Dating apps suggest there’s a perfect match. New romcoms like One Day reveal a messier, lovelier reality

<span>Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall in One Day.</span><span>Photograph: Teddy Cavendish/Netflix</span>
Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall in One Day.Photograph: Teddy Cavendish/Netflix

If it were a romcom, it would be called Love on Trial, and it would star Ryan Reynolds as a slick attorney whose heart is melted by an earnest activist (Katherine Heigl). But it’s a true story: on Valentine’s Day this year a class-action lawsuit was filed in California against Match Group, the owner of Tinder, OkCupid and Hinge, by a group of users who believe that the apps are lying to us. The software isn’t trying to find us our soulmates, it’s trying to keep us single and searching, addicted to the microdose of dopamine secreted as we swipe.

The lawsuit justly questions the right of tech firms to profit from loneliness, but there is a poignancy to the complaint, which seems to voice a deep frustration with the present state of love and relationships: with all the algorithms at my disposal, and all the hot singles in my area, why haven’t I met the right person?

Or, when I have, why hasn’t it worked out? This same crisis of confidence is playing out in our living rooms and cinemas, as we seek stories that reflect our disillusionment with modern dating. The trusty romcom, returning from a few years in the wilderness, is back in business on the small screen and large, and seems to be spawning its own alternative category that suits a more defeatist, battle-hardened demographic.

The Tinder revolution has exposed and created deeper complexities in the mating rituals of the modern human

Noncoms, you might call them: stories that follow a star-cross’d, on-off couple as they wrestle with obstacles dividing them. But rather than the practical, surmountable problems that have historically inconvenienced the likes of Meg Ryan and Matthew McConaughey, they are facing challenges that, whether societal or internal, are nebulous and painfully permanent. Last year’s blockbuster Past Lives gave us childhood sweethearts divided by their diverging cultures; the pandemic smash Normal People tracks the damage done to a budding relationship by class; Channel 4’s Alice & Jack shows us how personal demons can prove too much for love to bear. And a more pessimistic, contemporary atmosphere is affecting period pieces too: this year’s sleeper hit The Taste of Things is an agonising will-they-won’t-they set in 19th-century France, and the devastating new Netflix adaptation of David Nicholls’s One Day has outperformed its 2011 movie counterpart, speaking as it does to an audience who no longer believe in the power of true love to conquer the deafening difficulty of modern life.

It is not incidental that a gear shift in love stories should coincide with the explosion of dating apps. Where previously lovers both real and fictional might be frustrated by geographic separation or a simple lack of the requisite technology to find one another again after a chance encounter, we can now meet like-minded love interests, day or night, at the flick of a thumb.

In seeming to swipe aside the difficulties that once plagued singletons, the Tinder revolution has instead exposed and created other, deeper complexities in the mating rituals of the modern human, and left romcoms struggling to keep up.

Fortunately for its fans, conventional romantic comedy is a resilient and flexible beast, rebounding from its recession with stubborn gusto. Sarky time-loop saga Palm Springs, goofy London day-trip Rye Lane, trenchant gay satire Bros and this year’s Shakespearean romp Anyone But You have all recently entered the canon of rewatchable romcoms, along with the small-screen offerings Starstruck, Lovesick and Heartstopper, each of them stirring a healthy dose of cynicism into the familiar mixture.

Why do people flock back to these formulaic fables, in a world where half of marriages fail, and the value of monogamy is a matter of heated debate? Perhaps it’s because romcoms offer a version of romance that sits in refreshing opposition to the algorithmic model that now governs our love lives. The apps would have us believe they can find us someone exactly right; romcoms tell us we can fall for someone completely wrong.

If this is partly what draws us to romcoms, it isn’t merely sentimental. Recent research in evolutionary psychology known as “Mate Evaluation Theory” suggests that compatibility in monogamous couples is much more likely to spring from the interactions two people share, rather than any preexisting affinity. In other words, the romcom version of love – an attraction that grows through accident and incident – is more likely to succeed long-term than the prejudicial decisions made in advance by an algorithm.

The myth at the heart of a romcom, two strangers falling in love, is not really implausible at all

Indeed, romcoms differ from the other far-fetched fantasies we are fed in films, because, while they rely on certain flavoursome implausibilities – fortuitous collision in a bookshop, unlikely drunken wager, etc – the myth at the heart of a romcom, two strangers falling in love, is not really implausible at all.

Very few of us will do anything cinematic with our lives, go into space, get rich or take part in historic events.

But grand passion strikes all of us indiscriminately, and, while we may not interrupt a press conference or hold aloft a boombox, we all lie awake pining for someone who can never be ours, and weaving tall tales of how they might, one day, lie beside us.

As a romcom apologist, I want to believe that these preposterous, artificial concoctions offer something more than cosy escape; that the best romcoms contain some deep grain of wisdom, and remind us that our real lives are also a kind of storytelling. Because, while we all live in a world that is painfully real, we also live in hope.

• Kit Buchan is the co-writer of Two Strangers (Carry a Cake across New York)