I used to be pretty cynical about rom-coms. Oh, the two protagonists will fall in love, right? Will they fight when they first meet, then slowly grow up to bring out the best in each other? Maybe she has two men to choose from and one is the worst man on the face of the planet, yeah, but him is sexy in a dangerous enough way? Will he fall and suffer a very minor injury at some point? Will there be a series of avoidable misunderstandings that lead to a discussion of the second act that threatens to derail everything? Finally kisses in the snow? Come on. Give me a break.
But then I grew up. I’m sorry, but you can’t watch Cannes arthouse blockbusters subbed when you’re hungover. Sometimes you need something simple, tropey, and soft-edged. Because of this, because rom-com is, basically, the same story told over and over again, it’s actually quite hard to get right. Right. People know what they want and have a dozen immaculate examples of the form they can review if your attempt doesn’t give them. First, the two actors must have an irresistible chemistry, from smiling in the face to looking at him (you have to want make them fall in love). Second, the mechanism that pushes them together needs to be as stupid and clumsy as possible. Third, at least one of them has to do menial work at a magazine. It’s not vital but it’s helpful if the sexy badboy in the equation has a motorcycle. The Flatshare (Thursday, Paramount+) fulfilled that brief completely.
So our two idiots are Tiffany (Jessica Brown Findlay, dressed in the most baffling array of outfits I’ve ever seen in a streaming series) and Leon (Anthony Welsh, whose career has continued to this day – appearances in Hanna, Brassic, The Great, Master of None – really called for a rom-com lead at this exact point). The magazine he works at is called Bother and it’s a (pretty accurate, actually) figure for Vice. The stupid mechanism is that they share an apartment and share a bed, but they have never met. Tiffany sleeps there from 8pm to 8am, then changes the sheets and leaves so Leon, tired and in pain from his night shift in a palliative care ward (he’s so nice! And you should see the Bastard he’s trying to recover!), he can go home, have a bit of a fight with his girlfriend, and then go to sleep during the day. They communicate – first passive-aggressively, then touchingly, then argumentatively, then having a series of misunderstandings – exclusively via post-it notes. This is, of course, the dumbest series hook of all current time.
[Interlude of chanting]: I’m trying to be less cynical. I can be a cynical person without just being a cynic. I can let good things happen if others like them. Disney World it’s a valid place to vacation as an adult. I’m trying to be less cynical, I’m trying to be less cynical.
Yes, it’s stupid, but stupid works. One of the great things about The Flatshare, based on Beth O’Leary’s bestselling and beloved book, is that it’s six 45-minute episodes, rather than one short 100-minute film, and there’s something about that pacing. extra that really lets you breathe. This series is never trying to cram in, and never trying to rush into a half-hour cliffhanger set piece, and you actually get to know the supporting cast as characters, rather than well-timed banter that helps the leads understand themselves. The split-screen storytelling is clever, the timing of their meeting/never meeting is well done, there’s plenty of good-humoured B-rolls and some glittering soundtracks of London life, and never (well rarely – there’s also exactly one texture many in the mix, and you’ll know it when you see it) looks like padding. I’d actually like to see tighter, more intriguing stories that are given all this time to enjoy – the whole thing is like soaking in a nice, hot bath.
It is funny? Almost, yes. Do romantic leads have chemistry? Almost, yes. Is there a storyline where a wise but sick girl in the palliative care home helps Leon with every single problem in her life? Of course. But what The Flatshare does best is know exactly what it is – a funny and a little corny romantic comedy, but whatever – and it does it really well. Sometimes it’s not necessary to be intellectually challenged to the point of an existential crisis. Sometimes it’s enough to see two beautiful people have a series of misunderstandings until they kiss.