Netflix seems to be trying to bring back the rom com, and I am more than ready to welcome it back with open arms.
I am an unabashed and unapologetic lover of the rom com. It’s always my go-to genre no matter what mood I’m in — but especially after I’ve had long day (or long week or, if you’re from the U.S. like I am, a long administration).
I can pretty much quote the best parts of all the great ones from memory — Harry’s speech at the end of When Harry Met Sally, Joe’s speech from the end of You’ve Got Mail. The pretty good ones — The Holiday, Love Actually — get put on as background noise while I’m cleaning. Even the truly awful ones — anything starring Matthew Mcconaughey or Katherine Heigel — serve a purpose: they’re perfect for watching while hanging out with your best friend so that you can mercilessly mock the entire film and revel in how funny the two of you are.
Lately, though, there have been very few romantic comedies at all good, bad or aggressively mediocre.
Sure, we’ve had a few more recent standouts — movies like Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick and the delightfully heartwarming and incredibly evocative Love, Simon — and the hugely anticipated Crazy Rich Asians, but as a whole the rom com genre seems to have slowly died out in direct proportion to the rise of the mega franchise film.
The mid budget romantic comedy, with its decidedly smaller stakes — the future of the city or the world or the universe is never going to depend on whether or not two people end up together — has become an increasingly rare commodity. They’re more personal stories, but without the intimacy or auteur nature that gives indie films their prestige.
These are movies that are never really going to be the indie darlings that win academy awards, nor will they ever set box office records or bring in billions of dollars. (And even if I predict that Crazy Rich Asians might do either of these, I’d really hesitate to call it a mid budget film).
Which means that the days of studios pumping out three or four — admittedly mostly awful — rom coms every year are mostly gone, and I’ve mostly been left scrolling through Netflix or Amazon Prime or Hulu, trying to watch quality rom coms that are all more than a few years old.
Until now, that is.
After two incredibly packed, hectic weeks of work, school and family commitments, watching Set It Up felt like coming up for air.
It managed to capture that special sort of rom com magic and fun that makes it easy to forget the world and inhabit a slightly glossier, more whimsical reality for an hour and a half.
Set It Up is a rom com that isn’t ashamed of what it is. The protagonists go from enemies to friends to lovers over the course of the movie, and there’s really never much tension or doubt that their trajectory will end in a big damn kiss.
After I finished Set It Up, I went on to watch two more Netflix original films that have been on my radar: The Incredible Jessica James and Ali’s Wedding. The first stars the utterly fantastic Jessica Williams as an aspiring playwright recovering from her breakup with Lakeith Stanfield and playing opposite of a charming as always Chris O’Dowd. The second is a heartwarming and lovely movie set in Australia that details the life and love problems of Ali, the son of muslim cleric.
When watching these movies, it’s immediately obvious that Netflix learned from the mistakes of the many terrible rom coms of the early 00’s. These films realize that they must first build up its two leads as people before it can push them together. Why should we care if two people end up together if we don’t actually know or even like either of them? How can we like either of them if neither of them have any inner lives, interests or friends?
Luckily, Netflix’s original rom coms have this mostly figured this out. Charlie and Harper from Set It Up, along with Jessica and Boone from The Incredible Jessica James and Ali and Dianne from Ali’s Wedding, are their own people, with interests and hopes and character arcs separate from their love story.
The characters in all these films have rich, full lives. They are people we not only feel like we know, but ones we would like to be friends with. We understand their quirks and their strengths, we see what makes them charming and what can make them difficult to deal with.
In short, we care about these characters. And because we care about them, we want them to find love and happiness — preferably by the end of our two hours with them.
Part of the reason movies like Set It Up, The Incredible Jessica James and Ali’s Wedding help us to care about their characters is because they show these characters in community with other people.
The worst rom coms are always the ones where I constantly think — where the hell are this girl’s friends or family? Why does no one literally have anyone to help them navigate these insane situations?
Luckily, these Netflix original movies take care to introduce us to the families and friends of these characters, so that we get to know them not only by their own hopes and fears, but through their relationships with the people around them. They realize that a good romance cannot occur in a vacuum — it has to be between two people with relationships outside of the one they share with each other. Otherwise it’s just weird and kind of boring.
Set It Up does a fantastic job of building Harper and Charlie’s friendships — their best friends actually act like best friends, people with their own unique personalities and roles who give them advice or a push in the right direction when it’s needed.
The Incredible Jessica James highlights both Jessica’s friendships with her BFF but also to the young group of students she mentors through an inner city theater program. Finally, Ali’s Wedding spends a lot of time both on the history of Ali’s family as they moved from Iraq to Iran and finally settled in Australia, and on the Muslim community in Australia.
These Netflix originals work hard to fill in the life around the main characters, so that we understand that a relationship between the two will simply add to an already full life — not be the only thing in it.
Finally, one of the most exciting reasons I’m glad to see Netflix lead the way for the rom com renaissance is because they’ve realized something that more traditional movie studios have had trouble getting on board with: The fact that people of color fall in love — and deserve to be shown falling in love — too.
While Set It Up focuses on the two white assistants, the roles inhabited by uptight bosses Taye Diggs as Rick and Lucy Liu as Kirsten, especially, is a welcome change to the sea of white faces.
Likewise, Candy Jar, another original about two high school students who are debate team rivals features a black male lead, played by Jacob Latimore, and his mother, played to perfection by Uzo Aduba. The Incredible Jessica James and Ali’s Wedding both center around people of color — with Ali’s Wedding particularly giving us insight into a community and a culture that we so rarely get to see on screen.
The upcoming slate of rom coms likewise promise more diversity when it comes to their leads and the stories they tell. I’ve been hyped for To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before since it was announced last July and will likely watch it at least five times when it comes out in August.
Ali Wong and Randall Park will be writing and starring in Always be my Maybe, the story of two former childhood sweethearts who reconnect after 15 years apart. Gina Rodriguez will be producing and starring — opposite of Lakeith Stanfield — in Someone Great, the story of a woman who experiences a tough break-up and seeks adventure in New York City with her two best friends before moving across the country for her dream job.
I’m incredibly excited and thankful for the current and future slate of Netflix original romantic comedies. I’m ready to watch endless amounts of hours of meet cutes, people falling in love, and epic first kisses. Long live the rom com!
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