David Brooks is right that there are an exceptional number of very good sitcoms about friendship on television these days. Emily Nussbaum is also correct that the last several seasons of television have breathed new and energetic life into the family sitcom. But I think where both of them are somewhat wrong is that they’re drawing distinctions between friendship and family that are less relevant than they were in the early days of television. Brooks writes:
With people delaying marriage and childbearing into their 30s, young people now spend long periods of their lives outside of traditional families, living among diverse friendship tribes. These friendship networks are emotionally complicated and deeply satisfying — ripe ground for a comedy of manners.
But I think there’s a bit more to it than this. If family is both the people who are supposed to support you no matter what, but also the people you have to put up with no matter what, I think family relationships and friendships may be closer than they’ve been before.
Take the friends in Community. They tend to operate in a context relatively devoid of family ties, to the extent that Troy is living with Pierce even though he presumably has parents somewhere. The study group actively participates in helping Shirley spend more time with her children. The group provides both support to Abed in pursuing a filmmaking career and the checks and correctives on that ambition his family can’t really provide because they’ve written off participating in that part of his life. Troy, Abed and Annie chloroform a janitor for Jeff. These behaviors, and the emotional investment the characters have in each other, aren’t just a substitute for family ties—they’re a replacement for them.
On 30 Rock, Jack and Liz aren’t married, and they’re not related, but they’re tremendously formative and supportive figures in each others’ lives. On Bones, Angela and Brennan are sisters, people who are committed to their relationship even if they substantially hurt or misunderstand each other. Why are those relationships functionally different from ones formalized by blood or a legal ceremony? And in the real world, this is true for people whose families aren’t crazy Florida Irishwomen, or on-the-run criminals. The friend whose wedding you stand up at can be just as close as a sibling or cousin without dysfunction, or anger, or distance in the family to create some sort of balancing equivalence. Television’s just captured our expanding understanding of family, especially for people who aren’t married, or choose not to marry, or have had marriages that don’t work out.