You've Got To Have Friends: How Curated Families Shook Up TV Comedy
This week at Monkey See, we're looking at friendship in pop culture. We begin with a consideration of how half-hour comedies shifted away from being almost exclusively family- or work-focused.
Until the late 1980s, television comedy assumed that there were two kinds of social groups that really mattered to a person: her family and the people she worked with. So you had family shows (The Cosby Show, Father Knows Best, All In The Family) and workplace shows (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, MASH, Taxi). Shows about groups of friends existed, obviously, but they took the form of workplace shows, for the most part, or they were structured just like family shows, like Three's Company or The Golden Girls, with all the action around the kitchen table.
Beginning in 1989, Seinfeld got lots of credit for being a show about nothing, but it was also a then-rare example of a show that wasn't about a family and wasn't about people who worked together or went to school together. The Facts Of Life is structurally a workplace show, after all. It wasn't even about people who were pushed together because they favored the same bar. It was just about a bunch of friends.
And then in the fall of 1994, Friends itself premiered and the gates seemed to open. Not just all the Friends rip-offs, but Sex And The City, and How I Met Your Mother, and now the terrific Happy Endings all follow this model. It's a little different from the traditional workplace sitcom full of goofy characters who had home lives and families you rarely saw. These are people who don't have another primary connection they go home to; they are people who, while they may couple up from time to time, are primarily connected to their friends. Those are their most emotionally intimate relationships.
It makes a certain amount of demographic sense. People move away from home well before they're married. They change jobs, they get married later and divorced more frequently. Many of us, for some part of our lives, will be relying not on our families of origin and not on the families we form with partners or long relationships with people we work with, but on one of these assembled collections of people picked up along the way. Not a birth family or a married family or a fortuitous work-based family, but a collected and curated family.
Building a show around friends has some structural advantages; friendships are precious specifically because they are fragile. You're not bound to these people by law or by blood (in most cases), and you don't share a home with them or share your stuff with them (again, in most cases). You have to keep choosing them every day, and on any given day, you could just ... not choose them, and that would be that. I once had a friend very tentatively, in hushed tones, acknowledge that there is a way — one particular dimension, one kind of sense of intimacy — in which your closest friends are closer than family, and I think that's what was meant. You don't have to file anything to dump your friends; the barriers to exit, you might say, are very low. Your mom is supposed to like you; your friends just do.
Chandler and Joey's friendship cracked a couple of times on Friends (remember when Adam Goldberg moved in?), and Barney and Ted's did the same on HIMYM. You would never have believed that, say, Alex and Mallory Keaton were really going to stop seeing each other at dinner; it's not really something families like that do. But friends? Friends do sometimes step substantially away from each other, which means that if your show likes to do character stuff, the stakes can be paradoxically higher with friends than they are with family. Bad stuff can happen; it all matters.
With that said, my favorite friendship show right now is indeed Happy Endings, which doesn't mine the fragility of its friendships as much as it does the fact that the entire group seems to exist in one absurdist world that nobody else can ever even really visit. Dates, bosses, people on the street — they don't really live where the rest of the group lives. Their references are shared, their history is so integrated that they seem to have been born at adjoining beds in the same hospital, and they're all deeply, deeply weird in the same way. The deeply silly tone of the show binds them, just like the antisocial vibe of Seinfeld joined those characters in crass and selfish honesty.