Relationship Entertainment: Navigating the Struggle between Romance and Friendship on TV

When it comes to television shows, one of the inevitable questions that emerge as a series progresses is “Will they or won’t they?” You probably don’t have to think too hard to understand what’s being asked here. It’s not “will they or won’t they . . . be friends” because that would seem more than a little anti-climactic for most viewers. Instead, the implied question is “will they or won”t they end up together,” as in romantically, as in cementing the relationship by becoming a couple. Many shows are built around this question, whether romance is directly written into the show’s genre description or not.

Friendship As We Know It

Perhaps it’s easier to envision female friendships on TV. One probably imagines an entourage in the vein of Taylor Swift’s “squad.” There’s a bevy of “besties” who’ve got each other’s back no matter what. You’ve got The Golden Girls and Sex and the City. Although, when female friendships go wrong, one gets a quick flashback to middle school with a dash of Mean Girls sprinkled in for dramatic effect. There are the classic catfights straight out of reality TV where jealousy and backstabbing reign supreme. There even exists what’s known as the “Bechdel test,” which gauges how much the fictional portrayal of a female friendship is just devoted to talking about guys. With women, there’s the antiquated notion that friendship is a facade for rivalry.

There are certainly male versions of this whether it’s Entourage or Silicon Valley. There’s even Seinfeld, whose main cast is made up almost entirely by men with the exception of Elaine Benes. With a group of male friends, they’re usually a bunch of ambitious guys whose self-destructive tendencies or narcissism make them unsuitable for sustaining many romantic relationships. Instead, they rely on one another to stay afloat.

"The Three Musketeers" Freddie, JJ, and Cook in Skin's Season Three episode "Everyone," before their long-time friendship fractures.
“The Three Musketeers” Freddie, JJ, and Cook in Skins‘ Season Three episode “Everyone,” before their long-time friendship fractures. Author’s screenshot captured via Netflix.

The male friendship dynamic is often so fragile that what would be termed a usual friendship between women, not even “girl crush” level, is referred to as a “bromance” when men are concerned. With male intimacy, there’s somehow always the question of diminishing one’s masculinity or questioning one’s sexuality by expressing platonic love for one’s friends. The U.K. Skins takes an unconventional approach by portraying male friendships as equalling female friendships in their complexity and need for intimacy. One notable example is “The Three Musketeers” otherwise known as JJ, Freddie, and Cook of the third and fourth season of the series. It’s the story of a male friendship nearly destroyed by their collective interest in the same girl. Nevertheless, there are plenty of hugs, “I love yous,” and even kisses portrayed as natural aspects of their friendship all while never once doubting their masculinity or sexuality.

The beloved comedy duo of Lucy and Ethel in I Love Lucy, potentially ruining Ricky's career yet again in the episode "Home Movies."
The beloved comedy duo of Lucy and Ethel in I Love Lucy, potentially ruining Ricky’s career yet again in the episode “Home Movies.” Author’s screenshot captured via YouTube.

In a friendship twofer, comedy is often key. The comedy duo often diverts attention away from moments of platonic intimacy through humor. There’s the match between the neurotic Schmidt and grumpy Nick in New Girl or the tough Sam and naive Cat in the short-lived Sam & Cat. One needs an Ethel to her Lucy or a Felix to his Oscar. It’s a riff on the Laurel and Hardy dynamic of being united by hairbrained schemes and getting into trouble. With an odd couple or partners in crime scenario, total opposites are paired together because clashes of personality are bound to be entertaining.

There’s also the professional partnership as in Sherlock, Grey’s Anatomy, Psych, Scrubs, Rizzoli & Isles, or 2 Broke Girls. Compatibility between people forced to interact with each other on a nearly day-to-day basis tests the waters of who’s friendship material. It makes friendships easier to sustain, for conveniency’s sake, but it also tests people’s nerves quicker. Despite Jessica Day and Cece being touted as best friends on New Girl, the friendship between Nick and Schmidt is often the highlight of the show because they live together and thus are in close proximity almost all the time. Occasionally getting on each other’s nerves in these situations can be a testament to their chemistry as friends.

The unlikely friendship between John Watson and Sherlock Holmes in the "A Scandal in Belgravia" episode of BBC's Sherlock.
The unlikely friendship between John Watson and Sherlock Holmes, united by their shared thrill-seeking personalities, in the “A Scandal in Belgravia” episode of BBC’s Sherlock. Author’s screenshot captured via Netflix.
Peggy Carter and Edwin Jarvis exhibiting the rare depiction of friendship between men and women that doesn't end in becoming a couple. From the "A View in the Dark" episode, captured via YouTube.
Peggy Carter and Edwin Jarvis exhibiting the rare depiction of male-female friendship that doesn’t end in becoming a couple. From the “A View in the Dark” episode of Agent Carter. Author’s screenshot captured via YouTube.

Male-female friendship, which doesn’t venture outside of platonic affection, can be even harder to find. Shows such as 30 Rock and Elementary venture into this often unexplored territory of friendship. To keep things uncomplicated, there’s the “gay best friend” trope. It keeps the male-female dynamic alive while at the same time removes any hint of romantic speculation from fans right from the start. On shows such as Monk or Agent Carter, the central male-female friendships take a different route. Since Adrian Monk and Edwin Jarvis are not typical alpha males or leading men, it can lessen the likelihood of a romance developing. The partnerships are often built on humorous eccentricities and compassion instead, rather than physical desire.

Kim Possible and Ron Stoppable in the movie A Stitch in Time, childhood friends who later become a couple.
Kim Possible and Ron Stoppable in the movie A Stitch in Time, childhood friends from the Kim Possible series who later become a couple. Author’s screenshot captured via the DVD.

More common is a pairing whose friendship exists with romantic undertones hidden underneath or the “friends turned couple” scenario. These are the TV pairings who are secretly, or maybe not so secretly, attracted to each other and eventually wind up together à la When Harry Met Sally style. They’ve likely known each other since childhood. Thoughts of romance are either furthest from their minds or have long been pent-up and unspoken. There is Kim Possible and Ron Stoppable from Kim Possible, Amy and Rory of Doctor Who, Lizzie and Gordo of Lizzie McGuire, Ned and Chuck of Pushing Daisies, and so on. Everyone knows they’re destined to be together, except maybe them.

If the friends-turned-couple scenario doesn’t work out, there’s always the dreaded alternative. In the case of Korean dramas, it’s called “Second Lead Syndrome.” Fans root for the sweet guy they know will never get the girl. He’s usually the one left to wander the frozen wasteland commonly known as “The Friend Zone,” where few are ever known to make it out alive.

The inevitable pain of Second Lead Syndrome, as in episode ten of the Korean drama Cheese in the Trap.
The inevitable pain of Second Lead Syndrome, as in episode ten of the Korean drama Cheese in the Trap. Author’s screenshot captured via YouTube.

The web series Carmilla marks a nearly historic moment for reevaluating “The Friend Zone.” It refurbishes it actually, transforming it from the state penitentiary it’s believed to be into a habitable place. One of the series’ characters, Kirsch, evolves from a dense frat boy into a good and loyal friend. He develops a hopeless crush on one of the other characters, Danny Lawrence, who just isn’t interested in him romantically. He’s routinely referred to as a “puppy dog” because of how cluelessly smitten he is. When Danny finally makes it clear to Kirsch her feelings, or lack thereof, on the subject Kirsch reacts in an unexpected way.

Kirsch in the Carmilla episode “Zones of Friendship”:

“Yes! I’m in the friendzone! I have made it into the friendzone! . . . I mean yeah, I’d totally want more, because you know, you’re super smart and way tough and smokin’ hot. But you know, I get it. You’re just not into me that way. And, you know, even if you don’t like me the way I like you, I still think you’re awesome. You’re like the Joan of Arc . . . of us. Why wouldn’t it be awesome to be your friend?” 1

Kirsch doesn’t run into the nearest bathroom to cry his eyes out or lash out at her for rejecting him. Although maybe that’s a deleted scene the Carmilla fanbase isn’t aware of. Kirsch doesn’t lament being designated as “just a friend.” He’s ecstatic when he realizes he’s made it to the so-called “Friend Zone.” He admires Danny so much that whether she ever feels romantically interested in him or not, it does nothing to damper his affection for her (in a completely “respectful of your boundaries” way). If that isn’t the sweetest declaration of love, what is?

Kirsch and Danny hugging it out on Carmilla's "Zones of Friendship" episode.
Kirsch and Danny hugging it out on Carmilla‘s “Zones of Friendship” episode. Author’s screenshot captured via YouTube.

Nevertheless, the existence of “The Friend Zone” presents an important facet of television. Those who wind up in “The Friend Zone” become accustomed to waiting things out. A friend who yearns for a romantic relationship learns to be patient, hoping the person they desire will eventually see him or her in a new (preferably candlelit) light.

The Law of Delayed Gratification

Love has been touted as having a similar effect to drugs on the brain. It literally leaves one high and coming back for more. As with any fictional portrayal, these feelings need to be somewhat replicated with the audience. Much like cliff-hanger endings, a TV show has to tease romance repeatedly and drop it intermittently to keep viewers interested.

An almost kiss between Shawn and Juliet in the Psych episode "Bounty Hunters!" Author's screenshot captured via Youtube.
An almost kiss between Shawn and Juliet in the Psych episode “Bounty Hunters!” Author’s screenshot captured via Youtube.

Sexual tension is a device used to play on that chemistry between characters. TV shows are known to tease fans with almost kisses and near confessions. Occasional friction between personalities mixed with sincere affection sustains audiences’ interest in the couple to be. If the couple gets together too quickly, the announcement will likely be met with little fanfare or excitement. There’s the infamous Moonlighting case where the audience’s interest apparently waned after the two central characters got together. On the other hand, if the sexual tension lasts too long, there’s always the risk of creating an aggravated and frustrated audience.

Christopher Tietjens and Valentine Wannop displaying the art of a subtle and restrained period drama romance in Parade's End (Part Three).
Christopher Tietjens and Valentine Wannop displaying the art of a subtle and restrained period drama romance in Parade’s End (Part Three). Author’s screenshot captured via the DVD.

No matter what the approach, romance is the intended end result. Viewers may wait multiple seasons with bated breath for flirtations to escalate for their favorite couple-to- be. The transition from mere glances to accidental touches and then to kisses and so on grips the audience into attention. Perhaps no genre understands this better than period dramas, with their various codes of conduct and decorum. Whether it’s Mary Crawley’s hot and cold relationships in Downton Abbey, the forbidden courtship between the already married Christopher Tietjens and the young Valentine Wannop in Parade’s End, or Pierre and Natasha’s for-far-too-long unrealized love for each other in War & Peace there’s plenty of pent-up feelings all around.

Well . . . now what?

What about relationships that don’t follow the same trajectory? Surely not all do. Surely relationships outside of the romance department get their due. Subjects once considered either too taboo to broach or thought to concern only minorities and therefore deemed of little importance receive greater representation in media than ever before. Despite being married, Ricky and Lucy Ricardo of I Love Lucy were never shown sleeping in the same bed because of censorship. Comparing that era of TV with today’s, just about anything goes now. Topics such as mixed families, broken ones, loves that defy stereotypes about age or race or religion, varying sexual preferences, identifying as a gender other than one’s sex, etc. are becoming much more open to discussion. Audiences seem more open-minded than ever and that’s certainly something to be encouraged.

However, even though modern-day relationships appear increasingly broader and more fluid in definition, there are certain staples in entertainment. It’s difficult to think of any TV shows that place friendship at the forefront or even on par with romantic relationships. This makes it particularly difficult for viewers to conceptualize and therefore navigate powerful relationships of the platonic variety. Who said characters have to “get together” anyway?

Fictional characters often have great potential for growth in television. Maybe TV is actually the best format for friendship. Romantic movies end with riding off into the sunset, but that might be harder to accomplish with the episodic format. Characters and their relationships to other characters are often explored in a sprawling, layered, and incremental process on TV. That doesn’t exactly allow for the “happily ever after” of romantic fairy tales. Characters are expected to grow, regress, and outright change in television.

Jess and Nick's eagerly anticipated first kiss on New Girl in the episode "The Cooler."
Jess and Nick’s eagerly anticipated first kiss on New Girl in the episode “The Cooler.” Author’s screenshot captured via Netflix.
Choi Han-kyul and Go Eun-chan (whom Han-Kyul mistakes as a man) originally become sworn brothers in the Korean drama Coffee Prince. From episode 12. Author's screenshot captured via YouTube.
Choi Han-kyul and Go Eun-chan (whom Han-Kyul mistakes for a man) originally become sworn brothers in the Korean drama Coffee Prince. From episode 12. Author’s screenshot captured via YouTube.

Even when one comes up with some platonic pairings, they’re just not hot topics. There were no doubt plenty of fangirls and fanboys who squealed with glee when Nick and Jess kissed for the first time in New Girl, when Penny and Leonard started dating in The Big Bang Theory, or when figuring out who “the mother” was in How I Met Your Mother. Only brief moments, not momentous occasions, are ever devoted to friendships by comparison. In the Korean drama Coffee Prince for example the main characters Choi Han-Kyul and Go Eun-chan, who Han-kyul mistakes for a man, originally make a pledge of brotherhood. In Lark Rise to Candleford, there is an episode where one of the characters Pearl is missing her business partner and sister, but soon makes a new friend in Enid and they make a pledge of friendship. Moments of nonsexual devotion are rare though.

Pearl and Enid pledging a vow of friendship, with matching ribbon-bracelets, in Lark Rise to Candleford's episode eight of season three.
Pearl and Enid pledging a vow of friendship, with matching ribbon-bracelets, in Lark Rise to Candleford‘s episode eight of season three. Author’s screenshot captured via YouTube.

Opening monologue in Lark Rise to Candleford Season 3 episode 8: “[O]f all the bonds that exist between people, perhaps the sweetest is the bond of friendship, for it is born not out of duty or blood ties but out of sheer delight in another. How hard it must be to be friendless in our hour of need. How bitter to be alone at the moment of reckoning. And yet for some it [is] friendship itself, the sharing of our deepest truths and the trust in another’s good will towards us that [is] the hardest path of all.” 2

What fans of a show tend to remember instead are the hookups, the breakups, and the marriages. Fans eagerly anticipate their favorite characters getting paired up with their “true loves.” Few viewers will gush over the communal water cooler about how in last night’s episode John Doe finally realized how platonically in love, how much he wants to befriend, Jane. Tweens won’t squeal into their iPhone screens over that love confession. There are no celebratory fireworks or ceremonies. It just doesn’t happen and it’s not expected to.

With all this waiting in suspense for relationships to progress between characters, there has to be some momentum or action to propel the story forward. This is especially the case for television, where a show’s creators rely on sustained audience interest to keep the show going. Whether it’s the Litchfield prison of Orange is the New Black, the fictional lands of Westeros and Essos in Game of Thrones, or the Scottish highlands of long ago in Outlander there is certainly an emphasis on sex. There are the highly anticipated sex scenes or as they’re commonly referred to, “love scenes.” Scenes of bare-chested, muscle-bound men and topless, sexy women lost in the throngs of lustful ecstasy are in demand. It’s considered exciting and it’s believed to be the height of romantic and passionate possibilities. It’s no wonder the religious rule of “no sex before marriage” heightens the mystique of the wedding night, as in Claire and Jamie’s consummation in Outlander, where a union supposedly sanctified by God is the same night where the relationship is sexually fulfilled. What more could a person want?

One of Claire and Jamie's sex scenes, from "The Wedding" episode of Outlander.
One of Claire and Jamie’s sex scenes, from “The Wedding” episode of Outlander. Author’s screenshot captured via

With friends, it’s assumed the relationship will become repetitive onscreen because it supposedly never goes anywhere. There’s no progression of labels from strangers to acquaintances to friends to boyfriends/girlfriends and then finally to husband/wife. TV shows aside, love itself has become incredibly sexualized. It’s something that’s invaded much of our vocabulary. Since sex equals “making love” and having sex means “getting some action,” the subconscious conclusion is that friendship must be passionless, stagnant, and inactive. Doesn’t sound like an attractive offer when compared with romantic relationships, does it? What if love isn’t necessarily designed to go anywhere? Who said it was supposed to?

To have “chemistry” with someone simply means one gets along with another or one is on a similar wavelength with another. It’s associated with relationships outside the romance department. However, the basic nature of the word correlates to biological or hormonal responses. To feel “sparks flying,” “fireworks going off,” or “a jolt of electricity” with someone are all verbal expressions of this chemistry and they’re all associated with romance. What if this happens with someone previously designated as a friend? Jess Day and Nick broach this topic in the New Girl episode “The Fluffer.” Nick starts to feel his relationship with Jess has become one that’s “friends without benefits.” He takes care of her like a boyfriend would and yet he isn’t her boyfriend. There’s an overall sense of confusion between them.

Nick wondering whether he's in a "friends without benefits" relationship with Jess in New Girl's "The Fluffer" episode.
Nick wondering whether he’s in a “friends without benefits” relationship with Jess in New Girl‘s “The Fluffer” episode. Author’s screenshot captured via Netflix.

Jess Day in New Girl’s “The Fluffer” episode:

“I’ve always had relationships in different boxes. Friends in one box, boyfriends in another. But now it’s messy, and I don’t want to screw up what I have with you. You’re too important to me.” 3

Jess has to deal with the fallout of trying to confine certain feelings or behaviors to a specific type of relationship. Her relationship with Nick is an essential one to her, despite the fact that they’re not dating (at least not at this point in the series). It also calls into question the phrase “friends with benefits.” It suggests that friendship itself has little to no rewards on its own. If any relationship isn’t supposed to be a business contract, why then is there a concern over whether there will be benefits or not. It’s not like one’s investing in a house or a car or some other inanimate object. Consummating a relationship literally means cementing its status through sex, but consummation is also another word for the completion of something. Since no one “consummates” a friendship, does that mean it’s incomplete somehow? Lacking in some way? If those are all the subconscious conclusions, it doesn’t bode well for TV friendships.

Friends Finish Last

Caring a great deal about friendships is often slotted to the smiling, platitude-spouting face of kids’ entertainment. As children, shows seem to bombard viewers with friendship themes. Whether it’s Barney & FriendsMy Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, or Thomas and Friends the amount of subtlety is astounding. Even if shows don’t directly refer to friendship in the title, it will likely feature as one of the major themes.

The rampant friendship themes in kids' entertainment, as in the theme song for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Author's screenshot captured via YouTube.
The rampant friendship themes in kids’ entertainment, as in the theme song for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Author’s screenshot captured via YouTube.

These shows become a reflection of the kids one sits next to at the cafeteria, the ones whose names are etched onto friendship bracelets, and the ones invited to sleepovers and birthday parties. Yet as one grows up, the more likely these themes are to disappear from the media one consumes. They’re replaced by school crushes and quests to lose one’s virginity and later on by dating, marriage, and kids. It seems only a natural progression.

However, it’s also one where friendship is usually left behind in the dust. Friendship becomes the understudy to Romance’s lead performer, there to save the day just in case Romance decides to call in sick and can’t perform. People search for the “love of their lives,” not the friend of their lives. Yet friendship isn’t something to be outgrown. It takes just as much maturity and responsibility to be a good friend as it does to be a good romantic partner, maybe even more so since sex is not the driving force of maintaining the relationship. It may seem quaint and a little antiquated, but friendships are the non-familial foundations on which later relationships are based. A relationship that isn’t based on hormonal desires or bound by familial duties and responsibilities requires the depths of one’s loving capacities to keep it going. When friendship is not taken into adulthood and thus not taken seriously, there’s a great deal that’s lost.

Just Friends?

If the motivation for two characters to stick it out together doesn’t revolve around sex, many viewers are at a loss as to why they would stay together at all. Think of how many songs, just listening to the radio alone, are devoted to romantic love. The lust, the longing, the heartbreak, and frankly the irrational compulsion of falling in love with someone all satisfy the emotional heights of feeling alive.

John Steed and Mrs. Emma Peel in The Avengers episode "What the Butler Saw."
John Steed and Mrs. Emma Peel in The Avengers episode “What the Butler Saw.” Author’s screenshot captured via the DVD.

The rule of delayed consummation can be tweaked ever so slightly to retain audience interest. John Steed and Mrs. Emma Peel of the cult-classic series The Avengers had plenty of flirtatious exchanges while never explicitly announcing the nature of their relationship. The same can be said of Jack Robinson and Phryne Fisher of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries for the majority of the series or co-workers Freddie Lyon and Bel Rowley of BBC’s The Hour. There’s plenty of eye-sex and innuendo-laden witty exchanges all while hardly laying a finger on each other. The relationships are presented as if they were purely platonic, but there is always an undercurrent of romance beneath.

The often ambiguous relationship between Freddie Lyon and Bel Rowley of The Hour. From season one, episode four. Author's screenshot captured via the DVD.
The often ambiguous relationship between Freddie Lyon and Bel Rowley of The Hour. From season one, episode four. Author’s screenshot captured via the DVD.

Peggy Carter and Edwin Jarvis of Agent Carter have great platonic chemistry for instance. They have a good working relationship, complete with the witty banter only the Brits can handle and the occasional bickering of an old married couple. Aside from Peggy and Jarvis, there’s also a great female friendship on the show which demonstrates a progression from Peggy Carter’s Hollywood-tragic romance with Captain America.

Peggy and Angie reconciling in Agent Carter's "Time and Tide" episode.
Peggy and Angie reconciling in Agent Carter‘s “Time and Tide” episode. Author’s screenshot captured via YouTube.

Captain America’s supposed death has left a void in Peggy that can’t be easily filled by any other man. With the optimistic and friendly waitress Angie Martinelli, Peggy has a good respite from her life as a secret agent. Peggy is initially reluctant to seriously befriend anyone, given the life or death nature of her occupation, but a persistent Angie eventually succeeds. Angie ends up being exactly who she says she is. The two women never launch into a catfight as rivals over a man and Angie doesn’t end up being a spy in disguise. Despite Peggy’s very British “keep calm and carry on” spirit, she’s still susceptible to doubt and despair and Angie happens to be a kind listener who boosts her spirits. Angie is Peggy’s much-needed confidante. She belongs to a world outside of the espionage and diabolical plans Peggy’s all too familiar with.

Tony and Tea dancing and navigating the confusing divide between intellectual attraction and physical lust in U.S. Skins episode two. Author's screenshot captured via YouTube.
Tony and Tea dancing and navigating the confusing divide between intellectual attraction and physical lust in U.S. Skins episode two. Author’s screenshot captured via YouTube.

The short-lived U.S. Skins built upon the complexities of attraction with the pairing of Tony and Tea, who are the male-female versions of two guys named Tony and Maxxie in the U.K. original. The habitual player Tony finds himself increasingly attracted to Tea, who is a lesbian. Tea is also attracted to Tony, but can’t understand why. He’s attracted to her as he would be to any other girl he fancies, but with Tea he becomes infatuated with a girl he can’t have. His crush is painfully unrequited in terms of physical desire, which is embarrassing for him because that’s such a rarity for someone of his reputation. Tea is basically the female version of Tony. She connects with Tony on an intellectual level because they have similar personalities. She can’t fathom this intense attraction that exists outside of physicality.

Mini and Franky, notably on opposite ends of the high school food chain, having a heart to heart in the Skins episode "Mini."
Mini and Franky, notably on opposite ends of the high school food chain, having a heart to heart in the U.K. Skins episode “Mini.” Author’s screenshot captured via Netflix.

Mini and Franky’s friendship in the U.K. Skins is an important relationship rule breaker as well. Because of Franky’s androgynous fashion sense in season five, her sexuality is often called into question by others. Mini begins her arc as a pretty and popular mean girl but it is she who soon develops a “girl crush” on Franky. However, their relationship is not the same as Emily and Naomi’s lesbian romance in the previous generation of U.K. Skins. It’s not sexual in nature, but an intimate friendship between two seemingly very different people who never expected to befriend each other.

But what’s the word for friends who have “sexual tension” without the sexual part? Platonic tension? It doesn’t sound quite right. Just using the word “tension” seems like a fight’s about to break out. So far, there hasn’t really been a word to describe that. That two people could have a sustained interest in and behave lovingly toward each other in a relationship that is never physically consummated (and there doesn’t necessarily exist a wish for it either) will likely bewilder most viewers and unfortunately be seen as unfulfilled and pointless. Where does that put friendship exactly?

For some misguided notion, friendships are seen as being barred from powerfully intimate experiences. This is an unfortunate conclusion. Just like any other relationship, friendship has its dips and peaks. There are moments of excitement, moments where interest flags, disagreements, and reconciliations. Almost everything romance claims to own exclusively, friendship has as well. If one takes romance not to automatically mean lust, then friendship involves a bit of romance as well. Romance is simply about a heightened interest in and an intensified wonder about something or someone. No Romeos or Juliets are required.

Another Kind of Love Story

The fraught relationship between Naruto and Sasuke, whom Naruto never gives up on, is a major component of the Naruto series. Taken from the opening sequence of The Last: Naruto the Movie. Author's screenshot captured via the DVD.
The fraught relationship between Naruto and Sasuke, whom Naruto never gives up on, is a major component of the Naruto series. Taken from the opening sequence of The Last: Naruto the Movie. Author’s screenshot captured via the DVD.

There frankly aren’t enough narratives that tackle nonsexual love stories and elevate friendships to the heights of romance. Ones that do are definitely to be admired for taking the unconventional route. There are examples of intense and committed friendships in anime such as Black Rock Shooter, Ga-Rei Zero, Naruto, Nana, or R.O.D as well as others.

Merlin desperately trying to save his friend King Arthur in the series finale.
Merlin desperately trying to save his dying friend King Arthur in the series finale of Merlin, “The Diamond of the Day (Part 2).” Author’s screenshot captured via Netflix.

The relationship between Merlin and Arthur takes center stage in the BBC series Merlin. Merlin knows Arthur is destined to become a great and noble king someday, but his first impression is that of a rude and arrogant prince unworthy of the throne. Arthur on the other hand always underestimates Merlin and takes him for granted. As the series goes on, the two men begin to trust each other and have tremendous respect for the other. Both Merlin and Arthur having their own set of romance storylines, Arthur most notably with Gweneviere and Merlin with a girl who’s persecuted for her frightening powers. However, Merlin and Arthur rely on each other alone by the series’ finale and it becomes clear what the true love story is. The two are brothers-in-arms and say goodbye as such.

Xena and Gabrielle's friendship on display after Xena nearly loses her life in "The Greater Good" episode.
Xena and Gabrielle’s friendship on display after Xena nearly loses her life in “The Greater Good” episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. Author’s screenshot captured via Netflix.

There’s also Xena: Warrior Princess. Gabrielle obviously admires Xena. Xena is Gabrielle’s most important role model of a strong and intelligent woman in charge of her own destiny. Gabrielle’s trusting and forgiving nature makes her fully invested in the person Xena is trying to be, who lives in atonement for her past misdeeds. Xena, on the other hand, sees an innocent in Gabrielle. Gabrielle’s endearing naivete and clumsiness make her an ideal of good character. Their commitment to each other is less like Anne and Diana’s friendship in Anne of Green Gables and more like Frodo and Sam’s friendship in The Lord of the Rings. Just as Frodo needs Sam to resist The One Ring’s temptations, Xena needs Gabrielle to stay on the right path and not revert to her warmongering past. The two women each represent what the other wants to be. Both Xena and Gabrielle have plenty of love interests throughout the series, but their passionate friendship is the focal point of the series.

Shin Yun-bok and Jeong-hyang in episode five of the Korean drama, The Painter of the Wind.
Shin Yun-bok and the evidently besotted Jeong-hyang in episode five of the Korean drama, The Painter of the Wind. Author’s screenshot captured via DramaFever.

There’s also The Painter of the Wind, a Korean drama in which the character Shin Yun-Bok is a woman who masquerades as a man in exchange for a career as a painter. She catches the attention of a young kisaeng (an occupation somewhat similar to a geisha’s), named Jeong-Hyang. Jeong-Hyang quickly falls for Shin Yun-Bok because “he” seems so unlike most men she’s met, treating her not as a pretty object but as a treasured human being. Shin Yun Bok reciprocates by seeing her as “his” artistic muse. Innocent flirtations and a shared bond build between them while Jeong-Hyang is under the impression that her beloved is a man. Unlike most other descendants of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night cross-dressing concept, the love between Shin Yun-Bok and Jeong-Hyang cannot easily be thrown away once the masks come off. Their connection delves deeper than pretensions and appearances. Since their bond is also not sexual at its core, Jeong-Hyang’s love for Shin Yun-Bok doesn’t evaporate as soon as she realizes “he” isn’t a man. It only transforms from a mere Romeo and Juliet romance into something more profound and beyond a name. The love between them is apparent in the subtlest and tenderest of ways, by looks alone.

Mako still caring for Asami despite their breakup in "The Sting" episode of The Legend of Korra. Author's screenshot captured via the DVD.
Mako still caring for Asami despite their breakup in “The Sting” episode of The Legend of Korra. Author’s screenshot captured via the DVD.
Mako vowing to always be by Korra's side in "The Last Stand" episode of The Legend of Korra. Author's screenshot captured via the DVD.
Mako vowing to always be by Korra’s side in “The Last Stand” episode of The Legend of Korra. Author’s screenshot captured via the DVD.

Even Korra, Asami, and Mako’s relationship in The Legend of Korra has an element of this type of narrative. Though it’s been widely and publicly confirmed by the show’s creators that Korra and Asami transitioned from close friends into a romantic couple by the end of the series (another atypical move for a show believed to be a “cartoon for kids”), their arc in the series is nevertheless an important subversion of typical romance narratives. In the beginning of the series, Asami and Mako have a meet-cute moment that leads to them dating while Korra is immediately besotted with cool guy Mako before ever even getting to know him. Even when both Asami and Korra’s relationships with Mako don’t work out, the feelings invested in those relationships never entirely disappear. The transition from on-and-off romantic partners to trusted, life-long friends is a murky one and no clear division is given between the two which makes for a refreshingly realistic view of love. Korra, Asami, and Mako retain their love for one another despite the rough patches of their dating past. This also transforms Korra and Asami’s slow-churning interest in each other into an incredibly mature look at love that isn’t of the rose-colored glasses variety. Korra and Asami never explicitly declare their love for each other, but it’s clear in the final shot how much they mean to each other. That’s a component which exists in powerful friendships as well as traditional romances.

The loving last shot of Korra and Asami in The Legend of Korra series finale, "The Last Stand." Author's screenshot captured via the DVD.
The moving last shot of Korra and Asami in The Legend of Korra series finale, “The Last Stand.” Author’s screenshot captured via the DVD.
The Tardis flying solo in the unfathomable cosmos, in the Doctor Who episode " The Name of the Doctor." Author's screenshot via YouTube.
The Tardis flying solo in the unfathomable cosmos, in the Doctor Who episode ” The Name of the Doctor.” Author’s screenshot captured via YouTube.

The Doctor of Doctor Who is also an uncommon character since he often shows little interest in romance. That is not to say he is incapable of loving. He does have two hearts after all. It’s just not the type of love most viewers are used to. He is often thrown into the world of human relationships and doesn’t seem entirely alien to them (forgive my random pun) since more than a few of his companions have fallen for him. As a Time Lord who’s watched stars being born and die over and over, a human’s life is not even a grain of sand in an hourglass to The Doctor. Romance has a different meaning to him than it would to the show’s human viewers. The Doctor does engage in occasional flirtations, marriage, and possibly sex as well but the words “love” or “romance” or “friendship” must encompass a broader perspective than humans often bother to comprehend. The Doctor knows the hollowing loneliness of traveling the cosmos alone and welcomes all the fleeting expressions of love he can when they come his way.

Fan Influence

Anyone with an internet connection will undoubtedly be aware of the intense fandoms that often surround television shows. In much the same way paparazzi can hound celebrities and capture every awkward moment and build a complete cover page-worthy drama out of it, fans can do much the same thing with their favorite fictional characters. And if there isn’t much action going on, fans will make sure to supply the demand. Entire memes can be built around the subtlest of interactions between characters. Images of the most casual glances, extended amounts of eye contact, lingering touches, affectionate banter, and any other potential subtext can be used as fodder. There are plenty devoted to canon and non-canon pairings, fanfiction, slash pairings, ship names, fanservice, etc. It can be an imaginative and freeing venture that calls into question conservative definitions of all that’s considered under the normative umbrella.

Yet friendship has often suffered because of it. Viewers will say: “Isn’t it obvious? How could two people be this close without wanting to make out? There’s so much subtext going on. They’re secretly in love with each other . . . I know it!” It pigeonholes any kind of intimacy into a very small, designated area. It’s important to differentiate between making a flexible and expansive interpretation and making “corrections.” It can be just as close-minded to assume or imagine that all close relationships automatically mean people are sleeping together (in a sexual way). To think that two people might spend a great deal of time together, enjoy each other’s company, and have an intense affection for one another without sex being involved may strike most people as odd if not outright non-existent.

As far as sexual relationships are concerned, our society seems to have come a long way in accepting what was once perceived as deviations from acceptable modes of being. It’s important though that one understands the value of non-sexual intimacy and passion. In the fight between “love” and “friendship,” one forgets one simple fact. Love and friendship are indivisible from each other. If a spouse can refer to his/her significant other as his/her “best friend,” then the reverse must also be true. If your friend doesn’t love you, how can that person possibly be your friend? Whether one calls it love or romance or friendship or whatever else, those words all refer to the same thing whether one realizes it or not. It’s the same nameless thing that’s expressed in a multitude of ways.

Works Cited

  1. “Zones of Friendship.” Carmilla. Writ. Jordan Hall. Perf. Elise Bauman, Natasha Negovanlis. KindaTV, 2015. YouTube. 22 October 2016.
  2. “Episode 8, Season 3.” Lark Rise to Candleford. Created by Bill Gallagher. Writ. Rachel Bennette. BBC One, 2010. YouTube. Web. 6 November 2016.
  3. “The Fluffer.” New Girl. Writ. Elizabeth Meritwether. Perf. Zooey Deschanel, Jake Johnson, Max Greenfield. Fox, 2013. Netflix. Web. 22 October 2016.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Paradis

    Sherlock Holmes doesn’t enter romantic relationships.

  2. Taggart

    Legend of Korra is an ambitious show that I rather admired. Back in the 80’s we had to put up with the sophisticated likes of He Man.

  3. My only possible qualm about on screen relationships might be that most TV shows tend to go downhill once the two main characters with romantic tension consummate feelings (emotionally or sexually); an example that comes to mind is the show Moonlighting from the 1980s with Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis.

  4. It’s when two characters are shown to share a definitive interest in one another. All their moments together, could easily be dismissed as friendly interactions: blushing, isolated letter exchange.

  5. Rimonio

    In Season 3 they really hinted that Ron and Kim are meant for each other.

    There was a funny episode, where Ron forgot to give a library book back to Kim. When he faced Drakken and Shego, Shego asks: “Where’s Possible?”

    Ron then just yells: “SHES NOT MY GIRLFRIEND!”

    • Best Jack

      I don’t really watch this show… But these two look so cute together!

    • It only becomes clear at the end of Season 3, but it’s been designed to be that way since the start.

  6. Shiloh Orlando

    If the Cumberbatch/Freeman pair ever pair up beyond friendship, it would be the purest fanservice and the creators’ caving to fans’ sexual fantasies, rather than staying true to the characters who have always been straight. It might work better with a different Holmes series.

    • While I would agree that there is no proof concerning Watson, it has been hinted multiple times that Sherlock could be gay or at the very least bi-curious. But, no matter his sexual orientation, he is in no way a romantic or interested in a relationship of the kind.

    • I think if they did pair up beyond friendship, it would just seem strange and unnecessary. Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is portrayed as someone who isn’t exactly interested in sex or relationships or might even have aversion to that all together. He gets “turned on” as it were by his own intellect and other people’s praise and admiration of it, which Freeman’s Watson provides by continually putting up with him (unlike most people). As an onscreen substitute for the audience’s level of understanding, Freeman’s Watson likes to be an “average joe.” However, he is also secretly an intense thrill-seeker (which Sherlock’s investigations provide an outlet for). Their comradery is based on those mutual wants as well as the fact that they work together and share the same flat for a time (continued proximity can breed affection as much as bitterness). The show’s creators have also toyed with the fanservice aspects of the show, doubly acknowledging them as well as possibly undermining them.

  7. Great article on representation on a popular TV shows.

  8. I love Psych. Pretty much anytime shawn tells juliet she should be with who she wants, she comes back and is like, nah i love you.

  9. Naruto and Sasuke’s relationship is one of the best parts of the series, but it’s far from perfect. Their friendship was far too rushed.

    • I think Naruto and Sasuke’s relationship is like a kick ass mansion. It’s interesting from the outside, beautiful on the inside, and there are a few secret passages or hidden aspects here and there that you’ll only see if you really search thoroughly. But that mansion is resting upon a base of twigs.

  10. Outstanding analysis. It’s so nice for the shows to be validated for the depth and consideration that they bring to it.

  11. I’m not the biggest fan of Nick and Jess ending up together in New Girl, but I also didn’t like Sam. The first time or the second time. For me, the Nick and Jess thing is more palatable since it’s the all common main-characters-love-relationship-will-they-wont-they TV trope, and I kind of just saw it coming.

    • The show made every Jess-relationship end (if not all, alot of them tho) because of her love for Nick. In my opinion Jess is too good for Nick. He is really funny and weird (which I like), but he has never really fought for her. Also Jess is amazing, she deserves better than Nick AND Sam really.

    • Elenor Farias

      I’ve never been a fan of the actor who plays Sam, plus I don’t think the character works with Jess, so I wouldn’t want them together. But I absolutely do not want Jess and Nick together. They were good for a while but I don’t think the characters are relationship compatible. IMO, Jess needs to end up with someone like Genzlinger, and I think it would be perfectly acceptable for Nick to remain a bachelor until the show ends.

    • Nick and Jess definitely have good chemistry and I wouldn’t mind it if they ended up together. I think one of the major issues for New Girl when the two were dating was that they became the focus of the show, to the detriment of the other characters and themselves. At least one good thing was that they maintained their separate and opposite personalities for the most part. That tends to happen a lot when two characters are romantically paired up in a show and sometimes in real life as well (they lose their individual personalities to the relationship).

  12. That episode of Carmilla had one of the best kiss scenes ever filmed.

    • Baumann

      Every time they leave this two alone for 3 minutes they end up kissing. If they had 10 minutes they would make a baby somehow.

  13. Lenita Lu

    Bones went so downhill after Booth and Brennan got together.

  14. Hooray for these courageous writers and producers. The world is finally starting to represent all natural creation.

  15. Calhoun

    I think characters’ pre-relationship relationship is almost better than their actual relationship.

  16. Readboy

    I love KP and this is just amazing because it’s all truly beautiful!

    • As much as I love the series it should be left here. It had an almost perfect run and told a full story with character progression.

  17. Mr Meeks

    I love it when a writer comes up with a couple of examples and decides that there is a ‘new’ thing.

  18. Love the pairing of Vastra and Jenny on Doctor Who. They are interesting together even though their relationship is already established.

  19. Interesting typology of friendship/romantic relationships. What do folks think about the fact that Xena and Gabrielle repeatedly call each other soulmates?

  20. Fantastic read! I really appreciate all of the hard work and research that you did on the subject. The idiosyncrasies of friendship are often missed by an audience, including myself, but the style of friendship between characters often informs the rest of story line. I definitely keep that in mind when writing stories of my own!

  21. These shows, full of dysfunctional ‘never really grew up’ adults, are made by and for people who want to believe that their dysfunctional messed up lives are normal. Most people can and should still aspire to true love and romance. True hearts and good people willing to put in the effort are still out there.

  22. Lexzie

    Wonderful read. The research and effort you put into this subject really shows. This topic is very relevant and I hope to see more intimate friendships on television because friendship relationships are equally as important, or arguably more important, as sexual romantic relationships.

  23. This was very interesting article, and it is something seen on a lot of TV shows. Relationships happen on almost every show, and it’s fascinating that you pointed out type of relationships you seen on a show. For fan influence you totally should’ve mentioned the “Olicity” phenomenon on the “Arrow”.

  24. lasureamir

    Really good job at shining some light on all of the complexities of tv relationships. Viewers are often only privy to what they see in their own lives, but television dives deeper into romances and unrequited loves that many people may not be able to witness. I love how you showed friendships between two woman has so many levels that are shown on television, but a friendship between two men tends to look very superficial and garner the title “bromance” regardless of how close they really are.

  25. L.J.

    Well researched article with good and many examples. The tendency of most TV shows and movies to emphasize on romantic relationships is oftentimes lacking in depth. That there is much more to any relationship, as the article points out, is more of a secondary part of the story. It would certainly be refreshing to see the reality of relationships in all their occurrences portrayed more often. That there is a best friend in a romantic relationship is something that could be the basis for a less bland storytelling.

  26. Munjeera

    What a thorough article on a great topic.

  27. LondonFog

    Loving that this sort of content is being researched. I’m also glad you used both queer and heterosexual examples!

  28. I’ve noticed that the shows I like the best, have a plot line revolved around the question of whether or not certain people will get together. Once that plot ends (someone dies, they get together, or one of them leaves the show) I find everything else to be drab. I guess that means the show really isn’t all that great if that’s all I like.

  29. Kira Metcalfe

    Very well thought-out, and beautifully written article! Any holes in your thinking are not holes at all, but further opportunities for thought and investigation for future topics/articles. This, of course, is the best thing an article/essay can do. Keep up the good work.

    • That’s all I could ever hope for as a writer. That’s also the challenge of writing on a topic that can be taken in so many different directions and avenues of thought. We can never claim to know all the answers (or even any of them) but questioning the status quo is an important first step. Sometimes doubt is more precious than certainty. Thank you for the kind words.

  30. It does bring for delicious TV watching.

  31. This was a fantastic read with excellent examples. Good work.

  32. This is a fantastic article! I think this is one of the reasons I loved Sherlock Holmes so much – the central relationship was a friendship between two men that was purely platonic. So true today that romantic relationships often take centre stage leading to a dearth of deep, healthy and loving friendships on television.

    • Thank you so much! Yes, it’s always such a relief to see platonic, but intimate relationships onscreen. They just don’t get their due in the way standard sexualized romances do. That’s the nice thing about Sherlock Holmes (it’s especially hard to find good examples when it concerns two men). I often think some of the best relationships straddle the line between platonic and romantic feelings and you wouldn’t be able to tell which “type” of relationship you’re in. Sexual attraction is an unconscious feeling that can flare up as well as fade, but the conscious willingness to be someone’s friend often involves activating deeper aspects of one’s character. That’s why friendships have the potential to be incredibly endearing. Loving friendships are so hard to find onscreen, I usually feel desperate for even the slightest hint of them anywhere.

  33. I really enjoyed the the depth of analysis and sheer amount of relevant examples in this article. Some very valid points about the culture of relationships portrayed in television made.

  34. Sarai Mannolini-Winwood

    This is an interesting look at a complex topic. It is often interesting to look at the presentation of romantic entanglement portrayed in television to reflect on whether it is a realistic reflection of relationships. I find that the portrayal of the ‘The Big Bang Theory’ to be one of the more interesting examinations of relationships in the latest series, with the fighting of Penny and Leonard, the issues of power and dominance in Howard and Bernie, and then of course the unusually, but adapting and insightful relationship of Sheldon and Amy. There is also present the “bromance” of Howard and Raj. I think modern TV is making an effort to portray more realistic and complex relationships compared to the trite versions that preformed only as a narrative plot point that met the “will they, won’t they” tropes.

  35. Joseph Cernik

    A good essay, interesting insight.

  36. This is a really fascinating article. It makes me think of the long awaited Luke Danes and Lorelai Gilmore relationship in Gilmore Girls — how long is too long to “get together”? Is 5 whole seasons of hinting at a relationship too much?

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