‘Still Up’ Demonstrates Why Most Romcoms Should Be Movies, Not TV Shows
A romantic comedy can present itself in a variety of shapes and tones. Maybe it’s elegant and urbane, like The Philadelphia Story. Maybe it’s raunchy and hilariously gross, like The 40-Year-Old Virgin. What most of them have in common, however, is that the story ends at “they lived happily ever after.” Maybe they did and maybe they didn’t; it’s really none of our business either way. This is why the growth of romcom TV shows — and the contraction of romcom feature films — can result in projects that feel fundamentally ill-conceived. AppleTV+’s Still Up is just the latest example of a romcom series that came to us in the wrong form.
Still Up is about Lisa (Antonia Thomas) and Danny (Craig Roberts), best friends who spend most nights FaceTiming each other; the title refers to the state they generally find themselves in, because both are insomniacs. The reasons their communications are confined to the phone are that (a) Lisa is a single mother whose daughter lives with her; (b) Lisa also lives with her partner, Veggie (Blake Harrison); and (c) Danny is agoraphobic. While the rest of London is asleep, Danny and Lisa are one another’s lifelines through banal annoyances — hiding from a judgy school mum (Lisa), avoiding an overbearing neighbor (Danny), confronting a fellow bus rider about a mischievous theft (Lisa again). Through it all, they both try to ignore what is extremely obvious to the viewer: Despite their attempts to make romantic connections with other people, Lisa and Danny are meant for each other.
Still Up’s freshest element is the one contained in its title — the leads’ shared sleep disorder. Here, as in many (most?) romcoms, tension derives from a protagonist dating someone they don’t want to admit is a bad fit, while actually getting most of their emotional needs met by someone who is officially just a platonic pal. Danny and Lisa’s conversational topics are (usually) not so private that they couldn’t discuss them in front of Veggie if he were awake with them. He never is, though, so the liminal space in which these FaceTimes take place automatically confers intimacy that takes Lisa and Danny past mere friendship, whether or not they’re prepared to acknowledge it.
The problem is that what would have been a perfectly tight premise for a 90-minute movie has, instead, been realized as a TV series. Unfortunately, this issue is endemic right now — one I already wrote about last year. The economics of the entertainment industry are such that more shows than movies are getting made across all genres; the romcom feature film is, depending on whom you ask, dead, dormant or triumphantly resurrected. So if a creator can look at TV and point to plenty of long-running sitcoms about dating — Friends, New Girl, Sex and the City, etc., etc. — it might seem wise to try transforming a screenplay into a season of television. But if that was, in fact, the trajectory for Still Up, it hasn’t been transformed enough.
Mainly, Still Up’s structural problem is that it’s only about its central non-couple. Shows like Happy Endings or Younger or even Emily In Paris work as serial TV because their casts are big enough to follow more than one love story. Even Catastrophe, which is almost entirely about the complications that an unplanned pregnancy wreaks on a romance that really only starts after the prospect of parenthood confronts its two leads, but still makes room to explore the story of a couple at a later stage of life. Still Up basically never takes its eye off Lisa, Danny, and Lisa and Danny. Other people wander in and out of their orbit, but the show’s writers apparently have no interest in developing them as three-dimensional characters with their own stories. (Actually, the show’s writers even lack curiosity about one of their leads. I don’t know if Lisa’s shift waiting tables in the second episode is her full-time career or if I’m supposed to glean from seeing her painting in a couple of other episodes that she’s an illustrator. I don’t know why her hostility toward another mom at her daughter’s school never comes up after the series premiere. And while I know why Danny never breaks up his own isolation by coming to see her, I don’t know why she never goes to see him.)
So because no other plotlines exist to give the viewer a break from Danny and Lisa’s relationship, their refusal to recognize its true romantic nature is all the more frustrating to watch. Since the ending of a romcom is nearly always entirely predictable, seeing a couple get in their own way can be annoying enough for the length of a film. At eight episodes, Still Up’s first season is more than double the ideal runtime of a romcom feature, so the plot curlicues required to keep postponing Lisa and Danny’s romantic consummation feels punitive to the audience, if not outright abusive. Everyone has known where this story is going since we first saw Danny and Lisa except Danny and Lisa. Let them catch up to the rest of us, already!
I don’t actually know whether Still Up started its existence as a screenplay, but it doesn’t really matter what path it took to reach us; the salient issue is that it’s arrived… wrong. No movie genre works 100 percent of the time, but romcoms probably have a higher than average batting average in terms of leaving the viewer feeling satisfied. Even the corniest Hallmark romcom is made by people who get why their audience is going to watch it. Marketing itself as “an almost romantic comedy” should not absolve Still Up of delivering on what has always been the romcom’s value proposition, but the fact of its series-TV format seems to have given the people who made it license to flout the rules of the genre and waste my time in doing it.