The Romantic Comedy Is Not Dead — It’s Just Not the Same As You Remember

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Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture

“We’re used to thinking of certain genres … as being essentially dead — the musical, for example, or the Western. It doesn’t seem possible that something as basic as the romantic comedy could join their company, and yet that’s what seems to be happening.”

That statement was written by critic Peter Rainer in the Los Angeles Times, not last week or a couple of years ago, but in 1992, during a decade when rom-coms were still a cornerstone of the release slates at most major film studios.

Rainer was not complaining about the lack of these kinds of movies, but rather, what he saw as an absence of imagination in them. He complained that romantic comedies were moving away from the key qualities that originally made the genre crackle, including the presence of headstrong female characters. “The conventions that are ripe for romantic revisionism — the ways we view our sexual roles, habits, longings — remain unsubverted,” he wrote.

As Vulture begins The Rom Com Lives!, a weeklong examination of the state of the American romantic comedy, I mention all of this for a couple of reasons. First, to note that the rom-com, which has been declared officially dead in recent years, has been described as deceased before, but still managed to survive and continue evolving. And two: because the contemporary rom-com is actually doing a lot of the things Rainer, and others, wished it would do 25 years ago. It’s just doing them in ways and via channels that would have been impossible to foresee at the time.

Today, the lighthearted, humorous romance, once primarily associated with the multiplex, thrives more in indie cinema and on television, particularly on cable and streaming platforms. It explores love from specific perspectives — as Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday recently put it,  the “rom-com is now less a function of mass entertainment than a hyperlocal cultural product” — and often with an honesty that eschews fairy-tale endings. While it hasn’t entirely abandoned certain tropes, more often than not, the modern rom-com deconstructs them. In other words, a type of storytelling that once remained unsubverted is now constantly being subverted.

To understand what the rom-com is subverting, let’s flash-back to what some refer to as the golden age for the contemporary romantic comedy: the 1990s and 2000s.

That 20-year period was a boom time for the genre, one that produced many hit movies starring Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Notting Hill, Runaway Bride) as well as Adam Sandler (The Wedding Singer, 50 First Dates); hit movies directed by Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers (Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, What Women Want, Something’s Gotta Give); unexpected hits (While You Were Sleeping, My Big Fat Greek Wedding); and hit movies that also were nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Jerry Maguire, Shakespeare in Love). It also gave us films that were not necessarily megasuccesses financially, but were championed by critics and audiences in a way that resulted in lasting cultural impact. (See: Clueless, Love Jones, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.)

During the same era, there were TV shows that comfortably fit beneath that rom-com umbrella, including the Jamie Lee Curtis/Richard Lewis vehicle Anything But Love, Mad About You, Dharma & Greg, Sex and the City, Ugly Betty, and Girlfriends. (A strong argument could be made that Seinfeld often fit in the category, too.) But generally speaking, when the term romantic comedy was used, it referred to stories that played out on big screens rather than small.

Many of the movies during this robust rom-com moment were terrific; more were not. The bad ones, and sometimes often the good, fell back on conventions so frequently repeated, they turned into the tropes that defined the genre. There were tons of meet-cutes, grand gestures, love triangles, happily ever afters, changes of hearts on or very close to wedding days, ensemble films in which mostly white people crossed paths with each other while searching for “the one,” lots of making out and/or mourning breakups during heavy downpours, and women whose lives were finally made complete because of a guy, sometimes one who actually said, out loud, “You complete me.” It was a time when girls stood in front of boys and asked those boys to love them, and when men tried to woo married women by flipping through a bunch of poster boards with messages scrawled on them. Clichés and heteronormativity ran rampant, and so did the fantasy that love made everything nice, even though not that many years prior, Nicolas Cage had persuasively argued in Moonstruck that love did no such thing. (In case you’re wondering, that Moonstruck speech is the best rom-com monologue of all time. Don’t come at me with other monologues, because there are no better monologues.)

In the current decade, Hollywood has continued to produce some traditional big-screen romantic comedies, but the numbers are definitely down and, consequently, the genre’s obituary has been written more than once. A 2013 Hollywood Reporter article officially declared the rom-com’s time of death, pointing out that studios and big stars were no longer interested in those kinds of projects. An NPR piece from that same year suggested ways to breathe new life into the genre, while a 2014 Daily Beast essay was like, “No seriously, rom-coms are really, most sincerely dead.” An L.A. Weekly piece noted that the top box-office performers of 2013 didn’t feature a single movie that fell in the love-and-laughter category.

That trend has more or less held since those stories first circulated. With a couple of exceptions (Trainwreck, The Wedding Ringer), most attempts at multiplex-friendly, funny-ha-ha romance have either faltered or outright failed in terms of ticket sales during the past couple of years. There is, perhaps, no starker illustration of the decline of the conventional movie rom-com than the fact that two sequels last year — My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 and Bridget Jones’s Baby — didn’t make anything close to the splashes their predecessors did more than a decade ago. (In fairness to Bridge and her infant, that movie performed much better internationally than it did in North America.)

But while all of that has been happening, elsewhere, the rom-com has been liberated to try new things and upend some of those old conventions.

A genre often criticized for defining women as creatures driven by their need for monogamy now depicts women in much more multifaceted ways. Within the past three or four years, more films and TV shows have focused on female characters trying to establish their own identities, and used their pursuit of romantic and sexual relationships as a narrative device that illuminates that process rather than serves as the ultimate end goal.

On HBO’s Insecure, Issa’s uncertainty about her relationship with live-in boyfriend Lawrence is explicitly intertwined with her lack of self-confidence and uncertainty about her future. The same can be said about Gretchen on You’re the Worst or Rebecca on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, whose romantic journeys dovetail with their experiences in therapy. (It’s notable, too, that the men on these shows, especially Insecure and You’re the Worst, are also shown to be complicated people wrestling with their own self-doubt, guilt, and depression.) On a series like Younger, which runs on a more traditional rom-com track, Liza’s love triangle only exists because of her struggles with ageism and her hunger to resume work in publishing, which forces her to shave some years off her age. A woman’s occupation used to be a secondary detail about her in romantic comedies; in the TV Land series, you can’t even have the rom-com part if Liza doesn’t have a career.

The idea that a woman’s libido is as hearty as a man’s is not a new one, but more rom-coms seem comfortable with admitting that. The indie comedy The To Do List makes that point by pulling a gender switcheroo on the usually dude-focused teen sex comedy, while Trainwreck casts Amy Schumer — not, say, Seth Rogen — as the noncommittal protagonist who sleeps around. These and other films and series continue to represent a break from the stereotypical female roles that populated rom-coms in the past. Even a pretty conventional Hollywood release like last year’s How to Be Single has a streak of female independence in it; ultimately Dakota Johnson’s character finds that she’s happiest when she’s standing alone, with no guy by her side at all.

If you choose any of the major rom-com tropes, you can find examples of films and TV shows from the past five years that have flipped it on its head while simultaneously flipping the bird at traditional ideas about romance.

You want a meet-cute? Here, try a one-night stand that results in an unexpected pregnancy (Knocked Up or Amazon’s Catastrophe) or a one-night stand that results in an unexpected pregnancy and an abortion (Obvious Child) that’s performed on Valentine’s Day. (Huh. That never happens in the movie Valentine’s Day. Wonder why?)

You want a rom-com about a wedding? Well, you can try Bridesmaids, which is actually about the complex, enduring love between two BFFs played by Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph instead of two people about to be wed. (The ideas that friends complete us as much, and sometimes more, than significant others, is a constant theme in current rom-coms.)

Searching for a nice, British rom-com about a guy reflecting on his past relationship mistakes, something akin to High Fidelity or About a Boy? Cool. Here’s Lovesick, the Netflix series formerly known as Scrotal Recall, about a guy who gets back in touch with his exes … because he has chlamydia.

Eager to be swept up in fairy tales and grand gestures? They Came Together, the rom-com send-up starring Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd, is here to tell you they are bullshit, and so is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a show that constantly inflates romantic fantasy balloons, then swiftly pops them with a sharp needle and a song. Then there’s The Mindy Project, which simultaneously embraces the You’ve Got Mail ethos while revealing that life is far more complicated than most of the things that happen when Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks exchange emails using outdated AOL accounts. Or here’s yet another option: the film Ruby Sparks, which points out the fallacies deeply embedded in the male-constructed manic pixie dream girl.

The fact that mainstream Hollywood rom-coms in the 1990s and 2000s tended to focus on white people in heterosexual relationships was less a trope than a reflection of the industry’s inability to widen its worldview. While there’s still more work to do in that regard, the windows have opened a tad wider, giving us more shows and movies with rom-com DNA, but that are just as interested in accurately reflecting the perspectives of various ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as sexual orientations. Jane the Virgin, Master of None, the movie Beginners, HBO’s Looking and Insecure, the recent all-black reboot of About Last Night, and Southside With You, which allowed us to witness the courtship of our first black president and First Lady, are just some of the works that fall in this category. The buzziest film out of Sundance this year, The Big Sick — a rom-com about a Pakistani-American (Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani, also the screenwriter) who falls in love with a white woman and tries to hide it from his family — suggests this trend will continue.

The common denominator in all of these projects is that they each are doing something different in a genre that, by the mid-’00s if not earlier, was too often stuck in a stranglehold of sameness. Our desire to laugh along with different kinds of love stories is not only a rejection of the oversimplified version of the world that so many rom-coms offered, but also a reflection that there is more than one way to live happily in that world.

Which brings me to the most interesting trope that current rom-coms have subverted: the happy ending. When we invest in a story about two people in love, we are programmed to expect it to conclude with the two of them together, living their snuggly, wuggly best life. But if you’ve ever been in love — hell, if you’ve ever even been to middle school — you know it doesn’t work this way. Falling in love can be glorious, but navigating it is a challenge, and sometimes it all just ends, slowly or with the brutal sting of medical tape being torn off the skin.

(500) Days of Summer, released in 2009, followed the alternately giddy and tense relationship between Tom (Joseph Gordon Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel), one that you know, based on the title alone, will not end with the two of them together forever. Since then, more rom-coms have followed that model. The first season of Master of None ends with Dev (Aziz Ansari) and Rachel (Noel Wells) splitting up. You’re the Worst, the FX comedy committed to the bleak theory that love is a lie, took an optimistic turn at the end of its most recent season, with a major character proposing to another. But mere seconds after it happened, the bride-to-be was ditched by the guy who just asked for her hand. Like I said: brutal.

This dashing of the happy ending is actually a throwback to another Academy Award–nominated romantic comedy: Annie Hall. Woody Allen’s film, the rare rom-com to actually win the Oscar for Best Picture, closes with Alvy Singer (Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) unable to reconcile their differences but ending things on friendly terms. Via voice-over, Alvy remembers an old joke about a guy who refuses to get help for his brother, who thinks he’s a chicken, explaining, “I need the eggs.”

“I guess that’s how I feel about relationships,” Alvy says. “They’re totally crazy, irrational, and absurd, but we keep going through it. Because we need the eggs.”

It’s the kind of sharply observed, bittersweet note that’s being struck more and more often in rom-coms of the moment. It also explains why, even if it doesn’t hold the same pop-cultural status it once did, the rom-com will never go away. Because too many of us need the eggs.

The Romantic Comedy Is Not Dead