Here’s a formula we all know better than any algebraic equation: what do you get when you take one unlikely couple, add a few zany shenanigans, and multiple the relationship drama by about 10?
The romantic comedy.
The genre has been a vital part of the fabric of American cinema for the 40 years or so. Between the 90s and early 2000s, the rom-com ruled Hollywood, and Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson were its golden-haired king and queen.
But as quickly as Julia Roberts can say, “I’m also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her”, the rom-com vanished. The Wellesley News reported that “the romantic comedy had been on its way out for a while. In 2001, almost one in five films were romantic comedies, yet this number dropped to almost one in twenty by 2017.” Gone were the makeover montages and heartfelt monologues, and in their place came superheroes and reboots. Hollywood traded romance for the nostalgia of the comic books and film franchises of days gone by.
And that’s when Netflix found their opening.
Filling A Void
The streaming platform added original films and television shows to its arsenal about four years ago. The content they create isn’t intended to make a large studio millions, so they get to play by their own rules. And creating television and film for the streaming public means catering to the generation that grew up with the internet – Gen Z.
This generation, born between 1995 and 2010, is perhaps the most philosophically progressive since the flower children of the 60s. These kids grew up with social media; some Gen Zers use this platform to participate in mindless viral social media challenges,others use it to advocate for change. We’ve seen these kids in action with actions as radical as the #NeverAgain movement for gun control.
Their impact on society has been seen in quieter ways as well. Gen Zers have been vocal for their desire to feel represented in film and TV – people of every race, gender, ethnicity, size and sexual orientation should feel seen on the screen. Netflix answered that call.
The head honchos at Netflix got into the rom-com game simply to fill a void. Matt Brodlie, Director of Acquisitions at Netflix, told The Hollywood Reporter, “We asked our colleagues who keep track of what everyone is watching, and they said people are heavily watching our rom-coms from various studios. Our hunch was that people would like to see newer versions of them.”
What better way to revive the romantic comedy than to cater to the generation yearning to see better representation on-screen?
Netflix’s first official foray into the world of rom-coms, however, didn’t quite answer the call. 2017’s A Christmas Prince is about as cliche of a rom-com as they come. Mistaken identities and a whirlwind engagement – that movie oozed more sap than a maple tree. But hey, we’ll give Netflix that one. Just dipping their toes into the rom-com water, right?
Their little experiment paid off. A Christmas Prince was a viral sensation. I didn’t even know it was possible for a movie to go “viral” before this one hit Netflix. But hey, that’s the world of streaming for you.
Over the next year, Netflix slowly transitioned from the heteronormative rom-coms of the 90s and early 2000s to a reimagined version of itself. While it quietly released a few rom-coms on the more traditional side, its next smash hit rom-com came in the form of 2018’s Set it Up. The initial premise follows that of its predecessors – a straight, attractive white couple is at its center. And naturally, the workplace of choice is an online publication.
But Set It Up began to introduce a small taste of something new. Instead of our female protagonist having a gay best friend, it’s the male protagonist. A female character is seen choosing her own best interests over a relationship. The movie fleshed out real characters, as opposed to the candy-coated world that rom-coms usually portray. Young audiences could see themselves in these characters.
Netflix really delivered on its promise to produce a new type of movie a couple months later with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. This movie has a young Asian woman as a romantic lead. I challenge you to name a rom-com from the 90s or 2000s with an Asian female lead. In the following year, Netflix released a film with a plus-sized young woman finding love and self-acceptance (Dumplin’), one with a Hispanic woman and a Black lesbian as two leads (Someone Great), and one focused on an Asian couple (Always Be My Maybe). Netflix viewers flocked to all these movies.
Every now and then, this new type of rom-com breaks through large studios to make it on the big screen (case in point, Crazy Rich Asians). But it’s not enough. Take HBO’s newest smash hit Euphoria. This show chronicles a group of teenagers navigating the sex, drugs, love and drama that come with high school in this day in age. Gen Zers have flocked to this show because it feels like an accurate portrayal of their generation. StudyBreaks spoke to young adults about the show and a 19-year-old responded, “This show is basically doing a really good job at interpreting our generation,” White said, “The show is really spot-on with our generation with just a little bit of exaggeration.”
Many have predicted that Gen Z is set to have a positive impact on the world, that they will be important for our future. Their generally positive reaction to a show like Euphoria demonstrates that they want to see what’s real on the screen, not what’s ideal. Rom-coms of the 90s and 2000s were positioned as an escape for viewers, to forget about our troubles for 90 minutes and watch a sugary sweet love story. A generation coming up in the age of the internet has become too jaded for that, and Netflix has slowly caught on to what those audiences respond to. Unless major studios decide to break the mold and take that same risk, Netflix will continue to dominate this genre.