I just can’t stop thinking about the new season of HBO Max’s Love Life. More specifically, I can’t stop thinking about William Jackson Harper in the new season of HBO Max’s Love Life. Equal parts relatable and chaotic, the actor’s portrayal of newly single Marcus Watkins will frustrate you to no end — but it’ll also bring you joy because Harper is just that good.
Season 2 of Love Life, a rom-com series about the stress of modern dating, picks up somewhere in the timeline of the downward spiral of Season 1 lead Darby’s (Anna Kendrick) personal life. We meet our leading man Marcus (Harper) at her ill-fated wedding, where we learn that he’s seemingly happily married to a spirited white woman named Emily (Maya Kazan). Because the premise of this show basically guarantees breakup after breakup, Marcus’ happy marriage obviously doesn’t last long; a chance meeting with a woman named Mia (Jessica Williams) quickly reveals the cracks in the comfortable life he’s been leading.
Following his sudden divorce (which was mostly his fault), the guy is a total mess. From poorly-executed threesomes, to rushed cohabitations, to emotional affairs, to general wasteman behavior, we discover that Marcus simply doesn’t know how to be in a healthy romantic relationship. Everything he thought that he knew about navigating the dating world turns out to be wrong, leading him to a painful but thoroughly necessary mental reset. Marcus has to start over from scratch after each failed relationship and romantic encounter, relearning how to truly love the people around him and, more importantly, himself — a herculean task that so many of us are taking on in our real lives.
Marcus’s relatability isn’t just thanks to the show’s stellar writing; it’s also the strength of Harper’s performance. This isn’t the actor’s first rodeo. Many TV lover’s first run-in with Harper was his long-time role in the popular NBC comedy The Good Place, in which he played type-A nerd Chidi Anagonye. He starred in several more television and film projects before winning us over again in Barry Jenkins’ moving limited series The Underground Railroadas Royal, a passionate 1800s activist whose swoon-worthy courtship of main character Cora imbued the final half of the beautifully dire series with a sense of hope. Love Life’s Marcus is a new kind of character for Harper, a self-professed nerd who never thought being the lead in a rom-com was in the cards for him.
“I just never felt like I was the guy that people would want to see in that role,” shared the actor in a recent interview with The Cut. “I’ve always been such a nerd, so I never thought that that was where I was headed. That’s the thing that’s fun about playing Marcus. I get to come at it from my point of view. My point of view is less sentimental, and in a lot of ways my outlook is less romantic, but the romance is coming from the situation and the honesty that the characters are having with each other rather than leaning into the idea of what romance is supposed to be.”
That pragmatic, realistic approach is actually the secret sauce of Love Life Season 2. Marcus’ relatability is a credit to the excellent direction of co-showrunners Sam Boyd, Bridget Bredard, and Rachelle Williams-BenAry but also to the range of its lead. For the role, Harper taps into a new level of raw vulnerability to bring to life the messiest, most human character he’s tackled thus far. We all know a Marcus. Some of us have dated a Marcus. Some of us have even been a Marcus, always trying to do the right thing but constantly getting caught up in the moving parts of life. Through all of his highs and lows — and the lows are basement-level — you can’t help but to root for him because we know just how emotionally taxing modern dating can be. Though we wouldn’t make quite the same mistakes he does, we empathize with his plight. (Have you tried dating recently? It’s hard out here.)
Harper’s appeal also takes center stage in the role. Since his scene-stealing supporting role in the 2016 indie rom-com How To Tell You’re A Douchebag, the man has always had a certain je ne sais quoi, but in the HBO Max original, he’s on another level. Almost all of his meet-cutes are peak fanfiction material, featuring Marcus as the goofy, grinning, sparkly-eyed love interest that you’d probably fall for on first sight despite all of the drama that he’ll inevitably bring your way. I call it the Lawrence phenomenon: just like Lawrence from Insecure, you really shouldn’t want to date Marcus, but you totally would if the opportunity presented itself. Now, you may have already had the rumblings of a crush on Harper after The Good Place and The Underground Railroad — personally, I could write a doctoral-esque dissertation on the unbelievable chemistry between Royal and Thuso Mbedu’s Cora Randall — and those feelings definitely evolved after Love Life. And why wouldn’t they? He’s kissing, cussing, and f**king now!
If Love Life is greenlit for a third season, we’ll be introduced to a brand new protagonist with a new set of relationship problems, and Marcus will likely appear in the new chapter as a reminder that love is something worth striving for. (Spoiler: he did get his happily-ever-after at the end of the day, with a Black queen at that!) Even though his run on the HBO Max series has come to a close, I won’t ever forget the feelings Harper stirred up in me as Marcus. As a single woman living and dating in NYC, it’s against my moral code to root for a toxic man breaking hearts in every borough, yet here I am. That’s the William Jackson Harper effect for you.