When Romance Met ComedyWith When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.  

Sitting around chatting with some friends after dinner recently, I mentioned there were a handful of Netflix original rom-coms I was planning to catch up on before writing this piece. It turns out everyone else in the group—people who aren’t paid to follow pop culture for a living—had already seen them all, and were more than happy to give me their rankings. The Kissing Booth was unanimously voted bottom of the barrel. The Perfect Date and Sierra Burgess Is A Loser sat somewhere in the middle. One person said she hated the recently released Someone Great. Someone else said it made her cry four times. My sister summed it up by saying, “It was pretty good for a movie you can just throw on Netflix.”

No other pop culture topic—not even Game Of Thrones—had united us as much as this conversation about Netflix romantic comedies. And while this rom-com-loving group hadn’t rushed out to theaters to see Isn’t It Romantic (which is very good, by the way), we’d all found time to check out Someone Great from the comfort of our living rooms. Through a mixture of savvy branding and genuine commitment to the genre, Netflix has established itself as a new home for easily watchable, easily accessible romantic fare. And it’s clearly working. The trailer for Ali Wong/Randall Park’s upcoming Netflix rom-com Always Be My Maybe made a huge splash when it debuted online.

Netflix’s rom-com domination really took off in 2018, with its “Summer of Love” slate—a series of new releases all themed around romance. According to the streaming platform, which is notoriously cagey about viewership numbers, more than 80 million Netflix subscribers from around the world have watched a “Summer of Love” title. The big turning point was June’s Set It Up, which earned critical praise and lots of positive buzz for unapologetically embracing a classic workplace rom-com feel. August’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before quickly became the jewel in Netflix’s rom-com crown—the best of the platform’s romantic comedy slate and a full-on cultural phenomenon. Casting announcements and behind-the-scenes details for the upcoming sequel are now tracked with a fervor usually reserved for superhero movies.

Based on the first in Jenny Han’s best-selling trilogy of young adult novels, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before centers on introverted high school junior Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor), whose world comes crashing down when her secret stash of love letters accidentally make their way out into the world. To avoid dealing with the fallout from the note sent to her older sister’s ex-boyfriend Josh Sanderson (Israel Broussard), Lara Jean pulls a classic screwball comedy move and impulsively kisses another letter recipient, Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo). Once Peter gets a handle on Lara Jean’s situation, he suggests they start fake dating each other so that Lara Jean can avoid Josh and he can win back his ex-girlfriend by making her jealous. They draw up a contract of ground rules (no to any more kissing, yes to Sixteen Candles-inspired back pocket spins), and set about duping their school—both in person and via social media. Soon enough, however, Lara Jean and Peter’s fake relationship leads to some real feelings.

Directed by Susan Johnson, To All The Boys combines the stylized cinematography of a Wes Anderson movie with the heart of a John Hughes film and the spirit of the best of the 1990s high school rom-coms—many of which also involved fake relationships and elaborate bets. To All The Boys is a throwback tribute with a contemporary spin, which makes it particularly welcome for a generation who came of age during the romantic comedy’s dry spell. In an L.A. Times article, Sierra Burgess Is A Loser star Shannon Purser (a.k.a. Barb from Stranger Things) noted that growing up, she and her Gen Z friends didn’t have many contemporary teen movies to watch.

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“There were the iconic movies of the Brat Pack in the ’80s and a resurgence in the early 2000s, but I wasn’t quite old enough to appreciate those when they came out,” Purser explained. “I watched Hunger Games and Harry Potter, but those were kind of heavy; I didn’t have those lighthearted, wholesome teen movies.” Part of Netflix’s original content strategy is to keep tabs on the titles its users are watching and rewatching, and fill niches that are currently underserved at the multiplex. In this case, that meant romantic comedies and, specifically, teen rom-coms.

A big part of the reason To All The Boys hit so hard was because of Noah Centineo’s turn as “king of the cafeteria crowd” Peter Kavinsky. Centineo tapped into a certain soft-boy/jock hybrid energy that often defines the best teen rom-com heartthrobs. Peter is confident, athletic, and flirtatious, but also sensitive and attentive. He doesn’t drink and drive. He travels across town to pick up Korean yogurt smoothies. He’s really sweet with Lara Jean’s kid sister.

The lines between Peter the character and Centineo the actor seemed to blur, and both were dubbed the internet’s new boyfriend. (Centineo is now Netflix’s go-to leading man, although To All The Boys remains by far his best performance.) The romantic comedy genre has long been a space to explore male emotional vulnerability, and To All The Boys has that in spades. Lara Jean may worry that Peter won’t return her non-fake feelings, but it’s pretty clear that he’s all-in long before she is.

Yet as I’ve frequently argued in this column, the best romantic comedies are often about a whole lot more than just falling in love. One of the best things about To All The Boys is the way it delves into the wonderful specifics of Lara Jean’s world. She’s the middle of a trio of sisters who have been raised by their loving single dad (John Corbett). Older sister Margot (Janel Parrish) is a responsible pragmatist who’s fulfilled a maternal role for the family ever since their mom died years ago. The less put together Lara Jean reluctantly inherits that role once Margot goes off to college in Scotland, even though their effervescent younger sister, Kitty (Anna Cathcart), seems more than capable of taking care of herself. Peter gets enough screen time to feel like a nuanced character, but this is unquestionably Lara Jean’s story, and Lana Condor beautifully grounds the film with her thoughtful, quietly spirited performance and a knack for subtle physical comedy.

Like Pretty In Pink, Say Anything, and 10 Things I Hate About You, To All The Boys is deeply sensitive toward the complex inner lives of its teenage characters. Lara Jean loves disappearing into romance novels, but she’s scared of the emotional vulnerability that comes from being in a real-life relationship—which is an idea that’s likely as relatable to an adult audience as it is for a teen one. The fake dating storyline doesn’t just provide plot shenanigans; it’s thematically connected to the way Lara Jean hovers between fantasy and reality. Despite its heightened premise, To All The Boys is appreciably grounded in the stakes of teenage life. Peter and Lara Jean’s biggest fight is over the fact that she didn’t sit next to him on the bus ride to their school ski trip, which is exactly the sort of thing that does feel monumental in a high school relationship.

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To All The Boys also pushed the rom-com genre forward by shifting the lens on whose stories get to be told. The Covey sisters are mixed race, with a white dad and a Korean mom. Lana Condor is one of the few Asian-American women to ever lead a mainstream American rom-com. That To All The Boys came out the same month as Crazy Rich Asians made it feel like a particularly groundbreaking cultural moment for Asian and Asian-American representation. Though not all responses were uniformly positive—Oxford Kondō wrote a very thoughtful piece about the limits of representation in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before—there was still celebration of the film’s matter-of-fact diversity.

In a New York Times op-ed about seeing her book brought to life, Jenny Han revealed that Hollywood execs had suggested that Lara Jean’s race shouldn’t matter so long as they found an actress who “captures the spirit of the character.” Han responded, “Well, her spirit is Asian-American,” and held out to work with the only production company that agreed an actress of Asian descent should play the role. After describing her own tween years, in which all of her favorite teen movie leading ladies were white, Han writes:

What would it have meant for me back then to see a girl who looked like me star in a movie? Not as the sidekick or romantic interest, but as the lead? Not just once, but again and again? Everything. There is power in seeing a face that looks like yours do something, be someone. There is power in moving from the sidelines to the center.

While Netflix received a whole lot of positive press for singlehandedly saving the romantic comedy, I’d argue the platform’s contributions were part of a larger trend. 2018 also saw the release of big screen rom-coms Love, Simon, I Feel Pretty, Overboard, Book Club, and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, as well as the aforementioned Crazy Rich Asians. Preceded by the earlier rom-com revival on TV, there’s been a broader cultural shift toward embracing the pleasures of the rom-com genre, rather than dismissing them. From Long Shot to Always Be My Maybe, more romantic comedies are on their way, both in multiplexes and on Netflix.

As Netflix smartly realized, however, rom-coms are the kinds of movies that play particularly well in a low-stakes home viewing environment. They don’t necessarily demand the theatrical experience in the way that, say, a Mission: Impossible movie might. Netflix rom-coms also capitalize on the rewatchability of the genre: Because To All The Boys and its fellow “Summer of Love” entries will always be streaming on the platform, it effectively feels like you “own” the movie and can throw it on whenever.

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Netflix has sometimes been accused of taking a quantity over quality approach to its original programming, and while it’s true that its rom-coms have been a mixed bag, that’s also true of movies in general, regardless of where and how they’re released. To my mind, Netflix’s rom-com high points— especially To All The Boys, Set It Up, and the teen coming-out story Alex Strangelove—are more than enough to make up for its missteps. And the fact that Netflix is churning out so much romantic content has definitely brought rom-coms back to the forefront of the cultural conversation, even if that just means passionate late-night debates about how they stack up against one another. For my group of friends, at least, we immediately agreed that To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before belongs at the top of the list.

Next time: We kick off Pride Month with the Lena Headey/Piper Perabo romance Imagine Me & You.