The report is in, and the eulogy has been delivered. Romantic comedies are dead. I say that's good news.

Hollywood has long told us one big story about love: Romance is the reason for living. Meet-cutes. Butterflies. That moment when you think you've lost him forever, followed by relief and a kiss that sweeps you off your feet. Cue the swelling violins.

Rom-coms and grand romances have long ruled as one of the most reliable ways to entice viewers and sell tickets. Sure, we've also had movies about family members learning to love each other better. Once in a while we get a good buddy comedy. But "true love" has been the big draw.

Schooled by Hollywood's version of romance, we filter our whole lives through rose-colored glasses. Someday my prince will come, we think. I too can have a fancy magazine-editor job, lattes, stilettos, and the man of my dreams. We rarely even say "I love you" any more outside of romance's embrace.

Lately, though, the soothsayers have forecast the end of the romance-driven movie. In 2013, The Hollywood Reporter reported on the genre's demise, quoting industry insiders who said "the meet-cute is dead." In January, Alexander Huls pointed out in The Atlantic that last year's romances—The Spectacular Now, Enough Said, Before Midnight—are more realistic than their predecessors, portraying the challenges of romantic relationships rather than glossing over them.

But there's even better news. A host of recent movies and television shows—from About Time to Frozen to Parks and Recreation—tell a new story: Romance is not the only kind of love that makes life worth living.

About Time (directed by rom-com king Richard Curtis, who also made Bridget Jones's Diary and Love Actually) was marketed as a rom-com. But viewers got something else. The movie has its head-over-heels love story, but that story is largely wrapped up one-third of the way through. From then on, the love that drives the movie isn't the couple's butterflies, but their oddball friends and family.

Similarly, Disney's much-loved animated movie Frozen shows us that while romance is all well and good, sisterly love is the kind of love that will cast out fear. All the characters in the movie—and we in the audience as well—expect that the purest form of love is "true love's kiss," something that would be right at home with most of Disney's animated offerings. Instead, Frozen mirrors John 15:13 (ESV): "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends."

In the indie comedy Drinking Buddies, two friends who work together, played by Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson, have such a great rapport that you spend the whole movie expecting them to get together. Even they seem to expect it. But the film inverts the conventions of romantic comedies: just when you think they're going to cross the line between friends and something more, the story takes an unexpected turn. There's something stronger between these two than attraction or potential romance, something difficult but enduring—and there's nothing you'd call it but love.

Meanwhile, Parks and Recreation, one of the most sweet-natured and sincere shows on TV, has a few heartwarming romances, to be sure. But the show's heart is in the friendships and mentoring relationships between Leslie, Ron, Ann, April, and the whole crew. Similarly, while romance has always been part of New Girl, it's the friendships that hold the story together and keep us watching.

Even 30 Rock, a sitcom that hinged on the ever more ludicrous romantic failures of its leads, had at its core the bond between two coworkers turned friends. Jack and Liz's platonic relationship was vitally important to both characters' development. Jack, never good with his feelings, delivers a long-winded speech in the show's finale about "a word that comes to us from the old High German 
. . . I am going to use this word to describe how I feel about you in the way that our Anglo-Saxon forefathers would have used it in reference to, say, ah, a hot bowl of bear meat or your enemy's skull split—"

Article continues below

"I love you, too, Jack," interrupts Liz. And he smiles. She gets it.

Even movies that seem to be romances turn out to have other kinds of love in mind—like Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix's character falls in love with his computer. The more I think about it, I wonder if the "her" of the title is actually the computer at all—or if it's the friend played by Amy Adams, the constant presence in the film, right to the final shot.

A Higher Love

Against all odds, Hollywood seems to be discovering that when we make romance the highest form of love, we're missing what love is all about. St. Augustine characterized rightly ordered love, which he called caritas, as love that delights in its object, but follows that delight beyond the object to God. By contrast, wrongly ordered love, or cupiditas, is love that fixates on its object, seeking happiness there as its final end.

In other words, cupiditas ultimately stagnates. Once the object is acquired, the journey ends.

Rom-coms and romances traditionally end at the wedding—or even the first kiss. And while a wedding is a time-
honored way to end a comedy, when that is the only story we can tell, we forget that finally "getting" the girl, finally making it to the altar, is just the start of learning to love. More important, we forget that love is not just for people in romantic relationships. Real love occupies our whole lives.

This is something we learn in friendship, a relationship that, unlike romance, has no natural peak. There's no final goal for friendship. Rather, friendship is an ongoing process of pursuing intimacy.

This is why psychologists, counselors, and social researchers—both Christian and not—report that one of the clearest predictors of marital success and happiness is friendship between the partners. While romance can stagnate and fluctuate, leaving us looking for the next emotional high, friendship is dynamic and moving. It is about living life together and maturing through loving one another. (There's a reason why Jesus, who never married, did surround himself with close friends.)

So instead of ending with a kiss, Drinking Buddies ends with the two friends sitting side by side, eating lunch together—after considering romance, weathering a fight, and deciding instead to deepen their friendship. New Girl treats Nick and Jess's romance as one storyline among many, including a quest to repair the friendship between two characters who had a broken, dysfunctional romance in the past. It's friendship, not romance alone, that can go the distance. Friends (and family who treat one another as friends) are the ones who challenge us, ignite us, and rescue us from our own foolishness. Good friends push us to become more of who we were created to be. Even when it hurts, true friends are the ones, as Proverbs says, who are like iron sharpening iron.

It's hard to say whether this emphasis will continue. Shows like House of Cards (in which the couple at the center use friendship and romance alike for dastardly ends) give us a more cynical picture of "antilove." Others, like Scandal, continue to glamorize toxic romances. And at the movies, there will always be space for the cathartic thrill of experiencing a grand romance. But with any luck, maybe onscreen stories that focus on love between friends will also stick around, broadening our definition of love and pointing us—ultimately—toward the One who continues to make and shape us, every day.

Alissa Wilkinson is chief film critic for CT, 
assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College, and editor of QIdeas.org.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
Previous Watch This Way Columns:
Issue: