This week, we’re all about the return of the rom-com. Crazy Rich Asians is blowing away box office predictions, and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is playing nonstop on Netflix accounts everywhere. We love refreshing takes on well-worn formulas, and these two movies are leading the charge where the rom-com is concerned.
With viewers so obviously ready to gorge on rom-coms, we have to ask: Why did the rom-com go away? Last fall, before the rom-com resurgence was even a glimmer in Hollywood’s eye, Terry Huang, director of product and data at The Black List, crunched some convincing numbers to figure out what happened.
Huang sees the rom-com peak in 2004, when rom-coms made up the highest percentage of Hollywood films, only to go downhill from there, but he thinks that peak was a reaction to a sleeper hit rom-com from two years earlier: My Big Fat Greek Wedding. According to Huang, producers saw that movie’s massive success and raced to replicate its formula. But then they flooded the market with mediocre films, viewership of the genre declined, and everyone got scared off love stories.
Well, everyone in big-studio Hollywood. At Hollywood Reporter, Mia Galuppo points out that in the last decade, rom-coms went indie, with movies like That Awkward Moment, Obvious Child, and Celeste and Jesse Forever. This is where Netflix has recently stepped in, producing rom-coms that major studios weren’t ready to bet on, like To All the Boys… and Set It Up. (Crazy Rich Asians, you might have heard, was avidly pursued by Netflix, too.)
And that’s only movies. Romances are everywhere, from a booming genre of books to TV shows that are full of rom-com elements, but also play with our expectations of the genre. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend co-creator and star Rachel Bloom told Terry Gross, “We wanted to take something that felt like a romantic comedy trope and then explore beneath it—so a woman who gives everything up for love, partially because women are sold this bill of goods about how love will solve everything. But also if you let love solve everything for you, you have a lot of problems.” You’re the Worst hinges on a classic rom-com will-they-or-won’t-they tension, but infuses its storylines with real-world darkness, grappling with mental illness and the serious challenges of love.
Maybe what we’re really seeing isn’t the return of the rom-com but the birth of something new, a way to center love stories without making characters’ worth or happiness depend on being loved or being in love. (Writer Kristen Evans recently mused on Twitter, ‘Do you think it’s possible for the rom com to exist outside of the paradigm “toxic masculinity becomes slightly more palatable’?”) We also hope that the success of this new wave of movies creates the space to tell stories about characters who embody the rich diversity of the real world. Rom-coms are fantasies, but they’re also very real.