Television

Romantic Comedy Isn’t Dying, but on Streaming, It’s Settling for Good Enough

Streaming TV is keeping rom-coms alive, but it’s also stunting their growth.

Still from Four Weddings and a Funeral
Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Hulu

This past April, the culture critic Wesley Morris wrote an essay lamenting the death of the romantic comedy. The rom-com is gone, he wrote, “and we’re making do with substitutions, decoys and mirages,” going on to list the hit film Crazy Rich Asians, the sardonic TV show You’re the Worst, and the indefatigable reality series The Bachelor as examples of ersatz rom-coms, romantic-ish entertainments that don’t quite count as the real thing. While it’s true that romantic comedies are much less common in movie theaters than they once were, they have flocked, like so much explosion-less fiction, to streaming services. Always Be My Maybe, Set It Up, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Someone Great, and When We First Met are just some of the original, movie-length romantic comedies Netflix has made available in the last year or so to any rom-com aficionado with a borrowed password. Far from dying, streaming has made the form newly resurgent—but that doesn’t mean that something is not amiss. That something, however, has nothing to do with quantity and everything to do with quality. The diagnosis isn’t death. It’s decay. Ask not why the rom-com has died. Ask why it stinks.

When I say rom-com, I mean the form at its most distilled: two people and an obstacle. Man, woman, and both think they’re just friends. Man, woman, and one of them thinks they’re just friends. Woman, woman, and one is engaged to a man. Man, woman, coma. Man, woman, bet. Man, woman, their divorce, etc. It’s a movie or a TV show where the whole plot is concerned with the two romantic leads realizing (or remembering) that they belong together. TV shows that incorporate romantic comedy elements, often wonderfully—The Office, Insecure, Master of None—don’t meet this standard, because a romance between one couple is not the series’ preoccupation. Alternately, TV shows like the second season of Fleabag (man, woman, he’s a priest), the first season of Catastrophe (man, woman, accidental pregnancy), and to toss in a throwback, the first two seasons of Moonlighting (man, woman, they drive each other crazy) do.

So does Hulu’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, which is “based on”—please read those quotation marks as extremely derisive—the Hugh Grant classic of the same name. Like the original, it is set in England amid a group of friends; contains, over its run, four weddings and a funeral; and features Andie MacDowell, though as an entirely different character. The series stars Nathalie Emmanuel (Game of Thrones’ Missandei) as Maya, an American who meets cute with Kash (Nikesh Patel) during a luggage mishap at Heathrow. The two, as sparky as wet logs, connect over the mopey realization they are not living their best lives, but they can’t get together because Kash is engaged—and not just to anyone. Man, woman, he’s engaged to her best friend.

The pair circle one another over the following eight episodes, which are filled out with the romantic hijinks of their friends, most of whom went to college with Maya, and a good many of whom are more engaging than the leads themselves. (Four Weddings might be better understood as the softhearted version of the not-at-all-good but somehow addictive Friends From College.) Unlike the Richard Curtis–scripted movie, this Four Weddings boasts a female lead and a diverse cast—it was co-created by Mindy Kaling and Matt Warburton—but it lacks all of the original’s bumbling charm. (And I say that knowing that the original film contains what may be the worst line reading every committed to celluloid!) Blander, more hackneyed and less memorable, it’s also four times longer.

Somewhere in this eight-hour run time, I thought, Brevity is the soul of rom-com. Rom-coms are headed somewhere: love. There’s lots of zippy tension to be had in putting its arrival off for a while, but after that while, you’re just circling the runway. TV comedies, in particular, often like to idle, to go nowhere in no hurry at all. You get to know the characters and the actors and their humor, and then, if everything goes well, you all hang out for multiple seasons. Four Weddings and Funeral misuses both kinds of delay: It’s stalling and it never quite makes use of that time to turn its protagonists into three-dimensional people.

And yet: Reader, I watched most of it. Four Weddings and a Funeral is good enough—if just barely. Good-enough television is not a new phenomenon, but it is a booming one. The money streaming services have pumped into Hollywood in a frenzy for content, alongside a promise not to meddle so long as the thing comes in finished, has us swimming in more adequate content than ever before. It is very hard to make something very good, and the 15 percent that distinguishes fine from great is the hardest part of all. Pushing past passable solely on the strength of your own standards is extremely difficult, especially when adequate so often seems to satisfy both the moneymen and Twitter.

None of this is specific to rom-coms, but romantic comedies, cinematic as well as streaming, are particularly susceptible to being “good enough.” While insulting Four Weddings and a Funeral earlier, I kept wanting to call it predictable, and it is, but so are most romantic comedies: Predictability is a defining, maybe the defining, characteristic of the genre. A thriller, a noir, a Western, a buddy comedy, a mystery will come to some kind of resolution, but what exactly that means and how it happens varies quite a bit. A romantic comedy follows a more proscribed outline: Two people fall in love, and they end up together (with the occasional exception, i.e., My Best Friend’s Wedding). A rom-com is like an omelet: It may be hard to make a great one, but most of them will do. The pleasure of the rom-com comes from the panache with which it colors inside the lines, the inventiveness with which it plays by the rules—but it also comes from its predictability. Even a bad version is exactly what you think it is.

Still from Always Be My Maybe
Always Be My Maybe.
Netflix

In a romantic comedy, the line between knowing what is going to happen in a fun, fizzy way and knowing exactly what is going to happen in a rote, dull way is very fine. As hard as it for them to be great, it’s nearly as hard for them to be totally unwatchable. In romance as with rom-coms: Sometimes you settle. Rom-coms are not distributed along a bell curve from fantastic to horrific: They are distributed along a bell curve from fantastic to “it’s bad but I will watch some part of it when I come upon it on cable anyway.” (I think of this as the Something Borrowed axiom.) The rom-com’s preexisting tendency toward being just good enough has been exacerbated by the good-enough tendency of streaming itself, a doubling that further stifles ingenuity.

I don’t want to go overboard: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is genuinely lovely if not all that comedic, Always Be My Maybe has that uproarious Keanu Reeves bit, and Set It Up is easily as good as any late-Heigl picture. And like Four Weddings, these Netflix movies are much more diverse than their forebears. But they still feel like they could be just a little better, a little funnier, a little sharper. Four Weddings and a Funeral, with its relatively gargantuan running time, underscored something I’ve noticed in the much shorter Netflix rom-coms too: The characters are written a little lackadaisically, like they’ll have the time to gel into specific, singular people later on. This sort of bagginess is what you want in a TV pilot: room for actors to grow into and transform the part from some overdetermined “type” into a human being. But these films don’t have that time, so instead they have a whiff of bad sitcom. (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before may be the best of the bunch because it’s based on a book, which provides the kind of muscular characterizations some of the other productions don’t have.)

Netflix is supposedly driving the collapse of the distinction between TV and movies, but when I look at its movie-length romantic comedies, I don’t see a melding of formats. I see, instead, the survival of a very particular, disrespected hybrid: the TV movie. These Netflix rom-coms fall into a newfangled netherworld between the old-school standards of theatrical movies and the newer, higher standards of ambitious serialized television. Maybe one day there won’t be any difference between the ambitions, standards, status, and psychological buy-in associated with making a movie, a TV show, or a “Netflix movie,” but for now there is—and you can see it on whatever screen you’re using to watch stuff.

There’s nothing about streaming itself that should be inimical to romantic comedies, except that the pressure to be really fucking good has to come almost entirely from the people driving the project. Fleabag and Catastrophe work so well because they are made by people with a hyperspecific passion and vision and a point of view. Those are qualities that have always been hard to come by, but they do come around eventually, and they will, one day, come to the streaming rom-com. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part, since I know, either way, I’ll be watching.