Playing House: Finally, a TV Show Gets Female Friendships Right

USA's new sitcom understands that many women's most important relationships are platonic.
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I’ve often found myself disappointed by fictional female friendships, especially on TV. The problem isn't just the old but persistent stereotypes of bitchy cliques and mean girls, “frenemies,” gossips, and clucking hens, but the less obvious, more positive portrayals as well.

Usually, the primary job of “best friend” in sitcoms or romantic comedies is to provide moral support as the main character embarks on an exciting new relationship, and to perform damage control after the inevitable breakup. Friends certainly do that, but not only that. The Atlantic has previously pointed out this kind of one-sided dynamic in Parks and Recreation’s otherwise-great Leslie and Ann, where Ann serves mainly as a cheering section for Leslie.

Other oft-cited examples of good female friendships on TV—Sex and the City’s foursome, Buffy and Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Meredith and Cristina from Grey’s Anatomy—are compelling and well-rounded, but they aren’t all that relatable for women who aren’t wealthy New Yorkers, vampire slayers, or surgeons at a particularly melodramatic hospital. Usually, these friendships get less screen time than the Big Romances—the one true pairings, the will-they/won’t-theys, the supposed real reason viewers tune in.

That’s a missed opportunity. In an excellent essay on female friendship at The Rumpus, Emily Rapp writes:

Here’s the truth: friendships between women are often the deepest and most profound love stories, but they are often discussed as if they are ancillary, ‘bonus’ relationships to the truly important ones. Women’s friendships outlast jobs, parents, husbands, boyfriends, lovers, and sometimes children.

She’s right. The most consistent, central relationships of my life thus far have been with my female friends. More than the men I’ve dated, often more than my family, they have nourished and challenged me, pushed me to take positive risks, shown me the depth of compassion people are capable of.

The best portrayal of female friendship I’ve ever seen, the one that rang the truest, came from a barely marketed, quickly canceled, six-episode NBC comedy called, aptly, Best Friends Forever. I was introduced to it, also aptly, by a close female friend, my then-roommate. The creators, Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair, are real-life best friends who were then playing best friends (also named Jessica and Lennon) on TV.

At the start of the first episode, Jessica’s Skyping with Lennon about a botched bikini wax. But then divorce papers from Jessica’s husband arrives. Without hesitation, Lennon buys Jessica a ticket to New York and sets her up on an air bed in her apartment.

A similar grand gesture of love anchors Parham and St. Clair’s new show, Playing House, which premieres April 29 on USA (the pilot is streaming online now). Emma (St. Clair), an overworked businesswoman who’s spent the past three years married to her job in Shanghai, moves in with her pregnant best friend Maggie (Parham), in their Connecticut hometown, after the dissolution of Maggie’s marriage. The premise is slightly far-fetched, but only slightly: The summer after our high school graduation, my two best friends were in a car accident, and one was badly hurt; the other deferred for six months her acceptance to an internship across the country, just so she could stay in our hometown and be the injured friend’s home health aide while she recovered.

This is the sort of friendship that Parham and St. Clair excel at portraying. In both shows, the girls are goofy and crass and have no boundaries (in BFF, they wrestle, trick each other into singing “It’s Raining Men,” and Lennon has to physically pull Jessica out of a seven-hour bath; in Playing House, Emma suggests faking diarrhea to get out of a ladies’ brunch and sings Kenny Loggins using Maggie’s boob as a microphone). But they sacrifice for each other, too, both with small everyday favors and big gestures—the kind that you’d never ask for but that, with your best friends, you never have to.

Playing House establishes quickly that its central relationship will be Maggie and Emma’s. Maggie’s husband is disposed of in the first episode, kicked out of the house in the wake of a revelation that he’s in a relationship with an online cam girl. While Emma’s ex-boyfriend Mark, played by Keegan-Michael Key of sketch show Key & Peele, does live in town and may well be a source of future drama, he’s happily married, for the moment at least. (On a side note, Key’s presence bodes well for the show: He bounces between exasperation and manic intensity, whether dealing with the girls or dealing with the laughably mundane cases he’s forced to solve as a small-town cop.) The pilot ends with a classic “catch her before she goes to the airport and tell her how you feel” moment, but it’s a friendship, not a romantic relationship, that’s at stake.

So the primary draw of Playing House (and, briefly, of BFF) is not two lovers’ will-they/won’t-they, but the far-more-interesting “how will they?” of two friends trying to navigate life together. (And the fact that they’re not doing it in New York City this time is refreshing.)

In the real world, our most longstanding friends are often people we might never have met later in life, but who are tied to us by time and shared history. Maggie and Emma, and my two best friends and I, have grown up to live very different lives. But how can you let go of someone whose siblings you’ve known since they were born, who shares your inscrutable vocabulary created by a decade of inside jokes, who can reference the specific weird dream you once had in the 10th grade?

Though watching such friends together can be alienating when you don’t get their references, Playing House does a good job of inviting us into Maggie and Emma’s friendship. We see its flaws as well as its virtues. They reminisce a little too fondly about mean things they did in high school, they gang up on Mark’s wife, they pick at old sore spots from the old fights and misunderstandings that never quite resolved themselves: You work too much; you dreamed too small.

Like any important relationship, friendship takes effort. And a comedy that shows that—really shows that—is a nice counterbalance to TV’s glut of romance. Playing House’s arrival may even mark an promising emerging trend: Girls has been noted for showing that friendship is more dramatic than romance, and fans of Comedy Central’s Broad City praise its main characters’ strong friendship that anchors their chaotic lives. 

There’s a quote, from Emily Rapp’s Rumpus essay that I immediately emailed to my two best friends when I read it, and that I still think of often:

This kind of friendship is not a frivolous connection, a supplementary relationship to the ones we’re taught and told are primary—spouses, children, parents. It is love.

Jessica and Lennon get that, I can tell.

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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