The TV romantic comedy is, as assorted articles across the last two years have suggested, on the rise. And it’s a phenomenon that’s developing into a full-bodied genre as the film rom-com withers to homage, parody, and (very) occasional subversion.
With bounteous time to develop romances, the TV rom-com is often characterized as being far less beholden to tired and reductive tropes than its film counterparts — it’s a genre that has the time to balance sweetness with realism, intimacy with cynicism, and perhaps most notably, it has room to present monogamy as an option more than a panacea.
Despite having proven itself vulnerable to cancellation, the TV rom-com has most recently attracted the likes of Judd Apatow, whose upcoming series just got a release date (February 19). Apatow seems to want to cash in on some prime rom-com real estate, claiming the very bold title Love (no relation to Gaspar Noé’s ultimately overhyped 3D pornographic drama, except for the similar assertion of thematic importance in its title). And with Apatow’s Love incoming, it seemed like the right time to rank the currently airing TV rom-coms, in all their funny, sometimes shamelessly sentimental, sometimes shamelessly cynical plurality.
Perhaps it doesn’t even need to be said that Girls can suck, utterly. While an intentional disregard for temporal structure (you never know whether the next episode will take place two days or two months after the last) can be liberating for shows, Girls‘ frequent disorientation and distancing of viewers’s emotional relationship to the storylines reads as more lazy than Brechtian. However. There’s that one episode that unequivocally makes the series still qualify as worthy of rom-com consideration. Yes, I’m talking about “One Man’s Trash,” that episode focused solely on Hannah Horvath and Patrick Wilson’s doctor character, which uses the standalone-episode trend to beautifully render the brief, standalone experience of a physical and emotional connection with someone from a completely different world.
10. The Mindy Project
The Mindy Project continues, persevering despite its initial cancellation, in large part due to Mindy Kaling’s comic timing and the chemistry between Mindy Lahiri and her onetime frenemy, Chris Messina’s Danny Castellano, whose relationship has proven to be at the core of this show that’s (for better or for worse) deeply entrenched in rom-com homage.
9. Scrotal Recall
Scrotal Recall provoked such headlines as “Scrotal Recall: the STI comedy that’s not as gross as it sounds,” “Don’t Be Turned Off by Scrotal Recall’s Awful Name,” and, “Is it too late to change the name of Scrotal Recall?” This British show’s premise — a dude tracing his sexual partners to find the source of his chlamydia, and to inform others he likely gave them chlamydia — is perfect for a brief (six-episode) sitcom, and puts an amusingly honest spin on the traditional rom-com formula. Here, the driving force is chlamydia rather than a particular pervasive attraction, and any romance that happens in an attempt to trace it is somehow related.
Is it a rom-com, is it an anti-rom-com? Since it’s a com about rom, Zander Lehmann and Jason Reitman’s sharp and pithy Casual could be considered a bit of both. The show follows siblings Valerie and Alex — who now live together in the aftermath of one’s divorce and another’s suicide attempt — as they take to apps (namely, one invented by the brother character) to date in the vein of the show’s title. The show is funny and just as interested in the relationships between its central family, whose members are dating in parallel. These relationships were forged through lifelong connections, and create a compelling juxtaposition to the search for brief, ahistorical encounters.
7. Master of None
Unlike most everything I’ve read — but not most everyone I’ve spoken to — I haven’t loved every aspect of Master of None (complaints include woefully flat acting/characterization among the supporting cast and an awkward imbalance between realism and sitcom styling). But the depiction of romance that dominates a few episodes of the first season is completely inspired: if you’re looking for a good half-hour of thoughtful, funny romance on TV, “Mornings,” which follows Aziz Ansari and Noël Wells’ characters through months of growing comfort and disenchantment strictly through their morning routine, is among the best.
6. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
This is a musical comedy show whose initial driving forces are an enduring obsession with an ex-boyfriend from summer camp and an inspirational butter commercial. This is one of the biggest “How did this get made?!” premises on television, but as it turns out, it’s completely refreshing that it did.
5. Banana (Channel 4)
Banana follows a group of queer, British, youngish people, while the interconnected Cucumber focuses on middle aged gay men — particularly one very lost gay man who, after a proposal and threesome gone very awry, seeks room and board with some of Banana‘s characters. Together, the two series emerge as smart comparing/contrasting devices (a sort of current-day upgrade on the less fluid Queer as Folk), looking into the ways different generations experience and understand sex and love in the margins, and how changing societies (and their changing margins) generationally alter the ways people define these things. While Cucumber‘s episodes are broad in their scope — and cannot really be deemed “rom-com” — Banana (which is also just as serious as it is funny) takes on a half-hour format that allows it to focus on one life at a time, often one love/sex and/or failed-attempt-at-either story at a time.
4. You’re the Worst (FX)
Like the best TV rom-coms, You’re the Worst takes a deceptively simple name, premise, and even fairly basic early episodes (Gretchen and Jimmy, misanthropes who disdain romance, bone and accidentally then intentionally forge their own form of misanthropic love) and then rubs your initial reservations about that seemingly simple stuff in your face. You’re the Worst is ultimately not at all simple, and rather reveals a smart balancing act between depictions of one character’s clinical depression and her ability to function in a relationship — noting the tension between mental illness and rom-com scenarios. The show understands how the rom-com formula necessitates union, astutely depicting that togetherness as being at odds with depression’s propensity to isolate. You’re the Worst is thus a surprisingly sharp exercise in sustainability, excavating the challenges of maintaining its central relationship and the challenges of focusing a TV series on one romance (though there are certainly other romantic subplots) — and often rising to those challenges.
3. Catastrophe (Amazon)
In the vein of You’re the Worst — and as a seeming trend for shows that in order to be sustained need to address monogamy while not being prescriptive or moralizing about it — Channel 4/Amazon’s Catastrophe begins with a casual sexathon. This one happens to result in a pregnancy and eventually a marriage, and while that sounds like it could be a more extreme premise than that of You’re the Worst (which just results in a relationship), this show’s take on the sudden post-sexathon relationship is more naturalistic than the more stylized and heightened You’re the Worst. With six episodes per season, it feels at once smaller yet easier to connect to — the episodes seeming like brief windows into plausible, comfortably straightforward romantic realities.
2. Jane the Virgin (CW)
Jane the Virgin manages to make for riveting hourlong television with a near-fantastical premise that may have initially sounded like it couldn’t function past traditional sitcom length. But Jane’s tough decision between the very accidental biological father of her child (who’s married) and the man who was her boyfriend before she became pregnant by that very botched pap smear has proven to be endlessly riveting, forever sparking speculation and buzz over who Jane will end up with. It also boasts a hilarious cast of supporting characters complicating everything in Jane’s life and their own, and ensures that the love triangle premise remains fresh and, like the telenovelas to which it pays homage, full of absurd surprises.
1. Please Like Me (Pivot)
Please Like Me, perhaps the most warmheartedly sardonic show on television, is glorious for many reasons, and its main character Josh’s choice of romantic partners always makes for strange, uncomfortable and sweet comedy. (Please Like Me is also glorious because it doesn’t ever attempt to sensationalize or overemphasize the sexual orientation of its lead, and can thus instead explore his relationships with the complexity that’s so often been denied queer characters). In the first season, he habituated to his newly (and easily!) “out” identity through his relationship with the humorless and relatively uncritical — but kind and mercilessly attractive — Geoffrey. And despite their lack of intellectual connection, their relationship was a sweet but honest portrayal of a doomed yet formative romance.
Writer/creator Josh Thomas proved his dexterity with romantic dramedy writing in Seasons 2 and 3, with the introduction of Arnold, the exceedingly anxious and cynical dude who Josh gets to know at his mother’s mental home. For both Josh and his mother Rose, the show never sacrifices honesty for levity, and that’s what’s most remarkable: despite suicide, a panoply of characters with mental illnesses, and of course breakups, Please Like Me cannot even be called a “dark comedy.” Tonally, it is without question a feel-good show. It acknowledges tragedy, but finds a pervasive, organic joy and lightness in a pleasingly banal sense of kindness. It manages to be the feel-good thing people go looking for in romantic comedies, while never glossing over the fact that life will happen.