Rom-Coms Are Getting Dystopian Now

The girl (Sybil!), the guy, and the incarcerated third wheel

The Flat Share is a TV show I saw on a plane which makes a rom-com out of a very dystopian situation. Unlike the usual rom-coms which still have magazine writers earning enough to survive in a big city, the girl (Sybil from Downton Abbey) is barely making ends meet. She has to rent half a flat from a hospice worker (some handsome fellow) who has a brother in jail. By half I mean half of time, not space (though it’s really one phenomenon). She gets nights, he gets days.

As I said it’s dystopian, but this is reality. This rom-com at least intersects with the shitty timeline we live in, where people cannot afford housing and basic needs. The rom-coms where young people have time and money are actually science fiction at this point. They have actually splintered off from the current timeline and just ignore issues of poverty and collapse in favor of merely looking like reality, while being completely unreal. Because nobody worries about money. The Flat Share is unique in that it’s centered around the dystopia we actually live in.

Of course the drama deviates, for narratives sake. The poor girl can still afford to go to restaurants and the poor man can take a day off to go to Brighton beach. What they don’t show is all the crushing ways that the actual dystopia crushes love and dreams. Spoiler alert (it’s a rom-com, what do you think happens?), but the brother doesn’t get out of jail, relationships don’t actually have time to grow, this situation is not actually livable, let alone conducive for love. But let’s leave that alone for a minute. I actually like rom-coms, and this allows for a guilty pleasure without feeling completely delusional.

I actually watch a lot of Tamil movies, where the ‘rom-com’ is closer to the default category than a genre. What I like about those movies is that the family is always involved, there is no concept of loving a person without loving their family (though the family is also the conventional obstacle/antagonist, initially). Western rom-coms traditionally involve atomized, capitalist individuals, for whom the family is a site of past trauma or distant third parties.

Western culture, trying to constantly recreate what it has destroyed (family, community) centers the family of friends, or co-workers, which The Flat Share does at well. That is the lived reality of life in a city. The tragedy of people being taken from the land and their communities to become capitalist cogs is still ongoing (or done, really). In ‘developed’ countries they don’t even remember another way of being. But it peeks through in The Flat Share, in that the protagonist gives a huge shit about his incarcerated brother, in a way that’s remarked on as unusual by the other characters in the reverie.

The man is a black man, if you’re wondering, and working class. The girl is a white woman, whatever that means, and seems to come from a family of relative means though she is, as Pulp sang, literally sleeping with ‘common people’. As the song goes:

Oh, rent a flat above a shop
And cut your hair and get a job
And smoke some fags and play some pool
Pretend you never went to school
But still you’ll never get it right
’Cause when you’re laid in bed at night
Watching roaches climb the wall
If you called your dad he could stop it all, yeah

You’ll never live like common people
You’ll never do what ever common people do
Never fail like common people
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view
And then dance, and drink, and screw
Because there’s nothing else to do

In this case Sybil (I do not remember the character’s name) sleeps with a common person in that she shares the bed of a night worker. They share the rent and communicate via post-it notes. This sounds crazy but it is the deranged world we live in where housing has become an investment and not a right. In one scene she tours alternate flats which include combined kitchen/shower spaces which I have actually seen in tiny-apartment YouTube videos.

There’s a new joke that in the old days people could sell one article and make a down payment on a house, which is actually true. Now such jobs A) don’t exist and B) are generally parking lots for trust fund babies. And yet the ‘magazine writer’ is the most convenient trope for a rom-com, despite it being patently absurd that they can afford a life, let alone a love life. The Flat Share at least elides this trope and shows the dystopia we actually live in. It is framed as absurd, but absurd is the world.

The fact is that love and children and basic human happiness are increasingly luxury goods. You need to be millionaire to buy in a city or be earning hundreds of thousands to rent. Anyone else is generally living off their parents money, ie the hoarded wealth from a time when life and love were possible, ie, the past. Most rom-coms ignore that this cultural carnage has happened (in the West, though the rest of the world is ‘developing’ down the same dead-end track). The Flat Share at least acknowledges it, though everything improbably works out in the end. It doesn’t, but I don’t watch TV for that. I do want an opiate when I watch TV, just not fentanyl.

The Flat Share at least occupies an adjacent timeline to this one in its dystopian premise. The rents too high, love is too dear, children are a luxury. The show acknowledges that reality and then makes up some beauty within it. Because there is. That’s why the dystopian rom-com is a category I can relate to. It acknowledges that everything is shit, and then lets you escape it for a minute, into a world where love and relationships and family still win sometimes. They generally don’t, but wouldn’t that be great? At least for a few hours, I can slip into a dystopia that’s slightly better than the one we actually live in. That’s the best you can hope for these days.