The XX Factor

Playing House Is OK. But Realistic Female Friendships Don’t Actually Make for Great TV.

Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham in the first episode of Playing House.

USA Network

Tuesday night, USA debuted the pilot of its new sitcom, Playing House, in which two childhood friends forgo their romantic and professional commitments in order to team up to raise a baby together. Fans of stars (and real-life BFFs) Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham will recognize the show as a reboot of Best Friends Forever, the pair’s first stab at a buddy comedy, which ran from 2011–2012 on NBC. The reunion is a relief to the Atlantic’s Julie Beck, who has recognized a dearth of funny and relatable female friends on television. On TV, Beck writes, “these friendships get less screen time than the Big Romances—the one true pairings, the will-they/won’t-theys, the supposed real reason viewers tune in.” But in life, “the most consistent, central relationships of my life thus far have been with my female friends,” Beck writes. “More than the men I’ve dated, often more than my family, they have nourished and challenged me, pushed me to take positive risks, shown me the depth of compassion people are capable of.”

Playing House might be a respectable entry into the women’s friendship comedy, but it’s not exactly an anomaly—female friendships are also front and center in HBO’s Girls, Comedy Central’s Broad City, and even Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black (not that those women have much of a choice). This is good news for female performers and fans of the Bechdel test. But there’s a reason that many sitcoms still focus on women’s relationships with their men or their jobs, while their relationships with one another are relegated to B-stories. Setting aside the obvious—Hollywood recoils at having too many ladies dominating the screen—great female friendships aren’t plot-heavy. Female friendships are indeed, as Beck notes, consistent, positive, and compassionate. Platonic relationships between women aren’t typically complicated by the problems that plague romantic, family, and work relationships. Friends can go for months (or years!) without seeing one another and still stay close. Unlike in dating relationships, sexual attraction isn’t an issue in most female friendships, and unlike in the workplace, friends aren’t forced into close proximity even if they don’t get along. There’s no “will-they-or-won’t-they” in these solid foundations. That makes them necessary for life, but not necessarily compelling as a central conflict for storytelling.

Perhaps that’s why many of the recent TV shows that have focused on female friendships have written their platonic pairings to be more like romantic or work relationships. In Playing House, the lifelong best friends are reunited after a pregnant Parham kicks her cheating husband out of the house, and St. Clair quits her job to help care for her—giving Parham a new spousal figure and St. Clair a new gig (and the show its winking title). Best Friends Forever sparked from a similar premise, with the roles reversed—when St. Clair’s husband serves her divorce papers, she moves back in with Parham (and her live-in boyfriend). This year’s six-episode HBO comedy Doll & Em relies on a similar conceit—when Dolly Wells has a bad breakup with her boyfriend in London, childhood friend and movie star Emily Mortimer hires her as her assistant in Hollywood, setting them up as romantic and professional rivals. These shows are about how taking on the role of spouse, boss, and employee upsets the balance of a rock-solid friendship. (The device is not new: The Golden Girls moved in together when they all became widows or divorcées, and the show ended when Dorothy moved out to remarry; Laverne and Shirley were co-workers; Ann and Leslie’s friendship on Parks and Recreation was cemented into the show’s plot when nurse Ann nonsensically took a job alongside Leslie in local government.)

Even when these roles are not assumed so explicitly, comedies that focus on female friendships tend to exaggerate the loving and the fighting in a way that can make them difficult to relate to. Friendships are cemented with displays of physical intimacy—in the pilot of Playing House, St. Clair casually gropes Parham’s breasts; early in HBO’s Girls, Hannah and Marnie bathe together. (Comedy Central’s Broad City, meanwhile, exaggerates this trope to hilarious effect: Ilana is constantly attempting to make out with her best friend, Abbi, who’s not into it.) Female friends on TV also often serve as vessels for romantic and professional conflict—the Girls resent one another’s successes and sleep with one anothers’ exes—that rarely manifests itself so dramatically in meaningful real-life pairings.

I guess it’s conceivable that the post-college girls of Girls would find their friendships consumed with petty slights, but their model—which leaves you cringing more than nodding along—isn’t one I’d want to replicate in my adult relationships. I’ve found that the more ancillary female friendships that crop up on TV (Jess and Cece in New Girl, Leslie and Ann in Parks and Recreation) are often more relatable expressly because they don’t dominate the characters’ lives—they’re steady, but they’re not all-consuming. If the friendships we hold up as TV’s “greatest” require us to divorce our husbands, quit our jobs, and move in together—and thus transfer all of our problems onto one another—in order to constitute a meaningful relationship, then few real women have any female friends at all.

There’s a way to portray realistic female friendships in comedy without leveraging them as sources of drama, but it requires a rare reconfiguring of the sitcom’s typical conceit (put a bunch of volatile personalities in close quarters to achieve maximum spark). In Sex and the City, the four friends’ suspiciously consistent brunch schedule was a device—but a successful one—for exploring how each woman navigated her own career and love life and came back to process it all with her friends. The drama for the show came from love and work; the friendship was a source of organization, relief, and consistency, which is more in keeping with how friendships actually function. The women of SATC didn’t serve as one another’s spouses or boyfriends—they all had those too, just like many of us do in real life. And in Broad City, one of the most delightful shows about female friendships in recent memory, Abbi and Ilana’s connection is so taken for granted that it becomes a part of the show’s scenery, instead of a source of material for a conflict that needs to be resolved every half-hour.