Deciding to stick with a TV series is no small commitment. It demands a certain level of trust, as week after week (or, in the era of binge-watching, hour after hour) we invite characters and their stories back into our living rooms. As a relationship, it’s interactive. It’s volatile. And most importantly, it’s intimate.
In that sense, TV would seem an ideal medium for romantic comedy. After all, from “Mad About You” to “How I Met Your Mother,” sitcoms have been delivering romantic stories with good humor for decades. But the beats and aesthetic of the rom-com as we know it — think “You’ve Got Mail” — has long been the domain of studio movie-making.
Eventually, the “You’ve Got Mail” formula turned into a trend. The trend turned into a trope. And as for where we stand now, the 90-minute rom-com is a far cry from what it used to be. (For an abridged version of this history, scroll through Katherine Heigl’s filmography from the mid-2000s on.)
The indefinite nature of series television presents an immediate challenge to this closure-friendly genre, but it also presents a unique opportunity. And you might say that the opportunity has been seized: As the classic rom-com has diminished in stature on the big screen, in have come diverse reimaginings in TV, from FX’s “You’re the Worst” to FOX’s “The Mindy Project” to Amazon’s new hit “Catastrophe.”
The best rom-coms receive all kinds of adoration, yet they’re consistently excluded from serious cultural conversations. You’ll hear plenty about how the Golden Age of TV has yielded bold entrants in the canons of mob drama, family soap, police procedural and courtroom thriller. But there’s another re-invention happening right now, and it’s in a far more surprising area: TV is revolutionizing the romantic comedy.
A Specialized Market Leads to Authentic Storytelling
TV has undergone a paradigm shift in the past decade. The medium’s new economy — especially in the half-hour realm — is driven by specialization and niches, as new outlets look to stand out and attract viewers. It’s why the tragicomic family tale “Transparent” was the major pickup out of Amazon’s second batch of pilots, even though among the public it was the lowest (and least) rated of the bunch.
In its heyday, romantic comedy was driven by commercial viability: It was a formula of quick resolution and easy pleasures. But the intimacy that’s inherent in TV-watching makes that predictable structure much more difficult to pull off. As Vulture critic Matt Zoller Seitz recently put it, “Everybody knows what it’s like to fall in love or break up with somebody. So you can’t tell the audience, ‘Take my word for it.’ Because we know.”
That reality renders big money a tougher get, but it also provides fertile ground for authentic, resonant storytelling. Take Amazon’s “Catastrophe,” which flirts with staples of the rom-com without succumbing to them. As realized by creators Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney (who also play their eponymous lead characters), the story begins with a one night stand, is catalyzed by a pregnancy scare and eventually finds comfort in the familiar territory of domestic satire. Its premise is distressingly similar to “Accidentally on Purpose,” Jenna Elfman’s ill-conceived CBS sitcom vehicle from 2009.
But “Catastrophe,” which was developed in the U.K. for Channel 4, doesn’t have those network executive demands to meet. Rob and Sharon (the characters, not the writers) are self-aware, goofy, sexual, occasionally irritable and perpetually uncertain. They’re distinct in their familiarity, the very inverse of the stifling standard rom-com lead. As their budding romance ebbs and flows with striking naturalism, they emerge unconventional but raw.
“Catastrophe” is driven by artistry rather than formula in its humor and its romantics. Rob and Sharon can be coarse in their language, turning to a sexual anecdote or a raunchy proclamation in an instant, but it’s never played for a cheap laugh or gasp. Similarly, Sharon’s pregnancy alters her impulses in hilarious, even morbid ways (her penchant for simultaneous horniness and sadness is a highlight) without compromising her realistic appeal.
When “Catastrophe” borders on vulgar, or when its characters comfortably range into unappealing territory, it’s in a recognizable and human light. As an atypical love story, the show is also extremely sweet, albeit in a way that feels earned. These characters are drawn specifically — as in, not for a broad audience — and as such we can more intensely relate to their moments of connection. By standards of romantic comedy, that’s pretty rare.
Horgan and Delaney successfully strike a delicate balance. It’s of the kind that would never entice broader content producers like CBS (or, for that matter, a major movie studio), but it’s a perfect fit for a newbie in Amazon, which is just trying to establish a brand of quality.
Allowing Romances the Time to Grow
The specialization of the TV market has led to the creation and availability of nuanced series like “Catastrophe,” but being able to tell ongoing stories has long been an advantage intrinsic to the small screen.
Growing into rhythms is a unique benefit to TV comedy, one that even classic American sitcoms such as “Seinfeld” and “The Office” have relied on in their opening seasons. And as Seitz notes, the requirements of romantic comedy are more stringent in characterization; consequentially, the ability to evolve and adapt is paramount.
When FX’s “You’re the Worst” premiered, reception was tentatively positive. It embraced its premise — in which Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash), two proudly narcissistic, unpleasant and romance-averse 20-somethings, fall in love — to a degree that was, to some, aggressively off-putting.
But the tide turned — “You’re the Worst” evolved into something special. Like “Catastrophe,” the show was immediately frank in its depiction of sexuality, and it had always been cinematic in look and feel. But in its early installments were also some kinks that needed working out: Over the course of the 13-episode season, Jimmy and Gretchen’s unabashed cynicism turned endearing.
Along those lines, the adjectives that best describe what makes “You’re the Worst” great aren’t so different from those used for “Catastrophe.” There’s a congruence in their stylings, favoring caustic humor, a more fluid integration of sex and a more complicated approach to love.
While those parallels shouldn’t be discounted, the case of “You’re the Worst” more explicitly speaks to the benefits of TV. A quality rom-com depends on familiarity to the extent that we can laugh at, empathize with and finally swoon over its dynamics. Because a television series is indefinite, it allows the necessary time for characters to be fleshed out — and the space for viewers to invest in, and gradually come to care about, their relationships.
That’s an essential process. “You’re the Worst” sanded its rough edges, to be sure. But on the other side of the equation was its audience, coming to understand the show’s blackly sappy heart and its perversely familiar sense of humor the longer they stayed with it. It’s a twofold approach to character development, a luxury film cannot afford. It lends the material more depth and, as is so crucial with any rom-com, gives us more reason to care.
A More Flexible Medium
Last year introduced a rare bright spot for the romantic comedy film in “Obvious Child,” a spunky indie that managed to deliver on its promise of being an “abortion comedy” (no small feat). Directed by Gillian Robespierre, the film also gave actress Jenny Slate, predominantly known for her work in TV, her most substantial role to date.
“Obvious Child” came to fruition with a mere $1 million budget, reflecting the harsh reality of independent film funding. (The burgeoning creative space of TV isn’t exactly helping matters, either.) Plus, the comic perspective of “Obvious Child” hues a lot closer to niche series like “Girls” or “Broad City” than anything that’s been happening in movies lately. Yet against the odds, the film was a critical and awards success, and took the romantic comedy to some audacious new places.
Robespierre and Slate made for a great team, so there’s reason to celebrate the news that they’ll be working together again. But they’re not collaborating on another feature film; instead, the duo sold a buddy comedy pilot to FX. Their transition is utterly indicative of where singular voices are headed right now. Put simply, TV is in a better artistic place than feature films at this point in time — and that’s for many of the reasons outlined above.
The fate of Mindy Kaling’s acclaimed “The Mindy Project” likewise points to the small screen’s greater flexibility. The FOX series was pitched out of its creator’s own adoration for romantic comedies; Kaling’s writing is far more textured than your average Katherine Heigl movie, but on her show even the cheesiest of tropes are on the table. (Seriously: Last year, Jezebel took to listing the show’s many, many references to rom-com hits.)
Like “You’re the Worst,” “Mindy” began unevenly before affirming its jubilantly strange voice. At her best, Kaling pulls off a neat trick: She pays homage to, makes fun of and extracts stories out of those very “You’ve Got Mail”-esque classics that came to inspire her show. It’s an unusual conceit furthered by her spare usage of disarmingly sharp satire. In other words, “The Mindy Project” — even with a hilarious and hunky Chris Messina in tow as the romantic male lead — has never been as commercial a rom-com as FOX likely wished.
It never felt especially “network,” and its low ratings led to a cancellation last month. But critical acclaim (and a legion of fans) was enough for “The Mindy Project” to quickly find a new home. It’s headed to Hulu, just one of the many streaming services trying to stand out in the vicious game of original programming. The series’ ability to keep on even after revealing itself as not-hugely-profitable speaks profoundly to the value of quality in TV. It’s also demonstrative of why the “Obvious Child” team has made the jump from film.
You Can’t Turn This Into a Trend
The romantic comedy has been revolutionized on TV: Its classic mix of humor and heart is being realized with a sharper edge, greater complexity and deeper truth. Core characteristics of the medium, including the splintering of outlets and the unconfined spaces for storytelling, help to explain why.
The irony there is that series television is generally an unforgiving place, in which it can be especially difficult for a rom-com to survive. The genre’s dependence on our ability to relate is exacerbated by the natural intimacy that comes with loyal TV viewing. If we don’t feel it on at least some level, we’re bound to check out early.
It’s precisely why the broadcast networks’ attempt to turn this phenomenon into a trend last year turned out so dismally. NBC’s “A to Z” and ABC’s “Manhattan Love Story” earned mixed reviews and worse ratings, striking an awkward balance that led to swift cancellations. Emily Kapnek’s “Selfie” showed promise, but similarly struggled — it finished up its brief run on Hulu, where some argued it was able to truly find its voice.
For the big networks, there’s a pronounced difficulty in creating romantic comedies. They have to be authentic enough to convince, but broad enough to attract a sizable audience in the first place. It’s why “A to Z,” “Manhattan Love Story” and “Selfie” dropped like dominoes. And “The Mindy Project” isn’t exactly a shining exception to that rule. Its qualitative leap coincided with a gradual slip in the ratings (though to be fair, it was never a real hit), as its shepherd asserted a defiantly idiosyncratic tone.
From “Mindy” to “Catastrophe” to “You’re the Worst,” the proof is there: The new TV rom-com can’t be turned into a trend. Originality is its very essence. Considering our basic conception of the romantic comedy, that’s an invigorating notion worth celebrating.