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How TV Saved The Rom-Com

Long live romance (on TV)

by Naomi Elias

Last year, the closest thing to rom-com magic the silver screen saw was Deadpool and his lady love’s foul-mouthed yet flirtatious banter. But that's not really surprising: Countless media sites have foretold the death of the rom-com movie over the years. But in truth, the rom-com hasn’t died; it's just found a new home: TV.

If this displacement seems like a demotion, it isn’t. The television rom-com is doing more to challenge and grow the genre than film has in years. Showrunners have taken advantage of television’s format to reimagine the rom-com in fresher, smarter, and sometimes grittier ways. There have been superficial changes to structure—one of the longest running TV rom-coms, How I Met Your Mother, was essentially a nine-season-long meet cute, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is TV’s only rom-com musical—in addition to more significant changes in content that include centering women of color, tackling non-traditional rom-com subject matter like reproductive and mental health, and granting major storylines to queer characters who are at best sidelined and at worst erased from mainstream cinema. TV has issued a corrective for the failure of imagination in film and, in doing so, breathed new life into a beloved but struggling genre. 

On film, all anticipation and surprise have been erased by rom-com formula. The most common scenario is an uptight career woman like Katherine Heigl initially butting heads but eventually coming to adore a lovable rogue like Josh Duhamel (Life As We Know It), Seth Rogan (Knocked Up), or James Marsden (27 Dresses). Or, an ensemble featuring an endless list of market-tested (and almost exclusively white) Hollywood stars meet in short vignettes converging around a holiday like Valentine’s Day (2010) or New Year’s Eve (2011). These movies never pay enough attention to any of the many story lines interwoven throughout their 130-minute run times and their biggest laughs tend to come from over-trodden comedic beats like playing into stereotypes, or goofy physical comedy like pratfalls and wardrobe malfunctions. 

These films suffer from paradoxical problems; they are both bloated and empty. Today’s top actresses have fled the genre because there are too many undeveloped characters and too much money is spent on salary, location, and marketing instead of story, which results in beautifully shot films that have nothing to say. The main characters’ entire story arcs have been simplified to a formula that always includes predictably unrealistic professions to an ending scene where one of the two leads runs toward the other and they finally embrace, a trope which occurs invariably in rom-coms both good (Bridget Jones’ Diary, Silver Linings Playbook) and bad (Fever Pitch). 

When the genre does push forward and delivers something new like 2014’s Obvious Child, an “abortion rom-com” by writer/director Gillian Robespierre, it is the exception that proves the rule. Obvious Child broke rank with standard rom-com fodder by portraying a woman’s decision to get an abortion. Rather than continue in this film's trailblazing vein, though, Hollywood reverted to toothless but financially dependable blockbusters. The major rom-coms released in 2016 were either sequels, like Bridget Jones’s Baby and My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, or clumsy ensemble pieces, like Mother’s Day and How To Be Single. Alternatively, abortion received a different treatment on TV as several rom-com series, like Jane the Virgin, You’re the Worst, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Please Like Me, made the bold choice to normalize their portrayal. Still, women continue to lay their hopes upon this film genre because it is often their only chance to see themselves on screens that are otherwise reserved for stories about the lives of men.

Romantic comedies are historically the one genre where women get to be the leads, where their inner lives are explored and offered up as an A-story rather than as accessories to a man’s emotional journey. This artistic freedom unshackles TV rom-com leads from prescribed notions of rom-com lead, thus female behavior. The female leads on modern TV rom-coms like You’re The Worst, Insecure, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are less apologetic—some are borderline antiheroes—more body positive, and racially inclusive than the average rom-com lead. In the Amazon original Catastrophe, Sharon Horgan stars as an Irish woman in her 40s named Sharon who has a six-night stand in London with an American (comedian and Twitter champ Rob Delaney). This leads to an accidental pregnancy that, given her age, Sharon decides to carry to term. The Emmy-nominated comedy sees the two explore a brutally real love story that navigates everything from their cultural differences to Sharon’s cervical pre-cancer with humor. Sharon is rude and self-possessed and her needs, desires, and screen time are fundamentally equal to those of the man in her life. 

On Hulu’s The Mindy Project, Mindy Lahiri (played by Mindy Kaling, who is also the show's creator) is a proud Indian-American OB/GYN who is absurdly self-absorbed and endlessly fashionable but also vulnerable and professionally competent—in short, a complicated woman the likes of which big screen rom-coms haven’t seen in years. This complex assortment of personality traits has made Lahiri one of the most relatable women on TV. When she’s confronted with body shamers, she replies, “I am not overweight. I fluctuate between chubby and curvy.” When one potential love interest disappoints her, Lahiri lets him know with her reliably unmerciful wit, "Listen, my body is very attracted to your body, but when you speak my brain gets angry." 

While an Indian-American showrunner and lead actress like Kaling is a rarity for TV, such a situation is even less likely in film. A 2015 study by USC Annenberg’s Media Diversity and Social Change Initiative analyzed more than 30,000 characters in 700 films from roughly 2007 to 2014 and found that each year only 3 to 7 percent of the roles were filled by Asian actors. While Kaling has caught flack for diversity issues on her show—her character almost exclusively dates white men—she has still made it a point to feature actors of color. Transgender actress and activist Laverne Cox, comedian Niecy Nash, and actor John Cho have all had guest arcs on the romantic comedy. 

The most impactful innovation of the modern TV era is the trend of launching a series not only including but actually centering a show on women of color. A prime example of this is the CW’s Jane the Virgin, which features a Latina lead, which is a first for the network. It's also a bilingual show, another first, and it gives nearly equal weight to the story arcs of three generations of women in the Villanueva family, combatting the ageism also prevalent in traditional rom-coms. Jane Villanueva is a hardworking and spunky hopeless romantic who is desired by many suitors, just like Cameron Diaz in There’s Something About Mary. And while much is played for laughs, there's also a real sincerity to the way in which Jane and her mother and grandmother enjoy intergenerational story lines that are relatable to anyone, but also often specific to the Latino experience, including conversations that naturally flow from Spanish into English, and a first season focus on Jane’s abuela’s undocumented status. 

Essentially, Jane is what happens when a network realizes the modern American girl next door is Latina. But the show doesn’t stop simply at delivering strong female leads of color; it also fleshes out the inner lives of its secondary and tertiary female characters like one of the first season’s villains, Petra Solano, wife of Jane’s baby daddy. In lesser hands, Petra would be the typical one-dimensional rom-com bitch (think Selma Blair’s Vivian in the first half of Legally Blonde), who many agree should be retired. Instead, the show offers backstory that justifies her crueler actions and has made her into a flawed but generally likable character capable of rivaling even Jane for the audience’s sympathy. All of Jane the Virgin’s moving parts—and there are many—work together to craft a narrative that favors rich storytelling and nuanced female characters over ease and convention. In 2015, these efforts paid off when Gina Rodriguez, the actress playing Jane, scored the CW its first Golden Globe nomination and win since the network was created in 2006.

Over at HBO, comedian Issa Rae’s first TV show, Insecure, made history for the network which had never before had a black woman create and star in her own show—Rae’s is only the second black-woman-run comedy in TV history after Wanda Sykes’ short-lived project in 2003. Insecure’s protagonist is professionally and romantically frustrated while her best friend Molly, another black woman, is a high-achieving corporate lawyer who decides to end her perpetual singledom by serial dating. In addition to being one of the only shows exploring black female friendship since Girlfriends went off the air in 2008, Insecure also touches on the limitations placed on black male sexuality, a topic New York Times Magazine writer Wesley Morris dubbed pop culture’s last taboo

The BAFTA-award winning British comedy Chewing Gum also features a black female lead, this time as a repressed ex-Christian looking to lose her virginity by any means possible—think How Stella Got Her Groove Back meets The To Do List. The series, from writer and star Michaela Coel, manages to lovingly send up religious devotion, sexuality, and millennial growing pains to uproarious effect. Coel’s show includes semi-autobiographical details; it takes place in an English council estate (a government-subsidized housing complex), similar to the one in which she grew up. Instead of adhering to the stereotypical portrayal of low-income communities as crime-ridden and drab, though, Chewing Gum’s estate is practically shot in technicolor, residents are ethnically and racially diverse, and there’s a charming sense of community and cheer. Insecure and Chewing Gum debunk the absurdly still common idea that black people are a monolith and offer story lines that bear witness to the vast array of personalities, beliefs, and socioeconomic statuses that make up the contemporary black experience. “I know I am surrounded by heroes,” Coel once explained, “all the women I know of all different colors and sizes are heroes, and those are the roles that I want to write for women.” 

Contemporary television has also moved away from the neat and happy endings of yesteryear. The whole "will they/won’t they" story line on classic rom-com shows like Friends and Sex and the City was never that suspenseful; the question was never if, but rather when Big and Carrie or Ross and Rachel would end up together. The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend tells the story of Rebecca Bunch, an unhappy Manhattan attorney who quits her high-paying job and pulls a Felicity, moving across country to pursue her childhood crush, Josh Chan. The show’s title and logline suggest a crazed woman whose single-minded obsession will undo her, but show creator and star, Rebecca Bloom, subverts the script by making Rebecca painfully self-aware—the song “Put Yourself First,” a spoof of female empowerment pop, underscores Rebecca’s trip to a camp for at-risk youth which she attends only to woo Josh. 

On The Mindy Project, Kaling produces and dispenses with countless clichéd rom-com lead personality types that she outlined in a piece for the New Yorker including the Klutz, the Ethereal Weirdo, and the Woman Who Is Obsessed with Her Career and Is No Fun at All. The Office alumna applies her lifetime of rom-com connoisseurship—she scripted iconic moments for one of the best known and liked couples of the late aughts, Jim and Pam, and made a public list of her favorites—to Mindy’s love story with her grumpy coworker/former archenemy, Danny Castellano. After a couple of seasons of will they/won’t they, Mindy and Danny finally did. Whereas the movie version of Mindy and Danny would’ve ended in the epic season two finale that paid homage to both You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle in a hybrid rom-com feast, on TV, the rules are constantly being reinvented. Mindy and Danny get engaged and a baby is on the way but slowly the thin rose-colored film dressing their world slips away and the small cracks in their relationship grow into insurmountable fissures: Danny hates that Mindy won’t quit her job to become a stay-at-home mom; Mindy hates that he’d suggest it to her when he isn’t willing to do it himself. Finally, Kaling made the bold choice to break the golden couple up. In its present iteration, her show explores single motherhood via a professionally accomplished Manhattan doctor who chose being with herself over being one-half of an unsatisfying twosome. There are still ridiculous fashions and big laughs and heart melting meet cutes, but happily ever after has gone out the window. 

For fans of the more traditional rom-com, network staples like FOX’s New Girl and newer Netflix projects Lovesick and Easy reinstate the charm of the genre’s classics with progressive updates in casting and subject matter. These shows benefit from smart scripts and crackling chemistry between ensemble casts. When it first debuted, New Girl seemed like a straightforward sitcom, but it has since become a vehicle for indie darling Zooey Deschanel to unpack the much-maligned Manic Pixie Dream Girl persona pop culture assigned her. The show has two popular couplings, the alpha is the opposites-attract coupling of Nick and Jess (Deschanel), who got together in the show’s second season before imploding, though remaining friends, and the beta is the coupling of Schmidt and Cece, who represent the grown-up versions of the class nerd and the homecoming queen, and who, after many ups and downs, eventually get married. The show continues to grow each season; it added a third couple when Winston and his cop partner Ally got a buddy cops-turned-lovers story line. This constant recalibration and seamless inclusion of racially and ethnically diverse actors has made for better storytelling, as characters change and grow and romance is deferred until it feels earned. 

A large part of this trend toward more honest storytelling is exploring characters’ mental health with humanity. Mental illness on film is either played to comedic effect (Lars and the Real Girl, Greenberg, Benny and Joon), dramatized (The Hours, The Soloist), or unfairly linked with violent behavior. In You’re The Worst, co-leads Gretchen and Jimmy get together and the comedy unfolds as a result of their union, a relationship that continues during a second season guided by a focus on her clinical depression. Their roommate Edgar Quintero is a veteran with PTSD whose story line sees him struggle to secure treatment with a veteran hospital that won’t approve of the one thing that’s been working for him, medical marijuana. On Please Like Me, a wonderful rom-com from Australian writer/actor Josh Thomas, several characters including the lead’s mother are inpatients at a psychiatric hospital and they work through their mental health problems with realistic timelines during which the show is honest about their progress as well as their setbacks. On Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Bloom insists upon her character’s vulnerability which means granting the audience all access passes to her inner thoughts whether during happy monologues or during bouts of depression as seen in the song “Sexy French Depression,” a satirical homage to gloomy French glamour that pokes fun at society’s desire to sexualize pain. These shows’ discussions of mental health issues are unflinching and yet, as in real life, no character is defined by their illness meaning they aren’t barred from the pursuit of romance and fun while attending therapy or taking medication to better themselves. 

In 2015 the surprise success of Todd Haynes’ lesbian romantic drama Carol drew attention to the dearth of queer love stories on film. Conversely, TV has grown in its representation of queer characters and not just on the usual suspects like Shondaland or Orange Is the New Black. Please Like Me features a gay male lead whose endearingly neurotic belief that he’ll end up alone aligns him with romantic leads like Josie Geller in Never Been Kissed. In addition to demystifying previously taboo subject matter like mental illness, it also explores polyamory and reproductive rights without missing a single comedic beat. It’s smart and referential but not deferential to the rom-com genre—one memorable scene parodies controversial classic Love Actually.  Please Like Me offers lush cinematography and dry wit and most subversively, a straight sidekick whose heterosexual flings are sidelined to give the main stage to Josh and his male suitors. Josh’s story goes beyond his coming out, giving him an active romantic life alongside other plots that further his character development. 

In HBO’s Girls, the core ensemble includes four women and Hannah’s quippy gay ex-boyfriend Elijah, whose story line never got further than a few snide remarks or an ill-conceived hookup in the show's first four seasons. But in its fifth, Elijah was suddenly given major screen time that allowed the audience to see him pursue a romantic interest of his own. Elijah’s relationship with older TV personality Dill Harcourt, played by guest star Corey Stoll, was reminiscent of the Big-Carrie dynamic: a struggling creative falls for an emotionally unavailable corporate success. Throughout this story arc, Elijah is allowed to be sexual and tender and his interior life is given the same weight as the other characters’, making it one of the show’s richer narrative achievements. HBO cancelled its only gay male lead romantic comedy, Looking, shortly after the second season, but the studio promised to develop the show into a film to wrap the series. Looking: The Movie premiered in 2016 to great reviews from critics and fans. Its adaptation to film serves as a successful proof for producers still unsure about backing more diverse films.

It is important to note that the majority of these rom-coms are helmed by women, some even by women of color. Statistically, increasing the number of women staffing a project’s writing room increases the likelihood that it will pass the Bechdel test, an admittedly low bar for female representation that an unfortunate number of movies and TV shows continue to miss. It can only be more powerful when women of all backgrounds are not only writing but also producing and directing their own projects. The list of women pushing the rom-com into the future continues to grow from New Girl’s Liz Meriwether to Jane the Virgin’s Jennie Urman, Insecure’s Rae, Chewing Gum’s Coel, Catastrophe’s Horgan, Girls’ Lena Dunham and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Bloom. TV is attracting prestige directors, hiring more women in front of and behind the camera, and foregrounding inclusive storytelling, all of which is a recipe for golden-era worthy content. Contemporary TV is allergic to formula, it thrives on subversion of the broadcasting norm, a frontier ethos that contemporary cinema has been either too slow or too unwilling to adopt. It’s why we’ll continue to see film reboots and sequels reign over original script ideas and the poor representation of minorities will persist despite cast diversity being a proven financial boon. It’s also why romance is safe in TV’s hands.