After stripping off my blazer and picking up the same sweats and oversized T-shirt I’d slept in the night before, I crawled back into bed and queued up Netflix. A COVID exposure scare had kept me home from work, so I propped my laptop on my spare pillow and pressed play on the Chicago-based Holidate. Less than 20 minutes into Netflix’s holiday rom-com original, our female lead, Sloane (Emma Roberts), bares her trope:
“Cockamamie,” she says. “It’s the only word I know that accurately describes every romantic comedy in history.”
Unlike Sloane, I love rom-coms. I have a dad hat embroidered with “A Film by Nora Ephron,” and I’ve seen and read everything she’s ever written. Midway through quarantine, I joined a rom-com writing group, though my first serious stab at testing out my own writerly, rom-com voice was in college. I wrote a melodramatic, darkly comedic essay about my ex-boyfriend’s dog, Finley. My classmates and my teacher loved it, not because it was particularly well-written, but because most people—whether they believe them to be cockamamie or not—like rom-coms, and I realized early on I was more than willing to mine my own life within that familiar frame.
When it was my day to be workshopped, a girl I admired asked if I thought I’d ever see Finley again. She wanted to know if there was an alternate ending, one that just hadn’t happened yet. “I might!” I replied, looking up from the page of notes I’d been scribbling down, already so excited to incorporate my peers’ feedback into the next draft of “Love in the Time of the Canine Companion.”
I never saw Finley again. But rom-coms only work if there’s a hint of hope, even in the moments we dramatize to be our darkest. Because I was sad, and because I could, I wrote a window into a scene of my life on which the door was closed.
“There’s always some fake reason the stars can’t be together when you know they’re going to be together from the poster,” Sloane says, while she throws back champagne on New Year’s Eve, sitting next to Jackson (Luke Bracey), the man who—you guessed it—we know she’ll end up with from Holidate‘s poster.
Sloane is “just south of 30-something,” and staring down the barrel of yet another holiday unpartnered, when she agrees to be Jackson’s platonic standing “holidate” for a calendar year of occasions (including Mother’s Day—which Netflix sets up as a brunch at the boathouse, an occasion for which you obviously need a date).
Holidate premiered on October 28 to usher in Netflix’s crop of original holiday programming and proceeded to hit the number one spot on the streaming platform its opening weekend. Despite Sloane’s cynical perspective, Holidate works because it is a rom-com, one which audiences can easily identify as such.
Rom-coms have the power to challenge or align with the narratives we spin about our own lives. How we manage to identify ourselves in characters crafted to make us do exactly that is a testament to the genre’s enduring power.
Set in Chicago, Holidate is not the first movie to capitalize on how the progression and distinctiveness of the city’s seasons can perfectly backdrop the arc of a relationship fit for the big screen (or your laptop). It’s not even the only Netflix original to do so this year—Midnight at the Magnolia is set in what I think is meant to be the West Loop.
While You Were Sleeping (1995) stars a mousy Sandra Bullock. Her job as a CTA worker, her regular order at the hot dog cart: “hot dog, mustard, Coke,” and the long, meandering walk she and the unassumingly rugged Bill Pullman take along the Chicago River all so perfectly contribute to a Chicago I recognize. Though, I prefer ketchup and onions, and ideally an Aperol spritz.
The Break-Up (2006), also Chicago-based, starts where most rom-coms don’t—at the end. The entire movie is about carving out a new home for yourself in a city you’ve always shared. When Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn bump into each other on the street several months post-breakup, they’re both wrapped in winter coats. Jen’s perfect hair is whipping a little wildly in Chicago’s wind. They can’t chat long—it’s cold!—but their exchange is warm. They’ve both begun new chapters, and it’s a good look. The kind of run-in you hope for (whenever we’re allowed to leave the house again).
After a year spent inside, it’s easy to spin wild tales of our own about who might be waiting for us outside when all of this is over. During these . . . unprecedented times, no one is immune to the spell.
I’ve gushed about Hinge matches to my sisters after only one date, and I’ve managed to assign significance to nearly every man I meet. Rom-coms can reinforce unrealistic ideas we have about who will come along when, and how long they might stay, but they’ve also served to make me think more creatively about the characters in my own rom-com narrative—even if the only end that serves is to temporarily make them more interesting to me IRL. When you’re stuck inside, with nothing else to do, it’s impossible not to think about your life in terms of a romantic comedy—you are your only source of entertainment, after all. While none of the guys I’ve met have landed next to me on the movie poster of my life, they have made my life more interesting—I can swing a golf club now, and I’ve made game-changing tweaks to my eggplant parmesan recipe. I have the city’s best hand-cut giardiniera in my fridge, and have I mentioned my membership in rom-com club?
While watching Sloane and Jackson’s love story unfold, I opened my bedroom window, pressed my nose to the screen, and breathed in scents—my neighbor’s Christmas tree, dryer sheets, car exhaust—that define the holidays in this city I love. And as the wind from Lake Michigan wafted through and ruffled my sheets, rather than pulling it closed against the chill, I grabbed a second blanket, and kept the window cracked instead. v