Early on in the new Netflix series Love, freshly uncoupled protagonist Gus begins hurling his treasured Blu-ray collection from a moving car. Out goes Pretty Woman. Then Sweet Home Alabama. Finally, the sacred cow of romcom, When Harry Met Sally. It’s not just displacement: Gus is furious with the films themselves. “I just keep believing in this fucking lie that a relationship evolves and gets better. Where do these lies come from?” he raves. “Fucking movies!”
In decades to come, there may well be less people with their expectations warped by romcom consumption. With its Richard Curtis and Nora Ephron-engineered heyday a distant memory, the romcom is in the doldrums. Superhero, animation and action movies dominate the box office; there hasn’t been a romcom in the year’s top 10 highest grossing films for more than a decade. Perhaps that’s because the genre now feels painfully predictable, but that doesn’t mean the appetite for seeing romance on screen has died. Instead, with the likes of Channel 4’s Catastrophe, the American network CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, FX’s You’re the Worst (both yet to air in the UK, but the latter features a friendly British face in the form of Waterloo Road’s Chris Geere), and now Love, which follows Gus and Gillian Jacobs’ Mickey as they stagger into a relationship, television seems to have picked up where film left off. And this new breed of TV romcoms are doing things differently.
Love, co-created by Judd Apatow, Girls writer Lesley Arfin and comedian Paul Rust (who plays Gus), starts with Gus and Mickey meeting at a petrol station. Initially Gus is relegated to the friend-zone, but eventually he confesses his feelings and the pair embark on a relationship, which starts to sharply plummet around 24 hours in. It gets so messy and so ugly that the title soon seems to be actively mocking our optimistic expectations for the pair.
On the surface, it could feel like these modern TV romcoms – with their crude humour, gratifyingly dysfunctional characters and unduly complex trajectories – are simply offering a cosmetic update. In fact, thanks to its meandering narratives and need for constant jeopardy, TV is doing something film can’t seem to. While there have been some films in recent years that outwardly resemble the tone of these more progressive series – Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, the brilliant Jenny Slate comedy Obvious Child (which centres around the main character’s abortion) and Amy Schumer’s slightly patchier Trainwreck – they all finally cleave to the happily-ever-after structure. TV, on the other hand, can show what happens when life goes on.
Taking advantage of TV’s longer runtimes and potentially infinitely unfolding narrative, Channel 4’s Catastrophe has also been working to unravel our expectations of a romantic comedy – and, by extension, romance itself – by painting a portrait of a relationship as an ongoing, but not necessarily improving, thing. The story follows protagonists Sharon and Rob, who have a brief fling, say their goodbyes, then find out they’re having a baby together. Despite being underpinned by a deep affection, their relationship doesn’t so much gather steam over time, as oscillate wildly between intense love and ruinous resentment.
Clearly, TV has always been able to trace the peaks and troughs of a nascent relationship in what feels like real time – and the will-they-won’t-they trope is a stalwart of the medium. But in the past, this just led TV shows to resemble incredibly drawn out romcoms. Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd eventually got together in Moonlighting; Sex and the City ended with Carrie’s dysfunctional (if not masochistic) relationship with Big remoulded into a conventional soulmate tale, with the final episode featuring Big telling Carrie she’s “the one” to a schmaltzy tinkling soundtrack. Ross and Rachel’s trajectory in Friends was slightly less hackneyed (Ross’s “it’s always been you Rach” declaration more of a happy middle than an ending), and for a long time the show held its nerve when it came to keeping the pair apart, even divorcing the trappings of coupledom – getting married, having a child – from the idea of being in a relationship. Ultimately, though, Friends was a show whose existence was based around pleasing a 50 million-strong audience, and it would have felt pretty galling to fans if they hadn’t ended up together.
Now though, there is a demand for knottier television, and the tone of these new shows seem more inclined to swerve the temptation to cave in to audience wish fulfilment. In Aziz Ansari’s recent Netflix series Master of None, the final two episodes were dedicated to a romantic subplot that played out in fast-forward. When the relationship began to sour slightly, the do-they-don’t-they end up together storyline felt so unpredictable that it resembled a thriller (something rendered weirdly satisfying by the fact that, actually, they didn’t). Last year’s captivating Togetherness – the second series of which will begin airing in the US next week – traced the breakdown of the marriage between Mark Duplass’s Brett and Melanie Lynskey’s Michelle in extremely brutal fashion. Their relationship resembled an intermittently blipping downward spiral, the depths of which was in no way signposted for the viewer.
Freed from the traditional romcom narrative, these shows can be about more than the couples at their centre: they can question the very nature of relationships. Catastrophe, for example, is not so much about finding your perfect partner as deciding, rationally, to use another person to facilitate some sort of solace. For Rob and Sharon, who are already in their 40s, that is having a family unit. Togetherness deals with the corrosive effects of being in a relationship that is supposed to complete you (this includes Brett telling his wife angrily that he has to make an effort to convince himself he is sexually attracted to her). In Love, Gus and Mickey return from a middling first date and have sex for the second time, during which Mickey asks if she can get out her vibrator. Ending on a close-up of Gus’s forlorn face, the show seems to ask whether the whole idea of getting what we need from other people is a myth.
It remains to be seen how far Love will go when it comes to carving out a new, progressive form of romcom, because the test is in how these things end. In the meantime, it seems that Love and its nu-romcom peers are simulating a real relationship – by treading a path that could end up pretty much anywhere.