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The Romcom Isn’t Dead, It’s Just Wearing a Pirate Hat

Taika Waititi as Blackbeard and Rhys Darby as Stede Bonnet have heart eyes for each other on 'Our Flag Means Death'

Like a lot of queer people with an HBO Max account, I have been swept up in the riptide of fervor that is Our Flag Means Death. Creator David Jenkins’s love letter to quasi-historical pirates and high seas hijinks awoke something in me I didn’t know was asleep.

The show is brimming not just with representation—a loaded phrase that makes some of us feel queasy, like we’re relegated to a checklist to be ticked off—but pure fun. For once, instead of getting out my microscope to try and find scraps of queerness in my media, I was treated to a full-blown technicolor extravaganza of on-screen, non-metaphorical queerness. And I can’t be alone, as the show is currently trending on Twitter daily and seems to have surpassed some of the more heavily marketed shows not just on HBO, but other streaming services.

What makes OFMD even more notable as a sleeper hit is that it’s a romantic comedy, a genre which I would argue has not been given its due in a very long while, if ever.

At its most basic, a romcom promises the audience two things: a central romance (two main characters fall in love and eventually get together) and laughs (be it from jokes, absurd situations, and/or general shenanigans). The humor can come from lots of different places, but it’s there to underscore the plot—the love story. And the show’s creator and cast have not been coy about the fact that OFMD is a story with Love and Laughs.

An important note: the humor can be dark! Romcoms can and should, in my opinion, touch on dark topics so that the joy of the lighter moments can be felt even more deeply. Our Flag Means Death does this with exceptional elegance. DEATH is right there in the title, after all, to remind us that we’re dealing with pirates. Yeah, there’s the gag of Taika Watiti getting hit in the balls (classic, 10/10) but it’s against a backdrop of visceral violence and very real trauma. It’s about the balance, darlings. The tender moments are all the more so for the heavy ones. It takes real skill to tell a story this way, and it’s far past time we acknowledged that.

Romcoms have been treated as frivolous for a long time, mostly due to the inherent misogyny they’re viewed with. When I was growing up, romcom movies were “chick flicks.” Serious moviegoers need not concern themselves with funny meet-cutes or squeal-inducing first kisses. These stories were also invariably about straight couples, which, like, fine—if that’s what I had to endure to get my fix, so be it. My point is, there were a lot of barriers to the romcom being taken seriously.

Because of this dearth of knowledge among the non-romcom loving segment of the population, I have noticed a curious thing. With the rise of OFMD’s popularity, friends of mine who have never thought of themselves as romance or romcom fans are experiencing their first example of the genre on the deck of The Revenge. A queer example at that! And they are blown away! They are feeling emotions and connecting to characters like never before, and they are exceptionally worried about the cliffhanger ending of the season finale. I find this very charming since, as any seasoned romcom fan knows, you’ve GOT to go through “the divorce arc” before getting your HEA (happily ever after, for the uninitiated). These are the classic romcom beats that I love seeing in novels and (vanishingly fewer by the year, it seems) movies and TV shows.

I am indebted to Our Flag Means Death not just for making me laugh during a period when chuckles are thin on the ground, but for showing so many people just how good a romcom can be. Fingers crossed that this ushers in a new era of queer love stories with on-screen/on-the-page smooches coupled with the best sort of silliness.

Oh, and HBO, if you could go ahead and announce when we can expect a season two … I would very much like to see that divorce arc wrapped up. We’ve got a few more beats to hit.

TJ Alexander is an author of queer romcoms and is currently making a pirate hat out of construction paper and felt. Their debut novel Chef’s Kiss (May 3, Atria/Simon & Schuster) is available now for preorder.

(image: HBO Max / Rachel Leishman)

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