Of all the bad raps teen TV gets, the most frustrating is the presumption that the only social drama it—and thus, its audience—truly cares about is ‘shippy romantic angst.
I mean, you do you and all, adult TV-watchers, but let me just tell you straight up: It’s the television made for adults that sucks at imagining compelling social arcs outside the bounds of (mostly heterosexual) romance. Yeah, absolutely teen TV loves a good love triangle or angsty ‘ship or will-the-won’t-they tension, but at the end of the blue-gel lit day, it dependably and enthusiastically centers deep, three-dimensional relationships between characters who absolutely could, but would never, ever think, as the kids from the great On My Block would say, of smashing each other.
Shows made for adults… don’t. A grown man and woman of comparable age, sexuality and narrative centrality end up in stuck together in the same arc, who aren’t family? It is a truth universally acknowledged, they’ll totally, eventually, smash.
Castle and Beckett? Smashed. Bones and Booth? Smashed. Leonard and Penny? Smashed. Sam and Diane? Smashed. Sydney and Vaughn. Starbuck and Apollo. Leslie and Ben. Jim and Pam. Oliver and Felicity. Kate and Jack and Sawyer and Juliet. Annie and Jeff and Britta and Troy. NBC’s canceled-then-saved Timeless? Smashed the uncoupled two of its three leads last Sunday. CBS just launched a new consulting magician procedural: The magician and the FBI agent are definitely going to smash. ABC’s newest anti-romance sitcom, Splitting Up, well, just tell me there is any future in which that conceit doesn’t end with the consciously uncoupled Jenna Fischer and Oliver Hudson smashing.
I want to say I have no idea why this universality of scripted adult television is, but that’s not true. Once upon a time, Harry met Sally, and confirmed for a credulous, un-woke world that what social convention insisted upon was true: Men and women can’t be “just” friends, let alone best friends with deep emotional investment in each other’s lives. Sure, kids might be able to convince themselves of that pretty lie, but they are young and naïve and eventually, they’ll grow up and see reason.
This is, excuse my swearing, some extra patriarchal BS. A of all, plenty of queer people are deep and steadfast friends with other queer people, and asexual and aromantic people, quietly but genuinely, exist and also have great and important friendships. Aside from that, you can only ultimately partner up with one person. If that person insists that your friend pool limit itself to only the portion of the population with whom you could never develop romantic feelings, that’s not great partnering.
It is also, circling back around to the question of the kinds of stories television is willing to tell, so narratively boring. Teen TV gets that, which is how for every Elena and Stefan, we get the ride-or-die Stefan and Lexi; for every Elena and Damon, we get the odd couple of Damon and Bonnie; for every Stefan and Caroline, we get a, well, a different, aromantically committed iteration of Stefan and Caroline (look, The Vampire Diaries was on for a long time, their ‘ships had room to grow). On Pretty Little Liars, Spencer and Toby might have been endgame, but Toby got to have a deeply complex friendship with Emily, while Spencer got her own sleuth-based, multi-dimensional friendship with Caleb. Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s main trio was a master class (at least, after that one cringey Willow/Xander misstep in Season Three) in true platonic love, their complicated but unwavering affection for one another literally proving the key to saving the world, multiple times. Veronica and Wallace? The healthiest, but still imperfectly human, love match Neptune, Calif. ever produced, as platonic as Plato himself.
On all these shows, friendships are not ancillary to the plot, or to the main character’s personal growth: They are central. Stefan’s version of home, in Death, is Lexi; Damon’s ability to achieve anything like humanity comes from his connection with Bonnie; Stefan and Caroline’s tethers to their own humanity are how the other sees and refuses to judge them. Emily’s burgeoning queerness finds friendly reflection in Toby’s bullied outsiderness, while Spencer’s most batshit investigative swings find balance in Caleb’s even-keeled keenness. And so on, through every story meant to show teens all the billions of ways it is possible to be a person in the world. None of these friendships are perfect; all of them argue and find their paths constantly diverging and re-converging, over and over. But every one of them is vital, and every one, in their refusal to hew to the predictability of a romantic arc, endlessly gripping.
This gripping vitality is not lost on the rare occasions when platonic ‘ships are carried over into the adult realm. Where TVD’s Damon and Bonnie keep each other grounded, Killjoys’ Dutch and Johnny, even in space, do the same. PLL’s Spencer and Caleb bond through investigation; so, too, do Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Jake and Rosa (see especially the Season Three entry “The Swedes.”) Ron and Leslie gave us seven seasons, and Mal and Zoe gave us one, of the kind of complicated but steadfast friendship that builds when you have a pair of headstrong mules on Parks and Recreation and Firefly, respectively, while the Tenth Doctor and Donna showed a modern Doctor Who audience that not all space-time adventures between a man-faced alien and a human woman need be a path to love in order to be exciting and full of compelling moral and philosophical quandaries. Peggy Carter and Edwin Jarvis showed us on Agent Carter (RIP) that not all superhero-adjacent spies need make eyes at one another to make our hearts race.
And then there is Elementary’s Joan and Sherlock, who have taken the age-old Sherlock/Watson ‘shipping subtext of Conan Doyle’s original—and the nearly not-subtext ‘shipping of the buzzy modern Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman—and firmly but respectfully refused to play along, positioning the pair instead as intellectual equals and committed friends and colleagues who have developed the kind of emotional attachment that can save a person from forgetting themselves, no heart fluttering necessary. They come back to our screens at the end of April, about the time when the rest of network television is pairing up their ‘shippable pairs for spring sweeps—that is, not a moment too soon.
Speaking of sweeps, there is, admittedly, one giant downside to platonic ‘shipping: There is no singular, universally recognized climax for that kind of arc to build to. Romantic ‘shipping has The Kiss (a prelude to smashing), or even The Nearly Fatal Accident or The Badly Timed Confession of Love (both impetuses and/or preludes to smashing). Platonic ‘ships have…high-fives? Tearful, soul-spilling conversations? Lots of little things, I guess, but not one Big Thing that a story can be built to hit. So from the perspective of writers’ rooms trying to shape a season that has some narrative momentum to it, I can understand the impulse to hang the whole thing on romance. But then I remember that Elementary is about to start its sixth season, and Jake and Rosa went to prison for each other, and every show on the Disney channel exists and, even in animated metal-magical princess form, manages to find emotional climaxes that have nothing to do with smashing at all.
So, adult television? Try a little harder! For every platonic ‘ship you don’t have the vision to develop, that’s another shot at confounding and delighting a jaded Harry-Met-Sally audience you’re letting wither on the vine.
Me, whenever Jake and Rosa aren’t killing it in the 9-9, I’m going to cue up all of teen TV’s greatest BFF hits while waiting for Joan and Sherlock’s triumphant return.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine airs Sundays at 8:30 p.m. on FOX. Elementary returns to CBS Monday, April 30.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.