Netflix didn’t save the romantic comedy: 5 TV shows did, and most were created by women
Staff Picks . Content . 7 Minutes . Carrie Wittmer
- With hot hits people can't stop talking about, like "Set It Up" and "To All the Boys I've Loved Before," Netflix is getting a lot of credit for saving the romantic comedy.
- But the rom-com has been very much alive on TV networks with shows mostly created by and starring women, including "The Mindy Project," "Jane the Virgin," and "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend."
- Without ambitious shows that subverted the formulaic genre while embracing it, rom-coms like "The Big Sick," "Crazy Rich Asians," and the Netflix originals wouldn't be here.
With new movies gaining momentum in 2018 including "Set It Up" and "To All the Boys I've Loved Before," Netflix is getting a lot of credit for bringing back the romantic comedy. But the genre has been dominating the TV landscape for years, with shows created by and starring women.
A staple in the film industry for decades, the romantic comedy slowly receded in the late 2000s and early 2010s.
Rom-coms were 1990s and 2000s culture, with at least one major release with a huge stars like Meg Ryan or Reese Witherspoon every few weeks. And that's because rom-coms were consistently solid at the box office. They were also wildly successful on DVD and cable, where many still play to this day — have you ever not stumbled upon a Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey movie on TBS?
But by 2010, rom-coms increasingly became less popular, both with critics and audiences. Since 2010, they went from nine major studio releases to zero in 2017. The last rom-com to earn over $100 million domestically at the box office was 2015's "Trainwreck." Before that, the most prominent rom-com studio films were 2011's "No Strings Attached" and "Friends With Benefits": two rom-coms with literally the same premise.
But things have changed.
One of the most well-received movies of 2017 was indie rom-com "The Big Sick," which got an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. And in 2018, chatter around the disappearance of the standard rom-com stirred around the release of Netflix's "Set It Up," a conventional and predictable rom-com updated for a modern, young audience (the most iconic scene involves pizza, which feels right for the times). And the same week that "Crazy Rich Asians" came to theaters, Netflix released another rom-com starring an Asian-American actress: "To All the Boys I've Loved Before."
Netflix saw the need for original rom-coms after noticing that its users rewatched (over and over) romantic comedies like “10 Things I Hate About You” and “The Wedding Planner” that were available on the service.
But other TV networks were keeping the rom-com alive before Netflix started making these movies, and they paved the way for rom-coms with a modern twist. This started quietly and with judgment during TV's golden age, when the best shows on TV included "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad," and the early seasons of "Game of Thrones."
These new shows that incorporated rom-com elements, spanning from 2011 to today, gave fresh angles to the genre — from "New Girl" to "The Mindy Project." They opened up opportunities for darker rom-com movies including "The Big Sick," as well as more formulaic, breezy ones like “Set It Up.”
While a need and want for diversity in film is one of the reasons “Crazy Rich Asians” has been so successful, it’s also the genre: after years of prestige dramas and superhero movies, people want to relax, laugh, and feel good about the future, and that’s what rom-coms are doing, thanks to a generation of creators (mostly women) that were inspired by the iconic ones from the 90s.
People love rom-coms, but without these TV shows, they could have faded into obscurity as movie studios turned their backs. Or, if the genre did come back, they wouldn’t be as modern and revolutionary: We’d still have a father character who, like the one in “10 Things I Hate About You,” aggressively pushes chastity on his daughters, rather than the dad in “To All the Boys,” who awkwardly hands his daughter a manila envelope filled with condoms.
From "The Mindy Project" to "You're the Worst," here's all of the TV shows that were saving the romantic comedy on the small screen when the studios weren't making them for the big screen:
“New Girl” — Fox (2011-2018), created by Liz Meriweather
When “New Girl” premiered in 2011, it got a lukewarm reception. The feel-good, relentlessly charming, and positive comedy follows Jess Day (Zooey Deschanel), a bubbly and naive elementary school teacher who moves into a loft filled with men after she catches her boyfriend cheating on her.
As with many TV comedies, “New Girl” gained its momentum late into the first season as the show didn’t have to rely on Deschanel. Jess Day was a worthy lead, but she was also the magnet keeping a great group of even quirkier characters together.
The show’s rom-com feel relied on its "will they/won’t they" relationship between Jess and Nick Miller (Jake Johnson). While this was certainly influenced by other TV romances like Ross and Rachel ("Friends") and Sam and Diane ("Cheers"), the show was heavy on rom-com influences even though it wasn't trying. For example, it included silly side characters including an awkward musical-obsessed guy named Bearclaw (played by Josh Gad) and Sadie, a brutally honest lesbian OB/GYN played by June Diane Raphael. Rob Reiner, who directed movies including "The Princess Bride" and "When Harry Met Sally …" guest starred throughout the series as Jess Day’s dad.
“The Mindy Project” — Fox and Hulu (2012-2017), created by Mindy Kaling
Mindy Kaling is one of the true saviors of the romantic comedy. Kaling is not shy about her obsession with movies like “When Harry Met Sally ...” And her show, “The Mindy Project,” which premiered on FOX in 2012, was very forward with its love of the genre. Movies like “You’ve Got Mail” are, after all, one of the reasons why Kaling went into the entertainment business.
“The Mindy Project” pilot’s opening shot is a scene from “When Harry Met Sally ...” before there’s any shot of any character in the series, followed by clips from “You’ve Got Mail” and “Notting Hill.”
Over its six seasons, the series swapped characters and completely abandoned a lot of material in order to get better. But one thing stayed the same: Kaling’s aggressive obsession with rom-coms.
Much like "New Girl," which aired on the same network on the same night, "The Mindy Project" stuck with a "will they/won't they" relationship between Mindy Lahiri and Danny Castellano. And the show took a long, complicated journey to get to an ending that no 90-minute film could have accomplished.
“You’re the Worst” — FXX (2014-Present), created by Stephen Falk
“You’re the Worst” is a cynic’s take on the rom-com. And it reflects the dating habits of millennials. It’s not about finding someone to marry: it’s about avoiding that.
“You’re the Worst,” which follows Gretchen and Jimmy, who meet at a wedding and have a one-night stand in the pilot, goes out of its way to demonstrate just how horrible its romantic leads are for each other. This is quite the opposite of what rom-coms do. And even if a rom-com tried to do this in film, it wouldn't have the time to invest as much as "You're the Worst" can with an episodic format.
"You're the Worst" has enough time to give its sloppiest (in personality, not writing) characters some depth and humanity, including Gretchen's best friend Lindsay, who is one of the dumbest people on the planet but also a human being with feelings and desires. It also has time for an entire season dedicated to Gretchen's clinical depression, and time to dive into Edgar's (Jimmy's roommate) heroin addiction and PTSD.
“Jane the Virgin” — The CW (2014-Present), developed by Jennie Snyder Urman
"Jane the Virgin" is influenced by a lot of things: telenovelas, romance novels, and romantic comedies.
The show, which follows Jane, a virgin who gets accidentally artificially inseminated with a man's sperm and chooses to have the baby and thus begins a love triangle with her current boyfriend and the father of the baby she's carrying, embraces cheesy romance because Jane does.
It can get heavy on drama, like an arc involving the death of a loved one and another involving breast cancer. The show also takes on other issues including illegal immigration, murder, and telenovela elements like a surprise twin sister. There's also quite a lot of kidnapping. But at its heart, it's a romantic comedy that focuses more on the romance than the comedy, which is what so many people really want, even if they don't admit it.
"Crazy-Ex Girlfriend" — The CW (2015-Present), created by Rachel Bloom and Aline Brush McKenna
"Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" takes a dangerous stereotype about women that romantic comedies have helped instill onto society (the "crazy ex"), and uses it to tell a story of a woman with a mental illness that has a huge impact on her romantic relationships.
The show is deep, funny, and one of the most creative shows ever made on television. It doesn't get nearly enough credit for being hopelessly romantic while criticizing some of the bad things romantic comedies have depicted.
It also tells a lot of story, particularly inner workings of characters' minds through satirical songs that range from replicating the music of "Les Miserables" to Bruno Mars. There are usually two to three short songs per episode, depending on the length and production quality. One of its most iconic songs, "The Math of Love Triangles" — inspired by Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend" number from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" — uses the dumb blonde stereotype to make fun of the overdone but captivating love triangle. Another popular song from the show's third season, "Let's Generalize About Men," an 80s inspired anthem, is the four main female characters complaining about how awful men are in neon suits.
But they haven't always worked...
“A to Z,” which starred Ben Feldman (“Superstore,” “Mad Men”) and Cristin Milioti (the mother that "How I Met Your Mother" killed off) told the story of a long-winded romance. Andrew, a bro with a soft side, is obsessed with Zelda, who a “girl’s girl” who "likes pedicures and themed cocktail parties” but avoids seriously dating someone at all costs. NBC canceled it a few weeks after it premiered.
“Manhattan Love Story” (2014) was a standard love story with a terrible twist: the audience got to know what the man and the woman were thinking. And guess what? It piled stereotype upon stereotype. The woman (Analeigh Tipton) loved shopping and purses, the man (Jake McDorman) loved sex and boobs. We’d already seen this premise in “What Women Want,” and it didn’t work there either. ABC canceled it less than a month after its premiere.
But even though these shows failed spectacularly, they also helped people (a generation of creators in particular) realize that this genre works within television. And this eventually got romantic comedies where they are today: revolutionized for a new era of viewers who never wanted them to go away. They just wanted something new.