I used to be quite cynical about romcoms. Oh the two leads are going to fall in love, are they? Will they squabble when they first meet, then slowly grow to bring the best out of each other? Perhaps she has two men to choose from and one is the worst man on the face of the planet, yes, but he is sexy in quite a dangerous way? At some point will she fall over and suffer a very minor injury? Will there be a series of avoidable misunderstandings leading to a second-act argument that threatens to derail everything? Finally kissing in the snow? Come on. Give me a break.
But then I grew up. I’m sorry, but you can’t watch subtitled arthouse Cannes hits when you’re hungover. Sometimes you need something simple and tropey and soft-edged. Because of that – because the romcom is, at its core, the same story told over and over again – it’s actually quite difficult to get it right. People know what they want, and they have a dozen immaculate examples of the form they can rewatch if your attempt doesn’t give it to them. First, the two actors have to have irresistible, smile-on-your-face-to-watch-it chemistry (you need to want them to fall in love). Second, the machinery that is pushing them together needs to be as stupid and as goofy as possible. Third, at least one of them has to work a lowly job at a magazine. It’s not vital but it is useful if the sexy badboy of the equation has a motorbike. The Flatshare (Thursday, Paramount+) has completely fulfilled this brief.
So our two goofballs are Tiffany (Jessica Brown Findlay, dressed in the most baffling series of outfits I’ve ever seen in a streaming series) and Leon (Anthony Welsh, whose career run to date – appearances in Hanna, Brassic, The Great, Master of None – really did demand a romcom lead at this exact point). The magazine she works at is called Bother and it’s a (fairly accurate, actually) cipher for Vice. The stupid machinery is they are sharing a flat and sharing a bed, but have never met. Tiffany sleeps there 8pm until 8am, then changes the sheets and leaves so Leon, tired and aching from his nightshift on a palliative care ward (he’s so nice! And you should see the bastard she’s trying to get over!), can come home, have a minor squabble with his girlfriend, then go to sleep during the day. They communicate – first passive-aggressively, then heartwarmingly, then argumentatively, then have a series of misunderstandings – exclusively via Post-it notes. This is, of course, the stupidest series hook of all actual time.
[Interlude of chanting]: I am trying to be less cynical. I can be a cynical person without just being a cynic. I can let nice things happen if other people like them. Disney World is a viable place to go on holiday as an adult. I am trying to be less cynical, I am trying to be less cynical.
Yes, it’s stupid, but stupid works. One of the more interesting things about The Flatshare – based on the bestselling and beloved book by Beth O’Leary – is that it’s six 45-minute episodes, rather than a tight 100-minute film, and there’s something about that extra pacing that really lets it breathe. This series is never trying to cram, and it’s never trying to rush to a cliffhanger set-piece at the half-hour mark, and you actually get to know the supporting cast as characters, rather than well-timed one-liners who help the leads figure themselves out. The split-screen storytelling is clever, the timing of their meeting/never meeting is well done, there’s a lot of good mood-setting B-roll and some sparkling London life soundtracking, and it never (well rarely – there’s exactly one plot too many in the mix, and you’ll know it when you see it) feels like padding. I’d actually like to see more tight, charming stories being given this amount of time in which to enjoy themselves – the whole thing is like dipping into a nice warm bath.
Is it funny? Almost, yes. Do the romantic leads have chemistry? Almost, yes. Is there a storyline where a wise-but-sick girl at the palliative care home helps Leon with every single problem in his life? Of course. But what The Flatshare does best is knows exactly what it is – a fun and a little corny but whatever romcom – and does it really well. Sometimes you don’t need to be intellectually challenged to the point of existential crisis. Sometimes you just need to see two very beautiful people have a series of misunderstandings until they snog.