The rom-com has been on a rollercoaster for the past few decades. After dominating during the Golden Age of Hollywood and again in the ‘90s and 2000s, the genre has had a bit of a downward spiral of late. As superheroes and blockbusters have monopolized the global entertainment landscape, the charmingly floppy Hugh Grants have been swapped for multiple versions of muscular Chrises.
Thankfully, with the rise of streaming services, we have seen the romantic comedy reincarnated for the modern age. From the semi-autobiographical “The Big Sick” to the San Francisco love letter “Always Be My Maybe,” the romantic comedy has found its niche in a viewing platform that users can cater to their preferences.
Recently, the New York Times posted an op-ed about the death of the romantic comedy, citing the recent string of successes as “substitutions, decoys, and mirages.” According to the article, today’s hits, such as “Crazy Rich Asians” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” are really other types of movies masquerading as the romantic comedy. Meanwhile the pure classic romantic comedy has allegedly gone the way of Myspace, planking and the nae nae.
But the rom-com’s latest iteration, courtesy of Mindy Kaling, provides a counterargument. Kaling’s limited Hulu series “Four Weddings and a Funeral” shows that these recent successes are not shoddy facsimiles of the once vibrant genre fueled by the likes of Katherine Heigl and Nora Ephron. Rather, they reflect the evolution of a genre that, let’s face it, was already outdated before Harry ever met Sally.
Kaling’s 12-episode series bears little in common with its 1994 rom-com namesake. Yes, both are about a group of friends, include four weddings and one funeral, feature Andie MacDowell and take place in London. But beyond that, the Hulu series explores completely different characters and storylines.
Because of the lack of similarities, many have called out the new series as not worthy of having the same title as the 74th Best British film ever. And in a way they’re right — it’s not at all a faithful adaptation of the source material. But what such criticisms don’t point out is that “Four Weddings” represents something bigger: romantic comedy’s new era, one that is beyond boy-meets-girl and is purposely messy and nuanced.
The new “Four Weddings and a Funeral” is a love letter to all of the classic genre tropes. It has the best friend’s confession of feelings in the rain, the star-crossed lovers tragically never meant to be, the meet-cute of strangers. But the series is also a subversion of what made these tropes one-dimensional in the first place. In the series, the best friends’ romantic relationship doesn’t pan out because, as the writers acknowledge, familiarity isn’t a replacement for chemistry. And the series’ star-crossed lovers are not beautifully tragic, they are in a genuinely no-win situation and sucking up their hurt. Their meet-cute is just a painful reminder of what cannot be.
It is fair for the New York Times to mourn the loss of the “boy meets girl, but something” format of the late 20th century rom-com because that format is essentially gone. While the same skeleton is still there, the body has dramatically changed into what we have today. This is similar to the relationship between Cheetos and the subsequent iterations of hot Cheetos — the original is still a classic, but it has also developed into offshoots with deeper flavors and different textures. Like its spicy snack counterpart, “Four Weddings and a Funeral” challenges the superficial clichés defined by the genre.
The show isn’t perfect. It suffers a bit with unbalanced pacing and uneven character development, and one of the main characters has a secret kid that is mentioned once in the beginning and has yet to be revisited. But the critics of the series treat these faults as proof of the failure of the updated rom-com genre, when they’re more attributable to the show’s writing than the genre itself. The same faults that critics of the series lambast it for are just as easily found in the Hugh Grant and Meg Ryan classics that the critics are wistful for.
Like in real life, Kaling’s show works best when it isn’t trying too hard. The moments that do the modern rom-com proud are the little tender ones — the husband spending his evening finishing his wife’s task for her, the girlfriend doing the couple’s secret hand signal as a sign of commitment. In these details, you can forget the flaws that the show is being raked for. These moments are what make “Four Weddings and a Funeral” shine as an evolution of the genre, and they outweigh the sorts of flaws that critics are calling dark harbingers of the rom-com.
Like with any relationship or Cheetos offshoot, it is fine to miss certain qualities of exes in the past. But it is important to remember that there was a reason for the break-up — change happens, and all you can do is change with it. Rather than nitpick what “Four Weddings and a Funeral” doesn’t bring to the table compared to rom-coms of the past, take a page from Colin Firth in “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and like it. Just as it is.
Julie Lim covers television. Contact her at [email protected].