Like most things aimed primarily at women, the romance genre, no matter the medium, has traditionally been overlooked, dismissed as inferior—or even unfairly mocked as being a horny housewife’s guilty pleasure. But romance is a large and extremely profitable industry: sales of romance ebooks actually increased 17 percent during the first few months of the pandemic. It’s a shame mainstream audiences have been so quick to judge and so slow to accept and enjoy.
Luckily, that is changing. With the warm embrace of Hulu’s Normal People and the overwhelming success of Netflix’s Bridgerton, Virgin River, and even the rom-com Emily in Paris (it’s not all bad), streaming services are cluing into romance’s sizable and largely untapped viewing audience, and so the genre has slowly started to enter the mainstream.
This is a triumph for several reasons, but first and foremost, it means that fans hungry for heartwarming declarations of love and swoon-worthy moments of passion like those in heady, heart-thumping romantic series have more viewing options than ever before. So if you’ve found yourself yearning for a sweeping romance or a light-hearted rom-com, these are the best and most romantic TV shows right now.
Based on Julia Quinn’s novels, this series hails from Shondaland alum Chris Van Dusen and is best described as Jane Austen by way of Gossip Girl. Set during the Regency era in England, the favored period of many a historical romance, the luxurious new series—which features a number of steamy sex scenes (don’t watch this with your mom!)—follows the eight Bridgerton siblings as they search for true love and attempt to remain in the good graces of Lady Whistledown, an anonymous gossip writer voiced by Julie Andrews who spills the secrets and scandals of the aristocratic Bridgertons and the rest of London’s high society in her regular column.
Each season follows a different sibling’s love story. The first season focuses on eldest daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) as she enters society. Initially the talk of the town, her standing falls with the arrival of a beautiful newcomer, so to escape a loveless marriage with an unsavory man chosen for her by her eldest brother, Daphne strikes a deal with the handsome and newly titled Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), a committed bachelor with twice the bodice-ripping hero energy any one man should possess. In a classic fake-dating scenario, the Duke pretends to court Daphne in order to raise her value in the marriage market, while their agreement keeps women from throwing themselves at him. Naturally, feelings soon emerge. Then, in Season 2, eldest son Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), the Viscount Bridgerton, finally decides to take a wife, and when the queen names newcomer Edwina (Charithra Chandran) the season’s diamond, he resolves to make the young woman his new wife… until he ends up falling for her stubborn elder sister, Kate (Simone Ashley).
A faithful adaptation of Sally Rooney’s best-selling novel of the same name, Normal People tells the tender but complicated love story of Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), two Irish teens from different backgrounds drawn together by their inherent loneliness. Beginning at the end of high school and carrying on through college, the series is a surprisingly honest and heartbreaking depiction of love and friendship, with a central relationship that is defined by periods of emotional and sexual intimacy that give way to long stretches of little to no communication, as fluctuating power dynamics threaten to destroy the deep bonds that connect them. This might not be your typical romance, but you’ll fall in love with it all the same.
If you’re looking for a swoon-worthy historical romance to transport you to another time and place, look no further than Poldark, the five-season British drama based on the books of Winston Graham and starring Aidan Turner as the handsome former soldier Ross Poldark. Returning home to Cornwall after the American Revolutionary War, Ross finds that his father has died and his estate is in ruins. And if that is not bad enough, his first love, Elizabeth (Heida Reed), has become engaged to his cousin. Luckily for Ross (and for the audience), he finds true love where he was least expecting it: with his scullery maid, Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson). Although their relationship initially shocks their friends and neighbors, the couple’s love and devotion to one another is guaranteed to sweep viewers right off their feet and into the beautiful sunsets of the Cornwall coast.
Descendants of the Sun
You’ll have to read subtitles for this 2016 K-drama that follows the love story of an elite soldier and the trauma surgeon who’s stolen his heart, but I promise it is worth it! Set against the backdrop of life-and-death situations, Descendants of the Sun is a military drama with a well-placed sense of humor that stars Song Joong Ki as Yoo Shi Jin, a captain in a special forces unit who falls in love with the beautiful and talented Kang Mo Yeon (Song Hye Kyo), an emergency room doctor seeking a professorship, despite their differing philosophies on life—he believes death is sometimes necessary to protect others, while she values life above all else. Having given up hope of making a relationship work because of the nature of their lives and the secrecy of his profession, fate brings the two together once more when Shi Jin is deployed to a war-torn country and Mo Yeon joins a group of humanitarian aid workers there. A fated romance that will at times leave you breathless, Descendants of the Sun is a must-watch series for romance fans and a perfect introduction to K-dramas, if you’ve yet to experience them.
Virgin River is a story about second chances. Based on a series of novels by Robyn Carr, the heartwarming medical romance follows Melinda “Mel” Monroe (Alexandra Breckenridge), a skilled nurse practitioner and midwife who packs up her life in L.A. to move to a remote mountain town in Northern California to start over after a series of traumatic heartbreaks. With a cranky new boss (Tim Matheson) who wants nothing to do with her, and a dumpy cabin that fits the definition of an Airbnb scam, Mel questions whether she made the wrong choice to give up her life in L.A. But a warm friendship with Jack (Martin Henderson), a former Marine and current owner of the only restaurant in town, helps Mel put the traumas of her past in the rearview mirror. As their friendship quickly turns romantic, it allows Mel to turn the page and begin a new chapter.
Watch on Netflix
From a Tumblr webcomic to a graphic novel to a Netflix show, Alice Oseman’s uplifting queer tale has gathered a dedicated fanbase that is only going to grow with the arrival of the Netflix adaptation. The sweet romance between Charlie (Joe Locke) and Nick (Kit Connor) is wonderfully realized in this heartfelt and earnest teen coming-of-age drama directed by Euros Lyn and written by Oseman. Much of Oseman’s original spark carries over into the moving frames that are complemented with a fantastic soundtrack, perfectly detailed production design of teenage bedrooms, and an all-around talented cast.
As Nick and Charlie grow closer and their feelings become impossible to ignore, they have a whole host of supportive friends to confide in. The group includes caring Elle (Yasmin Finney), eccentric Tao (Will Gao), quiet Issac (Tobie Donovan), and two girlfriends: bubbly Darcy (Kizzy Edgell) and thoughtful Tara (Corinna Brown). Heartstopper updates stale cliches of the teen coming-of-age genre to deliver a thoughtful and earnest reflection of youthful self-acceptance, exploring what it is to be part of the LGBTQ+ community today. —Emily Maskell
Nothing pairs quite like romance and royalty, and Victoria is clear proof of that. An enchanting historical drama filled with old-fashioned romance, the ITV series chronicles the early years of Queen Victoria (Jenna Coleman). Because she is young and unwed at the beginning of her reign, she is pressured by many to marry. This naturally makes her unwilling to do so, until she meets and falls in love with Prince Albert (Tom Hughes), a development that leads to a beautiful and heartwarming proposal fairly early in the show’s run. Because the series doesn’t waste time throwing unnecessary roadblocks in the way of Victoria and Albert’s happiness, viewers are treated to an all-encompassing love story and one of the most unabashedly romantic dramas on TV.
A Discovery of Witches
Television is all in on vampires again, so if you’re still drawn to supernatural romances full of forbidden love, A Discovery of Witches will be right up your alley. Based on the All Souls trilogy by Deborah Harkness, this romantic fantasy series stars Teresa Palmer as Diana Bishop, a historian and reluctant witch who discovers a long-lost manuscript during her research that is said to contain the origin stories of witches, vampires, and daemons. To protect herself from those who seek the book and wish to do her harm, Diana rethinks her stance on magic and begins to embrace her powers with the aid of a sexy and powerful vampire known as Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode). A steamy romance soon blossoms between the two, but because an ancient covenant meant to protect supernatural beings from humans states they cannot fraternize outside of their kind, Diana and Matthew’s desperate love is a forbidden affair, which only serves to make things hotter.
Jane Austen wrote novels with romantic happily-ever-afters that she herself never even experienced. But Sanditon, a book with no ending, was given life as a PBS series. Starring heartthrob Theo James as Sidney Parker and the beautiful Rose Williams as Charlotte Heyward, fans of Austen get to see Andrew Davies’ perception of how things might conclude. While the cast and setting is thoroughly lovely, there is definite creative license taken to what Austen fans will expect. After all, it is hard to imagine the virginal Austen writing explicit sex scenes that pepper this new work. The series is perfect for those who love the flavor of Jane Austen but want an unexpected storyline with a touch of the erotic. And while the second season tones it down some, the romance never falters. —Keri Lumm
Based on a series of novels by Sherryl Woods, Chesapeake Shores is part romance, part family drama. Meghan Ory stars as Abby, a successful single mother who moves back home to the small coastal town of Chesapeake Shores, Maryland, to be closer to her family. By a twist of fate, her one-time flame Trace (Jesse Metcalfe), a rising country music star, has also returned to the picturesque seaside hamlet, and it does not take long for things to heat up between the two. But it’s not just Abby and Trace who experience love at the shore; the Hallmark series is an ensemble drama, with Abby’s siblings all getting their own love stories throughout the relatively chaste but emotionally fulfilling series.
If by chance you’ve yet to experience the timeless, heart-stopping romance that drives the bulk of Outlander, you’re in for a treat. Based on Diana Gabaldon’s books, the series stars Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall, a former World War II nurse who travels through time to 1743 while on vacation with her husband (Tobias Menzies) and ends up falling in love with a rugged Highlander named Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). Full of time travel, steamy sex, and historical adventures, Outlander is a one-of-a-kind series anchored by a passionate romance for the ages, as Claire and Jamie’s love is regularly tested by forces outside their control but is thankfully never defeated.
Dripping with Southern charm, Sweet Magnolias is as refreshing as sweet tea on a hot summer day. Based on a series of books by romance author Sherryl Woods, the series follows Maddie (Joanna Garcia Swisher), a mother of three who attempts to pick up the pieces of her once picture-perfect life in a small town after her husband (Chris Klein) has a very public affair. Although she wasn’t looking for it, Maddie finds love again in the arms of Cal (Justin Bruening), a hunky former Major Leaguer who now coaches her eldest son in baseball. But while there is plenty of romance at the heart of Sweet Magnolias, the show is also a story about female friendship, with a lot of time devoted to Maddie’s relationships with her two best friends (Heather Headley and Brooke Elliott), each of whom gets their own personal and romantic arcs as well.
Emily in Paris
Say what you will about Emily in Paris, the stylish Netflix series from Darren Star has its fair share of swoon-worthy romance, which makes sense for a show set in the City of Love. The comedy follows Emily Cooper (Lily Collins), an ambitious millennial with a master’s in marketing who moves to Paris to work for a boutique firm her company has acquired. Once there, she quickly falls for her hunky neighbor, the chef Gabriel (Lucas Bravo), and he seems to return the attraction. But things become très compliqué when it’s revealed he’s dating Camille (Camille Razat), a woman who has befriended Emily and shown her all that Paris has to offer. And if that wasn’t complicated enough, the second season introduces Alfie (Lucien Laviscount), an English love interest for Emily, to ensure that this already complicated love triangle becomes more of a love… rhombus.
With an original title like Scrotal Recall, you’d be forgiven if you bypassed this gem of a British comedy before it was renamed and rebranded as Lovesick. But the punny original is quite fitting, as the show follows a twentysomething named Dylan (Johnny Flynn) as he tracks down his former sexual partners in the wake of being diagnosed with chlamydia. It’s a setup ripe for comedy and self-reflection as Dylan revisits past relationships and flings through a series of flashbacks. But what ultimately makes the show an addictive watch is the undercurrent of angst and romance running through it as Dylan attempts to come to terms with the fact he might have missed his chance with his best friend Evie (Antonia Thomas). Although she once harbored a crush on Dylan, she is now engaged to someone else. This missed connection, in conjunction with the shallow shenanigans and sexual escapades of the duo’s other friend Luke (Daniel Ings), makes for a perfect storm of romantic tension and lowbrow comedy, and you won’t be able to stop yourself from pressing play on the next episode to find out what happens next.
“He’s a famous actor, and you’re a little rat nobody.” It’s a tried-and-true fanfiction scenario, the inverse plot of Notting Hill, and now, the premise of HBO Max’s truly delightful Starstruck. Premiering first on BBC Three, the London-based romantic comedy follows Jessie (New Zealander comedian Rose Matafeo) after she has a drunken New Year’s Eve one-night stand with Tom (Nikesh Patel), only to learn the next day that he is a famous actor. Anyone who’s seen a rom-com can probably guess what happens next: a will-they-or-won’t-they flirtation, a disastrous fight, an eventual reconciliation. But while Starstruck riffs off a familiar fantasy, it stays grounded in its approach, playing with genre tropes with great aplomb.
Starstruck is clearly the product of people who unabashedly love rom-coms. Inspired by the genre’s classics, the two short six-episode seasons provide a light-hearted modern update with a protagonist who toys with expectations. I’ll keep it vague, but the first season’s final moments are so lovely and understated that the tenderness took my breath away. With such a short running time, Starstruck makes for a quick watch that leaves you wanting to linger in the escapist joy for a little longer. Just like a good rom-com should. —Annie Lyons
Dash & Lily
Christmas in New York is a fabled institution. NYC is the home of the high-kicking Rockettes and the carefully curated Rockefeller tree; a place where gigantic ornaments line the streets of Midtown, and holiday markets pop up throughout the city as soon as the weather starts to turn. It’s hard to not get swept up in the magic of December in the city—except of course if you’re not a Christmas person, like Dash (Austin Abrams) in Netflix’s charming romance Dash & Lily.
Based on the novel Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares, the eight-episode series is a scavenger hunt through a lived-in New York City, starting at the most romantic place of them all: The Strand Bookstore. Lily (Midori Francis), a lovelorn Christmas truist, leaves a book of clues in the stacks that intrigues Dash (an intellectual teen who hates the entire idea of the holiday), in the hopes of forging a romantic connection on the page. After a series of dares that get each other out of their respective comfort zones and a romantic back-and-forth via written letters in a red notebook, the duo have to face the truth of how their love translates to real life.
Dash & Lily is a delightful holiday-themed series that reminds us how festive and cozy the Christmas season normally feels, whether you usually celebrate in a city like New York or in your small hometown—or whether you celebrate Christmas at all. In a season of life now that continues to be unlike any other before it, celebrate the good things and treat yourself to a binge. —Radhika Menon
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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