All this week, we’re taking a look at the past, present, and future of Peak TV, the current, overabundant TV golden age in which we live.
When Harry Met Sally lied to us. As Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan set off on that road trip from the University of Chicago to the adulthood that awaited in New York, Harry, with all the wisdom of a recent undergrad, verbalized an old trope that had permeated popular culture for years (and still does): “Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.”
Harry: Because no man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.
Sally: So, you’re saying that a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive?
Harry: No. You pretty much want to nail ’em too.
Sally: What if THEY don’t want to have sex with YOU?
Harry: Doesn’t matter because the sex thing is already out there, so the friendship is ultimately doomed and that is the end of the story.
While we owe a lot to the towering wit of Norah Ephron, this has been proven false time and time again. Even putting aside its heteronormative assumptions, men and women have been maintaining meaningful friendships for pretty much forever. While sexual chemistry can and does happen, that doesn’t guarantee that a hook up is inevitable.
The will-they-won’t-they couple is the bread and butter of many television shows, giving viewers hope that they too could be the Jim or Pam in an office crush. The potential for sex and romance adds a heightened sense of drama, and keeps viewers coming back each week, hoping that this episode will be the episode they finally kiss, damn it. Still, while the tension may not be as high, there’s a quiet beauty in the male/female friendships that inhabit our television screens. While dramas have these relationships occasionally — Mad Men‘s Don and Peggy come immediately to mind — comedies feature some of the best examples of these friendships. Namely, Liz and Jack on 30 Rock and Leslie and Ron on Parks and Recreation.
The enduring popularity and influence of these shows kind of obscures just how unusual this is. Cheers gave us Sam and Diane, whose bickering turned romantic and then back again. While Cheers was able to bounce back after the initial coupling, some shows aren’t that lucky. The later seasons of Friends became a relationship mess; while Chandler and Monica were a winning combination, Ross and Rachel’s inability to get it together and the torpedoing of her relationship with Joey for the sake of romantic tension were poorly written mistakes. More recent sitcoms like New Girl and The Mindy Project have had similar issues. Unfortunately, it’s the pining and the drama that makes for good television. Few shows can pull off the romantic stability phase in a way that makes for “compelling” viewing (not everyone can be Coach and Mrs. Taylor), but if you take your show’s relationships in a different direction, fresh possibilities emerge.
While Liz Lemon’s terrible dating life and Jack’s sexual prowess constantly made their way into the plot lines of 30 Rock, despite seven seasons of banter, a hook up between Jack and Liz never seemed possible. Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin had undeniable chemistry, but that sort of relationship never would have worked. Despite that one accidental marriage, friendship was the only logical possibility. As Jack helped her navigate her life and her career and Liz showed Jack that (surprise!) you can have a meaningful relationship with a woman without sleeping with her, they both provided new avenues of growth for the other. What worked so well with their relationship was how it forced them both to confront their own hangups and move on as better people because they knew the other.
Plus, sometimes it’s just good to know when someone always has your back. When Jack’s mother Colleen (Elaine Stritch) dies in season seven’s “Florida,” Liz fills the role that a best friend is bound to do and is there for him through this confusing time, even traveling with him to deal with Colleen’s personal effects and relationship mysteries. This intimacy does not go unnoticed by Liz, who is left to wonder why their relationship never turned to the romantic.
Liz: Why didn’t anything ever happen between us?
Jack: Good God, Lemon. If you’re trying to conjure my mother’s ghost, you could just shake a jar of coins while praising Jimmy Carter.
Liz: No, I’m not saying I wanted something to happen, but why didn’t something happen? We’ve spent a lot of time together. We’ve been drunk together, and day drunk together, and on the rebound at the same time. And also you’re kind of a slut.
Jack: I did sleep with Jenna a lot in season three.
Liz: If I was a different person, would you have hit on me?
Jack: I understand what you’re getting at, Lemon. There was a particularly youth-oriented priest in my childhood parish who went after everybody but me. Even Fat Ralph, and he ate his boogers. I felt so unpretty.
Liz: No, this isn’t about appearance, Jack. Did nothing ever happen between us because I’m not fun?
Jack: Good God, Lemon. Obviously, our relationship, however you define it, Mentor/mentee —
Liz: –Sister-ployee/work oracle.
Jack: — Is more interesting than some dating scenario. And obviously, to ruin what we have with a tawdry, yet expert sexual encounter would’ve been a mistake.
And there’s the rub: If Jack and Liz had hooked up (ew), what made their relationship interesting and different would have changed, and not in a good way. Some people are just better off as platonic sparring partners. Adding sex into the equation does complicate things, as Ephron was right to point out, but an across-gender relationship without it isn’t impossible.