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A genre reborn: Inside the evolution of the rom-com

By Leah Asmelash, CNN

A recent episode of the Apple TV+ sitcom “Ted Lasso” features a moment that brings the characters together: a love of rom-coms.

In the episode, titled “Rainbow,” the happy-go-lucky titular character extolls the virtues of the romantic comedy while giving his team, the players of AFC Richmond, a pep talk: “If all those attractive people with their amazing apartments and interesting jobs, usually in some creative field, can go through some light-hearted struggles and still end up happy? Then so can we.”

He refers to his philosophy as “rom-communism,” noting that believing in it “is all about believing that everything is going to work out in the end.”

Without spoiling it too much, the episode culminates in a series of rom-com homages referencing everything from “When Harry Met Sally” to “Jerry Maguire.” The audience is expected to know — and love — every single pop culture Easter Egg.

It’s just a new example of how the romantic comedy has evolved, even though someone declares the genre dead every few years.

The rom-com has been pronounced dead since the 1970s, before the rise of stars now synonymous with the genre like Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts. In 2016, the Washington Post declared it dead again — in 2019, Variety did so as well.

Now, in an era of streaming and superhero movies, the romantic comedy has been largely cast aside by traditional Hollywood studios putting out theatrical releases. Nevertheless, the genre of meet-cutes and airport scenes, sweeping kisses and witty one-liners, has persisted in various forms.

What exactly is a rom-com?

The romantic comedy is a movie grappling with couple formation, said Maria San Filippo, an associate professor at Emerson College and editor of the collection “After ‘Happily Ever After’: Romantic Comedy in the Post-Romantic Age.”

Tonally, these movies tend to be a bit more carefree and optimistic than other movies that might deal with similar topics (such as “Marriage Story,” which San Filippo called a drama).

Romantic comedies have long been a staple of Hollywood, and though they’ve become a misogynistic punchline in recent years, that wasn’t always the case. In 1934, “It Happened One Night” — credited often as the first screwball comedy, a subgenre of rom-com films — swept all five of the Academy Awards it was nominated for: best director, actor, actress, adaptation and outstanding production (now known as best picture). It was the first film to sweep all the “Big Five” awards, a feat that has only been repeated twice.

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert’s unlikely tumble into love led to the production of dozens of similar screwball comedies, launching one of the most memorable eras of romantic comedies. Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell were at the peak of their powers — there was shouting, rowdy one-upmanship, and of course, love!

Though elements of these movies live on, classic screwball comedies fizzled out by the mid-1940s. Decades later, Woody Allen’s landmark 1977 film “Annie Hall” explored similar themes of romance and couple formation even though (spoiler alert) its main characters do not end the movie rushing into each other’s arms — a departure from earlier norms. Though the movie is undoubtedly a romantic comedy, it’s one that subverts the usual tropes in favor of something a little messier, maybe a little more real — Allen’s complicated legacy aside, it marks a notable shift in tone for the genre. For those keeping score, the film took home four Academy Awards, including best picture.

After that, “neo-traditional” romantic comedies took hold, led by the hilarious bickering of Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in 1989’s “When Harry Met Sally” (nominated for best original screenplay at the Oscars).

These neo-traditional romantic comedies are now what most people think of when referencing the genre. It’s “Pretty Woman” and “Four Weddings and Funeral.” It’s Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron; it’s Katherine Heigl and Matthew McConnaughey.

These movies — to varying degrees of success — typically follow a formula: White heterosexual boy meets White heterosexual girl, problems and hilarity ensue. In Black romantic comedies, like “Brown Sugar” or “Two Can Play That Game,” the formula is more or less the same.

It’s easy to dismiss the formula, said John Alberti, a professor of English at Northern Kentucky University who has written extensively about the genre. But when it’s done well, it feels like Heath Ledger belting “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” while dancing across the bleachers — joyous magic.

“Romantic comedies are dealing with the fundamental aspects of human existence: Desire, love, loneliness,” Alberti said. “Unlike (for example), ‘Fast and Furious,’ most of us are not going to become world class street racers, but most people do aspire to being in relationships, and take that very seriously.”

After all, who hasn’t breathed a sigh of relief watching two people find their way to each other? Who hasn’t wiped a tear away after a heartfelt “I love you” speech? These movies pull at our heart strings, by appealing to one of our most basic wants — to be loved.

But something happened over the years, between the wild commercial and critical successes of movies like “Annie Hall” and “When Harry Met Sally,” to the largely bland offerings of the early to mid-2000s. The movies simply became redundant, with their over-reliance on cliches, content to deliver the same story with (slightly) different faces and little chemistry.

Take “The Ugly Truth,” a 2009 film starring Gerard Butler and Katherine Heigl. In a New York Times review of the movie, longtime critic Manohla Dargis begins the article with a damning statement.

“That tap-tap-tapping sound you hear,” she writes, “is another nail being driven into the coffin of the romantic comedy.”

They used to be hits. What happened?

Part of the reason romantic comedies became so redundant is studio demand for content that could be aimed at a broad audience, said San Filippo. As a result, the movies became “incredibly White, incredibly heteronormative.”

For a long time, those movies were successful — they were cheap to make and brought in huge profits.

“My Best Friend’s Wedding,” a 1997 movie starring Julia Roberts, Dermot Mulroney and Cameron Diaz, was made on a $38 million budget, but worldwide, the movie brought in more than $299 million. “Pretty Woman,” (1990) with Roberts and Richard Gere, was made on a miniscule $14 million budget, but brought in a whopping $463.4 million worldwide.

Even as late as 2009, “The Proposal,” starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, was made on a budget of $40 million and grossed $317.3 million worldwide.

These were “mega, mega movies,” said media analyst Karie Bible. But as the years went on, they simply stopped making as much money.

Just one year before the smashing success of “The Proposal,” “Fool’s Gold,” starring Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey, only grossed $111 million worldwide on a $70 million budget.

More recently, 2019’s Rebel Wilson-led “Isn’t It Romantic” made a mere $48 million worldwide on a $31 million budget.

These numbers hardly hold a candle to the romantic comedies of yore. And there’s a lot of reasons that could be to blame, Bible said. Finding stars that actually have chemistry is no easy task, let alone finding a script that works.

“Julia and Richard, that was magic,” she said. But it doesn’t happen often.

Studios have also moved away from mid-budget movies, Alberti noted — a trend that’s affected romantic comedies as well as melodramas. Instead, studios have focused on investing in giant blockbusters, like superhero movies.

And after years of being force-fed mediocre romantic comedies, audiences are changing, too.

The genre has long been written off as “chick flicks” unworthy of serious consideration, by audiences and critics alike. At the same time, some have tired of the played-out notion that a woman’s life is incomplete if she’s single (an idea, common in post-2000 movies, that the 2016 romantic comedy “How To Be Single” attempted to subvert). And many are no longer content to see the same White faces, as people of color or LGBTQ people are relegated to roles of “sassy best friend” or therapist.

Furthermore, San Filippo noted that culture writ large has become “post-romantic,” as more and more people become disillusioned with ideas of love, marriage or monogamy.

Altogether, these shifting dynamics have led to the demise of the romantic comedy — at least as we’ve traditionally known it.

But that doesn’t mean the genre has been buried just yet.

Where is the romantic comedy now?

Romantic comedies, San Filippo said, tend to be narrowly defined — often considered to be chick flicks and nothing more. This narrow definition of the genre, combined with the fact that the films are also most often targeted toward women, feeds into the idea that they are better left dead, she said. And, if the movie is actually good — critically acclaimed or widely lauded — it’s less likely to even be called a romantic comedy in the first place, San Filippo said, pointing to films such as 2013’s “Her.”

Still, many movies can actually be interpreted as romantic comedies in disguise: Movies like “Wonder Woman 1984,” the “Harry Potter” franchise and even “Tenet” all have elements of romance and comedy in them and incorporate some aspect of couple formation into their storylines.

That said, just because traditional Hollywood studios have moved away from formulaic romantic comedies, doesn’t mean the demand for those movies has disappeared. The demand, as Netflix and other streaming sites have shown, is very much there.

Most streaming services do not make the numbers for their content readily available, but it’s no secret that Netflix has become a leading producer of the genre and probably one of the largest producers of romantic comedy movies, Alberti said.

The trend has to do with the nichification of streaming, he said. Whereas traditional movie studios wanted to reach as broad of an audience as possible, streaming websites like Netflix are attempting to appeal to very specific audiences through algorithms — a strategy that requires having lots of content within a specific genre. That’s why it may seem like Netflix or other streaming sites are creating the bulk of the romantic comedy movies.

Netflix has “The Kissing Booth 2” and “To All The Boys: P.S. I Still Love You.” HBO Max has “Superintelligence.” Hulu has “Palm Springs” and “Happiest Season.” These were just the movies released in 2020.

But these films largely follow the traditional romantic comedy structure and contain many of the same tropes (boy meets girl, an airport scene, a sassy best friend). Though they may be more diverse than the romantic comedies of the past, they aren’t necessarily doing anything new, in the way that some might say the movies of the past did. In some cases, they’re simply mediocre — or just filler.

That’s where TV series come in — the place where the genre is seemingly being pushed forward. Where movies are typically capped around two hours, series can go on for multiple episodes or seasons, allowing space to ask deeper questions about romance, love and couple formation. San Filippo used HBO Max’s “Made For Love” as an example, a show that forces its audience to think about what romance could look like in the future, asking questions like whether it’s possible to fall in love with machines. (CNN and HBO Max share parent company WarnerMedia.)

“The classical romantic comedy plot is very end-point driven,” Alberti said, pointing to the ways in which movies focus solely on the couple actually getting together or making it to the wedding. “With a serial, you can get into the idea of a relationship as a process.”

That means looking beyond the happily ever after and instead exploring the more challenging parts of being in a relationship.

Netflix’s “Easy” and Amazon Prime’s “Modern Love” are indicative of the evolving genre. Both shows explore the messier aspects of pursuing love and sex, from open relationships to gender roles in sex. Unlike many traditional romantic comedies, both refrain from fantasy, choosing instead to remain grounded in the real world.

Even Hulu’s serial remake of “High Fidelity,” which retained a rather classic romantic comedy structure, still managed to feel fresh, allowing Zoe Kravitz the space to portray a chaotic and selfish main character whose anxieties about relationships and growing old many young Millennials could relate to.

This isn’t to say that films are not pushing the genre at all: 2021’s “Together Together,” starring Patti Harrison and Ed Helms as a surrogate and single father navigating the boundaries surrounding their relationship, hits many of the same notes of a romantic comedy — without the traditional romance aspect. In its place is something platonic, though still tender and affectionate.

Along with culture shifts — creating space to question monogamy, marriage or even romance itself — romantic comedies, especially the serial ones, become more interesting, San Filippo said. It takes the genre beyond simply wish-fulfillment (“Will the cute guy love me back?”) and into the realm of reality.

Of course, the formula is a formula for a reason, and it probably won’t disappear any time soon.

But increasingly, romantic comedies are no longer limited to escapist wish-fulfillment fantasies.

They can also be thought-provoking, like Netflix’s “Love,” or quietly devastating like “The Half Of It.” They might make viewers question their own relationship, or think differently about love and sex. They may reveal the inherent romance in non-romantic relationships or reveal a larger world view — like “Ted Lasso” did with “Rainbow.” They might even question if it really exists.

None of this means the romantic comedy is dead. If anything, it’s been reborn.

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