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. For the next four days, I’ll be talking about about all the different ways shows handle an important idea: friendship.
Ever since Harry (Billy Crystal) insisted that men and women couldn’t really be friends, and When Harry Met Sally set out to prove him right, and ever since Sam and Diane fought and flirted their way around every nook and cranny of Sam’s bar in Cheers, pop culture’s settled on the consensus that the highest ideal any relationship between a man and a woman can arrive at is to turn into a romance. But the past decade of television’s slowly begun developing a strong alternative to this model, and an argument that friendships between men and women can be just as important as, and complimentary to, romantic and sexual relationships. Instead of falling into bed, men and women are falling into conference rooms, offices, the sets of sketch comedy shows, and even midwestern parks. Rather than romantic partners, a new breed of shows argues, one of the richest relationships between a man and a woman can be as a mentor and a mentee.
Given the vibrance and depth of their eventual relationship, it’s easy to forget that Jack Donaghy first looked at Liz Lemon and saw her as a nuisance in his larger effort to reform NBC, an opportunity to prove his mastery of demographics by diagnosing Liz as “a New York third-wave feminist, college-educated, single-and-pretending-to-be-happy-about-it, over-scheduled, undersexed, you buy any magazine that says ‘healthy body image’ on the cover and every two years you take up knitting for … a week.” It wasn’t until two-thirds of the way through the first season of 30 Rock for Jack to formally offer to be Liz’s mentor, telling her “Lemon, I would like to teach you something. I would like to be Michelle Pfeiffer to your angry black kid who learns that poetry is just another way to rap,” and then she did something surprising — she turned him down.
But when they overcome their antagonism, Liz and Jack moved from subordinate and suit, to mentee and mentor, and then to a truly equal friendship because they had things to offer each other, and to learn from each other. Jack was correct that Liz would feel more secure if she took a more proactive approach to her finances so she didn’t end up like Rosemary Howard, that she’d take pleasure out of investing in real estate that turned out to give her enough space to welcome a husband and two adopted children, that she deserved better than to date idiots like Dennis Duffy, and that at work, she needed to take control of her writers’ room and actors. Liz’s contributions to Jack’s evolution towards were more episodic and eccentric. They first overcame their mutual distrust when Liz helped Jack overcome his extreme stage fright, a situation he’d brought upon himself by insisting that he be cast in one of TGS’ skits. And she continued to serve as a reminder that a little anarchy can be a lifesaver, whether Liz’s leveraging of personal information and shame was proving valuable in contract negotiations with TGS cast members, or she was stripping down to distract participants at a Six Sigma convention from one of Jack’s missteps.
As a result, 30 Rock became a wonderful illustration of the dual powers of maturity and silliness, and a terrific argument for the particular value of mentoring relationships to the people who are involved in them. It would have been easy for 30 Rock to default to a will-they-or-won’t-they relationships between Jack and Liz. But the show repeatedly reinforced that Jack and Liz got more out of their friendship than they ever would out of a romantic liaison. When Jack gets engaged to Phoebe, the awful, deceptive Christie’s auctioneer played by Emily Mortimer, Liz is able to intervene to break them up precisely because she’s an honest broker, someone who has Jack’s best interests as a whole person at heart and nothing to gain from the end of their relationship other than the pleasure she takes in Jack’s happiness. When Avery Jessup, who Jack marries and later divorces, is threatened by Jack’s relationship with Liz, Jack explains that his relationship with his mentee and friend is entirely distinct from what he gets out of his love for Avery. “She’s more than that. I don’t choose my mentees lightly,” Jack explains. “They have to have the drive and ambition to be worth my time. The intelligence to understand the challenges they’re going to face. The humility to accept my help. And finally, a life that is a bottomless swamp of chaos.”
And when Liz finds a partner of her own, the hot dog vendor Criss Chros, Jack learns something about the limits of mentorship, suspending his judgement of what should make Liz happy in favor of what actually does. It’s no mistake that when Liz and Criss get married, Jack is the only person she actually likes who attends the ceremony. The conclusion of the mentorship phase of their relationship, and their transition into full friendship, is probably the moment when Liz takes on a mentee of her own, Hazel the Page, making Jack a Grandmentor. Liz has to learn the same set of lessons that Jack did, accepting that she can’t just order Hazel to make good life decisions, and that taking on the younger woman means pushing her own boundaries, though I can’t see her actually accompanying Hazel to a bathhouse. At their best, mentor-mentee relationships are about giving both partners enough stability to embrace the inevitable lunacy of life, whether that means Liz welcoming the chaos of her work into her home life by adopting twins, or Jack sailing off to seek his fortune, and coming back home again.
Not all relationships between bosses and employees involve such radical growth. Instead, sometimes even fully formed grownups need a mentor or a mentee who can reign them in on the margins, and to help them enjoy small things that they might otherwise resist. Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation fall into this category. They’re dramatically different people whose relationship, like Jack and Liz’s, could have stalled in antipathy: Ron repeatedly tried to have Leslie fired early in her tenure at the Parks Department. And once they got beyond that initial — and unknown to Leslie — dislike, their working relationship could have stopped at the fact that they’re convenient for each other: Leslie’s enthusiasm for work means that Ron, who is highly libertarian, has to do almost nothing at the office, while Ron’s antipathy to government programs means that Leslie has free reign to do almost anything she wants with the Parks Department. But rather than existing in that equilibrium, Ron and Leslie have become invested in making each other happier where there’s room in their personalities to do so.
Leslie’s enthusiasm sometimes means that she takes on too much, get panicked, and breaks down. Ron’s contribution to Leslie’s happiness is often to disrupt her anxious cycles, and to encourage her to makes reasonable, though not unprincipled, compromises. He’s there for little things, like caning a chair during Leslie’s miserable telethon slot, or insisting that Leslie get revivifying sleep so she won’t be convinced that she’s a failure in “Camping.” At April and Andy’ wedding, Ron is the one person who’s able to convince Leslie that she can’t micromanage the two young employees’ lives when they decide to get married after only a month of dating, and convinces her to enjoy the spectacle and be happy for her friends, rather than ruining the party and her memories of the event by interfering. And when Leslie overwhelms herself by trying to campaign for City Council full time while also staying on top of every part of her job at the Parks department, Ron is the one person who can convince Leslie that she has to cut back, in part because he’s known for his devotion to a thing well done, even if that thing isn’t necessarily something he believes in.
One of the reasons Ron and Leslie’s relationship is so strong is that despite their dramatically different political beliefs and personal styles, they’re both deep believers in self-reliance, but their difficulty accepting help manifests itself in different ways. It doesn’t tend to occur to Leslie that she needs help because she’s an optimistic perfectionist, confident in her own capabilities to an extent that it’s literally difficult for her to see when she’s reached the edge of her capacity. For Ron, however, asking for assistance or allowing someone else to be nice is unseemly because it’s a form of intimacy that violates his carefully contained sense of self — it’s no mistake that “Self-Reliance: Trust yourself,” “Suspicion: Do not trust anyone else,” and “Friends: One to three is sufficient” all appear on the Swanson Pyramid of Greatness. In other words, Leslie’s constantly looking for ways she can stretch out and serve other people to the extent that she forgets others can do the same for her, while Ron is so vigilant about remaining impervious to the world that he often excludes things that would make him happy, or foregoes assistance he actually needs.
Leslie is one of the few people to whom Ron can acknowledge that he’s powerless, or from whom he can accept kind gestures. It’s characteristic of Leslie that she’d enter herself in a prairie drinkoff for Ron’s independence with his mother and first ex-wife Tammy, characteristic of Ron that he’s able to accept her as a champion in a way that no one else would be able to stand for him, and characteristic of their relationship that Ron intervenes on Leslie’s behalf when she’s overestimates her capacity for moonshine, giving Ron an excuse to act on his own behalf. Leslie’s the person who’s consistently willing and able to throw herself between Ron and his second ex-wife Tammy, too, whether she’s showing up to bail him out of jail, or committing herself to a multi-venue throwdown with Tammy so Ron has a chance to escape a party with Diane, the true love of his life. And in one of the sweetest parts of their tart dynamic, Leslie often teases Ron by threatening to give him presents or parties before giving him surprises that are on his terms, like an evening with Scotch, steak, and his favorite Westerns, or a particularly apt celebration that show sup in the show’s sixth-season premiere. Where Liz and Jack are engaged in an outright war about what vision of life is best, and exchange substantial territory over the course of 30 Rock’s seven-season run, Ron and Leslie maintain more cordial diplomatic relations with set borders, but are no less influential in each other’s lives for not needing to change each other in any dramatic way.
It’s interesting to contrast these two healthy mentor-mentee or employer-employee relationships in comedy with drama, which has given us two rich, toxic relationships between men and women in recent years: the rise and fall of Don Draper and Peggy Olson’s creative collaboration on Mad Men, and the fraught, loving partnership of Saul Berenson and Carrie Mathison on Homeland.
The relationship between Don and Peggy could have been disastrous in one direction: when Peggy first begins working for Don as a secretary, she makes a pass at him on the advice of her boss, Joan Holloway. Don rebuffs her gently. At the beginning, it seems that Don is a good mentor. He gives Peggy the opportunity to work on ad campaigns outside of her secretarial work, hires her as a junior copywriters, and in a startling act of commitment, tracks her down in the hospital after she gives birth to a baby she didn’t know she was pregnant with, and encourages her to do whatever it takes to get out of the mental ward where she’s being held. The advice he gives her is strikingly intimate, and as the audience knows, drawn from his own life: “Peggy, listen to me, get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” But the fact that Don only tells Peggy the lesson of his life and not how he arrived at it sets the pattern for the rest of their relationship.
Don’s happy to give, and to be appreciated for giving. But he reacts, often viciously, when Peggy asks him for something he doesn’t want to give, or challenges him in a way that makes him uncomfortable. Don Draper isn’t really capable of being a friend, much less to be a mentor in the way Jack Donaghy is, because he wants his relationships to be one-sided, on terms that he sets. The sad truth of “The Suitcase,” the episode that captures Don and Peggy’s friendship at its strongest moment after Anna, the wife of the man who’s identity Don stole, dies, is that it’s an illustration of Don’s powers of deception, of how far his one-sided approach to the world takes him. Don can, in the course of a single evening, shout at Peggy, who’s upset that he never thanks her, that “That’s what the money is for! You should be thanking me every morning when you wake up, along with Jesus, for giving you another day!” and play pathetic enough that she’s telling him how well she knows him, that he’s not really alone.
It’s almost a relief when, in the most recent season of Mad Men, Peggy realizes that her relationship to Don will always be bounded by the extent to which she’s useful to him, rather than rooted in any actual concern Don has for her career. When she snaps at him “You’re a monster” after Don chastises her for carrying out an extramarital affair and undermines her brilliant creative work — even if that undermining keeps the campaign moving forward — it’s as intimate as the breakup of an actual romantic relationship. And it ends in what feels like a tragedy, Peggy adopting Don’s view of their relationship as instrumental, and taking over his office in a symbolic sign that she’s replaced him. The mentee grows to become the mentor, but, crabbed by his worldview, doesn’t grow beyond him.
Saul and Carrie, by contrast, have the opposite problem. Because of Carrie’s sense of personal guilt for the events of September 11, her wildly overreaching sense of what it’s morally (if not legally) permissible for her to do as an operative of the Central Intelligence Agency, and her untreated bipolar disorder, Saul’s constantly trying to rein Carrie in so her valuable insights can actually be of use to the agency, and so she can preserve her own career. And Carrie, rather than viewing Saul instrumentally or holding him at a distance, is frequently oblivious to how her actions affect him, and often disregards what’s happening in his life in pursuit of her own vision of the truth and the best interests of the United States. If Don’s holding Peggy at a distance that eventually destroys their ability to have a productive relationship, Saul is far too enmeshed in Carrie’s life for anybody’s good. And the new season of Homeland is substantially about what happens when Saul decides to set very different priorities.
For the first two season of the show, Saul and Carrie’s relationship is defined by cycles of transgression and forgiveness. On a macro level, Saul initially rejects Carrie’s theory that Sgt. Nicholas Brody has been turned into a sleeper agent plotting against the United States — he later becomes the person who delivers evidence to Carrie that she was right, vindicating her theory and making a personal apology for not trusting her. When Carrie begins illegal surveillance of Brody, Saul initially threatens to report her to the inspector general, then backs down after she comes up with a legal way to validate her suspicions. When Mira, Saul’s wife is leaving him, he consistently prioritizes not just the investigation, but hearing out Carrie, rather than a last-ditch attempt at saving his marriage. That dynamic continues in the second season, when Saul is angry at Carrie for the risks she takes on a mission, but she’s ultimately proved correct when the documents she’s gathered implicate Brody in terrorism.
The thing is, many of the reasons Saul forgives Carrie are really the result of accidents rather than her insights, or come when he encourages her to play within the lines. Her illegal surveillance of Brody doesn’t produce results, but when Saul encourages her to use legal means to justify surveillance of him, Carrie comes up with results. The revelation of Brody’s suicide video comes because Carrie grabbed the right bag by accident, not because she picked the right documents. And while Carrie’s frantic pursuit of Brody starts the chain of events that leads him to decide not to detonate a suicide vest, he ultimately isn’t controllable enough for Carrie to thwart his later involvement in the murder of the Vice President. If Saul’s reason for championing Carrie professionally is that she’s often right, he may be weighting the evidence in her favor too strongly.
The result has been a relationship that’s bad for both of them. Saul constantly takes personal and professional risks for Carrie, and is routinely ill-rewarded, both by the agency and by his mentee. Carrie constantly resists Saul’s advice, even when it might make for a more stable career and more credible treatment of the information she cares about. The two of them are constantly fighting, breaking up, and getting back together, their friendship more exhausting than the bad marriage Mira flees when she leaves Saul. The only remaining question, really, is whether their friendship is good or bad for the country they were brought together by serving. Homeland’s third season, which begins next weekend, poses that question directly in a moment that’s even more resonant than Peggy’s breakup with Don. It’s a strong arc, and it’s a welcome correction for a show that got caught up in Carrie’s affair with Brody when the really operatic relationship, the one with stakes far beyond the feelings of the parties involved, was actually Carrie and Saul’s.
None of this is to say that love doesn’t matter. All of these shows have been enriched by their embrace of a full spectrum of relationships between men and women. But in showing that men and women can be friends, and form partnerships that aren’t sealed by bands on the third finger of the left hand, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Mad Men and Homeland have made television a richer, and more fully human landscape.