The best love story on Grey’s Anatomy—a TV series that is for the, most part, built on love stories—was not between romantic partners. It was between two best friends: Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) and Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo). Their love for each other is encapsulated in three little words: ”You’re my person.” At first, that phrase refers to Meredith’s seemingly benign status as Cristina’s emergency medical contact. The honor, as it were, seems so sterile. But for an endearingly cold, solitary person like Cristina, there’s nothing more binding than an emergency-contact designation. It’s official, it’s real: There’s documented, scientific proof that Meredith and Cristina are now best friends.
When Meredith and Cristina needed someone, they ran to each other (often literally), and their respective romantic partners came to terms with that. Cristina and Meredith’s friendship is one of the great redeeming factors that could get lost beneath Grey’s soap operatics, especially as the series progressed. But despite Post-It marriage contracts and the like, on a show that had no shortage of relationships, the most enduring one was between these two. “If I murdered someone, she’s the person I’d call to drag the corpse across the living room floor,” Cristina told her then-fiancé, who never really got it. Perhaps he wasn’t watching enough TV.
From Lucy and Ethel to Mary and Rhoda to Abbi and Ilana, the best love stories on television are between two women in a platonic relationship. As women started to run their own shows and gained a foothold in the writers’ room, television shows stopped seeing their female characters as wives and mothers, and started portraying them as fully fledged characters, with their own inner lives that needed to be fleshed out and made whole. A best friend, not necessarily a man, is what made these women complete.
TV’s basic format serves the breadth and depth of female friendship particularly well. Sometimes these relationships are in the foreground of the show—as in Broad City or Playing House—while others sit comfortably in the background—think Lorelai and Sookie on Gilmore Girls—occurring while other romantic entanglements take the A-plot. These friendships become the one sustaining coupling a show doesn’t feel the need to mess with to keep the story interesting.
Epic love stories work better in self-contained spaces. They need to have a defined beginning, middle and end, even if that love will supposedly continue when the credits start to roll. Because even epic love can turn into boring, everyday love. Romeo and Juliet were only interesting because they died young and beautiful before happily, banally ever after. While cynical, that’s how television views love, because that eventual normality is not as interesting as courtship when it comes to the longform narrative.
Movies that center on romance don’t have these issues. Female friendship is relegated to “funny best friend” territory, a means to satisfy diversity casting or bring in extra comic relief. But that’s because our time with these characters is short lived. Their relationships are about surface sparks, not long-term investment.
To keep romantic relationships worthy of the screentime, they need to have their ups and downs. Couples break up—sometimes for no reason other than the demands of a script—and get forced back together. When that normality sets in, love is no longer exciting. The stability of marriage is the constant butt of a joke: Get married, and the excitement ends, so many sitcoms have told us. Yes, there have been successful romantic pairings on television, so it’s not like these don’t exist. Who among us has not cooed over Eric and Tami Taylor? But their story was an ancillary aspect of Friday Night Lights, not its main focus. How I Met Your Mother’s Lily and Marshall may have been a lovely story—but Lily didn’t need to break up with Robin in order to give season two a through-line.
This steadfastness, this solidity of the feminine bond didn’t arise because it’s more interesting or more layered than romantic love. Sex And The City was ostensibly about four women on the prowl for the one or a one-night stand—depending on the mood, or whether they were Samantha. But the parade of men was just a facade for the real love story between these women. They were four very different people who loved each other in very different ways. When Samantha got cancer, it was her three best friends that stood by her, not a love interest. Mr. Big came in and out of Carrie’s life, but Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha were always there for her. Their small acts of loyalty and compassion could never compare to Mr. Big’s larger romantic displays—they could be candid and open with each other, revealing parts of themselves that their romantic partners never got to see. Their individual relationships with each other were different and layered and still, they endured. The same could be said for Sex And The City’s little sister, Girls, where these women pull away from each other and run back not because these relationship are easy. In fact, it’s because of the total opposite. Romantic partners in each of these worlds have their fatal flaws, yet the woman in their lives remain.
Female friendship can also act as a familial surrogate, removing any need for, well, anyone else. In Playing House, that metaphor is writ large: Maggie (Lennon Parham) and Emma (Jessica St. Clair) are two best friends who move in together after a pregnant Maggie finds out that her husband has an internet girlfriend. Maggie and Emma act as if they are a couple with a newborn because they are a couple with a newborn. Playing House works because Parham and St. Clair, best friends in real life, make this relationship feel lived-in and real, as if they walk off the set each night to grab coffee to debrief on the day’s shoot. Onscreen, they fight and snipe at each other like spouses, but in the end, they always come back to each other.
This platonic relationship fills the emotional void of a potential romantic partner. Maggie doesn’t need her deadbeat husband; she has Emma. In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) is as much Rebecca’s (Rachel Bloom) mother figure as she is her main confidante in West Covina. Friends was created on the premise that in our 20s, our friends begin to replace our family members. In the pilot, when Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston) ditches her fiancé at the altar to lead the life she actually wants to live, who does she run to? Her childhood best friend, Monica Geller (Courteney Cox). In the show’s early seasons, Monica also acts like a sort of mom to Rachel. “Welcome to the real world,” she tells her friend/ward. “It sucks.”
Like any romantic pairing, these relationships require chemistry. The Mary Tyler Moore Show reveled in a pairing that is often saved for feature-length rom-coms: opposites attract. Brash New Yorker Rhoda was not supposed to become friends with sweet, perma-positive Midwesterner Mary. Mary’s first love was supposed to be her job, and Rhoda filled a confidante role outside the office that could have gone to a boyfriend. I Love Lucy’s Ethel and Lucy similarly worked with opposites: Lucy was the schemer, Ethel was the voice of reason. Both ended up always getting into trouble, both remain fiercely committed to each other. On Broad City, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer play with this idea of opposites and straight (wo)men. Their appeal lies in the fact that both can be equally ridiculous. Ilana is ostensibly the troublemaker, while Abbi the Ethel-esque levelheaded one. But it’s usually Abbi who gets herself into her own series of scrapes without Ilana’s influence, which dispels this notion that without Ilana, Abbi would be a fully functioning twentysomething.
But seriously, who wants that when Abbi has someone with whom she can discuss the distinctions between butt and head hair? That’s a conversation so intimate, it needed to happen between two people who aren’t having sex with each other. Perhaps Abbi and Ilana represent an unhealthy bond, but that’s not unlike what a lot of young women, unencumbered by a significant other, share. Who needs a dude when you’ve got your best friend? And, even, when you have a dude, you still need your real soulmate: The series opens up while both are taking part in what should be intimate moments. Abbi inspects her vibrator, Ilana rides her not-boyfriend Lincoln. “Ab, Ab, Ab, no joke. Today is the day we become Abbi and Ilana, the boss bitches we are in our minds!” Ilana tells Abbi while Lincoln is inside of her. Sure, she should probably be focusing elsewhere, not Facetiming her bestie. As ridiculous as this moment is, the episode, and the rest of the series, is adept at capturing the smaller moments between the two. They sit on the subway together, sharing a pair of headphone and laughing at an unheard joke. That’s where real friendship, and real love, lies.
So there’s no reason for Ilana to disengage from Lincoln before calling up Abbi. They’ve got schemes to pull off, and they’re going to do them together. Just like the many TV female friendships that preceded them—they’re each other’s person. Movie rom-coms may urge women to search the world for their star-crossed loves: These TV pairings suggest that our true life partners may be closer than we think.