Love in the Age of Netflix

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LOVE IN THE AGE OF NETFLIX On the rising tide of Rom-Coms by Allyson LarcomThe romantic comedy is having a moment.

It felt like it had been ages since a noteworthy romantic comedy came along, but suddenly there’s been a flush. Love, Simon was Hollywood’s shot across the bow. Since then, several noteworthy romantic comedies have graced theaters: movies like Crazy Rich Asians, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, and Overboard, to name just a few. Nobody seems to be cashing in on this trend quite like Netflix, though. Just this summer alone, the streaming platform has gifted its audience movies like The Kissing Booth, Like Father, Set It Up, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. These films received varying levels of buzz and acclaim, but the message is clear: Netflix loves love right now. Moreover, it loves its love upbeat and charming and fun.

What spurred this rom-com renaissance and why is Netflix the biggest player in this game? I’ve come to a handful of conclusions.

First, why the renaissance? We are living through a chaotic period of history. No matter your background, your identity, or your political leaning, most people will agree on this much. Chaos is threatening and scary; people, by and large, like stability. The draw of the rom-com in our current cultural moment stems at least partially from this anxiety over the unstable unknown. The romantic comedy offers a comforting and predictable format: two people meet and fall in love and live happily ever after. Along the way, they face a set of challenges—most often amusing, not terribly severe ones—but we know when we first press play how the movie will end, and that the ending will be positive and uplifting.

Take, for example, director Susan Johnson’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (based off the Jenny Han novel of the same name). Lara Jean (Lana Condor) and her love interest Peter (Noah Centineo) must come to terms with the feelings they develop for each other while they are only pretending to be in a relationship. The fact that each of them believes they are the only one catching feelings for the other presents a series of obstacles in the development of their romance—Lara Jean continually believes that Peter still wants to get back with his mean-girl ex-girlfriend, despite all evidence to the contrary—but the audience knows from the minute Peter and Lara Jean first agree to fake-date each other that the movie will likely end with them kissing.

In director Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon, Simon’s (Nick Robinson) hesitance to come out as gay while he searches for the anonymous boy he’s fallen for on the internet put him in a number of tight spots (like being forced to set up his cute best friend Abby with weaselly theater nerd Martin in order to keep his secret, or imagining nearly every boy he meets might be the one he likes), but when he finally kisses Blue on the Ferris wheel at the end of the film, we can’t imagine the movie ending any other way.

The message in movies like these is consistently that love will overcome, and I believe that’s something that many people really want to believe at this moment in time.

Another factor in rom-com’s popularity is that audiences have an interest in seeing something that’s been done before done differently. One thread that’s common in many (though not all) of these new comedies is their inclusiveness. Love, Simon and Alex Strangelove both follow gay teenage boys. Crazy Rich Asians tells a love story between two Asian protagonists, and both Set It Up and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before feature interracial relationships. Sierra Burgess Is a Loser follows a plus-size teenager as the main love interest. As I discussed before in my review of Love, Simon back in March, there’s something incredibly valuable and liberating about marginalized people getting happy, funny, and accessible love stories. Queer people, people of color, and plus-size people deserve joyful, unburdened happy endings, too. The success of each of these more diverse romantic comedies only builds on the last.

So why is Netflix leading the charge? Why is a platform that invented the binge television watch investing so much more time in movies? Why this type of movie? The answer is simple: Rom-coms, by their nature, are comfort movies, and Netflix is a comfort platform. The easiest way to enjoy a movie or a show in this day and age is to curl up in bed or on the couch and stream it—no need to get dressed, to leave the house, to pay for tickets.

This is not to say that Netflix exclusively deals in comfortable shows (clearly they don’t), but it is to say that the pairing does make a degree of sense. Netflix, by its nature as a streaming platform, also has an ability to take risks that other networks and studios don’t. Because streaming is a more personalized experience, platforms like Netflix and some of its competitors like Hulu don’t have the same imperative to cater to the common denominator. They can take more gambles when it comes to representation in movies and it pays off.

Ultimately, I do think this rising tide of rom-coms will fall again. Another story format will have its moment in the sun—a cultural interest in crime stories has been on a concurrent rise, with shows and movies like The Staircase, Killing Eve, and Evil Genius and podcasts like My Favorite Murder and The Last Podcast on the Left finding massive success; female-driven buddy movies also appear to be up-and-coming, with films like The Spy Who Dumped Me and Ocean’s Eight receiving widespread audience attention and internet buzz (although perhaps not critical acclaim—at least not yet).

However, even if another genre takes over as the cultural favorite a year or two from now, I don’t think the romantic comedies coming out today will be going anywhere anytime soon. In much the same way that we still sing the praises of Sixteen Candles, Twenty-Seven Dresses, or Sleepless in Seattle, we are witnessing the making of new classics. Twenty years from now, teenagers will likely still be watching To All the Boys and Crazy Rich Asians and Love, Simon with their friends during Saturday night sleepovers.

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Allyson Larcom is a Boston-based writer whose work has appeared in The Satirist and Wellesley College's Counterpoint Magazine. Follow her on twitter @ogrewitch, or visit her website allysonlarcom.wordpress.com to find more of her writing.

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