My Enduring Obsession With Slow Burn TV Romances

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Mild spoilers for 'One Day' ahead. There are some people who enjoy a fast and heady romance, stories filled with lust and passion, and those people, I’m afraid to say, are wrong. The ultimate romantic fantasy is a drip-fed, excruciatingly slow love story, feeding off mounting tension and emotional confusion. Give me a sumptuous soup filled with missed opportunities, miscommunication and unresolved feelings and I’ll stay satiated for days. Better still, sprinkle in an expansive timeline and a friends-to-lovers story arc and you’ll have my heart forever.
This is exactly why the latest TV adaptation of Dave Nicholls’ seminal millennial novel, One Day, spoke to me on a cellular level. Beginning in 1988, we watch as the thumping sounds of Frankie Knuckles’ Your Love pulsate through a sea of young, sweaty bodies as students toast to the dawn of their adult lives. In a haze of champagne and freshly graduated optimism, playboy student Dexter Mayhew (played by Leo Woodall) bumps into the bookish Emma Morley (played by Ambika Mod) in a meet-cute so sweet it would make Richard Curtis sick. But instead of marking the start of their happily ever after together, One Day grants us something far far greater: the slow burn.
Enjoying one last night of university hedonism together, Em and Dex party into the wee hours. With glittering drunk eyes Dex informs Emma that all of his friends have gone home and she takes the leap to invite him back to her place. From there, it’s all soft, sensual stairway kisses and sensible knickers until Emma wants to discuss the compatibility of their future life goals. It’s clear that Dex’s laissez faire ‘gap yah’ plans are wholly different to Emma’s creative pursuits, but none of it seems to matter in the face of the chemistry coursing through their veins.
It’s here that most people would pray for it to all work out, but my honest first thought was: I hope they fuck it up. This isn’t because I hate love and want to see people suffer, it’s actually to do with wanting to eke it out for as long as possible. To me, the anticipation of the thing happening is even better than getting to see the thing itself. I want to spend as much time as I can luxuriating in the build up, because after a long-awaited climax, things regularly flatline. Who needs to see two people picking out wallpaper when we could live in the scrumptious “will they, won’t they” zone for a little bit longer?
Though this may sound like some sort of strange emotional edging, the popularity of One Day proves that people are hungry for extensive love stories. Our last taste of this type of relationship on screen was almost four years ago, with the True Great Slow Burn™ of our time, Normal People. In the time since the BBC TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel came out, the internet has continued to obsess over near-mute sweethearts Connell and Marianne. Whether it’s been through rewatching the entire series or indulging in intoxicating fancams, their rocky road to romance continues to keep people invested, recounting the multiple years of missed connections between the famed Irish lovers. 
Of course, there were also viewers who criticised the BAFTA-award winning series for being “too slow”. Unlike me, the episodes that hinged on slight changes in body language apparently made them want to set themselves on fire and they found no joy in watching two extremely literate people struggle to get a word out. This idea that the series needed to “move quicker” in order to be entertaining felt utterly baffling to me. Why would someone want to eat their cake as fast as possible instead of savouring every mouthful?
Yes, it did take those poor emotionally stunted teens years to figure themselves out, but that’s exactly what made it so damn good. We got a front row seat to the torture that is liking someone and not wanting to ruin everything by telling them or messing it up. That’s what made it feel so much like real life, because it looked like a romance we could actually have. Though I admit I am probably slightly influenced by the fact that my own relationship came out of liking someone for years (I am the proof it can happen, ladies), the criticism that the slow burn is boring feels reductive to say the least.
One Day knows this and doubles down on the sentiment until the wheels fall off. While Dex is a dick to Emma at times, we also know he doesn’t want to destroy the only good thing in his life. We see this in the delicate way he applies sunscreen to her warm skin, as if he’s trying to control the amount of love fizzing straight through to his fingertips. These are two people with deep and complicated feelings for each other and we bear witness to every almost-kiss and near love confessional over a 14-episode story arch. While some may find it frustrating, the series speaks truth to people’s mistakes and miscalculations and how sometimes, timing might take 20 years to get right.
Yes, the series eventually punches you in the heart with an ambient score sung by sad angels. But before it goes for the emotional jugular, it gives us a shining example of the thorny sweetness of a slow burn and I’d put myself through the pain to watch it again.
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