A rom-com after the storm

A burst of new TV shows are reflecting our life in lockdown. I’d rather escape.

William Abadie and Lily Collins in a scene from the Netflix romantic comedy series "Emily in Paris."
William Abadie and Lily Collins in a scene from the Netflix romantic comedy series "Emily in Paris."Carole Bethuel/Netflix via AP

The phrase “black mirror” is used as the title of a creepy sci-fi series about the tech horrors of the very near future. As the Netflix show’s creator, Charlie Booker, has explained, when you look into a phone or computer screen that’s turned off, your reflection appears to be in a black mirror.

But reflections in mirrors are present tense; we move, and our image moves at that exact moment. And right now it’s not hard to find TV content — such as NBC’s new Thursday night ensemble sitcom, “Connecting …” — that is a true black mirror, throwing back images of our extremely current state of pandemic-driven disarray and grief. These shows are not reflecting a projected tomorrow, like “Black Mirror”; they aim to manifest this rare juncture in the world, with all its masked-up, dressed-down peculiarities and tragedies. They’re replicating aspects of living in a COVID-19 world where social distance can lead to loneliness and virtual exhaustion. They are “Black Mirror: Here and Now.”


I can’t say I’m on board, emotionally, when it comes to these efforts to capture life and relationships in a modern pandemic — “Love in the Time of Corona,” as the title of Freeform’s August miniseries has it. It’s too soon, too soon, with the virus still dominating our country, with all the deaths and economic adversities already unfolding in real time on TV. I don’t want to watch the fictionalized pandemic — in “Love in the Time of Corona,” relationships grow despite the social-distancing barriers — when the real one is getting top billing on cable and network news. I felt the same way watching “The Comey Rule” on Showtime; the two-parter delivered a still-in-motion, difficult political story without the benefits of distance and perspective.

I don’t think I’m alone in having suffered through too many Zoom encounters to watch re-creations of them on the pandemic-themed shows (and movies, namely HBO’s well-acted, wordy “Coastal Elites”). The performers take on the affect of theater-monologue acting, as they face their screens and talk at — not to — the other characters, all while they seem to be looking directly at us. On “Connecting … ,” one member of the group of jokey friends who meet on Zoom has a “Cheers” bar backdrop, but that doesn’t alter the static, claustrophobic nature of the endeavor. Even Hulu’s playful “Staged” can’t quite overcome the limitations of the lockdown shoot, and it offers Michael Sheen, David Tennant, and (all bow) Judi Dench playing versions of themselves instead of a wan “Cheers” nod.


Even the good pandemic shows fail to charm. Next Thursday’s Netflix contribution, an anthology series called “Social Distance,” is the best of the lot, as each episode delivers a lived-in world of characters coping with COVID-19 somehow — during a powerful cyber-funeral, in the first episode, or while a working nurse baby-sits her daughter via nanny-cams in the second. It’s co-created by Jenji Kohan of “Orange Is the New Black,” and I admired it in the way I admired Apple TV+’s anthology group portrait of immigrants, “Little America.” It’s a sturdy collection of short stories that adds up to something meaningful.

But still, no.

Last week at the dog park, where many Very Important Conversations take place, a fellow dog owner asked for a TV suggestion, and I think she voiced what many are feeling right now. “No pandemic,” she said, “no politics.” She then added, “It doesn’t even have to be good, as long as it keeps me warm. I really don’t want it to make me think.” I immediately thought of a number of the middling rom-com series that have been released in the past year. They feature no infection, no election, and no self-inspection. They are the shows you watch when the search for love — and not for terrorists or demons or vaccines — carries the story line. The characters may be annoying and cutesy, and the dialogue may be riddled with pop insider references, and the meet-cutes may be visible from miles away, and the fashion may be too-too — and yet they are just what the doctor (of TV) ordered.


When these rom-coms were released, I thought, why romanticize romance in this age of gritty realism and trenchant character analysis on TV? But now I see: Their moment is now. This is their purpose, to take your mind off of incendiary things, to bust you out of your “Dark Mirror: Here and Now,” to let you be stupid for a few hours of snack-filled binging. To wit, HBO Max launched in May with a show called “Love Life” that offers a journey through all the important lovers in the life of Anna Kendrick’s Darby. Each episode revolves around her relationship with one of those figures — a bit like another series on this list, Hulu’s recently canceled “High Fidelity” — culminating in The One. There are awkward dates and unexpected bad guys aplenty, as Darby literally sits waiting by the phone for some dude to call her. Yes, “Love Life” gleefully fails the Bechdel Test (which asks, basically, if women talk to each other about something other than men). By the way, the show, like the rest of this group, takes a movie-ish approach to the rom-com, rather than the endless will-they-or-won’t-theys of network sitcoms.


The piece de resistance, though, has to be the just-released Netflix series “Emily in Paris.” It is precisely what my dog park friend was looking for. Created by Darren Star of “Sex and the City,” it’s about Lily Collins’s chic twentysomething marketing pro — she’s an expert at Instagram! — whose job moves her to the City of Light. There’s a handsome chef living downstairs from her — oo la la! — and there are other French men who are charmed by her irritating and relentless American spunk. She doesn’t speak French, but who needs to talk? She battles with her “The Devil Wears Prada”-like boss, she makes bad puns, she picturesquely sips coffee with her fabulous new best friend Mindy, and I gobbled up the 10 episodes without thinking twice (or even once) — which, as I’ve stated, is the goal.

Little Voice” has been largely ignored since it showed up on Apple TV+ in July, even though it has the distinction of featuring songs by executive producer Sara Bareilles. Like NBC’s similarly bland rom-com, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” it fits music into familiar story lines about boys and girls. Brittany O’Grady plays a shy singer-songwriter in New York who falls for a handsome Brit. You know it: He has a girlfriend, even though he flirts madly with Bess. Sure, it’s a barrier to true love, but then Bess isn’t a human dealing with a crush who only exists in virtual form, like the couple in another rom-com-ish series, Amazon’s “Upload.” She does stand a chance.


Will Bess survive her jealousy and get the guy? Will Emily be able to pick from among her many lovers? Will Darby find the guy she belongs with? DID SHE GET OFF THE PLANE? Friends, it’s time to worry about the little questions for a few hours.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.