Friday, October 22, 2010

Friends and Friends

David Brooks turns his soulful eyes to the sitcom:

For most of television history, sitcoms have been about families. From “The Dick Van Dyke Show” to “All in the Family” to “The Cosby Show,” TV shows have generally featured husbands and wives, parents and kids.

But over the past several years, things have shifted. Today’s shows are often about groups of unrelated friends who have the time to lounge around apartments, coffee shops and workplaces exchanging witticisms about each other and the passing scene.

As Neal Gabler wrote in The Los Angeles Times this week, “Over the last 20 years, beginning with ‘Seinfeld,’ and moving on through ‘Friends,’ ‘Sex and the City’ and more recently ‘Desperate Housewives,’ ‘Glee,’ ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ ‘How I Met Your Mother,’ ‘Cougartown’ and at least a half-dozen other shows, including this season’s newbies ‘Raising Hope’ and ‘Better With You,’ television has become a kind of friendship machine dispensing groups of people in constant and intimate contact with one another.”

Well, first, I don’t accept the premise of the argument. For every family-based sitcom he names, I can come back with one that isn’t. And I don’t just mean recent TV history; we can go all the way back to the days of fuzzy black-and-white shows on the DuMont: “Love That Bob”, “Our Miss Brooks”, “Sgt. Bilko”, “McHale’s Navy”, and on and on. And if you want to stray off the tube and go into theatre, we have “flock comedies” going all the way back through the 18th Century, the Restoration, Shakespeare, and Greek and Roman theatre.

So that said, Mr. Brooks then proceeds to tell us that friendships are changing and that we are at a moment in time when we no longer think of our friends as one-to-one relationships but as group-think.

But today’s friendships — those represented in the flock comedies and perhaps in real life — are less likely to be one on one. Instead, individual relationships tend to be deeply embedded in a complex web of group relationships. This creates a different set of social problems.

Thanks to social network technologies, people have to figure out how concentrated they want their friendship networks to be. Those with low-density networks can have a vast array of friends, but if the network gets too distended you are left with nothing but a dispersed multitude of shallow connections. People with a concentrated network have a narrower circle of friends, but if it is too dense you have erected an insular and stultifying social fortress.

Thanks to the segmentation of society, people have to figure out how rigorously they should segregate their different friendship circles: their work friends from their play friends; their artsy friends from their jock friends; their college friends from their religious or ethnic friends.

Thanks to greater equality between the sexes, people are more likely to socialize within co-ed flocks. They have to figure out how to handle sexual tension within the group: whether the eroticization of friendship ruins the essential bond; whether sex between two people within a friendship mob threatens to destroy the entire chemistry of the mob.

Finally, there is the question of whether group friendships are more or less satisfying than the one-on-one, bosom-buddy relationships. In an age of Facebook, Twitter networks and geo-location apps, are people trading flexibility and convenience for true commitment?

To quote the Immortal Bard: Sheesh.

I’m pretty sure there are some people whose friendships and connections are defined by how they keep in touch. Speaking solely for myself, though, things such as social networks and TV shows neither dictate or reflect what I do in real life. My friends are my friends, and like just about everyone else, I have several flocks, so to speak: work, car club, school, camp, and so on. A lot of them overlap, and I really haven’t seen the dynamic change over the years, even as I’ve moved from one place to another.

In other words, group friendship is burbling to the surface of television life because the promise and perplexities of modern friendship networks are burbling to the top of national life. What’s striking is not that television is treating changing friendship norms so thoroughly but that other cultural institutions are treating it so sparingly.

That’s probably because television is usually two years behind the curve and the other cultural institutions have moved on.