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Make More Romantic Comedy TV: A Plea

As the movie theaters continue to side-eye the rom-com, HBO Max’s ‘Starstruck’ is proof that the small screen could be the perfect home for the beloved genre

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When you find the theme week you want to spend the rest of your life with, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible. Thankfully, The Ringer hereby dubs this week Rom-Com Week, a celebration of one of the most delightful, captivating genres in film. Head to the top of the Empire State Building, order what she’s having, and join us as we dig into everything the rom-com has had to offer over the years.

There are a few genres of television we can always count on to be in the rotation: the ensemble sitcom, the docudrama, scandalous teens (maybe there’s a murder), surly detective on a dangerously personal mission (there’s definitely a murder), workplace mockumentaries, prestige fantasy, hot but jaded doctors, cowboys dabbling in the supernatural, and whatever Shonda Rhimes is up to. In recent years, true crime has been the hottest TV ticket in town, whether it’s about (yes, more) murder or the white-collar misdeeds of Silicon Valley. But even more recently, there’s been much discussion of a vibe shift: a mysterious cultural reckoning headed our way as the result of the worldwide social pause put in place by a global pandemic and the ever-persistent wheel of time. What will that vibe shift ultimately look like, you ask? No one is totally sure—just make sure you don’t miss it, lest you stumble into a group of teenagers dressed like Jerry Seinfeld on a street corner and get absolutely roasted because of your ankle boots …

But allow me to wager a guess at this shift: for you, for me, and for an entire generation of young British actors just waiting for their big break, my greatest hope is that we’re about to find out that TV is finally ready to transition into its rom-com era.

Unlike the erotic thriller, the romantic comedy never really died. It just keeps being reincarnated into different subgenres, and doled out to us on different viewing platforms and with different levels of urgency. Yes, gone are the days of grossing $350 million on the power of love and Windex alone, but romantic stories that are comedic in nature remain sought after by both audiences and creators. However, as the rom-com moved from the all-consuming star power of Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts in the ’90s, to the successful mid-budget Sandra Bullock and Jennifer Lopez vehicles of the early aughts, and on into the “I’m sorry, I’m supposed to feel what about Justin Timberlake?” phase of the 2010s, the category as a whole took on a certain level of cynicism that proved unsustainable. At which point, the rom-com took a little time off and recalibrated before finally finding a home on the king of rom-coms for the last decade itself, Netflix (swiftly followed by little rom-com princes Hulu and Amazon Prime). For a time, Netflix originals like Set It Up, Always Be My Maybe, and Someone Great functioned as the platonic ideal of prolific but fleeting chunks of content. But, folks …

It’s time for the rom-com to start fuckin’ again—because, frankly, it’s been a long time since its last good relationship, everyone is worried, and the time has come for it to start seeing (making content for) new people (TV). Take one look at the actually-very-good Plus One and you’ll see that the movie would be way less underrated if it were simply given the fan-fiction treatment, wherein each wedding that these two old pals (Jack Quaid and Maya Erskine) attended together as “platonic” (yeah, OK) “plus-ones” (mm-hmmm) got its own episode to luxuriate around in. Just give us a rom-com candle with enough time and space to burn slowly, but enough chemistry to light the coffee table on fire by Episode 8—it’s all we ask for in this transitional time in rom-com history! I refuse to accept that we can now get our romantic comedy fix only from 116 minutes spent with the third-most-interesting streaming platform, the G-plot of a superhero movie, or the sixth season of Summer House (where, to be fair, Lindsay Hubbard and Carl Radke are giving us the slow-burn friends-to-lovers trope of the century, buried under a thick exosphere of sparkling hard tea and Fireball).

With the declining cultural fervor for streaming rom-coms and the flop of “return of the rom-com” marketing ploys by Marry Me—my apologies to J.Lo, whom I still think of every time I step over a manhole cover in heels—one can only conclude that the time has come for yet another genre shift. And I’m here to tell you that its horny chariot has already arrived: In the spring of 2021, a little show named Starstruck dropped in the U.K., eventually making its way over to the States on HBO Max that same summer. In a tight six episodes, Season 1 tells the story of Jessie (Rose Matafeo, series creator and multi-hyphenate supernova of charisma), a cinema clerk who happens to have a one-night stand with hottie Tom Kapoor after meeting him at a New Year’s Eve party … only to find out the next morning that he’s a very famous movie star. Be honest: Did you get goose bumps just from the Notting Hill of it all?

When Starstruck hit our streaming silver screens, it was warm and colorful; Matafeo and cowriter Alice Snedden’s dialogue was so funny, and Matafeo’s chemistry with Nikesh Patel was simultaneously adorable and electric. And in the summer of 2021, that electricity was an unexpected revelation for people who’d been forced to keep their distance from humanity for far too long. To say that Starstruck has opened a door for a new, episodic era of the rom-com is not to discredit the previous nods to romantic comedy throughout television history, of course. Will-they-or-won’t-they couples have been a staple of television all the way from sitcoms to crime procedurals. But in these trying, socially stunted times, we simply cannot wait five seasons for Mr. Sheffield to wise up and propose to Fran Fine. No, in these times, we demand love stories so compelling that they must be the main feature, emotional messes so big and avoidable that they require an entire season to be cleaned up, and chemistry so charged it can stand the test of literal viewing time.

Brits really do seem to be doing TV rom-com best, with precursors to Starstruck like Lovesick—but there’s also no denying that Lovesick was originally titled Scrotal Recall, which zaps quite a bit of the rom from its com. Then there’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who went ahead and made the second season of Fleabag a spine-melting romantic comedy—I welcome any currently running series to do the same. (Here’s looking at you, 1883.)

Long-running TV shows like The Mindy Project, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Insecure were charmingly referential to the rom-com genre while not necessarily adhering to the tropes and beats themselves. And of course, there have been a number of more straightforward examples of rom-com television in the past decade: You’re the Worst, Love, and Catastrophe, to name a few. But the commonality in all of those is that they’re dark-comedy rom-coms. Quality-wise, that’s great, but it’s simply not the vibe right now. To quote the soundtrack of a top-10 rom-com: What the world needs now, is love, sweet love. We’re looking for unrealistic expectations of love; meets so cute they rot your teeth out; undiscovered young Darcys, and ingenues looking for their Emmys; charming high jinks that don’t require a mid-movie montage, and precisely one tonally appropriate musical number. And banter, baby—please just give us banter! Starstruck doesn’t just tap into a pair of actors’ chemistry, it intentionally plays in good old-fashioned rom-com tropes; it also features a man who actually laughs at a woman’s jokes, and emotional stakes beyond will-they-or-won’t-they and well into can-they-or-can’t-they territory by the time Season 2 rolled around this spring. Starstruck is the blueprint for the rom-com shift we need right now, and this is my official plea for TV creators to take notice and hop on this runaway bandwagon (likely being pursued at top speed by an attractive young person who’s realized just in the nick of time that they’re in love with said bandwagon).

Rom-com TV means the potential for both quality and quantity. It means actually getting to enjoy a slow burn slowly. It means employing a huge, mostly uncharted television landscape to explore the fuzziest, messiest rom-com themes. In tone, Starstruck takes us all the way back to the screwball comedy of His Girl Friday and combines it with the famous-person-falls-in-love-with-normie trope—yet it features an interracial couple in which neither partner is white. You know what that is? Growth! Now let’s do Bridget Jones’s Diary without the fatphobia, or Some Like It Hot meets Working Girl for the work-from-home set. And for the love of god, cast Keke Palmer in all of it.

There are so many other rom-com tropes to be inverted, subverted, and stretched out over multiple episodes of television with Jeff Bezos’s billions. There used to be an entire rom-com subgenre about presidents’ daughters, for goodness’ sake! That may be a far less aspirational position now, but I know Amazon already has the rights to Casey McQuiston’s Red, White & Royal Blue, and I beg of them to make it into a 10-episode limited series instead of three movies spread out over three years where the 25-year-olds who look like 18-year-olds age into 30-year-olds who do not look like 19-year-olds.

At the end of 2020, Bridgerton showed us that people are horny, and more than willing to accept horniness into their mainstream media consumption; Starstruck showed us that horniness can be romantic and funny and shamelessly based on no semblance of reality whatsoever. Are you likely to meet a movie star, discover that he’s desperately in need of a reality check in the form of you, fall deeply in love, and traipse across a lake to declare your complicated love for him? You are not. You don’t even live in London. The only way to experience that fairy tale is … well, from the comfort of your own home. The roaring hot vaxx summer of 2021 that was promised never really came because, of course, the pandemic never really went. Instead, in the summer of 2021, and the spring of 2022, we got a sweet little story about a boy, standing in front of a girl, telling her she’s genuinely the most stressful person he’s ever met. And while I previously looked forward to chasing quarantine with sinful behavior and bathtubs full of booze, I’m now open to the idea that the vibe shift all along was actually just the needed return of something warm and cheerful to our pop culture landscape.

Long live the romantic comedy—just please stretch it across multiple seasons.