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The rom-com is a genre that leans into the restoration of order. No matter how messy things are when we start, by the end of a tiny 90 minutes, we can count on the boy getting the girl or the girl getting the boy or — as things get more progressive — the gender/gender identity/sexual orientation combination of your choosing, provided that we reach “happiness.” It’s a genre that’s satisfying, but the potential for dull inevitability has encouraged storytellers to subvert expectations, upping the stakes on the screwball antics and challenging our notions of what “happy” endings even look like.
The rise of more close-ended stories on the small screen has been particularly fertile ground for rom-com subversion, with results ranging from brilliant (Netflix’s The End of the F***ing World) to forgettable (Hulu’s Four Weddings and a Funeral) to ambitious qualified failures (HBO’s Run) to ambitious qualified successes (Apple TV+’s The Afterparty). Oh, and every once in a while you get something like HBO Max’s Starstruck, which reminds you that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with an expertly executed, thoroughly conventional rom-com.
Cast: Rosa Salazar, Gavin Drea, Jade Harrison, Jamie Michie, Callie Cooke, Bhav Joshi, Ioanna Kimbrook, Omar Baroud
Creator: Oliver Lyttelton
Of course, if you spend so much time subverting romantic comedies, the subverted romantic comedy becomes as driven by convention as the unfiltered rom-com. Case in point, Hulu’s Wedding Season, which plays like a jumble of the four shows I mentioned above, offering a twisty, often fun take on some well-trod tropes, but rarely enough real affection. After seven episodes (critics weren’t sent the finale), I’d run out of interest in the mystery/thriller elements accompanying the show’s love story, but the likable central pairing of Rosa Salazar and Gavin Drea offered enough enjoyment to see the story through.
Drea plays Stefan, a young doctor with an almost pathological need for love, originating from his childhood in the foster system — a detail that’s referenced and never mentioned again rather than actually explored as an explanation for his tight friend group and pressures he’s feeling in a summer of non-stop weddings.
We actually begin at the end of the summer, with Stefan barging into Katie’s (Rosa Salazar) nuptials, professing his love and getting exactly the same incredulous reaction you would expect in real life. The story flashes back to Stefan and Katie’s initial meeting at the summer’s first wedding before returning to the present to discover that Katie’s special day ended with the poisoning of eight members of the groom’s family (including the groom).
After his public display, the police — Jamie Richie’s Donahue and Jade Harrison’s Metts — suspect Stefan. And after spending three months caught up in Katie’s impetuous and seemingly inexplicable behavior, Stefan suspects Katie absolutely might be capable of murder. Love-on-the-run hijinks ensue as the detectives try to solve the crime and Stefan tries to solve Katie.
If you’re already seeing elements of How I Met Your Mother, Happy Endings, The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde among many other movies and shows, rest assured that series creator Oliver Lyttelton is planting those referential seeds and many more. Especially in the first of the season’s 30+-minute episodes, it isn’t even necessarily clear when Lyttelton and director George Kane (followed at midseason by Laura Scrivano) are wallowing in cliches, upending cliches or setting viewers up in the comfort of the genre to induce discomfort later. When you have familiar jokes about rhythm-free white-guy dancing, buying somebody a drink at an open bar and ill-fated proposals that go viral, it’s really hard to tell.
Salazar is not a leading lady you’d ever cast in something intended to play as straight-down-the-middle, much to this show’s benefit. The Undone and Brand New Cherry Flavor star is masterful at grounding formats that could otherwise spiral off into their excesses, which here involves playing Katie’s unhinged quirkiness as something tinged with danger. For a long time, it isn’t clear if Katie is a serial killer, a spy on a yet-to-be-revealed mission or a damaged young woman on a convoluted quest for revenge, but Salazar gives her an enticing, wild-eyed elan. In its best moments, with Salazar leading the way, Wedding Season puts the “screwed up” in “screwball comedy,” and uses Stefan’s attraction to Katie as the best illustration of his own flaws, which other characters point out immediately but Drea smartly reveals only gradually.
Stefan and Katie have the central anti-rom-com narrative, but each of the supporting characters is in their own slightly off-kilter rom-com — including detectives Metts and Donahue, whose unprofessional flirting delivers some of the funniest parts in the early episodes. None of the supporting storylines is exactly rich, but they offer some one-dimensional amusement, especially Ioanna Kimbrook’s Suji, who’s aggressively looking for love in all the wrong places, and Leila (Callie Cooke) and Anil (Bhav Joshi), whose own wedding will mark the climax of the summer and one of the climaxes of the series.
For a while, the creative team keeps Wedding Season moving along well as the action bops around in geography from Northern England to Scotland to London to Las Vegas and in time around differently ill-conceived weddings, bachelor parties, engagement galas, fittings and ephemera in the past and various escapes from death (though not for everybody) in the present. The combination of garish events and scenery give the show a good visual energy, and there are just enough effective punchlines or farcical misadventures that I could ignore that nothing in the darker side of the story nails its tone and that, while I bought the spark between Katie and Stefan, I didn’t buy their spark as a love story.
It’s in the closing episodes, when the series gets down to the serious business of character reveals and mystery-solving, that I lost interest. It’s really hard to blend madcap zaniness and honest emotions, which is the reason the first season of The End of the F***ing World is a masterpiece and the second season is more of a struggle. By the penultimate episode, Wedding Season accumulates a high body count and a sour taste that can’t be erased by anything we learn about Katie or even by Salazar’s unfailing commitment. I’d watch a second season if it’s just Katie and Stefan getting much-needed therapy for seven episodes, but not for a continued escalation of the thriller elements that superseded the romantic or comedic.
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