How Streaming Saved the Romantic Comedy

Today’s on-demand rom-coms are cheap, low-stakes, and more inclusive than ever

Illustration: Joan Wong

PPeople take for granted that I am, and always have been, a die-hard fan of the romantic comedy. It’s a fair assumption, considering I’ve written a romantic-comedy novel. But the truth is, if I were starring in a rom-com about my relationship with the genre it might be called: It’s Complicated.

As a kid and adolescent, I loved romantic comedies, the 1990s Nora Ephron trifecta of When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail in particular. By the time I went off to college, filled my course load with classes on gender, race, and class, shaved my head, and started dating girls, the rom-com had become unwatchable to me. I was no longer willing to project myself onto characters with whom I had nothing in common. I couldn’t unsee the fact that not a single romantic comedy had been written with someone like me in mind.

Around this same time, epic representation fails aside, the rom-com objectively started to suck. Remember 2003’s Gigli? Or that same year’s the Sweetest Thing? How about 2008’s Over Her Dead Body or 2009’s All About Steve? It’s been well-documented that in the early 2000s, the once robust genre began to decline and studios soon made fewer of them. In 2010 and 2011, nine major releases were rom-coms. Between 2012 and 2016 that number shrank to one or two a year. In 2017, zero rom-coms were released at the major-studio level. The reason for this trend depends on who you ask, but the cultural dominance of comic-book movies is (of course) part of the equation.

Good riddance, you might say. I sure did. Nonetheless, I went ahead and wrote a queer romantic-comedy novel, to put a story out there about characters that looked and behaved like my friends and me, no projection necessary. After it was published and people began asking me about my assumed longtime reverence for the romantic comedy, it was time to bring myself up-to-date on the current state of the genre.

With the old stuffy studio system out of the way, we get to see love stories where not everyone’s white, not everyone’s straight, not everyone’s thin, not everyone’s conventionally gorgeous.

Enter the Netflix original streaming rom-com. Perhaps you’re aware we’re in the midst of a rom-com resurgence, all thanks to the subscription-based streamer. It began with the runaway success of 2018’s Set it Up and the Kissing Booth, then forged ahead with Dumplin’ and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and continues strong with this year’s Someone Great and Always Be My Maybe. The recipe for Netflix’s success seems obvious in hindsight. By cutting out a theatrical release, the streamer lowered the budgets and the stakes for its releases, paving the way for new romantic comedies that are free and fun in a way we haven’t seen in years — and diverse in a way we have literally never seen before. With the big studios focused elsewhere, we get to see love stories where not everyone’s white, not everyone’s straight, not everyone’s thin, not everyone’s conventionally gorgeous. What Netflix realized is that it’s boring to see the same kind of people fall in love the same way over and over again — even for the people who were represented before.

Take, for example, the Netflix original rom-com that turned me into a true believer, 2018’s Someone Great. Someone Great is the story of Jenny, a music journalist recently dumped by her longtime boyfriend. Before she moves across the country, Jenny has one last NYC adventure with her two best friends. The characters are played by Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, and DeWanda Wise, who are, it is important to note, respectively Latina, white, and African American. (Wise’s character is also a lesbian.) I won’t spoil it for you, but the movie is fresh and natural and feels refreshingly unscripted and intimate; I relaxed on my couch and laughed throughout. It was exciting to feel included in a movie.

The big-budget studio rom-coms of the 2000s checked all the big-budget, big-ticket-sales boxes because they had to be for America — an imagined everyone — and that meant they didn’t feel very much like they were for me, or you if you happen to be a “minority” of any kind. While Someone Great may not have been written for my exact niche demographic, it’s unique and different enough to draw in anyone who maybe doesn’t see themselves sporting a blonde feather cut, falling for an all-American boy, and riding off into the sunset.

This is the beauty of the lower-budget streaming boom: It opens the door to all these new possibilities. Instead of one smooth-edged inoffensive white-hetero-middle-class story that everyone can be mildly entertained by, you get more risky, odd, wild stories about people of color, queer people, people with different bodies, immigrants, first-gen kids, people who have to worry about money, and people who find love on the other side of trauma. And when I watch these love stories that are unapologetically not for everyone, they feel like they are for me.

As for the loss of a full theatrical release, would I have liked to see Gina Rodriguez’s performance in Someone Great on the big screen? Of course. But I’m an oldster Xennial (on the cusp of Gen X and millennial) still hung up on the notion that there’s a quantifiable difference between a “movie movie” and what used to be called a “made for TV movie.” Big screen versus small screen used to be a measure of legitimacy, but this mode of thinking has gone the way of the answering machine and paper maps. My generation will be the last not only to draw a distinction between movies that receive a theatrical release and those that don’t, but to even notice that some do and some don’t.

Gen Z has zero lingering snobbery regarding how a movie finds its way to their eyeballs, which, as it turns out, is a boon for the eternally looked down upon romantic comedy. Find me a Gen Zer who would refer to watching (and rewatching and rewatching) the Kissing Booth as a “guilty pleasure” and I’ll buy you a Coke. Like the origin of a “buy you a Coke” reference, they will have no clue what you’re talking about.

“Streaming original” is another term that will probably die with my generation. What will live on, however, is a movie’s ability to go viral upon release, to become a hit — budget aside — on word of mouth alone. The ability to multitask while watching a new release for the third time in a row will endure, whether or not film purists consider this the downfall of an industry.

Diversity, relatability, instant gratification — these are the makings of our current rom-com resurgence. I may not have always been a die-hard fan of the romantic comedy, but thanks to the genre’s refurbishment, I’ve become a devoted convert. So much so, the title of the new streaming rom-com about my relationship with the genre may have to be changed to: Just Married.

writer, editor

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