It’s not even autumn, and it already feels like it’s going to be a stressful fall in popular culture. From the torture of the final episodes of Breaking Bad, to high-anxiety Oscar bait like Gravity, Captain Phillips, and Prisoners, the dominant mode of culture is tension. So to give us all a break, I thought I’d spend a couple of days considering a concept that television handles impressively, but that gets relatively little credit or discussion. The first post in this series, on male mentors and their female proteges, appears here.
For all that friendship is highly-valued on television shows, friend groups having replaced the nuclear family as the dominant unit in which lots of young adults who have moved to big cities from the suburbs or the country, there are an awful lot of characters on television who are awful at being friends to other people. To a certain extent, that makes sense. If friendships are going to be as high-stakes as romantic relationships, then people have to be incompatible, sometimes, they have to make egregious mistakes and awful decisions, they have to hurt each other, and ultimately, sometimes, they have to break up.
Where relationships end in breakups, sometimes friendships just drift, with terrible consequences. On The Bridge, serial killer David Tate’s reign of terror hasn’t just been inspired by the loss of his wife and son in a car accident on the Bridge of the Americas, but by his abandonment by his old friend, Mexican cop Marco Ruiz, who was having an affair with Tate’s wife when the accident took place, and who didn’t reach out to Tate even in the aftermath of her death. “Have you thought about me much, since my suicide?” Tate asks Marco, referring to the death he faked so he could begin his campaign of terror as revenge on all the people he believed contributed to his wife’s death in the accident. “You knew I was crumbling, right? After she died? Shrink had me hooked on pills, the FBI fired me…But not one phone call.”
For all the show’s stew of politics, journalism, police work, serial murder, refuges for abused women in the desert, and socialites from Tampa, that conversation about friendship is the emotional climax of the first season of The Bridge, and its theme of friendship carries into tonight’s episode. Tate’s a madman–I’d say he’s a psychopath, but he’s overwhelmed by feelings instead of devoid of them–but he’s also an illustration of how fragile and isolated it’s possible to become in middle age. If building a family is supposed to be your priority as an adult, what happens when that family is ripped away from you, and your grief is so messy and all-consuming that people back away from you, or medicate you, rather than reaching out to you. It’s not just that Marco, who had good reason to feel guilty about his relationship with Tate even before Tate’s wife died on the way home from a tryst with Marco, backed away from Tate. The man appears to have had no other friends either. The game he’s played throughout the first season of The Bridge, one that’s claimed the lives of Mexican immigrants, a judge, and a party girl from Juarez in addition to the people involved in his wife’s death, is, in a perverse sense, as much about reengaging Tate’s friendship with Marco as having revenge on him. If Marco couldn’t spare time for Tate when Tate needed support most, Tate will force Marco to give him time and attention now.
And for someone like Sonya, who has difficulty connecting to people even under normal circumstances, Tate’s a dangerous example of what it’s possible to become if you don’t give yourself ballast in the form of other people. Spending too much time along with yourself, without regular exercise of being good to other people and taking their thoughts and needs into consideration can turn you into Gollum.
Something similar, and on a smaller scale, happens in the second season of Louie during the episode “Eddie.” Louie himself may be an awkward person who doesn’t have his entire life figured out, but when he reconnects with an old friend, Eddie Mack, it becomes clear that even his moderate success has been enough for him to leave some people behind along the way. Eddie is one of those people: he and Louie haven’t been in touch in years, and Louie’s memories of him are blurred. He doesn’t recall how talented Eddie is, or the particular way in which Eddie is talented, an abrasive, specific approach that means that Eddie will probably never reach Louie’s level of professional achievement.
It’s not entirely clear why their friendship withered, but there’s some implication that Louie left it to die on the vine. But Eddie’s reaching out is, to a certain extent, a vindictive act. He’s contemplating not just giving up comedy, but attempting suicide, and he wanted some form of goodbye to mark the occasion, rather than simply disappearing. Maybe he wants to be stopped. Maybe he wants someone to feel so bad about the prospect that Eddie might die, and die at his own hand. The reasons he’s picked Louie to be this person aren’t entirely clear. Maybe Louie’s the last person available that Eddie could reach out to and expect some sort of reasonable commitment of time and energy in response. Maybe Eddie wants to punish Louie for having been successful, for the basic unfairness of the world.
In any case, it’s an unsettling illustration that, however much of a sad sack Louie might be, his basic ability to form connections, even flawed ones, to people like Pamela, the flares of bright enthusiasm that lead him to reach out to people like his great aunt Ellen, no matter how badly those encounters can go, is literally life-saving. Louie isn’t necessarily responsible for whether Eddie kills himself or not. It’s true that some people are difficult to be friends with, just as some grief is hard to absorb. But that doesn’t make Eddie’s vanishing off so many people’s radar, his feeling of himself to be inessential, any less tragic.
But it’s not just the relationships that fade away that do great harm to the people who are in them. Two of the most damaging friendships I can think of on television both come in comedies, both in circumstances where friendships have gone on much longer than they should.
The first is the one between Marnie and Hannah in Girls. The characters are young enough to believe that friendships are different from romantic relationships in one essential way–relationships can end, but friendships are, in a way that gets embedded in us in elementary school, forever. If Marnie and Hannah were dating, they might have broken up in college. But instead, their friendship has progressed into young adulthood, even as they’ve developed very different needs than the ones they had when they met, and ended up with mismatched resources to offer each other.
In their climactic fight in the first season of the show, both Hannah and Marnie are correct about each other when they lash out. Marnie is status-seeking and anxious about having a boyfriend, and Hannah is immensely self-righteous but refuses to take responsibility for things large, like the rent, and small, like the yogurt she keeps stealing from Marnie. What Marnie needs is affirmation about something other than her looks, someone to encourage her that she can achieve everything that she wants, including the “luxury rental” Hannah accuses her of coveting, on her own, and to remind her that a boyfriend, even one capable of turning his minuscule studio into a loft, won’t actually make her feel stable. And Hannah, who is trying to make it as a writer, needs to reckon with the fact that she’s operating in a broken system, one that values the ability to write compelling words less than the ability to arrange them in Photoshop, and one that has more interest in breaking her so she can provide a short-term burst of material than in nurturing her into a long and productive career. Neither of them is capable of providing these things to the other, not when Hannah is painting Marnie’s desires as hopelessly bourgeois to guard against the fact that she wants the same things for herself, and not when Marnie is worn down by the stress of providing for Hannah as if she were a lover or a child:
The scene is very funny, but it hurts because it’s true, and true to these scenarios where everyone is simultaneously right about each other and hugely unfair. And the second season of Girls suggests that all for Hannah and Marnie fancy their promise and their pain unique, they’ll probably settle into the compromise that afflicts so many former best friends, a truce that depends on leaving certain things unspoken. Some friendships can be a lot like a marriage that both participants have agreed to save after all.
A harsher, maler version of this sort of equilibrium exists on FX’s The League, particularly in the group of friends treatment of Andre, an awkward surgeon with poor social skills and an unfortunate weakness for trends who has settled into the role of the circle–and the show’s–goat. “Nobody can love Andre the way we love Andre, and we can’t stand Andre,” Ruxin, a lawyer with his own set of insecurities who’s probably saved from utter dorkiness by Andre’s membership in their fantasy football league, explains. Paul Scheer, who plays Andre with remarkable gameness, has put the character through everything from developing breasts after eating too much soy to an engagement to an interior decorator with epically horrendous taste, played by Jayma Mays.
As awkward as Andre is as a creation, I’ve often found the utter callousness the other characters on The League display towards him deeply uncomfortable, particularly as the show’s worn on, and Andre’s failed to advocate more effectively for himself or to find allies within the group. But his character gets at a difficult truth: sometimes even bad friends can be worth holding on to. In one memorable third-season episode, the characters tried to pass an irritatingly trendy hanger-on who seemed like he might be a perfect companion for Andre on to him–and the man blew off Andre to keep trying to hang out with his other friends instead. The best that Andre may be able to hope for from the group is his tentative relationship with Jenny and Pete, who are willing to tolerate him, in part because he’s good with their daughter, Ellie–though even they have done cruel things to him, like invite Pete and a remarkably vicious date along on a dinner Andre planned for them as a thank-you. But being part of something, even if it’s not always comfortable or rewarding, is often better than being alone. And whether he’s realized it or not, Andre’s settled for the League in a way that says more about the members of his circle than it actually does about him.
The League, at least, has the courtesy to recognize that the way its putative friends treat each other is often horrifying, unlike the hit How I Met Your Mother, in which a group of friends who pressure each other, disregard each other’s interests, interfere in each other’s lives, and reinforce each other’s worst habits is held up as some sort of ideal. Friendships, because they have lower standards for the kind of behavior that’s deemed unacceptable, paired with the expectation that they’ll last and survive any and all insults, can actually do much more damage over time than more transient romantic liaisons. When Hannah and Marnie quibble over who is “the wound” in their relationship, they’re fighting in terms that easily could apply to lovers. But on television as in life friendships can hang on just as long, and pose just as great a risk of infection and permanent damage.