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. The second, on bad friends, appears here.
If When Harry Met Sally posited that men and women can’t really be friends, there’s a bit of an assumption that women aren’t really friends, either, that we’re all secretly in competition with each other over men, social status, and the last pair of awesome shoes at the sample sale. But if women are supposed to be catty, forming temporary alliances with each other rather than lasting friendships based in meaningful affection, the portrait of male friendship that appear in many television shows suggest a different kind of anxiety. Rather than in competition with other men they see as equals, friendships between men on TV are often unbalanced, whether geeks are looking up to successful executives, cops are discovering that they’re actually reasonably fond of nerds, or in larger groups, the understanding of who’s most successful or admirable is constantly shifting. If your boys are supposed to come before the women in your life, that equation doesn’t actually do much to simplify the complicated relationships between men who care about each other.
I wrote yesterday about The League‘s treatment of Andre, the plastic surgeon who is the goat of a group of male friends (and one of their wives) who play fantasy football together. But one of the things that’s fascinating about the show is how anxious all the members, with the exception of Jenny MacArthur, feel in relation to each other, and the extent to which the weekly matchups in the fantasy football league are a proxy for renegotiating the social heirarchy of their group.
Andre may be clearly at the bottom, but it’s not as if it’s ever clear who’s on top. Kevin MacArthur, the former commissioner of the league, might have the best case for a consistent level of happiness: he’s married to Jenny, who shares his sense of humor, his affection for their sons, his inability to resist a prank or a dramatic gesture, and his love of football. But he’s flatulent and fussy, eager to advance his career by running for judge, a campaign he self-sabotages when he insists on including his friends (who he also lets name his youngest son Chalupa Batman). Kevin’s eagerness to please is less mis-calibrated than Andre’s, but it still gets him in trouble. Rodney Ruxin, like Kevin, a reasonably successful lawyer, is married to a beautiful woman named Sofia, but unlike Kevin, he’s less than confident about his ability to keep her happy, and he reacts badly to criticism from his father, and the crazed aggression of his brother-in-law Rafi. Pete, who gets divorced in the first season of The League, tends to act as if he’s enjoying single life, but it becomes clear in the fourth season that being alone and rejected by even an exceptionally unpleasant women he’s dating has left him curdled and vulnerable. It’s nice to be wanted, a little bit, by a lot of people, but it turns out for Pete that it’s not quite the same thing as being wanted a lot by one person. The happiest male member of the league is probably Kevin’s spectacularly oblivious, open-hearted brother Taco, who’s constantly bouncing between business schemes and different women’s beds, but the amount of marijuana and tolerance for extremely precarious living situations it takes for him to live that way is probably not something that any of his friends are willing or able to tolerate.
The way the members of the league treat each other can be exceptionally cruel to each other, and it’s a dynamic that’s worn on me as the seasons have progressed. But it’s always interesting to see the limits of their perpetual efforts to position each other as slightly better off than someone else in the league. Watching Pete and Kevin drive around with the trophy for their fantasy league, the Shiva, mounted on the top of Pete’s car on a late, wintry Chicago night is a reminder that the guys are still capable of goofy, silly fun that’s an escape from the pressures and anxieties of adulthood. And watching Pete, who can be one of the nastiest characters on the show, be genuinely touched by Andre’s decompensation after the members of the League contributed to his broken engagement, is an illustration of what these guys might do for each other if they were confident enough to be truly vulnerable around each other, and truly of service to each other.
The League, for all of its bodily humor jokes and deeply unfortunate casual homophobia, can be more honest and interesting about its characters’ arrested development and the impact it has on them than a similar hang-out show, Entourage. It’s never entirely clear to me how self-aware Entourage‘s gender politics were, but the show was a fascinating stew of anxiety and contradiction, some of it never fully developed.
The central conceit of Entourage baked an inequality between the characters into the show that’s only informal on The League. Vincent Chase may not impose many demands on his friends and family, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re financially dependent on him. Johnny Drama’s anxious to make himself useful, a worry compounded by the languishing state of his own career, taking a serious approach to cooking and cleaning the home Vince shares with his friends as a way to make sure Vince knows that he’s earning his keep. For a significant portion of the show, Vince is Eric’s only client, and there’s an extent to which giving Eric is his business is a way for Vince to keep Eric feeling busy, a subsidy to Eric’s theoretical career as an agent. It takes Turtle much longer to develop a sense that he might want to do something with his life other than roll joints for everyone, but once he does, it’s actually relatively sweet to watch him try college and a tequila business, though it’s somewhat self-defeating that Vince ends up rescuing him financially in the end. There’s a certain acquiescence at the finale of the show, a sense that the boys will always be riding Vince’s coattails to a certain extent, but that it’s a lot more comfortable to do so from the seat of a private jet.
Ari, by contrast, is an independent operator, even if Vince is his most significant client. But it’s revealing that he feels a need to be cool around these much younger men, even though he’s powerful in a way that ought to render their exploits relatively childish. Maybe the best conceit that Entourage ever had was the idea that Ari felt compelled to imply that he regularly cheated on his wife, including telling Eric that he was dating a swimsuit model, when in reality, he was actually faithful. In fact, Ari tended to be lost without a monogamous relationship, particularly one that involved fairly deep emotional commitment. When he and his wife separated, Ari’s first attempt at dating a new woman is a disaster: he’s awkward and anxious rather than some sort of suave ladies’ man. Rather than continuing to try, he reunites with his ex-girlfriend and frequent business collaborator, Dana Gordon, attempting a relationship that would have been substantially more professionally balanced and intellectually intense than his marriage to Melissa, who largely stopped working once the two were married. Ari’s devotion to his family may be the place that the boys in Vince’s entourage arrive at after years of messing around in Hollywood–Eric ends the series with Sloan McQuewick in part because she’s pregnant, and Johnny Drama’s shown to be more susceptible to the appeal of monogamy than he might suggest publicly. But it’s telling that as part of the image he feels compelled to maintain, Ari spends a great deal of time denigrating the thing and some of the values that are most important to him.
The anxiety of relative cool pervades even relationships between television men with lower-stakes relationships. In Victor Fresco’s gone-too-soon comedy Better Off Ted, which is set at a hilariously evil corporation, the rise of nerd culture hasn’t made the nerds in question, a pair of research scientists named Phil and Lem, any more secure about their relationship with Ted, the suave, suit-wearing corporate honcho who is their boss, but who also likes them more than they realize. Phil, who’s unhappily married, and Lem, who has a comparatively minor way with the ladies, are best friends who occasionally get on each other’s nerves, but they’re united in their admiration for Ted, and anxiety about the prospect that he’s too awesome to actually be bothered with the likes of them. The truth, though, is that Ted isn’t as together as he seems. He’s divorced, nervous about whether he’s doing right by his daughter Rose, has an unsettled relationship with his boss, the terrifying Veronica, with whom he’s had sex, and nurses a crush on his coworker Linda that he can’t quite figure out. And Phil and Lem have a lot more to offer Ted than they realize, whether they’re coming up with brilliant potential products for their deeply insane corporate overlords, building a gorgeous, biologically engineered roof garden for Veronica, or generally acting as bastions of sanity within Veridian Dyanmics’ warped corporate culture. Lem and Phil’s anxiety, more than any of their social quirks or their actual occupations, is what’s holding them back from having a better friendship with Ted.
Similarly, Parks and Recreation‘s funniest take on male friendships operates from a relative position of equality between men who occupy two drastically opposed poles: the ultra-traditional but subversively feminist masculinity of Ron Swanson, and the hyper-fit, hyper-modern, and generally hyper approach of Chris Trager. While the two men are wildly different, one a pork-eating, isolationist libertarian with a dour outlook on much of modern life, the other a vegetarian exercise fanatic whose enthusiasm can border on the slightly insane, Ron and Chris have forged an uneasy friendship that makes for a fascinating, balanced contrast.
Part of what distinguishes Ron and Chris from each other is their approaches to making new friends. Ron’s skeptical of new people, teaching the boys on his basketball team that they only need a limited number of good friends, because “one to three is sufficient.” He tends to need other people to prove themselves to him–Ron tried to have Leslie Knope fired four times before they settle into a productive professional collaboration and a dear friendship, his skepticism of Tom Haverford and his business ideas means that when he finally confers his approval on the younger man, it’s especially meaningful–and to dispense affection with particular care even after someone’s earned his approval. Chris, by contrast, is almost as much of a golden retriever of a human being as junior city employer Andy Dwyer: everyone he meets is potentially his next best friend.
They’re not visibly compatible, even if they first met when Chris arrived in town to slash the Pawnee government, an occasion that makes Ron actively giddy. Ron isdriven absolutely bananas by Chris’ penchant for veggie burgers rather than steaks, his belief that a vegetable loaf is an appropriate substitute for cake, or his modern management techniques, like trapping Ron in a circular desk. Ron may even steal women out from under Chris’s nose, like Andy’s women’s studies professor. But Chris is probably the closest thing Ron has to a male friend who’s a peer, rather than a casual mentee or a surrogate son. He’s even good at some things Chris values and loves even if Ron doesn’t know it, as we discover when Chris drags him to meditation and Ron’s capable of emptying his mind at a moment’s notice. Ron may find Chris irritating and inexplicable, but it turns out that in their self-discipline, belief in self-improvement, and affection for their various odd hobbies, their visions of masculinity aren’t particularly in conflict after all. Each man is self-confident enough in his view of the best route to the good life, and other than the occasional barbecue where the menu is the subject of dispute, they’re only occasionally irritated, rather than actively threatened by each other’s preferences and life choices.
And one of the reasons I find Freaks and Geeks‘ sole, perfect season so endearing and enduring is that, in its portrait of the friendship between Neal, Bill, and Sam, it captures young men at at the moment when their relationship could go in two different directions, turning them into uneasy competitors, or into men who are very different, but still very comfortable with each other. Over the course of the season, Sam, who begins the show as an irredeemable geek, discovers that, if he wants to, he might be able to level up and become more popular, especially when he begins dating Cindy Sanders. It’s a remarkable moment when Sam’s able to turn his back on the social capital that comes with dating Cindy because he simply doesn’t like her. But the show implies that Sam may have to face these kinds of choices again and again and his life, and that even if he’s loyal to his friends, a gap may, inevitably open up between him and them. Girls may create their own social pressures and hierarchies, and reinforce them with exceptional cruelty. But boys and men are no less susceptible to the fear that the people they care about most are the ones who are most capable of reflecting their failures back at them.