La La Land may not have won the Oscar for Best Picture, but it remains one of the most critically acclaimed romantic comedies in recent movie history. Whether you adored the candy-colored musical or despised it, you probably had feelings about its ending, in which its stars — continually thrust into meet-cute after meet-cute — don’t end up together. If the film had been released in another era, and especially the classic-Hollywood era to which it pays homage, it no doubt would have ended with the happily ever after marriage of its seeming soul mates. But that was before Tinder.
La La Land is one of a slew of new romantic dramedies to critically examine (or gleefully trash) the idea of the soul mate. With most rom-coms now living on television, we’re seeing the rise of series that skewer our insatiable search for a Heavenly match, from NBC’s The Good Place to the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to Netflix’s Master of None. After decades of rom-coms pushing the idea that our love lives are controlled by destiny, that a singular person completes us, it seems we’re in the throes of a soul mate backlash. And that makes sense, when you consider our rising cultural fatigue with dating apps, and dating in general. One can only go on so many soul-crushing dates before you start to question the premise of Sleepless in Seattle. But how did we get to the point where the notion of soul mates became a joke?
Long before Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks found each other, the idea of the soul mate had its origins in ancient Greece. In Plato’s Symposium, the playwright Aristophanes suggests humans were originally born with four arms, four legs, and a head with two faces — but as punishment for their arrogance, Zeus split these early humans in two, damning us to spend our lives searching for our other half. When we do finally find our mate, the story goes, “the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy and one will not be out of the other’s sight.”
And yet, the practical goal of finding “the one” is a modern one, as Master of None’s Aziz Ansari and sociologist Eric Klinenberg explain in their 2015 book Modern Romance. “A century ago people would find a decent person who lived in their neighborhood. Their families would meet and, after they decided neither party seemed like a murderer, the couple would get married and have a kid, all by the time they were twenty-two,” they write. “Today people spend years of their lives on a quest to find the perfect person, a soul mate.”
For decades, Hollywood enthusiastically encouraged this quest, delivering a steady stream of blockbuster rom-coms that convinced audiences the Harry to their Sally was right around the corner. Then, shortly after Julia Roberts filmed the last of her late-’90s hits, came the rise of online dating. Suddenly, sites promised algorithms capable of hand-delivering soul mates — all you have to do is answer 300 questions about how often you drink margaritas and what indie bands you like! The mythical search felt in our control in a way that it never had before.
But anyone who’s gone on even one Hinge date knows the chasm between the promise of dating apps and the reality can be staggering — and the search itself can be deeply misguided. “People are looking for someone who is impossibly perfect,” Klinenberg told me. “It parallels this broader cultural trend where people spend hours on Yelp searching for the perfect taco.” So when you combine these cultural shifts — the freedom to marry whomever we want, our exceedingly high expectations for who we choose, and the angst online dating can generate — it’s not shocking we’d start to question what it means to find, or even want, a romantic soul mate.
Now, finally, romantic comedies are starting to portray this ambivalence. As La La Land’s director, Damien Chazelle, recently said of his decision to keep Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) apart, “It was kind of an acknowledgement that life doesn’t always completely live up to the perfect version that we have in our heads, but that’s okay.”
The NBC comedy The Good Place offers a more pointed parody of soul mates. In the pilot, Ted Danson’s godlike architect introduces Eleanor Shellstrop, a newly deceased sales rep from Arizona played by Kristen Bell, to a utopian afterlife in which every resident finds their one true soul mate. “That’s right — soul mates are real!” Danson’s chipper character tells her. “Welcome to eternal happiness.” Eleanor soon meets her celestial match, a Senegalese moral philosopher — and the soul mates almost instantly begin torturing each other with their earthbound anxieties and jealousies, proving the whole conceit to be a romantic farce.
The Good Place’s creator, Michael Schur (who also created Parks and Rec), suggests this is so ripe for parody because it’s something we want so badly. It’s “sort of the central dream of our human existence, that there is a person floating around somewhere who will fulfill you in every magical way and make you feel whole,” Schur told me in an email. “I get it, though. Existence can be alienating and lonely, being (as we are) trapped inside our own brains, so it’s only natural we would both individually and collectively believe in the idea that there is a kind of missing puzzle piece out there somewhere.” Or as Moira Weigel, author of the book Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating suggested of the trend, “Parody is a strategy to acknowledge and disavow a desire at the same time.”
In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which subverts decades of romantic-comedy tropes, the musical dramedy’s protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), quits her fancy job as an attorney in New York City and moves to California because she believes the universe is sending her a message that her summer-camp crush is her soul mate. In a phone conversation, the show’s executive producer and co-creator, Aline Brosh McKenna (who also wrote the screenplays for The Devil Wears Prada and 27 Dresses), told me, “You can construct a soul mate narrative for kind of anybody.” Which, Lord knows, can send people down some ill-advised rabbit holes.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend goes on to illustrate the folly in believing someone we don’t really know that well can complete us, as well as the notion that any romantic relationship can magically solve whatever preexisting issues we might have. (See: this song, “We’ll Never Have Problems Again.”) “Romantic-comedy movies have gotten so corny, I think people were looking for a story that really reflected their life more, and how much of a struggle it is, and what we know of the world, which is that these high flights of infatuation don’t always last,” McKenna said.
In Master of None, a series inspired by Ansari’s real dating life and the research he and Klinenberg conducted for Modern Romance, Ansari’s character is tortured by the possibility that someone better might be around the corner. He breaks up with his lady friend after a dream sequence in which a wedding officiant asks him, “Are you ready to give up an idealistic search for a soul mate and try to make it work with Rachel so you can move forward with your life?” The answer is a resounding maybe.
Despite the cathartic release these comedies can offer, they also stand the risk of convincing one that any belief in romantic love or a functional long-term relationship is futile. But really, their message is more hopeful. It’s also strikingly consistent and clear: If you’re the kind of person who hopes to find a partner who feels like a soul mate, don’t expect them to be plopped into your lap from heaven (or Tinder), or to magically and instantly complete you if you feel incomplete. This message conveniently echos social-science research into relationships — according to a 2014 study out of the University of Toronto, lovers who view themselves as being on a “journey,” as opposed to simply being “destined” to be together, are happier, in part because they’re more accepting of the give and take relationships involve. (Interestingly, as Science of Us’ Melissa Dahl notes, lovers who view themselves as “best friends” fare particularly well.)
Basically, in what may be the most non-Hollywood message about love ever: You don’t just “find” your soul mate in one cinematic moment and call it a day — you become soul mates. Joining souls with another human is a process. “You’re looking for two whole people to come together,” says Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s McKenna. “And I think what we know is that it’s best if you’ve fully figured out your own destiny before you join it with somebody else’s.” Labor of Love’s Weigel agrees, suggesting “soul mate” should be a verb as well as a noun — kind of like love itself.