Hoo baby, women are tired. (I know, everyone is tired. But women are the most tired.) Swept up in the career/homeschooling/housework tornado, they spend their days battling back thoughts of, “Good grief, what’s going to happen next?” So in the evenings, when they collapse in front of their screens, they are skipping over the kind of prestige TV we’ve thrilled to for the past two decades, the kind whose descriptors could be, “Good grief, what’s going to happen next?” Instead, they are clicking on the televisual equivalent of having their feet rubbed: romances.
“We all need a release right now,” Sarah Chalke, the star of one such romance series, Firefly Lane, said in a Zoom interview last week. “It’s been such a hard year for everyone.”
I’m not talking about Hallmark or Lifetime movies, the Terracotta Army of telefilms. (You know, those 8,000-plus soldier statues buried in Shaanxi, China, where every time archeologists turned around they unearthed more.) Those films do continue to be wildly popular, of course: Currently airing is a slate Hallmark has dubbed Winterfest.
No, I’m talking about romances that are one notch up in terms of character depth and story complexity. If Hallmark films are Harlequin romances – formulaic, tightly structured, comfortingly predictable – these series and films are more like trade paperbacks, written by the likes of Elin Hilderbrand. (Hey, guess what? Ellen Pompeo, from Grey’s Anatomy, just announced that she’s developing Hilderbrand’s novel, Winter in Paradise, for television. It’s part of Hilderbrand’s Paradise series, which one promo describes thusly: “a husband’s secret life, and a wife’s new beginning.” Cue a winsome piano.)
Netflix is currently airing at least three variations on the romance theme. Virgin River, based on a series of novels by Robyn Carr, is about a San Francisco nurse, Melinda (Alexandra Breckenridge – whose name should belong to a romance heroine), who moves to a woodsy northern California town (played by various locations in British Columbia) after her husband dies, only to fall for Jack (Martin Henderson), a hunky pub owner with past traumas of his own.
Bridgerton, based on a series of novels by Julia Quinn and produced by Shonda Rhimes, is a Jane Austen wanna-be set in Regency London, where the plucky heroine, Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), and the brooding hero, Simon (Regé-Jean Page), find many reasons to be together and not. The aforementioned Firefly Lane, based on the novel by Kristin Hannah, looks at the lifelong female friendship – a sismance? – between extrovert Tully (Katherine Heigl) and supportive Kate (Chalke); it qualifies as a romance because it’s sprinkled liberally with dudes for each woman to snog.
There’s also the classic weepy film Our Friend (on VOD), in which Jason Segel moves in with his pals Casey Affleck and Dakota Johnson as Johnson’s character dies of cancer, sort of Love Story with a Roomie; the romance/heist Locked Down (HBO/Crave), where the moribund affair between Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor heats back up as they plan a diamond theft; and the Zendaya/John David Washington steamer Malcolm & Marie, shot in black and white (Netflix). Though these projects are dressed up differently, at their core they are old-school love stories, reassuringly square.
That comfort-food vibe is “absolutely what interested me” about Firefly Lane, Chalke said. “I would binge-read the scripts as they came in, and I was laughing, then I was crying, then I was laughing.” The series is set in 2004, but also flashes back to Tully and Kate in the 1970s and 1980s.
“The nostalgia aspect, the escape into those time periods, the clothes, the music – there’s something for everyone to relate to,” Chalke said. “And a relationship for everyone to relate to.” Wild-woman Tully juggles multiple lovers before falling for Max (Jon-Michael Ecker), a sexy EMT with a Keith Urban shag who is five years younger than she. Meanwhile, Kate holds a torch for her soon-to-be-ex-husband, a war reporter, but also dallies with a cool single dad at her kids’ school.
For every cynic who scoffs when Max gets down on his knees, proffers his Abuela’s diamond ring to Tully, and says, “I want to cook French toast for you, I want us to hold hands and watch our kids chase butterflies, I want to meet you out for coffee, and when you’re running late, I want to say, ‘I’m saving this seat for my wife,’” there is surely a sighing, tired woman who feels like someone has just lit her a lavender de-stressing candle.
“You root for the relationships,” Chalke said. She was referring to Firefly Lane, but she could have been delivering a Master Class on romance series. “Max is so present, so there for Tully. He’s trying to be that person that she’s never had in a relationship, where’s she able to give herself over and completely trust. I was reading it going, ‘Please let it work out! Let her finally give her heart to this person!’
“And for Kate, the journey of midlife dating,” Chalke continued. “She’s devoted her whole life to everyone else’s happiness. She’s trying to stretch herself, to allow herself to have this piece of herself, but she has no frame of reference and no road map how to do it.” (Got that? Now, hurry up and write your own script.)
These current romances do feel modern in a couple of ways. First, the majority of their creators are women, which means that the male leads are actually appealing. On Virgin River, Henderson’s Afghanistan-war-vet-who-never-thought-he’d-find-love is a credible contemporary Heathcliff. Page’s Duke of Hastings from Bridgerton became an instant social-media dreamboat sensation. And there’s really no need to discuss why Ejiofor or Washington are ideal romantic leads.
Second, unlike Hallmark films, where the couple’s first kiss doesn’t arrive until the last shot, these romances feature plenty of sex. Their writers keep things lively by tossing in postcoital complications about why the stars can’t or shouldn’t get together again – it’s too soon, there’s a misunderstanding, an old lover turns up pregnant, a work gig separates them, etc. Then they get together again. In fact, Bridgerton’s Episode 6 is infamous, not only because it’s chockablock with sex, but also for a controversial scene that many have deemed female-on-male marital rape. (Spoiler alert: He forgives her.)
What hasn’t changed about these romances, however, is the journey of the heroine. She’s idealistic but vulnerable, a wallflower about to bloom. She takes care of other people yet neglects herself. She’s been wounded and so she overprotects her heart. But gradually she grows, she makes brave, strong choices. She figures out what she wants. She realizes who she is. Only then is love her reward.
Women are tired. But what they’re not tired of, for the moment, is stories where eventually, finally, they get the love they deserve.
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