We Like to Watch: Friendship on TV

by Alyssa Pelish

I. Laverne and Shirley bowl

I recently tried to pitch an essay that made use of, if not coined, the term “friendship porn.” The essay was basically about my massive consumption of a certain genre of TV show, which I had tried to make sense of by dipping into the literature on friendship — a phylum of work that includes treatises and lectures and meditations by big names like Cicero and Aristotle and Confucius and Kant, as well as papers by contemporary social scientists whose names are not yet in lights. However, as much as he liked my essay, the editor was bothered by the fact that this phenomenon I was discussing, this “friendship porn,” was dated. Friendship porn is old news, he told me. We want you to tell us what’s next. What’s the next big kind of “porn”? And although I tried to explain to him that my point was, look, friendship porn is timeless he said no dice.

Plato-aristotleBut I persist in believing that the phenomenon of friendship porn, regardless of how 1995 it is, hasn’t been adequately plumbed. The style sections have investigated the highest-profile categories of nouveau porn: the terms “food porn” and “torture porn” and “real estate porn” more or less trip off our tongues now. I accept them. I’ll admit that I’m not immune to the aesthetic pleasures of a well posed entree: my head can be turned by the stained glass slices of roasted beet against white china, drizzled with a citrus reduction, strewn with faintly toasted pignoli and garnished with pale leaves of escarole. So, too, will I page through a photo spread of tastefully renovated and cunningly designed breakfast nooks and turret rooms in the Times real estate section. But the kind of porn I’ve finally come around to admitting that I have, historically, been most susceptible to, is friendship porn. And lots of other people are, too, it would seem. Yet where is the Times style section feature? Where is the academic paper? Where is the Wikipedia entry? Granted, friendship porn is no longer new, but it warrants at least a modicum of pop-analysis.

Friendship porn is all over TV these days. It has been for some time, this indulgent, often lurid display of people engaging in long-term non-kin, non-sexual relationships, in pairs and in groups — people hanging out together and laughing and squabbling and implicitly understanding one another. People riding forklifts through breweries together, dancing around ornate lawn fountains together, hanging out together in an abandoned caboose of a clubhouse. Friendship, on TV, is now far more prevalent than depictions of family, or even couples. It didn’t occur to me, back when I was a social isolate of a teenager watching the weekly double-feature of Seinfeld followed by Friends (and certainly not as a second-grader watching re-runs of The Get Along Gang), but that was friendship porn.

Friendship, back when I was a socially awkward teenage girl, was kind of a foreign country to me — but I really liked the idea of it. And watching it on TV was a sort of a social event by proxy. I would save the date — every Thursday evening, I think it was — and even showed up several minutes early, so as not to miss any of the on-screen camaraderie that wasn’t mine at all in real life. And recent research actually bears out this fairly old idea of TV as a social surrogate: a series of social psych experiments found that participants were more likely to watch a favorite TV show when they were feeling lonely — and less likely to feel lonely while watching their show. The authors of the study don’t bring the idea of friendship porn into their analysis, but I’d venture to say that lonely TV watchers are even more likely to turn specifically to these idealized depictions of friendship.

Friends

For one thing, the ratings and prevalence of friendship-focused shows are conspicuously high these days. Television series that focus on groups of friends have seriously edged out the nuclear families that first populated the screen. The 1980s epidemic of family shows, like The Cosby Show and Family Ties, now seems about as quaint as Leave it to Beaver or The Donna Reed Show. As of 2004, a show that was actually just plain called Friends is one of the top ten most successful prime time TV shows of all time. Shows that mimic its and Seinfeld’s situation of a bunch of non-kin, non-sexually linked people hanging out in each other’s living rooms are the new model. And even when shows come with the trappings of a high concept or sexy set-up or procedural format, they’re not really about that. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was only ostensibly about slaying the undead, Sex and the City was only superficially about sex, and Ally McBeal and Boston Legal were only structured around court cases. What made all of them compelling to the people who watched were the friendships. The pajama parties and the cigars shared on the terrace. People like watching other people’s friendships on-screen. Friendship porn is super-popular.

The other thing is that, sadly, people’s lifestyles are somehow now less conducive to developing friendships. In his 1995 Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam wrote about the increasing dissolve of social communities, and a 2004 study found that Americans had one-third fewer non-kin confidants than they’d had 20 years earlier. These apparent declines in real-life friendships may explain, at least in part, the lurid ubiquity of friendship display on TV. Maybe it’s because people actually really need friendship. And if they’re not getting it in real life, then they’re watching it on TV. Grey's Anatomy cafeteria

It wasn’t until much later in life that I got into the really heavy friendship porn. Over a decade after my teenage quality time with Seinfeld and Friends, as a lonely and defeated graduate student with an iTunes account, I sank into the schmaltzy thrall of Grey’s Anatomy friendship porn. Grey’s Anatomy is the best example of friendship porn that I have ever seen in my life. (Yes, yes, Grey’s is notorious for the amount of sex that its surgeons have in on-call rooms. But it also happens to absolutely wallow in displays of plain old platonic friendship.) At a time when my social life was pretty barren, I found myself downloading episodes of Grey’s Anatomy like a rat pressing a lever for food pellets. My rapid consumption of the show didn’t remedy the social and emotional desert that was my life at the time, but for the space of the approximately 43 minutes that I was immersed in each episode, I got to experience a kind of vicarious emotional life by watching the throbbing ensemble cast of Grey’s surgeons navigate the criss-crossing bonds of their social worlds. It was impressively addictive.

The show is brilliantly shameless in that way. Because Grey’s Anatomy isn’t just your run-of-the-mill, neighbors-across-the-hall friendship porn. No, it’s a turbo-charged version that deploys just about every medical drama and soap-operatic trick in the TV Guide to prime and hydrostatically reinforce the bonds of friendship, with real tears. The writers of the show understand how trauma, and its subsequent resolution, strengthens bonds between those who experience it together. I mean, aside from the fact that these people perform dangerous and stressful surgical procedures together on a daily basis, they also get cancer with a five percent survival rate and survive, they begin and flee and repair life-defining romances, they face the grown children they gave away when they were teenagers, they confront abusive parents, and they regularly betray one another and give each other the silent treatment and then finally make up and, are then, of course, stronger than ever. And every episode features at least two or three of these social bonding bonanzas.

The show knows its viewers, and it knows how to expertly play them. Even the rhythms of an episode follow the time tested rhythms of actual porn, the surgery scenes providing the necessary filler between the emotionally manipulative tease and the final, emotional money shots: when one surgical resident comforts her bestie, who has finally broken down in tears as Snow Patrol plays softly in the background; when a surgical attending who’s been avoiding her BFF finally shows up and makes legible the entirety of his devotion as the opening strains of a wistful Ingrid Michaelson song start up; when one surgical intern’s glance finds another’s, in mutual acknowledgment of their plight, over a tricuspid valve repair splayed between them on an operating table as the refrain of a melancholic single by The Fray swells. So, time and again, the characters bond, and we, the specially invited viewers, bond vicariously. Sure, it’s a poor substitute for the real thing — for having your own friends with whom to experience dramatic upheaval and then wordlessly, gratefully recognize. But human beings need friendship — even if it’s only vicarious.

II.

Oddly enough, social scientists aren’t all that sure why we should like having friends. That is, it doesn’t seem to provide the kind of adaptive benefits that other human relationships do. Familial and sexual relationships, of course, benefit our genetic line. And the tit for tat of exchange-based relationships we have with strangers and casual acquaintances — like the fruit vendor who cheerfully greets me every morning as I plunk down a quarter and help myself to a banana — makes it evident that both parties are serving themselves. None of this is true of friendship. Why we like riding double on bicycles and having platonic hang-outs in abandoned cabooses remains a mystery, evolutionarily speaking. As one social scientist has put it (in what has to be just about my favorite conclusion to an academic paper, ever): “The puzzle remains unresolved. None of our models of reciprocity can accommodate the psychology of human friendship.” She concedes, “As always, we need more data and better models.”

More data and better models indeed. I, for one, have been watching friendship porn again. Some recent backsliding into the genre, courtesy of Netflix streaming, has got me thinking. And while I won’t pretend to have resolved the evolutionary puzzle of human friendship, it seems quite clear what human needs friendship porn is appealing to. These are cartoonish depictions of friendship, for sure. But I think these prime time dramatizations actually tell us quite a bit.

First of all, damn it if these things don’t endure. The friendships at the center of all these shows — all the way from Laverne and Shirley to Cristina and Meredith of Grey’s Anatomy in its eighth season — just last and last. These friendships are what is there when the rubble of romantic, and even kin, relationships has cleared. “You’re my person,” Cristina and Meredith keep telling one another (as a youtube repository dedicated solely to these scenes can attest) when, say, McDreamy is dating a scrub nurse or one of them gets pregnant or stood up at the altar. Or think of Denny Crane and Alan Shore, still smoking cigars on the terrace through the very last season of Boston Legal. Or listen to the theme song from Friends.1

Boston Legal BalconyThese TV friendships endure, of course, because they’re not what propels the drama. Remember that Friends episode where Joey lands the job as Al Pacino’s butt double? He gets fired for over-acting, but he’s still hanging out with his friends in that improbably spacious Manhattan living room at the end of the episode. Or what about one of the billion times that Denny Krane is held in contempt of court and Alan Shore brings him a burger and a change of clothes in his jail cell? In truth, TV friendships are a static backdrop to the dramatic arc of a show. As is the case with other popular forms of narrative, like films and novels, the story itself is rarely just about friendship. This is because there’s no established course for a friendship to take, no telos for it to achieve. (Note that, while there’s such a thing as the “marriage plot” — a romance that ends with a couple finally coming together — there’s nothing called the “friendship plot.” Even traditional narrative doesn’t know what to do with friendship.)

Yet TV shows allow us a different experience of their friendships. Over the multiple episodes and years of a show's existence, the friendship has time to evolve — even to be explored. Even more importantly, I think, is that within the show, and for the viewer, that friendship is always there. It recurs and endures in real time — over the course of years — for the people who are watching at home. So in, say, Grey’s Anatomy, the emergency peripheral endarterectomies and the emotionally trying romances generate the drama, — the action — of the show. But the friendship porn — the comfortable scenes of hung-over medical interns eating cereal out of the box together, the trauma surgeons and the neurosurgeons and the cardio-thoracic surgeons taking long pulls from cold bottles of beer and playing softball together, the entire surgical staff inconceivably all at the same bar playing darts and contemplating their shots of tequila — is what’s still there when all the trauma has been surgically resolved.

So these shows, within and without, mimic the kind of constancy and stability that we need and want from a relationship. I mean, how reassuring to know that, even if you get fired from your coveted role as Al Pacino’s butt double, or held in contempt of court, your friends — as constant as the tides and any regularly scheduled television program — will still be there for you. Which brings up something else that friendship porn is picking up on.

In addition to stability, what these shows offer us in spades is a vision of unconditional acceptance. Kant, Seinfeld couch who may well be one of the most remarkable philosophers of all time, but whom I nevertheless find almost unrelentingly Spockian in his cold, rational analysis of stuff like beauty and the sublime and morality, writes with uncharacteristic warmth about this aspect of friendship: “Each of us needs a friend,” he says, “one in whom we can confide unreservedly, to whom we can disclose completely all our dispositions and judgments, from whom we can and need hide nothing, to whom we can communicate our whole self.” And isn’t this what friendship porn shows us? Think of Laverne and Shirley schlepping around in hair curlers and bathrobes as they chat, or Jerry pouring himself a bowl of shredded wheat while Elaine recounts the worst-case scenario of a blind date she just left. This is about as close to cinema verité as the average sitcom gets, in that the characters in these scenes are, ostensibly, being their unvarnished, at-home selves with one another. What they’re offering us is a vision of a relationship in which both people are accepted as the imperfect specimens they are.2

III

“O my friends, there is no friend,” Aristotle is supposed to have said at some point. People who write about friendship like to quote him. Kant, for instance, uses this declaration to support his unhappy theory that true friendship exists as an idea only — not a reality. And the opening credits of Laverne and Shirley surely don’t contradict him. But more significant is the level of acceptance and stability that these TV friends provide for one another. These friendships, astonishingly, survive narrowly-averted apocalypses and class action lawsuits, as well as countless passing romantic entanglements and, really, any number of B and C plots. Denny Krane agrees to chaperone Alan Shore’s somnambulist nights, and Alan puts up with Denny’s encroaching senility. The Sex and the City women (whose Sunday-brunching-with-friends scenes have filled many a heartfelt DIY youtube montage) accept each other’s assortment of caricaturish quirks. And, of course, there’s the friendship at the heart of Grey’s Anatomy, which seems to hinge on two medical residents’ laissez faire attitude toward the other’s neuroses.

We want this kind of acceptance and constancy. We need it. (Studies, say the social scientists, have found a strong association between companionship and well-being.) And so, regardless of how maudlin or narratively exhausted these shows may get, plenty of us are still warmed by the digital display of a hearth with other people around it. O my friends: this is why friendship porn is timeless!

_________________________________________

[1]

I'll be there for you, when the rain starts to pour.

I'll be there for you, like I've been there before.

I'll be there for you, 'cause you're there for me, too.

[2] See, again, the lyrics to the Friends theme:

No one could ever know me
No one could ever see me
Seems like you're the only one who knows
What it's like to be me.

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