Messy British Millennial Women (and Their Friends)
Though they’re different in tone, theme, and genre, these shows are part of a new trend of shows that focus on friendship rather than romantic love.
[Light spoilers for “Everything I Know About Love ”(Peacock); “Fleabag” (Amazon); and “I May Destroy You” (HBO)]
When I first moved to New York in February 2014, I was thrilled to finally live in the same city as my childhood best friend, also named Laura. We’d been long distance friends through high school and college, and now we lived a five minute walk from each other. In those first months, we chatted endlessly as we went grocery shopping at Fairway and quickly established weekly dinners at a nearby restaurant that had $5 burgers on Mondays. And we watched “Broad City,” from the dubious comfort of her tiny room in a cramped dumbbell apartment with an air shaft view.
For those who don’t know, “Broad City” (Comedy Central) follows two best friends in New York and their zany slackercore adventures. It hilariously delves into the less glamorous and more absurd parts of city life, from dealing with your roommate’s boyfriend who never leaves the apartment, to what happens when you miss the UPS delivery, to hauling a bag of free day-old bagels onto the subway. When “Broad City” came out, we were awestruck. How could a show so weird and so specific exist, right now? The girls have different situationships and romantic relationships, but the show makes its thesis unabashedly crystal-clear from the very first scene: this is a show about platonic female friendship, not romance. From the beginning, it’s clear that any passing hookup or fleeting affair will never hold a candle to the intimacy, devotion, and admiration Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) and Ilana (Ilana Glazer) demonstrate for one another. Theirs is a Great Love.
It’s rare for a show or movie to focus on friendship rather than romance, though I’d argue becoming more common in millennial and Gen Z TV. From a young age, most of us are programmed to believe that finding our soulmate is the key to a successful life, and that we are incomplete without it. (Think Bridget Jones or a million other rom coms). Many shows ostensibly about female friendship, like “Sex and the City,” ultimately peddle the same narrative. There’s a misconception, as friendship expert and author Marisa Franco told the New York Times, “that platonic love is somehow less important or meaningful than romantic love. We have this idea that people who have friendship at the center of their relationships are unhappy or unfulfilled.”
But Abbi and Ilana, and other friend pairings on TV, show us that this isn’t the case. Best friends and podcasters Anne Friedman and Aminatou Sou have delved into this topic, and even penned a book about it, called Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close. Their thesis is that society lacks a vocabulary and understanding of the complexity and centrality of female friendship. In a rough patch, the two go to couples therapy to work through their issues, something basically unheard of for platonic relationships. In doing so, Anne and Aminatou challenge the idea that friendship is any less complicated or important than romantic relationships.
I thought about this as I watched the Peacock series “Everything I Know About Love,” a British dramedy that follows Maggie (Emma Appleton), a 24-year-old party girl living in Camden, London, based on a book of the same title by Dolly Alderton. The first scenes follow Maggie on a train, where she has a meet-cute with a mysterious indie guy in a band. But as Maggie leaves the train station, her voiceover tells us the romance was a decoy: “This is a story of great love,” she says. “But it’s not the one you think it is.” The love story in question is between Maggie and her childhood best friend Birdy (Bel Powley), the type A worrywart to Maggie’s carefree, sometimes self-destructive type B. In an interview about the show, Alderton said she wanted to draw out the narrative of the show as a sort of romantic comedy between the two, and she wanted it to be “epic and grand and romantic.”
There are two other friendships with Maggie and Birdy’s roommates, friends from college, which take some of the focus off of Maggie and Birdy, and particularly Birdy’s thoughts and motivations throughout. It’s ultimately Maggie’s story, who can be in turns charming, infuriating, and depressing over the show’s seven episodes. Though the show as a whole can sometimes feel frivolous–I could have done with fewer scenes of characters we haven’t yet grown fond of arriving at the club in slow motion–Maggie and Birdy’s friendship is dead serious. “Everything I Know About Love” intersperses flashbacks into the girls’ past that show us how important each has been to the other in their most formative years, with the present. In the first episode, one of their other friends calls them “codependent,” but the majority of the series follows Maggie’s fears about losing Birdy to a new boyfriend. The two have difficulty communicating about the ways their relationship is changing, with Maggie often acting out rather than acknowledging and addressing her problems, and Birdy bottling things up.
Even though it’s not prestige TV, “Everything” made me think about several more high-profile British shows of the last few years centered around millennial women in London that center around female friendship – “Fleabag” and “I May Destroy You.” Tonally and thematically, these shows are very distinct–with “Everything I Know About Love'' at the most frivolous and comedic end of the spectrum–but their narrators share a number of parallels, too.
In the first season of “Fleabag,” we meet the unnamed narrator (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a charming and somewhat transgressive cafe owner in London, and her best friend Boo (Jenny Rainsford). In six short episodes, we see moments of their friendship in flashback and learn about its tragic end. Unlike “Everything I Know About Love,” we know from the beginning that, for reasons that become clear as the show continues, Boo isn’t in the picture anymore. In flashbacks, we see snapshots of their relationship. It seems Boo was the only person who made her feel not alone in the world after her mother died and her dad married her godmother and “stopped calling.” The two shared a special understanding of each other. In one flashback, Boo says, “Let’s never ask anyone for anything; they don’t get it,” speaking to a kind of insular, intimate connection that’s impenetrable to the outside world. Fleabag’s most peaceful memories are times she spent with her friend.
The Fleabag we meet on the show, like Maggie in “Everything,” is self-destructive and loves to stir the pot, deflecting and distracting herself rather than facing her emotions and reckoning with her own sense of guilt. In the wake of Boo’s death, Fleabag seems willing to sleep with anyone at any time, whether or not she enjoys it (some reviews have referred to Fleabag as a sex addict, but I’m not sure the show wants to pathologize her in that way). Occasionally, the facade breaks, as it does in “Everything”–though in both cases, it could be too late. In the first season, the fleeting relationships she has are mere distractions from the emptiness she feels, but it’s the loss of Boo that’s at the show’s emotional center.
“I think [my goal] was really [to] talk about a friendship in a way that avoided the sentimentality of best girlfriends forever, and also to show how much we could take it for granted, and loss, the profound loss of somebody who knows you better than anyone else,” said Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the show’s creator and star, in an interview with AV Club. One of the show’s most unique aspects–Fleabag constantly breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience–could even be a response to this. “She doesn’t have Boo anymore. She doesn’t have somebody who understands her and forgives and laughs and enjoys her darker wit and naughtiness. And so she’s had to find somebody else, and she found the audience to have that complicity with.”
That question of complicity comes up often in “I May Destroy You,” which premiered in early 2020, another London-based show that shares a focus on female friendship. The show revolves around writer Arabella (Michaela Coel), as she struggles to cope in the wake of being raped, as well as other more subtle questions about consent and sexual assault. The subject matter here is undeniably much darker than “Everything I Know About Love'' or even “Fleabag,” which is at least in part a comedy. But the central role of Arabella’s friendship with her best friend Terry (Weruche Opia), and of course their setting, brings these shows together. Like “Everything,” we see their friendship both in the present day and in flashbacks as school children. The two share common roots as the children of African immigrants growing up in London, creative dreams, and a deep devotion to one another. They even have a catchphrase that encapsulates their intense bond: “Your birth is my birth, your death is my death.”
Similarly to the dynamic between Birdy and Maggie, Arabella is the more responsible friend, a mama bear who wants to take care of Arabella in the wake of her trauma. She’s read up on it and encourages “self care” activities, some of which are more successful than others. She worries about some of Arabella’s other friendships and relationships, sometimes veering on the judgmental side, but she undeniably wants what’s best for her friend: in a way, Terry sees Arabella’s struggle as her struggle. Terry accompanies Arabella to the police station when she goes to report the crime. She signs them up for therapeutic painting classes and buys her vape pens instead of cigarettes.
But of course, Arabella ultimately is going through this trauma alone, and Terry can’t understand exactly what Arabella is going through. At times, Terry is impatient that her friend isn’t coping the “right” way– that she continues to party and hang out with people who are wrong for her rather than, say, meditating. But is Terry so invested in Arabella’s recovery because she feels guilty, or complicit, herself? That, along with many other questions this magnificent show poses, could be left for the audience to decide.
Birdy, Boo, and Terry may not be the protagonists of their stories, but they’re not side characters who exist to deliver one-liners and exposition, either. Though they’re different in tone, theme, and genre, these shows are part of a new trend of shows that focus on friendship rather than romantic love. In doing so, they’re giving these important relationships some of the attention they deserve, and decentering the ubiquity of the romantic narrative in a way that defies expectation, and can sometimes even feel transgressive.
What I’m Watching:
I’m a Sharon Horgan stan and will watch anything she’s involved in, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting each new installment of her new show, “Bad Sisters,” on Apple TV, whose finale airs this Friday. The show follows sisters in Ireland (that’s a lot of sisters) as they plot to kill their sister’s emotionally abusive husband. The tone is dark but funny, and the hijinks that ensue will make you gasp and laugh, even when it feels like you probably shouldn’t.