overthinking the idiot box

May 8, 2006

A modern woman's perspective on TV's take on love, sex, and everything in between.

Love Is On The Air
Harry and Sally on the Small Screen

Can men and women (television characters) ever be friends?

by Jill Weinberger

You have to admit, it's a pretty unlikely pairing.
Way back in 1989, a little movie called When Harry Met Sally... posed the question, "Can men and women be friends without the sex thing getting in the way?" The answer, as provided in the film, would seem to be "no." No, men and women cannot just be friends. It doesn't matter if you look like Meg Ryan, and he looks like Billy Crystal. If the leaves are falling in Manhattan and old torch songs are in the air, there will indeed be sex, zany complications, and eventually love — with a big coconut cake and chocolate sauce on the side. At least that's how things are if Nora Ephron has anything to say about it, and you really don't want to start with her. She might get mad and make Bewitched 2.

But on television, life is different. Sure, any given hour of prime-time TV has, on average, nine billion couples bickering their way cluelessly through some stage or another of will-they-or-won't-they purgatory. (Just so you know: they will.) But television also has many friendships that endure, sex-free, through the entire duration of their series. Well, that seems pretty healthy, huh? TV's not sex-obsessed! TV doesn't insist that everyone be paired off like animals on the Noah's Ark of the Nielsen Ratings flood! TV knows that men and women can be friends, good friends, and simply enjoy their friendship rather than trying to box it into some ill-fitting, happily-ever-after, tied-with-a-pretty-bow, cookie-cutter ending! So there! Take that, Nora Ephron!

"I love him as a friend, but if I had to date him I think I'd murder him in his sleep. He's a great guy, he's just so needy/hot-tempered/chronically unfaithful/addicted to smack/etc."
Only, the thing is... sometimes, I think the writers are kind of cheating. In real life, the reason you're friends with someone and don't date them is usually something like, "I love him as a friend, but if I had to date him I think I'd murder him in his sleep. He's a great guy, he's just so needy/hot-tempered/chronically unfaithful/addicted to smack/etc." But for the purposes of television, good sense and a lack of compatibility are not reason enough not to get busy with your buddy. It's got to be bigger — an obstacle so fundamentally insurmountable that romance never really gets on the table. Here, some classic TV friendships and Why They Can't Get It On.

Because He's a Big Gay Homosexual
Will and Grace, Will & Grace

Will and Grace have, probably, the closest and most dysfunctional friendship on television. Sure, they started out as boyfriend and girlfriend — even briefly getting engaged — but that's only because Will had yet to haul his ass out of the closet. They're an interesting example of male-female friendship on TV, because their very closeness is meant to be an example of how unhealthy their relationship is. They're so far up into each other's lives that no outside romantic relationship could ever compete — or survive. In other words, it's a good thing they complete each other, 'cause it's becoming pretty clear they're going to end up together at Marabou Acres: The Retirement Village for Fags & Hags Who Have Started to Sag. Not the most ringing endorsement for friendship between men and women, but at least they have each other.

Because I'm His Boss
Bruce and Amy, Judging Amy

Okay, it wasn't really just 'cause Amy was Bruce's boss. It was partially that, just like it was partially the fact that Bruce was a bit of a tightass and Amy was a bit of a basket case. But we all know it was also because she was white and he was (dum dum DUM) black. And the likelihood of a CBS family drama putting a white woman and a black man together is, let's face it, small. To be fair, it was a well-written friendship, and while they were good and believable friends, they really weren't compatible romantically. (The tightass/basket case thing.) And the show never flinched from discussing racial issues, and late in the series they even paired Tyne Daly with Cheech Marin, which I guess pushed some cultural boundaries. But still. I know what I know.

Because He's in Love with Someone Else
Chloe and Clark, Smallville

This one's pretty much a gimmee. Clark's going to carry a big dumb torch for Lana until the series ends or we all kill ourselves, whichever comes first. There's actually nothing wrong with Lana, but Chloe kicks ass, and it kind of bugs me that she's doomed to diddlysquat simply because Lana was in the comics and Chloe wasn't. Sure, Chloe seems to have finally gotten over Clark and become happy with their friendship, but what has it gotten her? Bupkus. No new love interest, that's for sure, not even an evil one. I think Chloe got tossed, like, one Evil Love Interest bone back in high school, but big whoop. Lana's had about seventeen thousand Evil Love Interests. She even had an evil lesbian shape-shifting stalker. But the writers are so keen on making sure we know that Lana is the object of desire and Chloe is the sidekick that Chloe — who is pretty damn gorgeous herself — has somehow been allotted the role of spunky eunuch girl reporter. Hell, I like Chloe and Clark as friends. It's not like Clark has "future husband" written all over him. (Superman, Schmuperman. The guy's got issues.) But that doesn't mean Chloe's got to be dead from the waist down. Sheesh.

Because There's No TIME, Damnit!
Jack and Chloe, 24

Some might argue that Jack and Chloe aren't really friends, per se. But it's not like they lead the sort of lifestyle that allows them time for hanging out over NTN and nachos after work. They trust each other implicitly with absolutely everything no matter what, and they've saved each other's lives on numerous occasions. That's a hell of a lot more than any of my friends have done for me lately. Anyway, this is another sort-of-fake-out category, because while Chloe and Jack are, theoretically, waaaay too busy saving the world to get down and dirty, we all know that the real reason they're not involved is that Chloe is officially Not Cute. Just look at this season's wardrobes. Audrey gets the most fabulous white coat ever put on the earth and a sleek multilayered cut that withstands even the most extreme interrogation. Hell, even brassy Barstow babe Connie Britton got highlights and a scoop neck. What does Chloe get? A messy bun and a sweater from the Spiegel catalog. I, personally, think that Mary Lynn Rajskub is adorable, but Jack is an Action Hero, and Action Heroes get Super Mega Ultra Babes. I guess one could argue that another problem is the fact that Chloe is abrasive to the point of being socially retarded. (Or, if you prefer, socially retarded to the point of being abrasive.) But you and I both know that if Chloe looked like recurring Evil Guest Hottie Mia Kirshner, she could have Tourette's, Asperger's, and a convulsive spitting problem, and Jack would still be all up in that faster than you could defuse an atomic bomb. Or, more importantly, faster than he could.

So basically, the answer to the age-old question is: Yes, men and women on TV can be friends — if they are provided no other option. Even then, the writers often feel the need to let the characters hook up at least a little just one time, to disastrous effect, just so that we can see for ourselves how truly badly matched these people would be as a couple. And the fact is, we kind of need the convincing. It's the legacy of the romantic comedy; the Ephrons of the world have got us looking for true love between any two characters who sit on the same couch for more than five minutes. Maybe we want from our entertainment what we can't get from our life — easy romance, effortless pairing. Frankly, finding that perfect someone can be a lot of work, and it's kind of a relaxing notion to think that that your soulmate is already there, standing by until a dramatic plot twist or an impulsive drunken romp brings you together. So maybe, when we watch television, we aren't all that open to seeing the stupid, little, practical, drama-free reasons a couple of friends shouldn't be a couple. Maybe we need to be hit with a brick to get it.

But, seriously, would it kill somebody for at least one of the Chloes to get laid?

(And you know when I say "get laid," I mean by someone who is not an evil meteor freak or a sociopathically deluded mole/pawn in a terrorist plot. Duh. That was implied.)

A note: The author does not hate Nora Ephron or When Harry Met Sally... The author is merely of the opinion that when romantic comedies get too good, they can ever-so-slightly ruin you for actual life.

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