and starts saying "I love you, I love you" over and over, until she tells him she cheated on him. Cut to a few minutes later, and he's packing his things and telling her she's out of his life. But the moment she expresses sadness, he changes his tune, saying, "Obviously we're still going to be friends." This enrages Natalie, because it shows how disingenuous he is.
"You're not nice, you're fake-nice, which is worse than being mean," she yells at him. Later in the show, Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) tells him exactly the same thing.
Gus is a stereotypical Nice Guy: nerdy, not especially good-looking, entitled, and not so good at actually thinking about what other people want or need, even though he thinks he is. He's already in a relationship at the beginning of the show, but he uses being a Nice Guy to prolong that relationship, and it's easy to imagine that Gus Nice-Guy'd his way into the relationship. Sometimes his selfishness manifests in helping others, but he's still selfish. He helps the child actor he tutors cheat on a test in order to save his job, not to protect her. He gets angry and resentful when his kindness is not received how he wants or when people see through his manipulation. And at one point, in a rare moment of honesty, he tells Mickey he's not some nice guy who'll just be friends with her if she's not going to have sex with him. Gus is even called a lowercase "nice guy" in the show's Netflix description, a word choice that seems unlikely to be a coincidence, considering co-creator Lesley Arfin's history as a writer on Season 1 ofGirls and a relationship advice columnist.
Gus is a carefully observed character of a type Rust and Arfin are clearly very familiar with (Arfin has said that much of Gus and Mickey are inspired by her and Rust, who are married in real life). They know how to use the rules of the archetype, but they also know how Gus doesn't fit the archetype. Love knows that Gus isn't actually nice, and he's not supposed to be sympathetic in how he treats Natalie and Mickey. But Natalie and Mickey aren't very nice to him either, with Natalie lying about cheating on him and Mickey's general boundless selfishness. And Gus wants to really love someone, he just doesn't know how yet.
Gus exists on a spectrum. Gus is a work-in-progress. He's clearly not a terrible person. He has his flaws, like his Nice Guy streak and the way he lets his anxiety spiral into insane control freakiness, but he can also be genuinely thoughtful and caring. He's not a bad guy, he's just not the hero he thinks he is. Gus' journey on Love seems to be evolving from a Nice Guy into an actual nice guy, who can be honest about his feelings and treats people well for their sake, not his own selfish motives.
The clever manipulation of the archetype is one of many things Love does well -- another essay could be written about how Gillian Jacobs' Mickey upends the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Love shows cultural progress around the idea of the Nice Guy where he's not the hero for once, and is part of the larger cultural conversation about ordinary white men always being the heroes of their own stories. If you haven't binged Love yet, it's a worthwhile way spend your weekend.