“A nd yes, attendance is mandatory,” Nick Miller says to his roommates as he reminds them all that he’s just been dumped and needs them all to attend his bar crawl. It’s a satisfying moment; Nick’s spent years mapping out a “perfect” crawl through their gentrifying neighborhood. Oh, and nobody wants to go and every roommate has plans. But in the sitcom world, this is the golden friendship rule: Ask and you shall receive.
New Girl is likely the reigning friendship sitcom right now, but it steals a lot from its famous predecessors (especially Friends). You know the premise: Four roommates live in an oversized and underpriced loft and all of them over the course of five seasons, have predictably become the best friends we all dream about. Case in point? None of Nick’s roommates/best friends want to go on this bar crawl. They all have other plans, agendas and motives for their own lives. But as soon as Nick reminds them he’s been dumped and attendance is mandatory, their desires and needs and goals are set aside for his benefit. In sitcoms, it’s just what friends do.
It’s not even a major plot point; of course they’re gonna hang! It’s a rule of the sitcom universe. When there are several young adults living in exposed brick apartments in big cities, they are beyond belief, undeniable best friends. We’ve seen it happen in sitcoms hundreds and hundreds of times. And in the same way that romantic comedies can twist our notions and expectations of love, the same can happen with sitcoms.
Because our friends let us down a lot more often than the friends in sitcoms do.
I have great friends. I do. I have friends who pick me up from the airport and take me out for birthday dinners and buy me consolation and celebration drinks. Friends who have cried with me (or more likely, watched me cry), bought records for me when my boyfriends dumped me, driven across the country to be there for my engagement, opened their doors and windows and homes to me.
And yet, my friends let me down. And it happens in ways that aren’t solvable in 22-minute increments. In ways that don’t always end with hugs, a quick joke and (Only 90’s Kids Will Remember This!) a laugh track. It happens in ways that have me crying after a long dinner over something a good friend did or didn’t say. And you rarely see this same vulnerability — this same self-consciousness that we all encounter sometimes — on screen.
In all of The League’s crass absurdity, does Andre ever stop and think: I wonder if my friends love me as much as I love them? (Ehh….) On Happy Endings, does Penny ever doubt her bond with Alex for longer than 30 seconds? In a sitcom, these would be unforgivable wrongs. “Friends” who did such things would merely exist to show how good and pure the real friends are. And I wonder, sometimes, what watching hundreds and hundreds of friend sitcoms are doing to our conception of friendship.
Sometimes, friends forget birthdays or they don’t show up for weddings (guilty of both), or they slowly slip away into the nostalgia of the past. Sometimes, friends go through seasons where they just don’t connect the way that they used to. Sometimes, friends don’t learn a lesson. Sometimes, you’re the friend who doesn’t learn that lesson.
Sitcoms paint friendships as we wish it were. Imagine a world in which you spent as much time with your coworkers as the Parks and Rec gang does (would you really hang out with Jerry on a Friday night!?). Or a world in which your best friends always live so close that you never had to rely solely on FaceTime to keep the relationship afloat. And so we can start to believe and hope for all that we see that: We all live in the same place together without ever overstaying our welcome. We’re perpetually in our mid-twenties to mid-thirties, and we can play True American until 3 in the morning — hangover free. Our jobs never interfere with our friendships. (At least not in any way that our boss won’t come to forgive.) Our friends are our family, and our family is never too far. Our walls are exposed brick and never too thin; our romances come and go but they’re never as damaging as they could be. In sitcoms, “I think we should just be friends” tends to work out.
And perhaps the occasional person moves on (i.e. has a contract dispute or a movie deal), and a few tears are shed over a life moment or change, but on the two-dimensional screen we never see the aftermath. Because sometimes when you move in with your significant other or your husband, you mourn the loss of living with your friends. And sometimes when a friend moves out, the friendship quickly fades. But sitcoms tie up these loose ends in a way that life does not.
And, so, in Friends when Chandler and Monica move to the suburbs to have a kid, the series is complete. We don’t get to watch the most difficult life transitions come to the forefront. But as a viewer, my expectations then are perpetually set in the present, in the post-credit tag scene, in the punch-line. I don’t see the aftermath, but life is all about the aftermath. I walk away from Netflix expecting all of my friends to stay in the same city forever, but they move. I expect everyone to come to my birthday party (and maybe even give a speech!), but some friends had other plans. Maybe better plans. I expect everything to be the same after I’m married, but it’s not. I expect that my first roommate will be the same friend at 22 as she is at 32. But that can’t possibly be true.
I’m not saying sitcoms should portray perpetually unfulfilling friendships. They’re sitcoms. I am just saying that in the same way we have learned to cast a wary eye on romantic comedies and the false expectations they might be subtly inflicting on our ideas of love, we ought to learn how to question how our concept of friendships might be affected by what we’re watching. Because as great of a tragedy as it might be that our best friends don’t synchronically live in the same house and coffee shop, it’d be an even greater tragedy to assume that meant we don’t have any friends at all.