Today the Netflix holiday extravaganza that will power us all straight through the end of the year delivers Holidate. This Netflix original film isn't a strictly Christmas-themed affair, tracking the will-they-or-won't-they relationship between Roberts and handsome boy Luke Bracey through a year where they commit to being each other's platonic "holidates." Which is exactly what it sounds like, but just in case you need an explanation, Kristin Chenoweth's character gives one in the trailer: dates you bring along solely for holiday commitments. It feels like a straight-down-the-middle Netflix rom-com, the kind destined to be slated alongside Set It Up and Always Be My Maybe, where you're never in doubt where this is all headed, but you're interested in watching anyway.
It seems like a perfectly fine way for Emma Roberts to spend her time, and lord knows good romantic comedies are hard to find so we're rooting for her, it's just … this seems like an odd choice for Emma Roberts, right? The actress has spent the better part of the last decade trying to establish herself as anything but the cute rom-com girl. At only 29 years old, Roberts has already gone through several distinct phases in her career, having moved her screen persona from kids' stuff to horror to extremely arch Ryan Murphy material, and it's all felt like the maneuvers of someone being very savvy about her own career. So does Holidate mark a deliberate move away from snarky horror and into something … sweeter?
Emma Roberts' acting career kicked off at the age of ten, when she played the daughter of Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz's characters in the drug-kingpin drama Blow. As the niece of Julia Roberts, Emma didn't need much to get her foot in the door of the entertainment industry, and in 2004, she got the lead role in the Nickelodeon series Unfabulous, playing songwriting teen Addie. Following that, she starred in the 2006 YA adaptation Aquamarine. She won a Young Artist Award for that performance and the next year got the lead role in the Warner Bros. Nancy Drew adaptation. Playing the beloved teen detective of young adult literature got Roberts good notices, but the film failed to impress, and neither it nor Aquamarine did much of anything at the box office. Her next big film, Hotel for Dogs made a good deal more money, and by this point, Roberts had established herself as a leading teen performer in family-friendly fare.
As with most family-friendly teen actors, of course, the time comes to level up to more grown-up projects. Roberts began to transition into more angsty older-teen stuff, getting a role in the huge A-List ensemble in Valentine's Day (co-starring her aunt Julia) as a teen looking to lose her virginity; in the quirky coming-of-age It's Kind of a Funny Story where she played an in-patient love interest at a mental hospital; and in the indie Celeste and Jesse Forever where she played an emerging pop star opposite Rashida Jones. None of these roles were all that scandalous — even the Valentine's Day virginity plot is handled in the glossiest, most pleasant way possible — with both in retrospect looking like a middle ground to the next stage.
In 2011, Roberts got a role in the long-awaited Scream 4 — skip ahead of you want to avoid SPOILERS of a nearly decade-old movie — playing cousin to Neve Campbell's Sidney Prescott. What initially seemed like a passing of the torch from Campbell and the original cast to new final-girl Roberts instead was revealed to be a twist where Roberts was the real killer. Roberts is fantastic in the film's big twisty reveal, and suddenly she was no longer in line to be heir apparent to her aunt's America's Sweetheart legacy but instead something darker and more exciting.
Two years later, that career transformation was made complete as she debuted in the third season of Ryan Murphy's acclaimed American Horror Story. That season, called "Coven," saw Roberts play Madison Montgomery, one of a handful of prospective witches in New Orleans. Madison is a spoiled, rich starlet with no qualms about using her powers for her own gain. She was the perfect Ryan Murphy creation, all superficial shallowness and bitchery but with power that made her impossible to overlook. Roberts took to the role fabulously, giving the season one of its many moments that would go in the meme hall of fame:
Almost immediately, Roberts became one of American Horror Story's most dependable recurring players. In "Freak Show" she played a con artist who gets in too deep; in "Cult" she played an ambitious reporter; and in "1984" she played the central character and prototypical "final girl." Best of all, she brought Madison Montgomery back for "Apocalypse," as the witches from "Coven" reunited to stop the end of the world.
Along the way, Roberts also starred as Chanel Oberlin in Murphy's Scream Queens, once again playing a spoiled, devious sorority sister trying to avoid getting murdered by a serial killer. By this point, the Emma Roberts Type had been etched in stone within the Ryan Murphy universe: a shallow, unrepentant bitch who delivers verbal slashes so devastatingly you can't help but stand back and marvel. And while this was all going on, Roberts' movie roles got moodier (2013's Palo Alto), more visceral (the underrated 2016 romantic thriller Nerve), and more sinister (the under-seen but incredibly unsettling horror film The Blackcoat's Daughter).
But now, with American Horror Story having plateaued and Roberts not showing up in any of Ryan Murphy's other projects, you have to wonder if maybe she feels she's gone as far as she can go with the Madison Montgomery archetype. Those roles helped her pivot away from Nickelodeon teen stardom and make a place for herself among the other actresses of her generation. A movie like Holidate is probably not going to be enough on its own to establish Emma Roberts, TV's great scream queen, as our next great rom-com queen. But it may well be the first step on the path.
Holidate drops today on Netflix.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.