In a recent Entertainment Weekly article, Melissa Maerz lamented the lack of female friendships on television—as evidenced by one-of-the-boys female characters such as Scandal’s Olivia Pope, Nashville’s Rayna James, and The Mindy Project’s Mindy Lahiri. “I miss the Lucys and Ethels, the Mary Tyler Moores and Rhodas, the Carries and Mirandas, women who could call each other on their flakiness, and still clink martini glasses afterward,” she wrote. “It’s an especially terrible time for Rashida Jones to depart Parks and Recreation and Sandra Oh to leave Grey’s Anatomy, because two of the best (platonic) couples on television—Leslie and Ann, Meredith and Cristina—are doomed to split up.”
Maerz is right: With Rashida Jones and Sandra Oh leaving their respective roles of Ann and Cristina this season, it seems more important than ever to recognize and appreciate these two significant female-friend relationships. Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang's bond is central to Grey's, just as Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins' is important to Parks and Rec.
The Meredith/Cristina and Leslie/Ann pairings have a few similarities: Both feature white lead characters that are best friends with women of color (or at least portrayed by women of color), both duos have been in each other’s lives since the series pilot, and they share the kind of chemistry that inspires fans to upload YouTube videos of their best moments together.
These friendships are also markedly different from each other, though, and it’s not just because one pair is on a light-hearted comedy and the other is on a medical drama. While Leslie and Ann have a lovely friendship, it has been a mostly one-sided one. Meredith and Cristina are a more complicated and flawed pair, but their shared ups and downs make them a better model for how to portray platonic friendships on TV.
For a distillation of what makes each pairing work, and what makes Cristina and Meredith’s so much more compelling, it helps to compare two scenes, one from each show—both of which center around a wedding dress. On Grey’s Season Three finale, Meredith cuts a sobbing Cristina out of her gown after she is dumped by her fiancé on her wedding day. On Parks and Rec, Ann creates a wedding dress for Leslie’s spur-of-the-moment nuptials by completing the unfinished garment with documents that represent Leslie’s professional achievements.
The Meredith/Cristina moment is moving, emotional, and a tad histrionic—which, to be fair, could be an apt way to describe Grey’s itself. After all, this a series that has killed off so many characters over its past 10 seasons that its body count rivals Breaking Bad’s, and the hookups and breakups, including Meredith’s own with Dr. Derek Shepherd, are too numerous to mention.
But even though Grey’s initially attracted a large fan base of “shippers” invested in the pair who came to be known as “MerDer,” the Meredith-and-Cristina relationship has always been equally compelling, thanks to the fact that series creator Shonda Rhimes and her writing staff developed their friendship the way most TV writers would craft a show’s marquee romance.
The two began the series as surgical interns who connect due to their shared professional ambitions and complicated personal lives. Meredith and Cristina are initially dismissive of touchy-feely aspects of friendship such as hugging or sharing feelings; in fact, their “dark and twisty” outlook is what bonds them in the first place. But when Cristina gets pregnant and makes an appointment to have an abortion, she tells Meredith in the season two premiere that she has listed her as her in-case-of-emergency contact. “You’re my person,” Cristina says. She adds that she has been dumped by her boyfriend, and Meredith gives her a hug.
When Cristina blanches, Meredith says, “Shut up. I’m your person.” It’s a term of endearment they have used frequently from that point on, and it remains a symbol of how the characters consider their friendship to have the same weight and value as a romantic—or family—relationship.
Even though Meredith is the show’s main character, Cristina’s life is just as angst-filled and dramatic as Meredith’s in later seasons; if anything, the two anchor each other in the midst of all their various crises. It’s a melodramatic relationship, to be sure, but also a reciprocal one: When Meredith nearly drowns, Cristina doesn’t leave her bedside until she wakes up; when Cristina is devastated after being left at the altar, Meredith cuts her out of her wedding dress.
But while Meredith and Cristina have encountered an impressive array of obstacles that could only be concocted in a writers’ room—a bomb in a patient’s chest, a hospital shootout, a deadly plane crash—the biggest threat to their friendship has been the distance that comes from growing apart. Meredith, who is now married to Derek and has two children with him, is struggling to balance work and home life. Cristina, who split with her husband because she didn’t want kids, has stayed focused on advancing her surgical career. Recently, their relationship has become strained due to different directions their lives have taken, and this will be a plotline that will carry through Sandra Oh’s final season on the show.
Meredith and Cristina’s friendship has not remained true or smooth. Rather, their relationship has had an arc—highs and lows, arguments and reconciliations—just like “MerDer” or any other TV romance, and more importantly, just as friendships do in real life.
If Meredith and Cristina are “dark and twisty,” though, then Parks and Rec’s Leslie and Ann are something more like “sugar and spice and everything nice.” Their friendship is defined by Leslie’s absolute adoration of Ann, and Ann being an awesome friend in return—as demonstrated by Ann’s creation of a wedding dress that perfectly embodies Councilwoman Knope.
The problem is that the show’s writers have never seemed to have a firm grasp on who Ann is outside of their friendship. She has had fun moments throughout Parks and Rec—this impromptu dance party and this spontaneous a cappella rendition of “Time After Time” come immediately to mind. But while other Parks and Rec characters have evolved over the course of the series—cocky Tom Haverford matured as he realized his entrepreneurial ambitions, apathetic April Ludgate become softer and more career driven due to her marriage and Leslie’s mentorship—Ann is pretty much the same person audiences met in the pilot.
“Will you just shut your beautiful piehole,” Leslie says to Ann after she disagrees with Leslie’s plan to extend a work project so that she can spend more time with her ex. “Just sit there, let me stare at you while you silently support me on this game plan.”
It’s a funny line, but one that also sums up the problematic nature of their friendship. Leslie loves Ann, but seems to view her as her cheerleader or sounding board, and little else. And the trajectory of this friendship hasn’t changed over the past six seasons: Leslie has a personal or professional dilemma, and Ann listens to her problems or assists her in some way.
There have been instances in which Leslie has helped Ann navigate her many romantic travails (which have weirdly included her being paired off with a majority of the show’s male characters). But given that Ann is the one to encourage Leslie to pursue a romance with Ben, and to support her in various professional pursuits such as the Harvest Festival and her successful city council campaign, their friendship feels lopsided.
Perhaps if Ann were given more to do on the show, her friendship with Leslie would be more equal. But the writers have never really attempted to deepen her character; for example, it never clarifies whether she is biracial, as her portrayer is. The fact that we have never met Ann’s parents or childhood pals or anyone else from her life, or know what her goals are beyond meeting Mr. Right or having a baby, is a disservice to the character.
Ann is a perfect best friend for Leslie; unfortunately she isn’t much more than that. Let’s put it this way: If Leslie were to craft a wedding dress for Ann made up of her greatest moments, it’s hard to picture what that dress would look like.
Even if Leslie and Ann’s friendship isn’t as reciprocal as Meredith and Cristina’s, both pairs are a joy to watch, and it’s hard to imagine Parks and Recreation and Grey’s Anatomy without these foundational relationships. TV fans can only hope that Mindy Lahiri and Rayna James will one day experience such camaraderie—and if Shonda Rhimes ever decides to give Olivia Pope a BFF, she couldn’t go wrong with looking to her other hit series for inspiration.