David Wain’s 2014 rom-com parody They Came Together opens with Joel (Paul Rudd) and his partner Molly (Amy Poehler) having dinner with another affable-yet-typical couple, Kyle (Bill Hader) and Karen (Ellie Kemper). It’s a scene that will provide the framework for the entire movie, as it involves Molly and Joel describing their adorable courtship — you know, how they came together. After Kyle and Karen finish their how-they-met story in a concise two minutes, Kyle inquires, “So, how did you two meet?” “Well, it’s kind of a corny, romantic-comedy story,” Molly responds. “How so?” Karen asks. “Well, Joel was kind of a typical, romantic-comedy leading man. You know, he’s handsome in a non-threatening way. Vaguely — but not overtly — Jewish,” Molly says. “And Molly is the kind of cute, klutzy girl that sometimes will drive you a little bit crazy, but you can’t help but fall in love with her,” Joel says as they all laugh drolly. “Okay, so we have our main characters,” Kyle says, acting as the omniscient narrator in a very winking manner. “Not quite,” Joel responds, “There was another character that was just as important as the two of us: New York City.” “So, if there was a movie about your relationship, it would probably start with aerial shots of the Manhattan skyline,” Kyle notes. Cut to, of course, sweeping shots of the New York skyline. That scene pretty much encapsulates the state of big-budget studio romantic comedies in the 2000s. They’ve become easily summarized clichés in which the two leads have but an hour and change to convince us that they’ve overcome some mild hurdles to fall in everlasting love. As Sharon Horgan, the co-creator and star of Amazon Studios and Channel 4’s Catastrophe, put it to Refinery29, “I think it’s much, much harder to make a mainstream film — you know, a big, box-office-y romantic comedy — without using some kind of formula.” And just like they did in high school trigonometry, formulas get old really fast. (Insert quadratic equation nightmare flashback here.)
While I’m not knocking the chance for two hours of wish fulfillment and escapism — that certainly has its place in a world plagued by refugee crises, a presidential election in which who even knows what the outcome will be, and worldwide debt becoming a mounting issue by the second — the new golden age of TV has primed us to expect more. And television rom-coms, like You’re the Worst, Catastrophe, The Mindy Project, Love, Casual, and New Girl (just to name a few), are delivering where movie romantic comedies aren’t.
I mean, doesn’t a tiny part of you want to know how Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) — or to use a more modern-day example, Andie Anderson (Kate Hudson) and Benjamin Barry (Matthew McConaughey) from 2003’s How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days — live their day-to-day lives? Or, if the sex is as good as their conversational banter? I’ll readily admit that I do. We’ve spent two hours getting to know these characters — and then it just ends. On TV, however, we get to spend more time getting to know characters and experiencing the arcs of their relationships. “I think that’s what’s great about being able to tell a love story over the course of years. It allows for more complicated stories that aren’t based on misunderstandings and miscommunications and a lie,” says Liz Meriwether, the creator of New Girl and writer of 2011’s No Strings Attached (she has experience writing romantic comedies for both television and the big screen). “I think on TV shows, the obstacles can be more internal and emotional — and they can also be dumb and crazy. It allows for more realistic love stories on television. The cool thing about a TV romance is that a look or a moment in a hallway or bathroom can have so much weight to it.” Meriwether compares the experience of writing a long-running television show versus a two-hour feature to a marathon versus a sprint. “TV definitely challenges you because you get your characters to a place where they’re going to have a moment, or the characters are finally going to come together. But to keep it going, or to keep the obstacles there and the chemistry alive — that’s the marathon idea versus running a sprint. Writing a feature and keeping that tension for two hours straight, and telling that story about two people coming together is definitely difficult. But a TV show is a different kind of thing where they can kiss, and you have to keep going.” The fact that they have to keep going is where it gets interesting. For the longest time, movie rom-coms were all about getting to the big kiss or the alter. But, as Meriwether points out, that’s not even how many of us wind up in relationships anymore. “I think the whole narrative of these two characters kind of taking the entire movie just to get to a kiss, we’ve all moved past that...It’s just kind of an antiquated narrative...We were sort of trying to do that with No Strings Attached. It’s not just about them getting together at the end. They’re having sex throughout, and what does that mean?"
Many television rom-coms cut out the will-they-won’t-they tension and have the two leads sleep together immediately. This happens in Catastrophe and You’re the Worst, and it’s been extremely interesting to watch how the show’s universe then expands to deal with the big bang that kicks off the action in the first place. In the case of Catastrophe, Sharon (Sharon Horgan) — an Irish woman who lives in London — gets pregnant from her one-night stand with Rob (Rob Delaney) — an American visiting the U.K. on business — and the two decide not only to keep the baby, but to give the relationship a try. It progresses to marriage and, at the start of season 2 (which premieres April 8 on Amazon), a second child. This doesn’t mean it’s all sunshine and roses for Sharon and Rob. The two fight and question whether or not they made the right decision constantly, but who hasn’t felt this way in a relationship? Life is full of regrets and what-ifs, especially when it's not just you anymore. Horgan confesses that she and Rob Delaney, with whom she co-created, co-writes, and co-stars in the series, never actually set out to make a romantic comedy. “We just wanted to write about these two people going through a situation and then it sort of became romantic. I think it was more of a challenge in the second season, because that was the thing people responded to, and we were like, 'Oh really? Shit.' But to try and find a way to keep that up without it feeling unreal in a long-term relationship...It’s kind of harder to be romantic and in a TV couple, [it] can be quite an off-putting thing.” As Delaney describes it, “We put those two people who are ostensibly compatible and really hit the gas on the situations within their lives and make things very difficult for them right out of the gate. Let’s see how they respond to that stress; that’s sort of what we wanted to do. They are in love, and the show is funny, but we never try to engineer in romantic sex stuff...It didn’t occur to us that anyone might call it a romantic comedy.”
The reverse-engineered, unplanned romantic comedy...maybe that’s where movies are going wrong. In Field of Dreams, they said, “If you build it, they will come,” but maybe the logic should be reversed for rom-coms on film. They shouldn’t be built for the viewers to come. This season on You’re the Worst, we watched Gretchen (Aya Cash) struggle with depression, which affected her relationship with Jimmy (Chris Geere). “These cable love stories are going to very dark, small places where characters are allowed to be flawed. That’s a difficult place for big studio romantic comedies,” Meriwether says. “That’s definitely something that happened with No Strings Attached. It was originally called Fuck Buddies. I was struggling throughout with how to present these flawed people in a way that feels like it’s also a big, escapist studio rom-com.”
Having a show on a broadcast network versus cable or a streaming service can present similar challenges for creators writing a studio rom-com. Meriwether wrote about what it’s like to “live and die by TV ratings” and receive constant network notes along with fan and social media feedback (which the network also monitors) in an essay on Vulture last year. In season 2, New Girl writers had Nick (Jake Johnson) and Jess (Zooey Deschanel) sleep together after months of undeniable chemistry and build-up. As season 3 progressed, fans complained about how their relationship was playing out. Were they succumbing to the old Moonlighting curse? That’s what’s fascinating and addictive about television rom-coms. We wanted these two characters to get together — and they did. And unlike a big studio romantic comedy on the silver screen, in which that might have been the happy ending, we get to see what happens after they sleep together and fall in love. It isn’t pretty. Audiences weren’t happy with Nick and Jess’ relationship, and it also changed the dynamic of the show, because New Girl is an ensemble comedy. So, Meriwether and the writers course-corrected. “A cool part of doing a long-running TV show is that you have to go a little bit where the wind takes you, and that can be kind of liberating and fun. It can force you to make choices that you never could have planned for really, just like the best love stories,” she says. Both Meriwether and Horgan also bring up the increasingly complex female characters we see on the new breed of TV rom-coms (even ones like Catastrophe that didn’t set out to fit into this genre). “It’s so great that we’re able to have flawed women characters, as well, because I think a problem with a lot of studio romantic comedies is that the women were not that interesting or not really allowed to be that interesting,” Meriwether notes. Horgan is currently working on Divorce, a new HBO show with Sarah Jessica Parker, and says, “I think audiences are saying that they want to watch female stories and they don't have to be this sort of broad, one-note characters. They like their characters to be as interesting, flawed, and complex as any male character, and that’s the way it should be.” Can movie rom-coms follow in the vein of their TV counterparts and nail this type of complex characterization and storytelling? There have been indie films making strides in these areas, including Celeste and Jesse Forever and What If. Rob Delaney says he and his wife love Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. It’s going to be a lot harder when it comes to big-budget studio films, though.
“I think there are a lot of movies right now that are aiming for a global box office in a way that appeals to the entire world. It’s hard for comedy to translate, [so] I think that TV has become the place for character- and dialogue-driven comedy,” Meriwether points out. “But I think that in the way comic-book movies like The Dark Knight presented this flawed superhero that felt like kind of a new thing for superhero movies, maybe studios can embrace the darker, romantic comedies that cable’s helped people get excited about.”
She points to 2015’s Trainwreck (which grossed over $140 million globally) as a sign that the winds might be changing. “I feel like that’s what Trainwreck did really well; present a new romantic comedy that still felt big, fun, and sort of like an escape.” Horgan brings up the incredibly successful Bridesmaids (2011), but notes it isn’t a classic, heteronormative, boy-meets-girl-centered rom-com. “In a sense, it’s a romance [between two female friends], or about learning to love yourself again. That was as brilliant as you can get, and with huge success. It can be done, but it’s tricky.” The fact that only two big-budget rom-coms have come out since 2010 is a sign that just like New Girl changed things up after Nick and Jess’s relationship crumbled — hello, Megan Fox — so, too, are cinematic romantic comedies in need of a shakeup or Dark Knight complexity. In the meantime, TV continues to kick movies’ asses when it comes to presenting nuanced romantic storylines in a edgier, more realistic way that people clearly want to watch. Plus, these days, we’re so used to instant gratification everywhere else that we’re actually ready to commit when it comes to watching romantic comedies unfold slowly. Patience is still a virtue in the golden age of television rom-coms.