Thursday, April 7, 2011

Television's Seemingly Unlikely Friendships...

When I was a kid, growing up watching network television, I noticed something very specific and very odd and very, well, just not reflected in my actual world. Shows like Saved by the Bell or Hang Time or Ghostwriter would go out of their way to showcase diversity in groups of friends-- and I'm not just talking about race or religion here but social statuses, too. They wanted to show kids that just because you were a jock, it didn't mean you couldn't hang out with somebody who was smart or enjoyed studying, or if you were the popular, pretty one, you could have friends who didn't really understand fashion or had really frizzy hair. They had good intentions, but it just wasn't realistic. It wasn't a slice of life as I saw it. After all, most kids size each other up on day one-- in minute one-- in the hall at school and then gravitate towards whoever they think are most like them. Based on what? Well, appearance, of course, since that's the first thing that catches your eye.

These shows never really took the time to showcase what these characters, although seemingly very, very different on the outside, actually had in common; we were just expected to inherently believe something deeper existed underneath all of the superficial surface stuff. Maybe if they had taken some time, it wouldn't have seemed so forced. But instead they spent their time shining a spotlight on the very obvious differences that should have pulled the friendships apart in order to make the point that these characters were willing to push past them anyway. There were good intentions behind the message here, too, but I still wondered what the point was. After all, unlikely friendships can be heart-warming, but spending time with someone just to show off as politically correct or some kind of charitable act is insulting!

But these days-- thankfully-- it seems things have changed. Television today doesn't settle merely for proximity as enough of a reason to be friends. There's a yearning to connect these days-- a yearning for viewers who want to connect with a show and a character sometimes as much as with real life. And that gets reflected on-screen, as characters also want that deeper connection. The pairings may still seem unlikely at first, but television delves a bit deeper now, due in part to smarter audiences as well as smarter story-tellers. Even sitcoms take on more serialized techniques, rather than just relying on a hook or a gimmick or a one-week, one-off, to show why they're truly perfect fits.


In the case of The Big Bang Theory, many might look at Penny (Kaley Cuoco) and wonder just why she was hanging out with (or dating, actually) Leonard, let alone his even geekier friends' girlfriends. She
s a bit of a dreamer, a free spirit, a girly-girl. She doesn't know much about math or science, but the little she knows is much more than the level of interest she has in either. But Amy (Mayim Bialik) was written to be especially socially awkward, the female match for Sheldon's asexual, atypical, neurotic behavior. And she really is all of that and more. She doesn't like human contact and doesn't see the point for the simplest of gestures, like hugging hello or good-bye. But those are just behavioral details anyway; at her core she and Penny really aren't that different. In fact, what one lacks, the other has, making them the great complimentary pair. They come together-- perhaps in part because of the buffer between them-- no, not Leonard, but Bernadette (Melissa Rauch), who seems to combine elements of both women and provide a bridge for relation-- and the three women become the perfect re-telling of the Three Musketeers. They learn from each other, as each woman has a different level of common sense versus more formal intelligence, and they enhance each others' lives, and that is the true measure of friendship anyway.

On Friday Night Lights, everyone seemed to write Tyra off in the beginning. Everyone except for Julie, that is. And in fact much of the reason people started to look at Tyra differently-- much of the reason Tyra started to look at herself differently-- was because of the way Julie treated her. Though Julie may have initially just sought a little short-time companionship from the seemingly more worldly girl, they bonded over deeper things. They both had the same insecurities, even though they showed them differently, and they were both pretty alone in Dillon. Sure, they had versions of family and boyfriends physically present around them, but neither of them seemed to have anyone to confide in until they found each other. They were good influences for each other, too: Julie inspired Tyra to work harder in school, while Tyra worked to get Julie out of her shell and become more sociable. Standing side by side Tyra may have seemed like young Julie Taylor's big sister, but it was in part the assumptions made about the two of them based on their appearances that brought them together even more so.

It's not just women who manage to look past outside appearances to see the true worth underneath, though. Ex-football star Troy might have had smart guys like Abed doing his homework for him in high school, but at Greendale Community College, he found someone around whom he could really be his true self for once. And he found that such a self actually really enjoys crappy B-movies, comic book references, and dressing up in matching Halloween costumes. Though he used to measure friendship by the amount of stuff people would do for him, because he respects Abed as much as he does, he has learned to let it be a two-way street. For Abed, though, it was quite possibly the first time he actually connected with another real life person.

Perhaps it is because all of these shows took the time and the effort to show us the earliest stages of these friendships that they feel so much more believable. After all, we got to see them meet for the first time, size each other up, and do that "Do I like you/Do we have anything in common/Do we add value to each other's lives?" dance around each other. We got to see the development of the relationships, and it is when we find love and meaning behind them where we least expect them that we find the true gems-- the true diamonds in the rough-- in life. Or in television, as the case, increasingly more common today, may be.

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