There’s a scene in Catastrophe, Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s comedy about love and marriage which recently debuted its last season on Amazon Prime, where Sharon voices concern about her mother’s new boyfriend. Disturbed by the idea that her mom might be sexually active, she asks Rob if the two of them will maintain a sex life as they get older. Rob can’t promise they will, but he says, “I still have a fond feeling when I look at you. Maybe that’s enough.” Sharon thinks for a second before agreeing: “Goddammit, it is enough!”
In most TV shows or movies, this scene would be aggressively unromantic, but in Catastrophe, it’s the opposite. It also epitomizes a series that has helped redefine what the romantic comedy looks like in the streaming era. It’s no secret that the past few years have ushered in a revitalization of the rom-com on television. Yet as opposed to the classic “will they/won’t they” dynamic on shows like The Office or the overt sappiness of shows like How I Met Your Mother, the recent wave of TV rom-coms has focused on something else: How does romance function in real life, and how do you make that funny?
To be clear, Catastrophe has never not been funny. (This season has one great sex scene where Rob and Sharon attempt to do it while he’s wearing a neck brace.) Even in its darker periods, the show never went full-on dramedy, like HBO’s Girls or fellow Amazon series Transparent. Yet it was never cinematic, either. Rob and Sharon’s love story resonated precisely because it felt small, intimate, and specific. Catastrophe never gave us that last-minute run to the airport. Instead, maybe the most romantic moment of season 5 comes when Rob runs to his annoying brother-in-law’s birthday party at the pub.
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Slate’s Inkoo Kang recently discussed the way Catastrophe played with genre conventions, writing, “If the romantic comedy has traditionally hinged on keeping apart two people meant for each other, Catastrophe—which began as a mild subversion of the genre by pushing two horny strangers into a marriage via unplanned pregnancy—gained maturity in its later seasons by focusing on the challenges of marital endurance and the ripe satisfactions thereof.” Again, marital endurance does not necessarily sound romantic, but that’s the point. The whole show presented a different idea of what a compelling onscreen romance can be.
The same could be said of FXX’s You’re the Worst, which airs its series finale after five seasons on April 3. Another show that played with conventions, this season’s premiere spent an entire episode on the epic love story of two characters we’ve never met before, before revealing that it was all a joke made up by the series’ central narcissists, Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Geere), to mess with potential wedding planners.
“The show has always been a way to sort of subvert the rom-com genre while actually existing inside of it at the same time,” creator said Stephen Falk told the Wrap. “Doing an homage, but finding an integrated way to do it, was really satisfying for us.”
In many ways, You’re the Worst is all about playing with tropes. Cash’s clinically depressed Gretchen is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl without any of the quirky charm, while Geere’s Jimmy is a classic lovable cad minus the lovable part, torn between being a “good boy” and indulging his basest instincts.
It’s reductive to look at You’re the Worst merely as a genre experiment, however. This season’s premiere proves such, as Gretchen asks Jimmy if they keep lying to wedding planners “because we don’t have a love story.”
“We have the best love story,” Jimmy replies. “Because ours is ugly, uncomfortable, haunting, brilliant, thrilling, and yeah, it’s messy and complicated. But it’s true, and that’s beautiful.”
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Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, though You’re the Worst certainly does depict love as messy and complicated. Yet that doesn’t make it any less romantic. As Falk stated, the show doesn’t just subvert what a rom-com can be; it integrates it into something new.
You’re the Worst and Catastrophe did subvert the rom-com genre, but they also helped reinvent it. In You’re the Worst’s disaffected and depressed millennials and Catastrophe’s caustic and self-destructive Gen-Xers, we got relationships that were both romantic and funny without feeling any less real. As they tackled storylines about death, sadness, loss, addiction, and disappointment, both shows posited that love is not always about grand, romantic gestures or sweeping declarations. Sometimes it’s just about holding on and having a fond feeling.