The characters in TV’s latest rom-com love rom-coms. When Maya (Nathalie Emmanuel), an American speechwriter, joins her three college friends in London, she’s welcomed with a full-blown, rom-com-themed bash; Maya dresses up in a Love & Basketball jersey, while her lovelorn pal Duffy (John Reynolds) carries the telltale boombox from Say Anything. Later, when Maya goes through a traumatic breakup, her best friend Ainsley (Rebecca Rittenhouse) picks her up at Heathrow with a Love Actually–style set of giant notecards. These characters are already aware of the tropes they’re about to enact.
Upping the meta factor is that Maya, Duffy, Ainsley, and their buddy Craig (Brandon Mychal Smith) are, in fact, starring in a remake of one of the most iconic rom-coms of all time. The quartet are at the center of Hulu’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, writer-creator Mindy Kaling’s update and expansion of Richard Curtis’s 1994 classic. The adaptation is an extremely loose one, borrowing the concept of a friend group experiencing the namesake life events but swapping out almost all the specifics. The run time is 10 hours rather than two, necessitating more side characters and subplots, and the cast is more diverse; including Ainsley’s fiancé, Kash (Nikesh Patel), the leads are majority nonwhite. (Though heterosexuality, for the most part, remains the order of the day.) And the story, while following a classic rom-com structure, also takes place in a world where rom-coms are a tangible presence, both onscreen and in the minds of its writers.
Unlike Hugh Grant’s quintessentially British bumbler, Maya and her friends are all Americans, most of whom have relocated to London after falling in love on a semester abroad. They have, essentially, chosen to live inside their own idealized fantasy. Ainsley even lives in a gorgeous townhouse in Notting Hill, the setting and title of a third Curtis calling card, sandwiched in his filmography between Four Weddings and Love Actually; her mother is played by Andie MacDowell, a cast member of the original Four Weddings and staple of the rom-com’s previous heyday. We learn that Ainsley’s real estate holdings and fashion boutique are subsidized by her parents, a very un-rom-com-like concession to financial realities—or maybe a clever nod to yet another cliché.
This awareness of its influences may be Four Weddings’ attempt to set itself apart from the pack. For the past five years, TV has been a refuge for a genre that the movies had long since forsaken. You’re the Worst, Catastrophe, Jane the Virgin, and Kaling’s own The Mindy Project toyed with the possibilities of tracking a relationship’s life, not just its inception. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend went the extra mile by attacking the romantic comedy’s underlying themes; even animated smutfest Big Mouth released a Valentine’s Day special modeled after When Harry Met Sally. More recently, the rise of streaming services has enabled the resurgence of the more digestible feature-length romance.
The reasons for this revival are manifold, from shifting market forces to untapped audience demand. But one of the biggest contributing factors to the rom-com’s second wave is also the simplest: The fans who grew up on, and had their sensibilities informed by, works like the original Four Weddings are now old and established enough to launch projects of their own. Kaling herself is a dedicated disciple of the meet-cute and its consequences. Along with The Mindy Project and this summer’s Late Night, Four Weddings completes a trifecta of projects in which Kaling both replicates her inspirations and tweaks them: by splicing the rom-com and the sitcom (Mindy); by recasting the rom-com into a platonic story about work (Late Night); by literally remaking a touchstone in her generation’s image (Four Weddings). Four Weddings, like its creator, is both conscious of its predecessors and chooses to wear that consciousness on its sleeve. Unfortunately, invoking the bar it’s trying to meet quickly backfires.
The reception for Four Weddings has thus far not been kind, and it’s easy to see why. Emmanuel, best known as Daenerys’s deputy Missandei on Game of Thrones, is asked to lead an entire show while also shouldering an American accent she can’t quite sell. The result is harmful to Four Weddings’ realism, but absolutely devastating to its comedy. Emmanuel struggles to deliver the zippy banter that’s essential to the rom-com’s comforting vibe. And her castmates don’t rise up to fill the vacuum. Patel and Rittenhouse fall flat, always giving the impression they’re reading lines someone else has delivered to them and never convincing the viewer their zingers are things their characters would actually say. Reynolds and Smith are more experienced comedy hands—Smith played a rebellious rapper on You’re the Worst, Reynolds a bummed-out hipster on Search Party—playing tennis without partners.
The couplings, breakups, and recouplings that unfold from the initial setup thus have a listless feel, with no character having any more or less chemistry with one love interest than they do with any other. Story lines about Nathalie’s adventures in Parliament or Kash’s dream of acting feel like distractions from a main event that isn’t especially compelling in the first place. Still, middling television shows make it to air all the time. What rankles about this one—what’s provoking outright critical hostility, as opposed to indifference—is how Four Weddings dispenses regular reminders of the stories that it’s failing to emulate. Ironically, Curtis’s masterpiece itself doesn’t loom too large, given how far Kaling and her writers stray from it. But even if you’re part of the vocal Love Actually backlash, there’s no denying that Four Weddings fails to duplicate its sugary charms, or Say Anything’s teen dream, or Notting Hill’s star-crossed yearning.
Four Weddings is not alone in its awkward, unsuccessful attempt to make the rom-com meta. Earlier this year, Rebel Wilson’s Isn’t It Romantic turned out to be a will-they-won’t-they with the rom-com itself, with Wilson’s Natalie resenting the mythology’s pull before she finally succumbs to its appeal. The movie was surprisingly funny and shrewd, but audiences proved largely uninterested. Meanwhile, Curtis himself returned to theaters this year with Yesterday, which spliced a high-concept alternate history with a straightforward love story between the musician hero and his manager. Yesterday’s two halves eroded each other, the sci-fi scenario underbaked and the romance wan. Not just another forgettable misfire, Yesterday suggests even the master is struggling with how to make the rom-com work in 2019. And even if a savvier version of the form does exist, Isn’t It Romantic shows it’s not an easy sell.
Both Yesterday and Isn’t It Romantic were theatrical releases, which may have had just as much to do with their struggles as their style. Combined with Four Weddings, however, they suggest that rom-coms are better off keeping the fourth wall intact. From Set It Up to Always Be My Maybe, recent success stories don’t just share a distributor, but also a by-the-book approach to two people reconciling their differences and making it work. Believing in love takes a kind of sincerity and ingenuousness that may be at odds with demonstrating you’re in on the joke. In the late stages of its renaissance, the rom-com is starting to eat its own tail. It’s only a matter of time before it gets to the heart.