Rarely do rom-com protagonists meet online. After all, it’s not surprising when two right swipes lead to a match. Yes, there’s “You’ve Got Mail,” but that was in the late 1990s when online-dating was in its infancy and seemed desperate and dangerous. When Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) went to the mattresses — spending their days professionally feuding and their nights inbox-flirting — two rivals meeting and bonding online was unexpected. It was the perfect meet-cute.
In the 20 years since, however, the stigma surrounding online-dating has faded. True, the majority of couples are still meeting in real life. But in a 2015 survey from the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of American adults said that online dating was a good way to meet people. Forty-one percent knew someone who has dated online; 29 percent knew someone who has entered a long-term relationship this way, and 15 percent of American adults have tried online dating sites or apps themselves.
Movies and television are reflecting online dating’s ubiquity, but rarely do they showcase its success. Breeze through rom-coms released in the past few months, and the plot lines that feel the most formulaic aren’t the gee-we’re-falling-in-love montages. Those are still there. But a new formula stands out: Snippets of app dates, sometimes smashed together, that come across as dutiful, shallow and repetitive.
The app date isn’t the rom-com meet-cute but its foil. A distraction from the protagonist’s heartbreak or from their real love interest — someone they met in real life. The on-screen app date conveys the drudgery of modern dating, a way of depicting what single, swiping viewers know all too well: Sure, there are plenty of fish in the sea. But look how many bottom-feeders you’ll have to sift through.
This is especially apparent in the second season of “Master of None,” for example, which has an entire episode devoted to the hamster wheel of swiping, messaging and then going on the first dates that might result from all of that text-work. The episode begins with women perusing a Tinder-esque dating app during life’s heaviest and most mundane moments — at a funeral, while grocery-shopping, while on the toilet, while out with friends at a bar — and deciding whether or not to swipe right, or yes, on Dev (Aziz Ansari). At this point in the season, Dev has already had his meet-cute: with Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi), while making pasta in Italy. Small problem, though: She has a fiance.
In 26 minutes, viewers peer into more than a dozen of Dev’s first dates, all of which take place at the same New York wine bar, with conversations on the same topics: work, hobbies, siblings, and the racism and sexism that pervade online dating. The women are different — from a funemployed trust funder to a dog-hotel staffer to an over-worked lawyer — but no one stands out. At the end of the episode, Dev collapses on his couch and sends his go-to first message to someone new, starting another spin on the hamster wheel all over again.
The premiere of the second season of “Insecure” begins with Issa (Issa Rae) on a similar montage of first dates. Issa is fresh off a breakup from her long-time boyfriend, Lawrence (Jay Ellis), whom she cheated on in the first season. Fragments of conversations with different men, covering the same questions — “Are you originally from here?,” “You live near here?,” “How long have you been on Hinge?” “How long have you been on Bumble?” “How are you still single?” — are mashed together, making everyone seem exactly the same, and painfully obvious that they’re anyone but Lawrence.
The montage ends with a honest rap from Issa: “I don’t want to be here, but my ex won’t take me back. So my broken a– is here, small-talking over apps.” It’s a punchy intro to Issa’s new life as a single woman, but these app dates are not meet-cutes for her, either. Instead they make it clear that the person Issa needs to get to know is herself — without Lawrence, or any other leading man in her life.
The opening line of Jessica Williams’s rom-com, “The Incredible Jessica James,” which premiered Friday on Netflix, is precisely the tough love Issa’s character might benefit from. “I think it’s really dangerous to seek personal fulfillment through romantic relationships, I do,” Jessica tells her Tinder date. “You shouldn’t need other people to validate or define you.” And once again the app date is a distraction and a chance to make her ex jealous, should he walk through the door. Jessica flat-out tells her date as much: “I’m going through a really bad breakup. Yeah, that’s really the only reason why either of us are here right now.” Jessica later has a friend, not an app, set her up.
This summer’s biggest rom-com, “The Big Sick,” does not dip into online dating at all. Rather, it’s the story of Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani), who meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) after she heckles during his stand-up routine. As their relationship develops, Kumail doesn’t tell his parents about her. He’s a Muslim from Pakistan, and his parents are intent on him marrying someone of the same background. Every time Kumail goes home to his parents’ place for dinner, a single Pakistani woman just happens to “drop by.”
In this way, Kumail’s mother, not an app, is doing the matching — and she’s quite the determined algorithm. A montage of each woman’s picture landing in a cigar box on Kumail’s nightstand resembles an analog version of swiping through profiles on Tinder. As actor and filmmaker Ravi Patel has pointed out in his documentary “Meet the Patels,” online dating can easily be viewed as a modern twist on arranged marriage, with a parents creating the profiles and making matches. True to the new rom-com form, Kumail’s meet-cute comes from his real life. His mother’s attempts are tolerated, but not enduring.
Some day we’ll likely see a Tinder rom-com of “You’ve Got Mail” proportions. In the meantime, maybe it’s enough to see Hollywood capture app-fatigue in all its predictable glory.