TV's New Sexy Romances Lack Sexiness and Romance

In The Time Traveler's Wife and Conversations With Friends, love feels like a chore.
A screenshot from The Time Traveler's Wife
Image Source: Macall B. Polay/HBO

Between The Time Traveler’s Wife and Conversation With Friends, I’m not sure what to expect from a show that bills itself as a romance anymore.

As far as I can tell, The Time Traveler’s Wife, written by former Doctor Who showrunner Stephen Moffat, is about two people who hate each other and are cursed with the inevitability that they will get married. Clare and Henry—played by Rose Leslie and Theo James, respectively—spend much of the two episodes that are currently available yelling at each other. Henry is a time traveler and has lived his life kind of out of order. Clare met an older version of him as a child; he told her that they would eventually get married. But when they finally meet as adults in their 20s, Henry is clearly in his fuckboy stage; there’s a montage of him cleaning his apartment and shoving stray make-up and bras in a drawer.


I don’t blame Clare for not liking 28-year-old Henry—I don’t like him either. He’s selfish, lies to her, and is cheating on his girlfriend that he didn’t tell Clare about. As a way of justifying that lying, he says that, well, he really wanted to sleep with Clare. But I also don’t like Clare.

Clare is meant to be fiery, but she comes off as more hard-headed. When she meets Henry as a 20-year-old, she seems immediately convinced that he will be thrilled to learn that she’s his future wife, and then gets incredibly angry at him not for lying to her about having a girlfriend, but for having a girlfriend at all. You know as a viewer that she’s been waiting for him all her life, but also that they just met. Yet she approaches every perceived slight from Henry as if he’s broken her trust when they are not in a relationship of any kind. She even gets mad at him for not looking at a blond woman on public transit because she can feel him deliberately not flirting with her.

Sure, they’re both attractive young people, which the show takes great pains to portray. Every time Henry time travels, he’s naked, and although there is always a convenient piece of scenery covering his penis, you see his naked ass a dozen times in the pilot alone. The Time Traveler’s Wife is based on a popular novel and has been adapted into a romantic movie before, so the baseline concept isn’t at fault here; the big issue with The Time Traveler’s Wife is that James and Leslie have absolutely no chemistry together that would convince anyone that their relationship would make it through all this incomprehensible nonsense. I buy that they hate each other, but not that there’s a simmering attraction underneath. 


Because it’s so hard to believe that Clare and Henry are attracted to each other, the destined romance that the show is preoccupied with feels like a curse with absolutely no upsides. Although older Henry tells Clare repeatedly that her presence in his life makes him a better person, because you don’t ever really feel like Clare even likes Henry, it feels like she’s been saddled with an unpleasant babysitting job until the version of Henry with a little gray in his hair eventually shows up to take over.

The Time Traveler’s Wife premiered on HBO the same night as Conversations With Friends, based on the sexy Sally Rooney novel of the same name, was released in its entirety on Hulu. It’s also a story about a tortured love affair, though one (somewhat) more grounded in reality. Frances writes slam poetry with her ex-girlfriend Bobbi, and runs into famous writer Melissa. Melissa introduces Frances to her husband, Nick, and they start an affair. Normally, this would be my bread and butter, a demonstration of the ways that friendship and love and the power dynamics therein get tangled up in themselves. The issue here is that every single character in this show is very, very boring.

Frances’s slam poetry is boring, involving bemoaning that “they” want you to be dominatrixes now and how unfeminist it is to do pole dancing. (That anyone doing bad slam poetry is at least getting a rich sex life out of it is more plausible than time-traveling shenanigans, but not by much.) Bobbi is boring in the way where she's barely a character, fading into the background with Melissa to give Frances and Nick time to awkwardly flirt. Melissa isn’t boring, but she’s basically barely around, being a successful and happy person offscreen. Most boring of all is Nick, the object of Frances’s affections. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would be interested in him enough to start an affair—he has the screen presence of a two by four.

In both The Time Traveler’s Wife and Conversations With Friends, the romantic entanglement of the lead characters are positioned as part of a discussion of what romance is or is supposed to be. Clare and Henry spend a lot of time talking about what men and women want in relationships, and the ways they enact their respective gender politics are shockingly regressive. Henry is portrayed as a charming guy who fucks a lot, whereas Clare is completely obsessed with Henry and is basically a shrieking harpy throughout her interactions with him. 

In Conversations With Friends Frances’ poetry is all about gender politics as well, about what it means to be a woman or to be feminist or to be sexy or to married, but her interactions with Nick and the content of the poetry itself reveal how staid and unremarkable her experience is. It’s not feministing right to do pole dancing, but also it’s dangerous and sexy to be the other woman. It’s all ground that has been tread before in the genre of romantic movies and TV shows, and by much more capable hands. At least in When Harry Met Sally, I believed that these two people longed for each other.