Netflix's 'To All the Boys I Loved Before' sequel highlights pitfalls of rom-com franchises

Perhaps the series should have just stuck with the original “happily ever after,” after all.
To All The Boys: P.S. I Still Love You
Noah Centineo and Lana Condor in the Netflix film "To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You."Bettina Strauss / Netflix
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By Ani Bundel

Netflix is currently the undisputed king of streaming, with 158 million users as of last reporting. The service has also become the new home for films that are not fated to make it to the box office. The big screen has spent the last decade leaning into either the big budget blockbuster or the Oscar-level art film, with little room in between for mystery thrillers, romantic comedies and the like. Netflix has rushed to fill this void — its most watched film of 2019 was “Murder Mystery.” Even so, the return of the rom-com has been its more celebrated revival, with the streamer making hits out of “The Kissing Booth,” “Set it Up,” and “Always Be My Maybe.” “To All The Boys I Loved Before” is arguably one of its biggest genre hits, however; a gentle little teen romance one can watch endlessly and smile every time.

Unfortunately, along with the light of delightful rom-com, Netflix now seems to have also brought back another relic of a box office gone by: the inferior sequel.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Netflix has released “To All The Boys: P.S. I Still Love You,” based on Jenny Han's same YA romance series. Still starring Lana Condor and Noah Centineo, it continues the modern storybook romance of Lara Jean Covey and Peter Kavinsky, who after fake-dating their way into a relationship in the first film, must now contend with the nuts and bolts of being a real couple. For Lara Jean, who continues to mistake herself for a wallflower, it also brings the added temptation of straying as other possible love interests crop up, specifically another longtime crush, John Ambrose (Jordan Fisher).

Unfortunately, along with the delightful rom-com, Netflix now seems to have also brought back another relic of a box office gone by: the inferior sequel.

The hollowing out of the box office center has been aided by the recent rise of the endless sequels. But not so long ago, sequels were understood to be somewhat nonessential. (“Rambo: First Blood Part II,” anyone?) And romantic comedies rarely got second or third installations. After all, why mess up “happily ever after” with more “ever after.” But production studios have evolved on this concept, figuring that if it works once, you might as well try it three more times. And more importantly, after nearly two decades of this mindset, an entire generation of viewers practically demands it.

To be fair, Netflix sequels for “To All The Boys” seemed to always be part of the plan. The movie was based on the first novel of a trilogy, after all. (An adaptation of the third novel, “Always & Forever, Lara Jean,” has already wrapped filming, and will doubtlessly arrive next year.) In the novels, the love triangle that forms in the second book among Lara Jean, Peter and John offers plenty of dramatic weight.

Romantic comedies rarely got second or third installations. After all, why mess up “happily ever after” with more “ever after.”

But more complications don’t always equal better films. On the one hand, it’s nice to see that Lara Jean doesn’t close herself off to all possibilities — she’s 16, for heaven’s sake. But in expanding Lara Jean’s romantic horizons (albeit temporarily), the film loses the things that made the first film so sweet. Lara Jean’s sisters, for instance, practically disappear in “P.S. I Still Love You.” The movie also loses some of its silly quirkiness, like Peter buying yogurt smoothies because Lara Jean loves them.

Losing these kinds of distinctive details in favor of a more generic romp puts newcomer John Ambrose at a distinct disadvantage, because there’s nothing to differentiate him from other boys. At no point does the film give Lara Jean a compelling reason to swoon over him, other than his nice face. (As far as the film seems to be concerned, John Ambrose’s defining trait is “nice.”) And losing the details from Peter and Lara Jean’s relationship means they, too. become more generic in their plot beats. Instead of mining the relatable experience of being in a long-term relationship, the story winds up relying on an overused trope and transforms Peter suddenly and inexplicably into a jerk.

If anything, “P.S. I Still Love You” is less like the original “To All The Boys” and more like a different romantic franchise that Netflix has been riding since 2017, starting with “A Christmas Prince.” That story also became super generic the moment it went to sequels, although it wasn’t losing tender details but over the original's hilariously surreal moments (like random wolf attacks). The comparisons between "Christmas Prince" and "P.S. I Still Love You" aren’t helped by Lara Jean and John’s big romantic frolic in (painfully fake looking) snow.

Mayhbe it is inevitable that most rom-com sequels lose what made the first ones special. But it felt at the very least like the original “To All The Boys” was aiming to clear a higher bar than “A Christmas Prince.” Watching the sequel fail to meet this pretty low standard makes the first film seem less like a breakthrough moment and more like a lucky break for Netflix. Like John Ambrose, “P.S. I Still Love You” is nice, but that’s about it. Perhaps the series should have just stuck with the original “happily ever after,” after all.