Is the old-fashioned rom-com dead?
If so, blame FX. This summer, the network debuted You’re the Worst, a dirty, shameful comedy about hate-shagging that also happens to be one of the best new shows on TV. Its depiction of blasé thirtysomethings in heat (Chris Geere and Aya Cash) could not feel more of-the-moment. Sex leads to dating, not the other way around. Fancy dinners are out of the question, because formalities like that put too much pressure on a couple who’d rather believe they’re dating ironically. And, true to life, the woman wants the same things the guy wants: on-demand hookups, lots of independence, and the freedom to do cocaine off somebody’s breasts.
There’s just one problem with You’re the Worst: It makes this fall’s new rom-coms look like awkward attempts to identify with young people. They’re the types of shows your parents will send you “thumbs-up” emojis about.
Technology may be the only thing that grounds these series in 2014. Yes, the couples connect through Facebook and Tinder, but they don’t seem to know how online dating works. True, Andrew (Ben Feldman) meets Zelda (Cristin Milioti) through his job at an online dating service on A to Z (NBC), a quirky meet-cute premiering tonight that charts their relationship from beginning to end. Yet they’re introduced when the site accidentally sets up Zelda with a woman—a mistake that’s virtually impossible in real life, since profiles include photos and simple Google stalking can tell you the rest.
It doesn’t help that A to Z‘s cultural references will be lost on anyone under 30: Andrew believes in destiny, because he’s obsessed with Back to the Future and Celine Dion songs. That’s a shame, since the writing can be smart and Feldman shows a real gift for playing neurotics whose grand flourishes will strike women as either romantic or totally creepy. When he was Ginsberg on Mad Men, that meant cutting off his nipple. It’s just as unsettling here to listen to him sing “My Heart Will Go On.”
If A to Z gets points for a semi-interesting male lead, Manhattan Love Story (ABC), which premiered Tuesday, makes the man feel almost irrelevant. He’s not essential to the fantasy—it’s all about the girl.
Watching Dana (Analeigh Tipton) navigate her way through the city, you’ll want her haircut, her apartment (a giant, sunlit loft owned by a gorgeous friend who’s letting her crash there rent-free), maybe even her Manhattan, a ridiculously clean, chain-store-free Disneyland where even the garbage juice in the gutters runs as clear as the Aegean Sea. What you might not want is her date, who’s just the kind of generic rom-com “guy’s guy” Tina Fey once said is best played by “Gerard Butler, or a coatrack with a leather jacket on it.”
Peter (Jake McDorman) is a total bro who works at a trophy company (Rom-Com Fake Job Alert!), dates other women behind Dana’s back, and even tries a maneuver called the “Shock and Awe.” (Shock her by forcing your mouth onto hers, wait for her to say “Aww!”) Worse, that move actually works on Dana, who also cries on first dates and only thinks about love, handbags, and the solution to the Riemann hypothesis. (Kidding about that last one.) Okay, maybe you don’t want to be her after all.
The gender politics on Marry Me (NBC), which bows Oct. 14, seem just as outdated. Annie (Casey Wilson) believes that “Every girl wants to get married!”—but that might not include her, since she and her boyfriend, Jake (Ken Marino), keep screwing up the proposal. It’s a little disconcerting to see Annie frantically demand to get hitched “while I still have an egg—one egg!” especially since she doesn’t know that Jake’s pals are hiding behind the couch, waiting to celebrate his (now ruined) proposal. (“Your friends are garbage people!” she announces just moments before.) But Wilson plays Annie with such absurdist flair, flailing her arms around like a Muppet, that it’s clear she’s skewering rom-coms’ social conventions more than she’s serving them up.
In a genre that’s all about knowing glances, carefully chosen words, and “a lady never tells” propriety, this woman cannot stop herself from saying the wrong thing out loud again and again. Marry Me wouldn’t work without Wilson and Marino, who make Annie and Jake just cringeworthy enough to be funny. Yeah, they’re the worst. But when it comes to old-fashioned rom-coms, they’re the best thing we’ve got. A to Z: B Manhattan Love Story: C Marry Me: B+