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In Praise of the Television Rom-Com

Episodic storytelling makes for great romance.

"Starstruck" and its fellow TV rom-coms go down easy.

Rumors of the romantic comedy’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

The rom-com has received many a postmortem over these last, say, twenty years. The last decade was filled with thinkpiece after thinkpiece, that defining genre of the 2010s, about the romantic comedy’s supposed demise. Netflix likes to act as though it has single-handedly saved a genre that has been surviving just fine without it, especially given that we live in an era when Marvel movies make up half of the theater offerings in a given week.

Box office smashes like Crazy Rich Asians, and to a lesser extent Trainwreck and Crazy Stupid Love, have kept the romance alive even as others were doing their damnedest to pronounce it dead. And smaller films have been quietly chugging along, casting profound love stories that reflect a different kind of attachment to romance: The Big Sick, Plus One, Long Shot (if a movie with Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen can be said to be a quiet release). So yes, feature-length romantic comedies are alive and well.

But, dear reader, I am here to tell you that the thinkpieces are wrong—in at least two ways. Rom-coms are not at all dead, for one. And the best ones aren’t movies. The best romantic comedy work is happening on television, and it has been for some time now.

A spate of recent and somewhat-recent shows have elevated the form to what I would venture to call its best performance since at least the 1990s. Shows like Netflix’s Feel Good and Amazon Prime’s Catastrophe, like the second season of HBO Max’s Love Life and all twelve episodes of Starstruck, have quietly done great work in depicting the messy absurdism of modern love. And it’s all to do with form.

The short-series format in particular befits a love story. Love is episodic, and not only as we pass in and out of each others’ lives but also as we navigate the messy insides of a relationship. These shows are slow builds; often there isn’t an enormous gesture. There aren’t embarrassing public declarations of love or improbable sprints through the airport. Indeed, these shows are often hyper-aware of the minefield of tropes in which they tread. As Fleabag’s sister Clare says in that show’s Season 2 finale, “The airport? How would I even find him? You can’t get through security without a boarding pass.”

Perhaps Clare’s terminal practicality is a downer. Romantic comedies, as many critics have pointed out, are fantasies, opportunities for living vicariously. But there is also something to be said for a certain realism, too, for flawed characters and love’s small pains and pleasures. After all, it is so often these smaller moments that show us the things we crave.

And this is what these shows understand—that romance lies in the small moments as much as in the big ones. The particular idiosyncrasies of a specific love. Halfway through the first episode of Feel Good, our protagonist Mae, a comedian and recovering addict, wakes her girlfriend Georgina. She is chattering and energized, rattling through the list of things she’s done already this morning. George, blinking through the daze of waking up, mumbles, “Can you just lie on top of me and tell me something Canadian?” And Mae simply plops her body completely atop George’s and recites a piece historical trivia, forehead-to-forehead.

Watching this, I felt the pleasant shock of recognition; my own partner often does this same thing to me. I felt the same seeing Love Life’s Mia and Marcus bicker over the specifics of Downton Abbey, or watching Catastrophe’s Sharon tell Rob to get out of the apartment so she can just be alone for a second.

Where features hustle us through, television allows us the luxury of the drawn-out reveal. I don’t necessarily mean this in terms of length; many of these shows have seasons whose combined runtime is shorter than your average blockbuster. All told, Starstruck’s two seasons clock in at about 2 hours each; Catastrophe is about the same. They’re easily bingeable, and that’s precisely how I watched them — back-to-back-to-back. But the credits that roll between each episode re-establish an equilibrium, even if the streamer hurries us onto the next one.

The central conceit of Love Life is that the show follows a single protagonist through a series of relationships, blind dates and one-night stands and years-long cohabitation. Its episodic form mimics the reality of modern dating, the swipe-and-sex of it all. But Catastrophe, Starstruck, Feel Good, and You’re the Worst all follow the same couple across the entire series. And there are many merits to this approach. Episodic romance allows tension to accrete naturally rather than being heightened through various wacky antics, each one-upping the last. Typically, the shows unfold across longer time periods, which makes the romance feel more earned, more realistic. And the pacing of the shows allows characters to spend a lot more time sitting and talking, riffing, and generally enjoying one another’s presence.

We get to know our characters over episodes; their entire life stories need not be poured out in an opening-credits voiceover for the sake of runtime. There is down-time in the exposition and denouement of each episode’s arc that doesn’t feel natural in a film. That’s not to say that the storytelling in rom-com television isn’t efficient. In Starstruck, our protagonists have already had sex by the time we hit the ten-minute mark; ditto Feel Good, Catastrophe, and FX’s You’re the Worst.

And as for the improbable chases, the kiss in the rain, the big gestures: after a series of episodes spread across weeks or months or even years, the pay-off is bigger. We know our characters; we know how difficult it has been for them to change, to open themselves to love. When, in the Season 2 finale of Starstruck, our heroine Jessie jumps into a lake mid-rainstorm to profess her love, we believe the act. It is a scene that feels true to character: the spontaneity of the moment is pure Jessie, thoughtless and rash, but the apology itself is a moment of growth and vulnerability we haven't seen before. And yet her language is couched in that same self-protective irony. "I love you," she says, and then laughs in embarrassment and self mockery at the cliche of the moment. "Okay, ah, that's funny, I love you," she says again.

Jessie jumps into that water with a keen awareness of every trope. She has seen Mr. Darcy striding out of the lake in Pride and Prejudice, has watched Billy Crystal sprint through Manhattan in When Harry Met Sally. The comedy of the moment, in fact, is heightened by that awareness, on both her part and ours. The jokes depend in part on our own familiarity with the same scenes: Tom Hanks' dog trotting through the garden at the end of You've Got Mail. Julia Roberts in Notting Hill, a girl standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her. Bridget Jones kissing her own Mr. Darcy, pants-less in a snowstorm.

In contrast to the perfection of those moments, Starstruck's dependable realism reflects our own internal monologues as we watch those classics—thoughts reminiscent of Clare's airport critique. Even as Jessie stammers and stumbles her way through an apology, her friends are all yelling over one another, screaming at her to get back in the boat. Even as the couple seals the deal with a waterlogged kiss, one friend yells, "Get out of the water! We're going to lose our deposit!" Perhaps the realism even ends an extra ounce of romance to the moment; we believe in it that much more.

In "Feel Good" our romantic leads have already moved in together by the ten-minute mark of Episode 1.

I have always been of the opinion that real intimacy is what happens after the credits scene. The beginning of a relationship, filled as it is with butterflies and golden hours and fixations — that’s the least interesting bit of it. For me, anyway. There is the thrill of falling in love, but what’s really romantic, I think, is learning how to stay in love. Through the little irritations that arise slowly and fester: they never clean the dryer filter, they leave the lights on, they eat leftovers you were saving for tomorrow. Through the fights that last for hours, long conversations heavy with tears and irritation and exhaustion too, because they always seem to happen late at night. Through tragedy; the death of a loved one, or the loss of one’s self, in one way or another, which are also sometimes the same thing.

Love is built less on bewitching first kisses than on the pecks you exchange with your coat half-on as you hurry to work in the morning or the loud, disgusting smooches you plant on your partner as they squeal and squirm away from you. The most poignant of romances are more often than not the compilation of years, of arguments navigated, therapy had, of the constant decision, again and again, to choose the same person.

It’s easy to fall in love and even easier to fall out of it, though when it happens it never feels that way. A rom-com series can certainly have a broad arc—in fact, it should. But the micro-arcs of each episode give both the protagonists and the viewer room to breathe. All relationships cycle through the tightening and loosening of the ties that bind. A parent’s visit to town, a forgotten milestone, a simple miscommunication about what one person needs or wants: in the grand equation of any given relationship, it is these sort of small moments that add to the calculus.

A season’s structure, the small ups and downs of each episode, the subtle arc: this is what love looks like.

I care about first kisses and first dates, but what I really want is the kiss after a long absence, in the airport arrivals lane while cars blink behind you and a family argues over whether they parked in Long Term A or Long Term B. I want to know all the times you’ve fallen in love with the same person. Was it when he held your child for the first time? Was it stumbling home drunk after a night out, having watched friends flirt and search and feeling grateful all over again to share your bed with someone so easily? Was it the excitement on her face the year she bought you the concert tickets she knew you’d been wanting? It’s those moments that matter, something as little as a sandwich sliced diagonally and never in half. Show me you know me. Show me you’ve heard me on a frequency no one else can hear.


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