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Romantic comedies like ‘Younger’ leave ‘happily ever after’ at the altar

By Ashley Lee
Los Angeles Times
For five seasons of "Younger," Sutton Foster’s Liza has chased after Peter Hermann's Charles, but their onscreen union hasn’t exactly been "happily ever after." For a romantic comedy entry, that's refreshing. (TV Land/TNS)

Once upon a time, romantic comedies promised viewers “happily ever after.” But now, in the thick of a rom-com renaissance, TV series are questioning the sentiment, becoming less interested in fairy-tale endings than the challenges of modern love.

From “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” — about a 1950s housewife-turned-stand-up-comedian — to “Fleabag” — about an irreverent Londoner who falls for a Catholic priest — a number of recent entries in the genre confront that fanciful notion in favor of another, more realistic feeling: uncertainty.

“Traditionally, the stories present a relationship like some sort of destination or achievement, but it’s not my experience of the world,” said Aline Brosh McKenna, who wrote “The Devil Wears Prada” and “27 Dresses” and co-created the CW’s romantic musical comedy “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” which completed its four-season run this year. “When your girlfriend gets engaged, you’re not like, ‘You did it! You won!’ and if they get divorced, you’re not walking around saying, ‘That’s it, you … up your entire life.’”

“Relationships are wonderful, but there’s a lot that goes into being in a romantic relationship that’s past the ‘Cinderella’ kiss, which just started to really seem like bull … to people,” she continued. “I think now, people are a little more interested in what happens after that.”

Which means rethinking the “after,” exchanging the widely accepted ideal of children’s stories for the uncomfortable truth that there is no relationship or job that guarantees indefinite bliss. In life as on screen, people are simply doing their best, putting one foot in front of the other and hoping it works out. These rom-coms embrace fickleness, indecision, doubt — an appealing angle for contemporary viewers, especially in the current climate.

TV Land’s series “Younger” has done this with aplomb. For five seasons, Sutton Foster’s Liza — a 40-year-old single mother posing as a 26-year-old to get an entry-level job in publishing — has been romantically bouncing between her young, tattooed boyfriend, Josh (Nico Tortorella), and her age-appropriate, buttoned-up boss, Charles (Peter Hermann), who’s shared many of the same life experiences as she has. In the logic of the series, though, there’s no obvious right answer, no “one true person” with whom she should be. That authentic lack of resolution, season after season, has kept audiences tuned in.

“One thing I think the characters in this show learn is that one person doesn’t check every box,” “Younger” creator Darren Star told The Times. “These men represent two different viable choices for her, but with any one person, you can’t have everything. And I just have to say for the record: These two guys aren’t the only fish in the sea.”

Last season’s climactic finale shattered that love triangle: Liza had left Josh, Charles left his job, and the two confessed their relationship to their friends and colleagues.

Throughout its sixth season, “Younger” has illustrated that choosing to be with a person is not the end of a story — it’s a ripe beginning. Charles and Liza butt heads over professional and personal matters. They have trouble explaining their newly public status. They disagree on fundamental issues. And many times Liza has doubted her decision.

That instability, though terrifying in real life, is a bottomless well for the storytelling in “Younger.” “We took up what we thought of as a basic, and kind of a gimmicky, premise, and we’ve really evolved beyond it,” said Star of Liza’s initial lie. “At this point, everyone knows, and it’s no longer what’s driving the show.

“Ultimately, the show is about a woman who did everything she did because her career is what was important to her. She wasn’t pursuing a man, she was pursuing a job. It’s very much a romantic comedy that has real professional stakes to it. These are all characters who are not prioritizing romance over career.” Indeed, American women’s definition of “happily ever after” appears to be evolving as well. Pew Research Center reports that Americans are staying single longer (the median age at first marriage is 30 years for men and 28 years for women, its highest point on record). They’re also having fewer children: The country’s fertility rate reached a record low in 2018 for the second consecutive year, according to the New York Times.

While there are numerous theories for the rom-com revival — they’re more inclusive across race, gender and sexual orientation; they’re flipping the genre’s tropes on their heads; and they’re an increasingly large component of Netflix’s programming — all share the same fundamental insight: If the romantic comedy is to remain one of pop culture’s dominant forms, it will have to channel the changing priorities of its historically female-skewing audience. (Of course, these shows are about affluent white women, for whom “uncertainty” may not mean what it does to others: Hollywood still has a long way to go before the realistic anxieties of working women and women of color are central to the romantic comedy.)

Amazon Prime’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” currently filming its third season, achieves this goal by beginning its adventures where rom-coms traditionally end: after the wedding. Rachel Brosnahan’s exemplary 1950s housewife Miriam (nicknamed Midge) seemed to have “happily ever after” stitched into the fabrics of her New York City apartment, but the facade fell away quickly amid her husband’s insecurities and infidelity. She then discovered a new kind of happiness in stand-up.

Though she’s dated other men since her initial split, a different kind of triangle has emerged: among Midge, her budding career and her ex-husband, Joel (Michael Zegen), to whom she’s occasionally returned over the two seasons. The final frames of the Season 2 finale had the lovebirds rejoicing at their latest reunion, while those who prefer her professional endeavors sighed at the slip-up. Likewise, the ABC comedy “Bless This Mess” stars Lake Bell and Dax Shepard as Rio and Mike, a couple who left New York City life behind for a rural paradise in Nebraska. They initially brag that they’ve been married a year and have never fought but without the constant distractions of city life, they start to see each other a bit more clearly. Farming frustrations and unwelcoming neighbors don’t help.

While TV shows have always poked fun at marriage woes, “Bless This Mess” — which returns for a second season Sept. 24 — has been quietly radical in that their newlywed narratives are not interwoven with kid-centric story lines. The series’ first six episodes zoom in on the tender time after vows are exchanged, when sources of conflict aren’t just tough jobs and overbearing mother-in-laws but also a partner’s isolating pride or paralyzing self-doubt — abstract but still very real adversaries.

And then, of course, there is “Fleabag,” the second and final season of which was released on Amazon this year. Its six episodes did indeed tell “a love story,” as creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s titular lead promises viewers, breaking the fourth wall with a smile. Audiences watched her pursue a fraught relationship with a priest (Andrew Scott) — someone who saw her fully and completely and loved her for it. But he loved God too. “Fleabag” did not end with a freeze frame, in which Waller-Bridge and Scott hugged, kissed and grinned about their shared future together. It ended with a second split: between Fleabag and her audience, as she shook her head, flashed a wry smile and gave us a little wave goodbye. The conclusion was a perfectly executed example of the modern romantic comedy’s approach to endings. The season’s romantic tension doesn’t suffer from the lack of a pat resolution; it benefits from it, because it’s true to the lived experience of love.

“Not every romantic story has to have a happy ending,” Cathy Schulman, executive producer of “The Edge of Seventeen,” told The Times. “We can still do romance with different kinds of endings, endings that are satisfying and still let the characters overcome their obstacles and achieve their goal. But it doesn’t have to mean they jump into a lifelong relationship.

“The genre format has largely been this idea of: girl meets boy, they don’t realize they’re right for each other, they figure it out, boy runs after train to get girl. It’s ridiculous and outdated and not artistic,” she continued. “What we can do is conjoin the romance and the comedy: Romance will always be a part of our lives, and comedy about people is what matters. We just have to find ways to celebrate that without falling into the trap of an outdated genre format that we, as audiences, don’t even want to see.”