Pop culture’s recent experimentation with the rom-com isn’t limited to the small screen; Obvious Child instantly became a gold standard when it debuted last year for the realism of both its central plot device, Donna Stern’s decision to get an abortion following a one-night stand, and the relationship between its two leads. But since the genre’s ’90s heyday cemented its tropes, the rom-com has fallen from cinematic prominence, more likely to make an appearance as a David Wain spoof (They Came Together) or an attempted reinvigoration (Trainwreck) than as a straightforward progression from meet-cute to grand finale.
And now, the rom-com appears to have migrated to the small screen; it’s telling that the next collaboration between Obvious Child‘s director and star will be a pilot for FX, though there’s no word yet on the premise of said project. Last season’s boom had both quantity and quality, with quickly canceled contenders like Manhattan Love Story and A to Z adding weight to the critical success of, say, You’re the Worst. I’ll loop back to that show in a minute, but the most obvious counterpoint to Trainwreck, starting with its name, is the television rom-com’s latest and best entry: Catastrophe, which recently landed on Amazon Prime after debuting on the UK’s Channel 4.
Catastrophe stars co-creators and co-writers Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan as Rob and Sharon, an American businessman and an Irish schoolteacher who decide to pursue a relationship when Sharon gets pregnant. I’ve evangelized Catastrophe to friends as “Obvious Child if she kept the baby,” because in spite of their literally opposite plots, the two share a refreshingly mature take on what drives attraction, and eventually conflict, between two people.
Rob and Sharon aren’t drawn to each other because they’re opposites; neither is any more of a mess, or less of an adult, than the other. Instead, they establish a rapport over their shared sense of humor and cynical outlook, not to mention child, and when their relationship goes through growing pains, it’s over natural stumbling blocks like a need for space (physical space; Rob is ejected from Sharon’s apartment early on and told to occupy himself for the day) or moving too fast. They approach the relationship from a similar perspective — competent adults who act with a certain amount of maturity, despite their hangups and romantic histories — and it shows.
As its title suggests, if Catastrophe is a typical rom-com where both parties are the adult in the room, then You’re the Worst introduces each of its leads as the (drunken, slutty) kids. Created by frequent Jenji Kohan collaborator Stephen Falk, You’re the Worst pairs novelist Jimmy (Chris Geere) with music publicist Gretchen (Aya Cash) as they warily settle into a relationship. The first season began when Jimmy got kicked out of an ex’s wedding as Gretchen attempted to steal one of the couple’s gifts; it ended with Gretchen moving into Jimmy’s house after accidentally setting her apartment on fire with her vibrator. Such is the relationship’s gloriously irresponsible vibe.
Catastrophe and You’re the Worst thus avoid the risks of a monogamy-as-redemption narrative by allowing no one to be redeemed. Part of this is inherent in each show’s setup, which puts neither lead in any position to rescue, redeem, or otherwise fix the other. This avoids pitfalls on either side of the gender divide: the women aren’t replacement mothers who babysit their man-children, and the men aren’t responsible anchors guiding their girlfriends to the safe harbor of a steady relationship. Such parity, in which partners “grow up” together or not at all, would be welcome at the movies.
Another part of these shows’ appeal, however, may be medium-specific. By necessarily focusing on the long-term arc of a relationship, television series generally don’t allow for the tidy endings of big-screen romances, and encourage dwelling on the more complicated issue of how to craft a lasting partnership. Delaney, for example, has said in interviews that Catastrophe is designed to be about the challenges of marriage and kids; Season 1 is simply the origin story of his and Horgan’s fictional relationship. You’re the Worst, meanwhile, makes clear that Jimmy and Gretchen still have plenty of issues to work through — like the fact that Gretchen doesn’t actually want to move in yet, she just doesn’t have anywhere else to go.
By keeping the cameras rolling even after the action reaches its crescendo, the television rom-com at its best can avoid some implications the most enjoyable film couples can’t escape. Not even Obvious Child, for example, avoids the relationship-as-life-fix model, although Donna’s life is far more convincingly a wreck than Amy Townsend’s. In the long run, of course, it’s doubtful that the grand gesture typical of rom-coms’ third act erases the differences between, say, a hard-partying writer and a more domestic doctor. The television rom-com gives viewers the opportunity to see those differences resolved onscreen rather than leaving them out of the frame.