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Still Up Rides the Highs and Lows of the 'Just Friends' Show

Two charming leads are reason enough to watch this British rom-com, even as the romantic obstacles frustrate.
  • Antonia Thomas in Still Up (Photo: Apple TV+)
    Antonia Thomas in Still Up (Photo: Apple TV+)

    In a world where conservation is more pressing than ever, it's almost perverse for TV shows to expend great gobs of energy trying to convince their audiences that their lead characters are "just friends." "They're just platonic work partners!" the showrunners seemed to yell while Mulder and Scully made sex eyes at each other over a gray alien cadaver. The "will they or won't they??" subtext surrounding Sam and Diane and David and Maddie quickly got loud enough that it might as well have been used for ad copy, but the answer was never going to be "they won't." Even putting the word "platonic" in the title of the show, as Apple TV+ did recently with Platonic, only hangs the lantern on what we all know to be true: sh*t's getting romantic, sooner or later.

    Still Up, about a pair of insomniacs played by Antonia Thomas and Craig Roberts who carry on their just-friendship over late nights spent continuously on the phone, sets up a premise that its audience knows is doomed to fail. And in doing so, creators Steve Burge and Natalie Walter set themselves up with the challenge of keeping the audience from becoming impatient while they wait for what they know is coming.

    There's a charming implausibility to the relationship between Lisa (Thomas) and Danny (Roberts), putting it in league with those at the center of rom-coms like Notting Hill and most of the threads in Love Actually. They're not dating, as they eagerly tell anyone who raises an eyebrow, they're just "mates." Neither one of them can (or will) get a good night's sleep, so instead they stay up all night face-timing with each other. Emphasis on all night, as they spend every unnaturally awake moment with each other, carrying their phones everywhere from a late-night pharmacy run to a weekend vacation with prospective in-laws. All of the outside-the-home excursions are undertaken by Lisa, as we learn early on that Danny is debilitatingly agoraphobic.

    That revelation ends up being the most plausible explanation as to why Danny and Lisa aren't an actual romantic couple. It's certainly not Lisa's boyfriend, the affable but deeply boring Veggie (Blake Harrison), who is aware of Lisa and Danny's friendship and is mostly resigned to it. He likes Danny. He seems to know that he's not exactly a thrilling partner for Lisa. This sounds like a weakness, when even the nominal romantic obstacle seems to understand he's little more than a placeholder. But it’s a refreshing choice that frees the show from having to sell this doomed relationship as something to invest in. And in fact, when Lisa goes on a camping weekend with Veggie's family, it's a fun comedic excursion because it's not weighed down with pathos about poor Veggie and his doomed relationship.

    The more credible obstacle comes from Danny's side of things in the form a mid-season relationship that grows improbably from a disastrous first date. The nature of Danny's mental illness is one of the season's more developed stories, and it's a triumph to watch him step gingerly outside of his bubble of safety.

    Thomas and Roberts share a sweet screen chemistry, their characters displaying a devotion to each other that comes across even when they're merely interacting via screens. That chemistry goes a long way towards keeping the show afloat, even as the story throws up contrivances towards the end to keep them apart. That conceit feels increasingly artificial as the season goes along. As Danny gets bolder about entering the outside world, and Lisa becomes less concerned about her relationship, the reasons why these two keep communicating by late-night video calls rather than up close and in person begin to crumble. The more we're won over by Danny and Lisa's friendship, the less patient we are with the unconvincing reasons why they can't be together.

    At its core, the "just friends" show stands in defiance of all laws of nature — not because men and women can't be non-romantic friends with one another, but because placing two characters at the center of a relationship show like this promises a relationship. And when you're dealing with the preternatural good looks and charisma of professional actors, the audience will by and large want them to find eternal bliss in each other's arms. This isn't always the correct impulse. All the shippers clamoring for Carm and Sydney to hook up on The Bear probably need to chill out. But it's naive to imagine this impulse won't be there.

    A lot of TV showrunners try to run away from these expectations, at least so they can bring these characters together on their own terms. Yet there's always something, be it audience expectation or co-star chemistry — maybe even network notes — that tend to draw these star-crossed characters together. Hell, even Will & Grace, which had as iron-clad an excuse to keep its lead characters apart as any show that's ever existed, saw its titular straight girl and gay guy besties try to have a baby together. Still Up is at its most successful in those moments when it allows Danny and Lisa to peek past their screens to a world in which they might just be together. It's at its most frustrating when allowing these very surmountable obstacles to stand in their way.

    Still Up premieres September 22 at 3:01 AM on Apple TV+ with three episodes. New episodes drop every Friday. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer 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, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Still Up, Apple TV+, Antonia Thomas, Craig Roberts