“We aimed for a different tone than Bridget Jones’s Diary with Smothered, a refreshingly brilliant romcom on TV.”
The romantic comedy is as resilient as a cockroach, with countless predictions of its downfall being countered by just as many reports of its unexpected comeback. It can be concluded that this genre will continue to thrive long after we are gone. This is due in part to the fact that it is fueled by a never-ending predicament: the wonderful chaos of falling in love.
Smothered, the riotous new show from bestselling author and Schitt’s Creek writer Monica Heisey, takes this eternal affliction and tangles it up with a very modern complication.
The story starts in a typical way: Tom (a boy) meets Sammy (a girl) and, after some hesitation, they both fall deeply in love. However, Sammy soon learns that Tom’s love for someone else surpasses his love for her. That person is his six-year-old daughter, Ellie.
Instead of creating a thought-provoking drama filled with complex emotions, the creators of Smothered have turned it into a lively comedy with quick wit and humorous dialogue. The main characters, 26-year-old Sammy (played by Danielle Vitalis) and thirtysomething Tom (played by Jon Pointing), seem like an unlikely match at first. However, as the story unfolds, their differences only add fuel to their romantic fire. Despite this, there is still one obstacle that forces them to put their feelings on hold.
The key to Smothered’s success is the chemistry between the lead actors, much like in any typical romantic comedy. While Vitalis was initially chosen for the role of Sammy, she was not aware of it at first. She later read with multiple potential Toms before Pointing’s audition. After his audition, Pointing did not expect to get the role and did not hear back for a while. However, he ended up helping a friend prepare for an audition for Smothered and realized he did not get the part.
Was Vitalis convinced that Pointing was the perfect choice to play her romantic partner? “What can she say to that?!” Pointing interjects. (Valid point.) As it turns out, the audition wasn’t what sealed the deal, but rather a conversation they had in the waiting room about a noise pollution issue on This Morning. “And that’s how it all started,” Vitalis explains. “We had a natural connection and banter as individuals.”
The lively and playful banter between Tom and Sammy is the driving force behind Smothered, a show that seamlessly blends romantic, heartwarming moments with sharp, comedic exchanges. Tom plays the straight man, offering a subdued and occasionally sarcastic contrast to Sammy’s unfiltered wit and charm. Scarred by her past dating experiences, Sammy initially suggests a brief, anonymous fling with Tom. However, their relationship evolves into a genuine and imperfect connection that brings them both joy and fulfillment.
Before anything else happens, the show uses traditional romantic comedy elements. The paths of Sammy and Tom, who live in London, intersect when they strike up a conversation at a karaoke bar. Heisey wanted to incorporate this classic dramatic device – “it would have been regrettable for them to just match on a dating app” – but soon realized that our culture of app-based dating has given the “meet cute” trope a fairy tale-like quality. Heisey explains, “For many people, meeting someone in a natural setting and having it turn into something real is becoming more and more of a fantasy.” She adds, “The ultimate fantasy is having a man approach you at a bar and feeling excited about it!”
Sammy and Tom’s romantic relationship starts off with idyllic dreams, but it quickly crashes into the harsh reality of trying to blend their families together. Similar to many stepchildren, Tom’s daughter, Ellie, is not thrilled about Sammy’s presence. Was the team concerned about not taking her trauma seriously enough? Vitalis believes that using humor is one of the best approaches to tackling serious topics, while Heisey explains that the lightheartedness was intentional. Sammy serves as the audience’s entry point into the story and she initially takes a flippant attitude towards the situation, but throughout the first season she learns that she can’t simply joke away the challenges of having this kid in their lives.
Pointing was elated to discover that Tom was a father, as the actor himself does not have children and was eager to embrace the role of a “practical dad” complete with a windbreaker and a school bag. In recent years, Pointing has become known in British comedy for his brilliant portrayal of hyperactive men with unexpected depths, as seen in his work on Channel 4’s Big Boys and the underrated BBC Three series Pls Like. However, at the age of 36, he welcomed the opportunity to play a more serious role. Vitalis, who chooses not to disclose her age but is in her 30s, also appreciated the chance to play an adult character. She noted that often young people are portrayed in the education system, so it was refreshing to have the opportunity to portray a more relatable character.
Although she grew up in Toronto, Heisey, who now resides in the UK, has always been captivated by British romantic comedies. From the beloved Richard Curtis films (Smothered even includes a nod to Love Actually) to more recent TV shows like Catastrophe and Starstruck, Heisey has found the British romcom genre to be irresistible. For her, the charm of British comedy lies in its focus on the unspoken. Combined with the “endlessly intriguing and peculiar” dating culture, this results in a romcom tradition that isn’t centered around grand declarations or smooth flirtation, but rather the struggle to express one’s feelings for another person.
The team drew inspiration from popular American films from the 80s and 90s, which heavily influenced the way millennials view love. Prior to filming, Heisey invited Vitalis and Pointing to watch her all-time favorite movie, When Harry Met Sally. They enjoyed pizza and were particularly drawn to the abundance of jumpers in the film, which set the tone for their own project. Heisey explains that the movie perfectly captures the essence of a great romantic comedy, where everything feels 15% more charming, beautiful, and colorful – just like falling in love. This was the atmosphere she aimed to create in Smothered. And she succeeded – the chaotic courtship between Sammy and Tom is beautifully portrayed against the backdrop of south-east London.
Finding the perfect balance between the overtly sentimental tone of American romantic comedies and the reserved and realistic approach of British culture was a major obstacle in creating the show. However, for Heisey, who is a North American living in the UK, this is also a daily challenge. She explains, with a smile, that it is important to strike the right level of sentiment in order to maintain positive relationships with friends and family.
The team made sure to keep things grounded in terms of aesthetics. During Heisey’s visit to the set of Sammy’s “too nice” shared house, she requested for the walls to be painted to give a damp appearance and for the radiators to be decorated with drying clothes. This was to avoid the house resembling Bridget Jones’s Diary, where she lives alone in a fancy market on a modest salary. Sammy’s job as an assistant to an interior designer is the perfect fit for a romantic comedy – close enough to luxury and glamour, but not completely drenched in it. However, Tom’s job is not as fortunate. According to Pointing, “I got demoted several times.” In the initial script, Tom was a lawyer, but by the time they were shooting, he ended up working for a supermarket magazine. Perhaps I just don’t have the lawyer look?
Tom’s demotion comes with a silver lining – he gets to work with some amazing colleagues. Flamboyant Jordan, played by the well-known Instagram personality and comedian Harry Trevaldwyn, and the straightforward Mims (Tessa Wong) join the team. On the other side of the obligatory romantic comedy friendship divide, Sammy’s housemates include the laid-back AJ (Amber Grappy) and the hilariously intimidating Farrah, portrayed by musician Self Esteem (Rebecca Lucy Taylor). Additionally, Sammy works for the confident and sharp-tongued restaurateur Gillian, played brilliantly by comedian Aisling Bea.
Surprisingly, Gillian plays a larger part in the series than one would initially expect. This twist genuinely surprised me (as seen by Heisey’s delighted reaction when I told her). It is not the only pleasantly unexpected element of this refreshingly modern take on a traditional genre: despite its use of familiar tropes and clothing, Smothered shows that romantic comedies can still catch us off guard, even after many years.