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What Are TV’s Best Friendships?

October 18, 2010

There are a lot of “will they or won’t they” couples on television–it’s a trope that is definitely played out and then some. But I recently watched two episodes of television that made me think about how rare it is for friendships to be the central relationship on a show.

I’m not talking about the friends on Friends, the majority of who managed to hook up throughout the series’ run. I’m talking about friendships that have the depth and commitment of romantic relationships. I Love Lucy‘s Lucy and Ethel were one of the medium’s very first long-term friendships, and in their own lovably goofy way, set the standard for what a multi-dimensional platonic relationship can look like on television.

So here’s a list of my top TV friendships. I determined who would make the list based on my New Year’s Eve Rule. My criteria is that if one character goes out of his/her to wish another character Happy New Year, arriving from a long distance or despite previous conflict between them, the moment elicits the same kind of “awww” reaction as When Harry Met Sally‘s classic ending. First up, the friendship that inspired the rule.

Veronica Mars and Wallace Fennell

I’ve been zipping through Veronica Mars via Netflix recently. I was going to stop at season 1, but when I couldn’t remember the resolution to the “who’s at Veronica’s door: Duncan or Logan” cliffhanger, I immediately dived into season 2. During the episode “One Angry Veronica,” Veronica has been through a lot of crap and is watching the ball drop in Times Square drop by herself, when there’s a knock at her door.

And it’s not her boyfriend or her ex, but her best friend Wallace. For viewers unfamiliar with Veronica Mars (or diehard members of Team Logan) this must have been disappointing. But to me, and I bet most people who watched the episode, it was incredibly moving.

Veronica and Wallace have a completely platonic friendship, but they have a great chemistry thanks to her sharp wit and his sweetness. She knew she often used him or took him for granted to help her solve the mystery of the week, and the tension between the two about this was portrayed realistically. When the two experienced a rift, viewers felt Wallace’s loss as acutely as Veronica. And when he was the one to arrive on her doorstep just when she needed some comfort, we felt just as happy she did. Not long ago, Slate ran a series of articles about platonic friendships, and how they are a relatively recent phenomenon. The Veronica/Wallace relationship is a textbook example of one that works.

Meredith Grey and Christina Yang

The relationship between the “dark and twisty” sisters of Grey’s Anatomy was defined in the show’s seventh season premiere: “Derek’s the love of my life, but you’re my soulmate.” I was reminded of this again while watching the episode “Shock to the System,” in which Meredith help Christina through her post-traumatic stress in the OR, lying down on the floor to face her and talk her through her panic attack.

Despite all the hookups and breakups between the surgeons of Seattle Grace, its Grey and Yang whose relationship has stood the test of time since the show started. Shonda Rhimes and the writing staff have developed the Grey/Yang friendship the way most TV writers would develop a show’s marquee romance. There are complications to their bond, but not the kind developed to provoke fanbases but authentic ones that come when close friends attempt to balance their unique connection with their relationships and other commitments.

They’ve often been co-dependent, too indulgent with each other during their darkest moments and twistiest impulses.  But the most emotional, gut-wrenching moments of the show are when Yang is there for Grey or vice versa, most recently seen during the hospital shoot-out and its aftermath. They talk each other through emotional crises, cut each other out of wedding dresses, and chew out each other’s boyfriends if they’re not acting up to snuff. The only sure thing on Grey’s (besides how the patient of the week will help the doctors come to a personal understanding about their own lives) is that Grey and Yang will be each other’s rocks, no matter how much calamity or romantic drama crashes against them.

Don Draper and Peggy Olson

Right now no one knows how many seasons Mad Men will last, but even if the show goes on for five more years, I have no doubt that season 4’s “The Suitcase” will be remembered as one of the series’ all-time best episodes. It was there that Don Draper and Peggy Olsen finally confronted the secrets that drive them, and ultimately draw them to each other. (The above photo is the end result of that process.)

Theirs is a work relationship that transformed from boss/employee to mentor/mentee to a quiet, powerful camaraderie, without ever coming close to turning into a Sterling Cooper office romance. It’s an unusual bond, since these two know each other in ways even they don’t fully understand. It’s not just that Peggy and Don are smart advertising people, and appreciate each other’s intelligence. They are actually relieved to meet someone who has their same worldview focused on ambition and survival.

Only Peggy could pull Don out of his season 4 alcohol-fueled meltdown, daring to confront him about his recklessness and self-destruction. Peggy is Don’s compass, how he was able find his bearings and re-orient himself after his family life was shattered. Since they work together, they have an ongoing conflict from the power dynamic that defines their roles in each other’s lives. (Don’s soon-to-be second wife Megan, who says she “admires” Peggy and aspires to a similar role at the company, will no doubt also affect their relationship next season.) But I think both of them are empowered by the idea that there is another person in the world that really gets them, and that unspoken connection is what keeps them going.

Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson

Like Peggy and Don, Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson would have never known each other if they didn’t have to work in the same office.  In Parks and Recreation, Leslie is Ron’s subordinate, and they clash often due to Leslie’s wide-eyed optimism and Hillary Clinton-inspired work ethic, which interferes with Ron’s goal of doing as little work as possible. Their friendship is still in its beginning stages (as is the show itself) but it has been wonderful to see their relationship deepen.  Leslie’s attempts to make Ron happy tend to backfire (bringing his ex-wife Tammy back into his life, staging a reunion of park director predecessors) but Ron’s bemused expressions at Leslie’s good-natured scheming betrays his fondness for her. She’s sunshine, he’s a curmudgeon, and their bond of opposites is one of the most charming aspects of a truly charming show.



Buffy trio

Leslie & Ron Swanson/Park and Rec


22 Comments leave one →
  1. October 18, 2010 9:28 pm

    Yang/Grey are totally the embodiment of great friendship. Don and Peggy are an intriguing example. I’ll have to think more about that one. I don’t immediately see it, but definitely want to give it more consideration.

  2. October 18, 2010 10:03 pm

    i’d only seen a couple of Parks and Recreation and wasn’t that excited, until that hunting episode. it made me go back and watch all of season two in its entirety, and their friendship is the best part. i love the episode when Ron is Woman of the Year — i appreciate that they let him be a little mean to her, in that way that shows he knows her well, but he ultimately has her back.

    as for The Suitcase, I gave it major props because I got halfway into it when I realized, damn, this is a “gimmick episode” and I didn’t see it coming until I was super hooked in! well-played.

    great post!

  3. Hsofia permalink
    October 18, 2010 10:17 pm

    I had to skip the Grey’s and Mad Men pieces because I haven’t gotten through those yet, but I love the topic and totally agree with the Veronica/Wallace assessment.

    I might add Spenser/Hawk to that list if I could re-watch the episodes. Who knows if they’ll ever be released on DVD…

  4. October 19, 2010 12:49 am

    This just makes me think of the oddest “friendships” in television history, though obviously the most odd ones were from the sixties. Examples: Sister Bertrille of the Convent San Tanco and Playboy casino owner Carlos Ramirez, from “The Flying Nun.” I mean, how did they meet and become friends? Not to overanalyze something that deserves no analysis at all, being a 1960s sitcom, but really!

    Doctor Zachary Smith and The Robot of “Lost in Space.” By all rights, Smith should have spent the entirety of the three season excursion in the Jupiter 2’s brig, for attempting to sabotage the flight before they even left Earth, but I guess that would have prevented all of the schlocky jokes and ridiculous grabs that Smith made for Will at any hint of DANGER! DANGER! But the real fun was in the setups that the Robot gave to Smith and his SAT word comebacks. I guess they were friends, because why would you constantly hang around if you weren’t. Oh, yeah. You were programmed to do it.

    I could go on, but I’ll just toss out a few good ones: Laverne & Shirley (clearly copying Lucy and Ethel), Kramden & Norton (to me, an even better friendship than Lucy and Ethel because the dynamic was more equal), and Felix and Oscar, who had to be true blue friends because they hated each other’s personal style, yet had to put up with it!

  5. October 19, 2010 10:08 am

    Would Golden Girls fit in this category? The theme song is a bit of a giveaway.

    I’d also nominate Mary Richards / Rhoda Morgenstern from the Mary Tyler Moore show.

  6. October 19, 2010 10:18 am

    I’d also toss in Mark Sloan and Calli Torres from Grey’s too. Their friendship is really intersting, complex and realistically portrayed.

  7. October 19, 2010 10:22 am

    @snarkysmachine It’s only this season I can actually say that Don and Peggy have a real friendship. Before this season, they were all over the place, but they definitely have a bond now they didn’t have before.

    @raymondj I love the hunting episode too! That’s why I chose the photo I did 🙂

    @hsofia I went back and forth a bit whether or not include spoilers or a spoiler alert tag, about certain things. I’ll do so in the future!

    @nycpenpusher Can’t believe I forgot to mention Felix and Oscar, even in passing! I must admit in shame that my only knowledge of Lost in Space comes from the awful remake with Matt LeBlanc.

  8. October 19, 2010 10:53 am

    I’m not sure I’d characterize Don and Peggy as friends. There’s some kind of symbiosis going on, and they definitely have a bond but it seems to me more from shared secrets and ambitions than from what I’d consider friendship.

  9. October 19, 2010 12:26 pm

    @redlami I see your point. But I do think the “The Suitcase” shifted their relationship from two co-workers who bonded over mutual secrets then the beginning of a real friendship.

    They might never be the kind of casual friends who go to each other’s homes for Christmas parties, but there’s a genuine intimacy between the two now, in which they value each other’s opinions, personally and professionally.

  10. October 19, 2010 12:42 pm

    Is it weird that I just never got the sense that Don liked Peggy that much? I don’t see it, but as I said before I’m really intrigued by your reading of their relationship. Don seems to have this pinched, gas pain expression on his face whenever Peggy appears in his office. I guess I might need to do a closer viewing of a couple of their scenes post “The Suitcase”.

  11. October 19, 2010 1:15 pm

    @popscribblings perhaps listing Felix and Oscar was a cheat, since they came from a play turned motion picture before becoming a television series, a cartoon, another television series, another play… etc. i.e. they weren’t “TV” characters…

    @redlami absolutely Mary and Rhoda were genius and “Mary Tyler Moore” lost a lot when Rhoda spun off. The harder edged Morgenstern played so well off of Richards’ sweetness, the dynamic was brilliance. And two smart women on 1970s television! Great role models. Really, didn’t Nancy McKeon just swipe Valerie Harper’s delivery when she became Jo on “The Facts of Life?”

  12. October 19, 2010 1:26 pm

    My favorite TV frienships:

    1. Mark and Callie (Grey’s)
    2. House and Wilson (House)
    3. Hardison and Parker (Leverage)
    4. Charlotte and Samantha (SATC) – there are precious few scenes between them, but they were delicious, complex and engaging. Wish there had been more exploration of the connections between the women independent of their relationship to Carrie.
    5. The women on “Living Single”. I always wanted to be friends with them!

  13. October 19, 2010 2:13 pm

    @snarkysmachine, I think it’s just a matter of time before the relationship between Hardison and Parker turns into something other than platonic. I’d say romantic, but I just can’t put that word in the same sentence. As Parker.

  14. IrishUp permalink
    October 19, 2010 6:04 pm

    I always loved Mary and Rhoda, and Maude and Vivian were also big faves

    I remember “Hill Street Blues” having some great friendships, notably Hill and Renko, and Coffey and Bates.

    Others that come to mind:

    Norm and Cliff (Cheers)
    Jim, Bones, and Spock
    Cagney and Lacey

    I also like when shows treat siblings as besties, instead of rivals or opposites or something.
    “Rosanne” did a great job with that.

  15. October 19, 2010 7:34 pm

    Cagney and Lacey! I second that! I think I’ve modeled most of my friendships on them.

  16. October 19, 2010 7:52 pm

    Coffey and Bates.

    I love it when you bring it old school!!!

  17. Chi permalink
    October 19, 2010 10:43 pm

    I love the House/Wilson relationship a lot – they’ve always had more chemistry than any other combination on the show. The emotional abusiveness is hard to take, though. It’s so one-sided, or sadist/masochist or something. (I’m behind on this season, though, so I don’t know how the dynamic is going now.)

  18. IrishUp permalink
    October 20, 2010 10:28 am

    @Snarky’s – LOL, sometimes I can’t help it. HSB came from the time when I had a schedule that looked like Days: work or school, Nights: watch X on these nights, go out on these other nights” – aka, my 20s.
    Betty Thomas makes little hearts come out of my eyes, even still. Sure, some of her projects are sketch, but Lucy Bates was BAAAD ASSS!

  19. October 20, 2010 10:51 am

    Betty Thomas is ACE! Underrated as an actor and director.

  20. Cal Hansford permalink
    February 7, 2011 2:04 pm

    Are these really the best TV friendships? You don’t back your article with sources. Pretty weak supporting evidence in my opinion. Don’t know why this enty was on Digg.

  21. February 8, 2011 10:08 am

    @Cal Hansford – what’s an “enty”?


  1. What Are TV’s Best Friendships? « Pop Scribblings

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