We’ve been in a golden age of television for a while now. Many shows credited for giving rise to that proclamation, however, are stories about men — specifically, male antiheroes in dramas and men behaving badly in sitcoms. Well, the reign of male-dominated series is on the decline. Critically acclaimed and audience-beloved AMC hits Breaking Bad (2008-2013) and Mad Men (2007-2015) are over, as is CBS ratings juggernaut Two and a Half Men (2003-2015). As the sun has set on those male-centric shows, it’s risen on a glorious genre that showcases female friendship in a more specific way than ever before portrayed on TV.
The female buddy sitcom has been thriving for several seasons now, thanks to shows such as 2 Broke Girls (2011-present), Broad City (2014-present), and Doll & Em (2013-present), which returns for a second season on HBO September 13. Female buddy sitcoms are a genre unto themselves because of the unique bond between two people on which they focus. The most compelling of such characters and relationships are often portrayed by the same writers and creators who thought them up in the first place. On Broad City, for example, series co-creators Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer star as Abbi Abrams and Ilana Wexler, the more uptight yin to the other’s stoner yang.
It's worth noting that we’re not including series like Girls (2012-present) in this genre, because while the show's portrayal of its main quartet celebrates female friendship, Girls is steeped in the Sex and the City (1998-2004) and Girlfriends (2000-2008) tradition of chronicling a group. Female buddy sitcoms follow one pair, and it’s the thrust of their friendships that provides the dramatic tension, comedic fodder, and story lines for the series.
Sure, the characters go off and have adventures separately, but their worlds orbit around each other, and they’re even more dynamic as a duo. Their lives are deeply interconnected, and the world of the show revolves around them. There’s definitely an astronomy diagram with two foci to be drawn, but ninth-grade knowledge is eluding us at this moment, and you get the idea without flashy visuals of planetary orbits.
Female buddy sitcoms have certainly been on the air in the past. Some examples include Lucy and Ethel on I Love Lucy (1951-1957), Laverne & Shirley (1976-1983), Kate & Allie (1984-1989), Absolutely Fabulous (1992-1995, 2011-2012), and Sister, Sister (1994-1999). But never before have we had such a concurrent wealth of on-screen pairs whose third we’d love to be.
So, why is this genre flourishing in 2015? In recent years, female characters on TV have become more complex and three-dimensional in both dramas and comedies. Still, as Claire Fallon articulated in May on Huffington Post, “Taboo-busting female characters in comedy make many critics feel unsettled, and it’s not just the traditionalists. A surprising level of finger-wagging has been coming from feminist and pro-woman sources, the very viewers who might be expected to back this blossoming of complex female leads.”
Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) on 30 Rock (2006-2013) is critiqued for being pathetic, despite her position as a head writer who leads a staff of mostly men. Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling) on The Mindy Project (2012-present), an Ob/Gyn now starting her own fertility practice, is seen as abrasive and selfish. For much of its first season in 2011-2012, New Girl’s Jessica Day (Zooey Deschanel) was criticized for her adorkability and overly sunny disposition. By making her a fish out of water in a loft full of men, the show brings Jess’ extremely feminine quirks into stark contrast with her surroundings.
These female characters are fully realized and three-dimensional, yet they still face criticism for the complexities of their characters. Fallon points out that female writers, actors, and comediennes have gained parity in their field over the past few years, but progress is slow. That’s where female buddy sitcoms come into play. Not only do they provide an intimate look at how women interact with one another, bringing out previously unseen personality facets, they also allow for characters to act as audience surrogates, responding to the limited way in which the world sees female relationships.
Some viewers are critical of Abbi and Ilana on Broad City for being hot messes. Jacobson and Glazer can reference this in a story line on the show, quasi-breaking the fourth wall and letting everyone know that they hear what’s being said. The characters on female buddy comedies aren’t the sole women swimming against the tide. They’ve always got someone on their side, and that fosters a sense of camaraderie for both critics and viewers. In balancing each other out (they’re often the id to the other’s ego, or type A and type B), they also balance out the immense expectations we heap upon the sole female protagonist in shows like 30 Rock.
This doesn’t mean that female buddy sitcoms are a perfectly formed pieces of television. While not scarce in number, this genre is still suffering in terms of representation and diversity. Most, if not all, friendships showcased involve two thin, attractive, heterosexual, white women. There’s a duo in almost every age bracket, from Faking It's (2014-present) teens all the way up to Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, which features heroines in their 70s (Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin). But, the majority of these female characters are on the younger side (late teens through 30s). There’s still a lot of ground to be covered and paradigms to break.
But, we can still celebrate the shows and characters we do have. These series, with their wise-cracking, codependent (in a way viewers want in on), ride-or-die besties, showcase the type of bond that goes beyond even sisterhood. Because as we all know, you can choose your friends, but your family is preselected for you. Ahead, we explore what makes these duos so infinitely watchable.