A Female Friendissance: How TV Shows Are Finally Getting the Besties Dynamic Right
Showrunners weigh in.TV Features
Television narrative has always had a place for female friendships going back to the antics of Lucy and Ethel in I Love Lucy. Theirs was a ride-or-die relationship constantly heightened by Lucy’s wild and outlandish schemes, but they remain a benchmark example of what the friendship bond actually looks like between women, in part because Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance were best friends outside of the show as well.
In the seven decades since, television has continued to lean into portraying female friendships in both sitcoms and dramas, with the success rate entirely dependent on how those bonds have been framed. In too many cases, women characters have been written by male dominated writers’ room to be pitted against one another in storylines showing them callously climbing over one another on the path to career ascension, or easily betraying “friendships” to get ahead. All of that is fine in soaps like Dynasty or Melrose Place, but that one-dimensional approach left a lot of women viewers bored and frustrated to be painted in such a male way.
But there were also landmark examples like Laverne and Shirley in their eponymous series, Mary and Rhoda in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and others that led into more modern portrayals, now often penned by women, like besties Christina and Meredith in Grey’s Anatomy, Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins in Parks and Recreation, and even mature friendship examples in The Golden Girls and the recent Grace and Frankie.
2022 has been a particularly great year for series that are consistently getting female friendships right, in all their iterations. It feels like we’re reveling in a female friendissance, if you will, getting to witness rich storylines that are given ample screen time, delve into complex topics that reflect real life issues, and celebrate how women can lift and support one another despite the imperfections of our humanity. Series like SYFY’s Resident Alien, Prime Video’s A League of Their Own, and Netflix’s Dead to Me in particular have made showcasing women being supportive of one another through thick and thin an integral aspect of their narratives. And equally important, making space for them to forgive one another when they don’t see eye to eye; an actual norm in real women friendships.
Paste TV reached out to the showrunners to get in their own words why portraying authentic female friends is so important to the DNA of their series.
To give science-fiction on television some kudos, it has often framed female friendships better than other genres. From Xena and Gabrielle in Xena: Warrior Princess to Buffy and Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, heightened stories that involve elements of the supernatural, magic, or extraterrestrial often work better when there’s something exceptionally grounding, like a strong friendship portrayal, also woven into the narrative. With SYFY’s Resident Alien, its story of an alien (Alan Tudyk) crash landing on Earth and assimilating into the oddball town of Patience, Colorado has always been an equally oddball blend of comedy, drama and, sci-fi storytelling. What’s come across almost most alien though is its portrayal of life-long townies, Asta and D’arcy. Showrunner Chris Sheridan tells Paste TV their relationship is original to the series (which is based on a comic book of the same name) and was born out of his need to balance out the darkness of Asta’s arc involving domestic violence and a regretted adoption.
“Originally, D’arcy was written as a bubbly, happy 20-year-old ex-ski champion,” Sheridan shares. “But the best actress who came in for the part was not that. It was Alice Wetterlund who not only is roughly the same age as Sara Tomko, who plays Asta, but also has a very dark comic sensibility. So that immediately changed the dynamic. I still wanted D’arcy to balance Asta’s darkness, but with Alice in the role I was able to do it with humor because Alice is so funny. I made them best friends since high school and their chemistry did the rest.”
By Episode 3, Sheridan says the writers knew their actresses would allow them to showcase them as heavily as they hoped. “It was a major goal of mine from the beginning to make the female relationships in the show feel very real,” he details. “I have definitely been pushing, since the beginning, the necessity to dig very deeply into the characters and have the non-alien aspects of the show and characters feel so engaging that if Harry [Tudyk] never crash landed on Earth, it would still be a show people would watch. And a big part of that is being a fly on the wall as these two amazing women, and all the other characters, hash out what life is all about. After all, it’s a show about an alien learning what it means to be human. If that group of humans he’s learning from don’t feel real, we’ll never be on board with his journey.”
Sheridan says they achieve that by having “a lot of very smart women” in the writers’ room, and bringing all of the actors, including Sara and Alice, into the conversations about their characters. “Both Sara and Alice are very smart actors and understand their characters’ motivations and have worked really hard to make it feel like a real friendship, with all the ups and downs that go along with it.”
He continues, “We are always honoring the strong female characters on our show by celebrating them when they have a victory and not shying away from them making mistakes and being human. The fact that our show is even referenced as having authentic female relationships is just proof that there isn’t enough of that happening on TV these days.”
A League of Their Own
Sports stories with their complex team dynamics have always been fertile ground for storytelling. But the Prime Video series adaptation of A League of Their Own has the added plus of getting to just tell the female stories of the players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Executive producers/showrunners Abbi Jacobson and Will Graham packed their series with an array of arcs, from straight to queer, with arguably one of the most impactful being the friendship between pitcher Maxine “Max” Chapman and her hometown bestie, Clance Morgan. As two Black women with unconventional passions—baseball and comic books, respectively—Graham tells Paste TV that their portrayal came from both the natural chemistry between their actresses Chanté Adams (Max) and Gbemisola Ikumelo (Clance) but also their research into the lives of the actual professional female baseball players of the time.
“We did a huge amount of research on Toni Stone, Mamie Johnson, and Connie Morgan,” Graham details. “And for Clance, we looked at amazing female cartoonists of the time like Jackie Ormes. Research was key to the show as we wrote it with one eye on the authentic stories and one eye on the present.”
Ikumelo is also a writer on the series, which Graham says was fundamental in shaping that on screen relationship. “She’s just one of the funniest, smartest, most emotional people I know,” Graham enthuses about her. “She had a ton of input on every part of Clance, and she was the key to writing all of Clance’s rant about The Wizard Of Oz. And Chante, from the beginning, brought so much of herself to Max, on every level. She created a beautiful history for Max’s family that became a huge part of the show.”
In particular for their final episodes, where Max is broken hearted over Clance’s initially callous response to her trans relative and then Clance’s selfless sacrifice for Max, Graham says their reconciliation was the reflection of the writers’ conscious decision to look at their stories through “a lens of joy”—but not ignoring the hard topics, either.
“A huge part of that joy in League comes from watching the characters learn and grow together,” Graham surmises. “Clance thinks she accepts and loves everything about Max, but it’s 1943, and she has no context for understanding Max’s life and the choices she’s making. She thinks they are living the same story, but Max is acutely aware that they aren’t. With [Clance’s husband] at war, Clance is going through some very heavy stuff. Max really can’t give the same space to that, that she gives to her own needs. They both learn to see each other better by the end of the season.”
Dead to Me
When Dead to Me creator Liz Feldman came up with the idea for the series, it wasn’t about it being a sellable idea, but more about exorcizing her soul. “The idea for this show came from way down deep inside me, and it wasn’t something that I created to try to sell,” Feldman tells Paste TV. “It kind of just came to me during a time of my own grief and loss, and weathering those difficult times with the help of my friends.”
But it ended up being a hot property that eventually found a home with at Netflix, even though it was unabashedly about portraying the messy, platonic, soul-mate relationship between recent friends: acerbic mom Jen Harding and empathetic artist Judy Hale. That it just happened to feature a twisty murder too was actually the gravy on Feldman’s friendship-driven, full course meal.
That bond is brilliantly brought to life by Christina Applegate (Jen) and Linda Cardellini (Judy), which Feldman says is so special because both women were completely understanding of what she was trying to do with the characters from the start. “They knew that my intention was to show female friendships based on my experience with it, which had been overwhelmingly positive,” Feldman says. “I think so often, in TV and movies, we see these depictions of female friends as having this sort of catty or competitive, ultimately, unsupportive kind of structure to them. I just got tired of watching female platonic relationships be portrayed as this vapid and competitive dynamic because in my life and in my experience, I don’t fight with my friends. We don’t compete. We support. We unconditionally love. We maybe hold a mirror up to each other when we see something that we feel needs to be revealed. But ultimately, we have each other’s best interests at heart. And we would fight to the death to protect each other. And that’s what I wanted to see. And they knew that that’s what I was going for.”
Within the making of the series, which featured pandemic delays, personal highs and lows including Applegate’s multiple sclerosis diagnosis, Feldman says both actresses built a real friendship that in turn informed the depth of the friendship between the characters. “They’re both just salt of the earth, loving, supportive women,” Feldman says of her leads. “When you’re watching that relationship unfold, the actresses’ relationship was unfolding at the same time. They now have a beautiful friendship with each other. But also, they are women who have a lot of other female friends so they were able, I think, to draw from their own experiences.”
The same goes for Feldman, who wrote the series with one of her best friends, Kelly Hutchinson. “We were roommates in college and we’ve been friends going on 27 years now,” she shares. “And we were in those trenches together, in that writers’ room every day, digging into what this friendship could be, and the kind of stories we wanted to tell and what we wanted to say about what it looks like to really have someone’s back. Kelly and I, very often in that writers room, were riffing back and forth which I really think helps the authenticity of that relationship, because in its DNA, there were two extremely close friends creating that material.”
Dead to Me Season 3 also doesn’t shy away from the very difficulties that good friendships have to weather, like the pregnancy storyline. To tell it, Feldman says she went back to the literal origins of the series, which was her 40th birthday. Struggling with the effects of five years of failed hormone therapy trying to get pregnant, she learned that her beloved cousin passed away that same day, and was then told the day after that her best friend was pregnant.
“The scene that you see in the show is ripped directly from my life experience,” Feldman admits. “What I chose to do in the moment was to be happy for her and say, ‘Oh, my god, that’s amazing. Mazel Tov!’ And then a few minutes later, I excused myself to the bathroom and I cried. And I didn’t tell her actually until we started writing the episode. I made the choice in the moment to make my friend more important than my feelings and that’s something that Judy certainly always does, and Jen learns to do, especially this season.”
Feldman continues, “I created this [series] to help myself deal with grief and come to terms with it. I also wanted to help the audience, in some way, come to terms with their own grief and really come face to face with the fact that if you love somebody, and you’re willing to give yourself over to a friendship like this, or love, like this, you will eventually experience loss. It’s just inevitable and it’s worth it.”
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe, The Story of Marvel Studios and the upcoming Avatar: The Way of Water. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett or Instagram @TaraDBen
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