There’s a point midway through When Harry Met Sally when the two leads, both unable to sleep, find themselves on the phone. The actual conversation isn’t about much of anything — past relationships, what’s on TV, the ending of Casablanca. But what comes through loud and clear is the connection between them, so easy and comfortable that any fool can see they’re meant to be together.
Apple TV+’s Still Up is a whole series of When Harry Met Sally phone calls, placed between insomniac besties Lisa (Antonia Thomas) and Danny (Craig Roberts). Like their big-screen forebears, they fancy themselves “just mates”; like them, it’s evident to nearly everyone around them, us included, that they’re destined for romance. All that’s missing, alas, is When Harry Met Sally‘s most crucial ingredient: the magical chemistry to make us root for them to get there against all odds.
The Bottom Line
Too much cuteness and not enough sizzle.
Airdate: Friday, Sept. 22 (Apple TV+)
Cast: Antonia Thomas, Craig Roberts, Blake Harrison, Lois Chimimba, Luke Fetherston, Rich Fulcher
Creators: Steve Burge, Natalie Walter
The hurdles in their way, when we meet them, are fairly high. Lisa works at a restaurant and is mom to five-year-old Poppy, though both details are barely relevant to the story at hand. More pertinently, she lives with a boyfriend, Veggie (Blake Harrison), a wholesome bloke who inspires compliments like “what that man lacks in personality, he makes up for in reliability.” Danny, meanwhile, is a journalist who specializes in music but more often gets assigned pieces like “10 Things They Haven’t Told You About Vinegar.” (As for what those things are: “I don’t know. I haven’t made them up yet,” he shrugs.) He’s also an agoraphobe, unable to set a single toe outside his apartment threshold without triggering a panic attack.
As a result, though they live in the same city — London — their relationship plays out almost entirely through iMessage and FaceTime conversations held late into the night. (The amount of time they spend on Apple products makes this Apple show double as an Apple ad.) The evening world that Still Up constructs around them is a cozy one, dotted with lovably oddball neighbors and cast in the soft glow of street lamps or the rosy neon of street signs. Within it, our leads regularly find themselves in adorkable sitcom-y scrapes, like the time Danny’s reduced to crawling around his own home in the dark after telling a ridiculous white lie to get out of a housecat’s birthday party.
Thomas, of the well-loved British rom-com Lovesick (real ones remember when it was called Scrotal Recall), is all light and charm as Lisa, with a thousand-watt smile and a voice as tinkly as the opening piano theme. Danny initially seems fated for the friendzone, with Lisa playfully describing his vibe as “kindly milkman,” though I’d argue he’s way more neurotic than that. But over time, Roberts’ dry sense of humor turns him into a compellingly offbeat romantic lead. The pleasure they take in each other’s company is apparent. Where Lisa strains to make conversation with Veggie, she spends hours talking with Danny about everything from sleep tips to bitchy school moms to which body parts they could live without. Their mutual devotion is possibly even more evident. The very few times that Danny considers leaving his house, it’s invariably for Lisa’s sake. It is so obvious they’re headed for romance, the dating app Lisa signs Danny up for immediately estimates their compatibility at 91%.
In short, it’s a classic friends-to-lovers arc, planted in a lovely sweet patch of London where it surely cannot help but flourish. Which may be the problem: Still Up is working so hard to nurture its own cuteness and cleverness that it never finds the same ease that Lisa and Danny find with each other. Rom-coms often draw their charm from creating worlds that look like much rosier versions of our own; no one’s swooning over Heartstopper or Bridgerton because they admire how gritty and realistic they are. But Still Up exists in a middle ground where it’s neither grounded enough to feel relatable, nor confident enough in its quirkiness to feel like a universe unto itself.
Instead, Still Up creates scenarios that kind of have the familiar shape of jokes, but not the timing or sharpness to pull off the punchline: Is it hilariously clever that Lisa’s solution to confronting a bully on the bus involves taking off her own clothes to throw out the window, or just kind of weird and random? It’s not without fun bits — I particularly enjoyed a detour about a handyman who starts unloading all his romantic woes to a mortified Danny — but eight half-hours turn out to be an awfully long time for Lisa and Danny to keep spinning their wheels. I suppose they had to be filled with something, but I wonder if it might not have been better to get rid of this bloat altogether and whittle the core narrative down to a 100-minute movie.
Still Up‘s biggest problem, though, is rooted in its basic premise. Ostensibly, Danny and Lisa’s love is the whole reason they’re here. But Thomas and Roberts lack the sizzle to make us believe in the undeniability of their bond. No matter how frequently the scripts have them hinting at their growing feelings toward each other, they have the chemistry of two codependent platonic buddies who spend too much time talking on the phone. The issues that keep them physically separated keep them, well, physically separated — unable to engage in the shy glances or flirty touches that register as visual shorthand for romantic and sexual attraction, until it’s way too late to right the ship. As romances goes, theirs is soft and cuddly enough to serve as a bedtime story. But it lacks the sort of passion that might keep a lover up at night.
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