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

USA's new sitcom understands that many women's most important relationships are platonic.
USA Networks

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.

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

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