This year has been, by all accounts, tumultuous. In the past, viewers might turn to romantic comedies to remind them that everything will be OK; to distract themselves from the seemingly unending onslaught of disheartening news, and inspire them to believe in the future.
But 2017 has seen a slight shift in the genre’s purpose. This year, more “rom-coms” than ever are taking their stories very, very seriously. From the black comic truths of Sarah Jessica Parker’s “Divorce” to the healing power of love post-trauma in Tig Notaro’s “One Mississippi,” this batch of romantic-minded comedies are addressing issues as honestly as anything else on television.
Sure, there’s still room for flirtatious fun, “will they or won’t they” pairings, and soul-bearing emotional confessions, but the list gathered below speaks to the state of the world: Love can still conquer all, but it’s not a cloaking agent. Reality cannot be ignored.
To be eligible, series need to be scripted and ongoing with at least one central storyline grounded in a romantic relationship, and the show should, overall, be considered a comedy. While plenty of sitcoms have romances within them, not all are romantic comedies: “Superstore” is an office comedy more than a comedy about Amy and Jonah’s budding romance. “The Good Place” is an existential exploration of morality, in which love plays a factor but is not the driving force (even though we’re shipping Jason and Janet hard).
20. “The Mindy Project”
Mindy Kaling’s first TV creation has her sensibilities all of over it, which means a strong influence from rom-coms. Dr. Mindy Lahiri (Kaling) wants nothing more than her happily-ever-after in the big city, but along the way, she finds that dating and relationships aren’t as straightforward as they are in the movies. In order to give Mindy growth, the show isn’t afraid of hitting reset on her romantic prospects, and while that can be discombobulating and alienating at times, her eternal optimism and resilience give the show continuity. This stable presence has allowed the show to play with some of the genre’s most entertaining tropes, such as a “Groundhog Day”-esque time loop, a “Sliding Doors”-style alternate timeline, and the bizarre body-swap concept that led to “Mindy Lahiri Is a White Man.” The playful storylines, healthy dose of deliberately odd pop culture references, and zany cast of characters who are pretty much up for any humiliation devised by man keep the show delightful and light, while still allowing Mindy room to figure out if what being happy means each time she thinks she’s achieved it.
19. “New Girl”
The Fox comedy led the charge in 2011 when it came to the golden age of TV rom-coms, and because of that, it is probably the most traditionally comedic compared to its big-screen genre cousins. That said, the romantic travails are still plentiful, but it’s spread among a group of diverse friends who are earnestly adorkable and clueless all at once. Over the course of its six seasons so far, “New Girl” has had to balance its romantic payoffs with extending the tension, and occasionally the storytelling has suffered as a result. Nevertheless, the absolute joy and unabashed goofiness at it core always delivers.
18. “Red Oaks”
The Amazon comedy “Red Oaks” is a surprisingly mature romance, given its deepest relationship is between a couple of kids who like to get high, sneak around, and are aimlessly searching for what to do with their lives. OK, David (Craig Roberts) and Skye (Alexandra Socha) are technically adults, and they both have goals — they just don’t know what goals are the right ones and who, if anyone, should alter their plans. So as they enter a mismatched but passionate relationship, Joe Gangemi and Gregory Jacobs’ series constructs their courtship as something closer to “The Graduate” than “Sixteen Candles” (even though this is a ’80s story, through and through). The three-season series is framed around what these two young lovers learn from each other in order to move forward. It’s not about them making it to the altar. It’s about them finding themselves. How romantic, indeed.
At times infuriating, hilarious, and exhilarating, “Younger” is an unexpectedly fun ride with a slew of literary-themed puns, enough to satisfy any bibliophile. At its center is the story of a woman who’s found love once, and isn’t necessarily seeking it again. Through a convoluted premise, 40-year-old, separated Liza Miller (Sutton Foster) must begin again in the workforce, but keeps getting passed over for publishing jobs until she pretends to be 26. This ruse also wins her a young and tattooed boyfriend. As might be expected, a love triangle also develops with a man whom some may deem more age-appropriate.
While the subterfuge gets a bit tiring and stretches disbelief — Foster looks amazing, but continuing to pass as 20-something over multiple seasons is pushing it — this is one of the handful of comedies that truly embraces the idea of love coming around again after it’s run its course or after a person has changed over time. Contrasting Liza’s inner world with her millennial trappings serves to reveal far more commonalities than differences between generations, and further questions what age has to do with romance.
With a name like “Love,” the Judd Apatow, Paul Rust, and Lesley Arlin comedy is guaranteed a place on this list. Wild-child Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) and unimpressive nice dude Gus (Rust) are the “opposites attract” couple who can’t seem to resist each other, despite their constant clashes. Propelled by stellar performances and unflinchingly realistic interactions, the comedy is a love story the reflects our modern, confusing times. The characters’ mutual need for human connection and understanding is sweetly poignant, even as viewers are left wondering if that chemistry is enough for the couple to remain together. This is a show in which plots really don’t matter, which allows the episodes to flow into one another as Mickey and Gus try to figure out what the hell they’re doing, and if they should do it together.
15. “Big Mouth”
Listen, the conventional ideals of romantic comedies obviously don’t apply to Nick Kroll’s vulgar, very NSFW animated comedy. But the new Netflix original series is founded on the romantic urgings that come with puberty and how society, friendships, and gender influence how we treat sex — and who we have sex with. Nick (Kroll) and Andrew (John Mulaney) get their first girlfriends, watch their first porn, and have their first jealousy-fueled fight club in Season 1 alone, all in the name of love; specifically, understanding love, learning how to love, and what it’s like to feel love for the first time. There’s a sweetness to their quest that goes beyond their innocence, and their young age makes it universal. “Big Mouth” may be naughty by nature, but its core foundation is even purer than many adult romances.
14. “Better Things”
Early in “Better Things,” single mother Sam Fox (played by series co-creator Pamela Adlon) tells an inquisitive friend she’s not interested in a serious relationship right now — not with a man. “I’m dating my daughters,” Sam says. And she means it. No, Sam isn’t celibate. She gets out often enough, but her life revolves around her three kids, and there’s a real romance to it. The beating heart of her connection to them pulses ever louder in Season 2, as an extended arc of a new, unwelcome teenage crush forces Sam to confront a reality she’d long written off. It’s the flip side of the romantic-comedy coin: Rather than root for a sweet coupling, viewers are asked to understand a protective (over-protective, perhaps) split. More than that, “Better Things” asks its audience to appreciate the love and sentimentality found in mother-daughter relationships. And it does so like no other romance on TV.
13. “Lovesick” (formerly “Scrotal Recall”)
For anyone who was put off by the show’s first punny, but perhaps too anatomically evocative title, Netflix course-corrected with the equally punny but more palatable “Lovesick.” Regardless, the show is worth watching under any name for its innovative narrative and stealth revelation of character. After contracting chlamydia, Dylan (Johnny Flynn) must go through his list of past sexual partners in order to let them know they should be checked out. Told mainly through non-chronological flashbacks, each trip back offers tiny revelations about Dylan’s romantic evolution as we revisit the stories of his former partners.
As the pieces of his past come together, the full picture reveals who he really loves and how the two have been parted by bad luck, timing, and life in general. Along the way, his two best friends Luke (Daniel Ings) and Evie (“The Good Doctor’s” Antonia Thomas) also get their own lovelorn stories. As befitting a series called “Lovesick,” the show trades off regrets, wistfulness, heartache, and tragic circumstances, but always comes back to the idea that love exists, and with it, hope.