Think pieces fretting over the state of romantic comedy – both on TV and movie screens – are by now a very familiar cliché. Every other year or so, sees the publication of a piece wondering aloud whether the romantic comedy is on the brink of death, and then along comes an appealing romantic comedy to put the lie to that notion. Two of this year’s loveliest examples are Starstruck, back for its third (and perhaps final) season on Max, and Still Up, taking its inaugural bow on AppleTV+.
A close cousin to concern-driven think pieces are those expressing surprise or bafflement when a romantic comedy rakes in massive box office or enjoys strong viewership. These are closely related to others asking what it means that as a society, we relish romantic stories. What it means is that human beings enjoy stories about people falling in love. Love, actually, is grand! Watching someone you can root for find their beloved feels great.
In fact, there’s really no need for concern or surprise here. As reported on NPR in June 2023, sales of romance books have been rising even as overall book sales have fallen. When a romantic series or film finds its audience, whether via strong marketing or word of mouth, it’s off to the races. It’s worth noting that genres typically favored by a presumed majority male audience – thrillers, espionage, gritty noir, action – rarely come in for this kind of existential concern.
As for Starstruck and Still Up, both shows are set in contemporary London, and feature lovable, flawed female protagonists stumbling their way to loves that may not guarantee that they live happily ever after, but that are certainly happy for now. Starstruck’s arc over the last three seasons has put its central couple through the wringer, always finding new ways to examine the question of whether or not a regular person like Jessie (Rose Matafeo, who conceived of and wrote the series) and a movie star such as Tom (Nikesh Patel) can make a romantic relationship work in the long term.
The question is never one of compatibility; these two have sparkling chemistry to spare, and they actually care about each other. The problems they face aren’t even that dramatic; they’re often very realistically logistics-focused. When Tom is shooting a film, he’s often several time zones away, making FaceTime and phone calls to maintain his relationship with Jessie difficult to arrange. This problem worsens as his career flourishes: getting cast in more films means he’s away from London more often, and the cycle begins again.
At the heart of Still Up is a pair of insomniac best friends LIsa (Antonia Thomas) and Danny (Craig Roberts), who are also in love but need time to see what’s plain to everyone else around them. Their all-night heart-to-heart conversations and the slowly dawning realization that each is the other’s mirror (there’s a particularly lovely use of the Velvet Underground’s song of devotion, “I’ll Be Your Mirror” in the final episode) offer a sweet twist on the well-established rhythms of a hangout show.
The charm and high quality of Starstruck and Still Up are just a taste of the delights that await rom-com-hungry viewers on many popular streaming platforms. Many of them are exclusively available to U.S. audiences on streaming platforms. Excluding series and films set in the United States, Netflix alone accounts for a considerable proportion of streaming rom-com content. They cover hot Regency romance with Bridgerton (and pre-Regency with Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, though it’s more of a drama), shambolic yet addictive contemporary romance with Lovesick (co-starring Still Up’s Antonia Thomas!), and heart-burstingly darling queer first love with the graphic novel adaptation Heartstopper.
Amazon’s offerings, many of which are set in the here and now, include transatlantic high-stakes love with this summer’s Red, White, and Royal Blue, the often intense, frequently hilarious Catastrophe, and Emmy award-winning Fleabag. Love & Friendship, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s early work, Lady Susan, is an underrated laugh riot, one that also gives Kate Beckinsale room to flex her considerable period piece comedy chops (as much as I enjoy the recent adaptation starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Beckinsale’s performance is my one true Emma).
Hulu keeps its focus on contemporary couples, with the one-day whirlwind of meeting cute and growing steadily more adorable and complex of Rye Lane, their series reboot of Four Weddings and a Funeral courtesy of Mindy Kaling, and the messy, lovable Millennial flailings of This Way Up.
Speaking of Jane Austen, PBS Passport all three seasons of Sanditon and Felicity Jones' version of Northanger Abbey. It also has the new updated Tom Jones. PBS is on this trend, is what I'm saying.
If the success of these natively streaming series and films – most of which I’m listing off the top of my head – isn’t enough to convince major traditional TV networks to commission way, way more romantic comedies, I don’t know what will. But! Don’t stop believing, and don’t stop streaming.
All episodes of Starstruck Seasons 1 through 3 are stream on Max. Still Up Season 1 continues on Apple TV+ with new episodes through Friday, October 27, 2023.