It’s no secret that most romantic comedies follow a formula. As Sharon Horgan, co-creator and star of the Amazon series “Catastrophe,” aptly rattles off, “You know at what point the music is going to soar, you know at what point they’re going to fall out, and when they’re going to get back together and when it’s going to resolve.”
But as the film industry churns out rote sequels, pastiches and even parodies of romantic comedies (ah, “Mother’s Day”), television is upping the ante.
Many of these genre-bending romantic comedies (and there are many) are available on streaming services: Amazon’s “Catastrophe” for one; Hulu has “Casual” and Mindy Kaling’s “The Mindy Project,” which it saved from cancellation on Fox; Netflix offers Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s “Master of None” and “Love,” co-created by Judd Apatow — no stranger to the cinematic romantic comedy world. The CW is also home to two vital shows that put romantic relationships at the center, but approach them from unusual angles: “Jane the Virgin” (accidental insemination) and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (subverting the titular trope).
Multiple episodes, arcs and seasons allow TV creators to mine new ideas within and on the fringes of the genre, beyond the usual will-they-won’t-they romantic plot (spoiler: they always do). Several shows have found interesting storytelling in something messier and more compelling than “happy endings” and “I do’s”: What happens next.
“You’ll never see anyone on my show throwing a bouquet in any real, earnest way,” Kaling laughs about “The Mindy Project,” which moved to Hulu in season four.
The writers spent two seasons to get its core couple (Mindy and Danny) together, but while the show has consistently felt like an ode to traditional romantic comedies — the pilot opens with a montage cataloging Mindy’s obsession with the genre — Kaling has gone a non-traditional route. The fourth season explores what happens when a couple drifts apart. Mindy, now a single mother with a child, is still searching for love.
“It’s a central issue that women my age are dealing with,” Kaling says. “I don’t know if straight men find it interesting, but I’m just writing for what I want to watch.”
“Catastrophe” begins with a series of aggressive hookups between the two leads, followed by an accidental pregnancy and, within minutes, becomes a show about two adults trying to Make It Work. But Horgan and her “Catastrophe” co-creator/co-star, Rob Delaney, didn’t even set out to make a romantic comedy. Horgan says they only focused on the couple’s relationship after a note from the network.
“I think that’s why it was a surprise when people started calling it a romantic comedy,” she says.
Now she understands why the label applies, but her perspective on romance remains grounded. “It needs to have the ebb and flow and the reality of relationships,” she says. “They’re really tough, sometimes they’re fun, sometimes they’re interesting and quite often they are awful.”
Like “Catastrophe,” “You’re the Worst” on FXX gets the when-will-they sorted out straight away and becomes about trying to explore the couple together. In its second season, creator Stephen Falk and the writers decided to create a mental health storyline for Aya Cash, who plays Gretchen, one of the romantic leads. She suffers from clinical depression. It’s a dark and complex issue that the show addresses head-on, despite it being outside the normal confines of a romantic comedy romp.
Falk mentions something else about feature-length romantic comedies that he wanted to amend in his show: two-dimensional secondary characters.
“I have the luxury of taking my two side characters, Lindsay and Edgar, and giving them real stories,” he says. “All the characters are distinct in their own universe, which is something that you don’t have time to show in a movie.”
When you hear the references motivating these TV creatives, it becomes clear why their work departs from traditional romantic comedy beats. Falk mentions British comedies such as Horgan’s own “Pulling.” Kaling says she gets inspiration for her show from such dramas as “Homeland” and “The Americans” because of their boldness and confidence. Horgan points to “Tootsie,” the original “The Heartbreak Kid” and Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy.
“I don’t watch so that it pulls at my heartstrings,” she says. “I watch stuff that makes me laugh, or challenges me.”
Movies may have established the well-known romantic-comedy template, but for showrunners, the conflict isn’t in film vs. TV. Rather, the challenge is to innovate and execute. “There’s nothing inherently wrong or more difficult about telling a two-hour story than an open-ended serialized television show,” Falk says. “In a lot of ways, TV is harder. It’s the difference between a concerto and a symphony.”
While film figures out how to re-master its limitations, TV will be here, offering the chance to laugh, cringe and fall in love.