Before it was possible to binge watch shows on Netflix or attack an entire series On Demand, I remember falling as desperately in love with television characters as I did with the folks who populated my favorite books. At times my taste was questionable - 90210 and Melrose Place - while other shows captured my heart from the first - Wonder Years, Northern Exposure, and Breaking Bad. (Currently I am enraptured with The Good Wife.) Coincidentally I'm working writing an instructional article about crafting characters, and I would argue that any reputable character study can begin not only in the pages of a book but certainly on the small screen. To that end, I started comparing two of my favorite shows, both HBO series. Girls and Sex and the City.
My childhood was punctuated with the delight of hearing the HBO theme song and a roller coaster ride through the letters followed by Fraggle Rock. So for me the channel has always been somewhat of a security blanket. And when Sex and the City aired, I was enamored of Carrie Bradshaw and her trio of single ladies from word one. They were sexy, intelligent, and flawed at the worst times, brilliant at the best. I struggled to label myself as a Samantha or a Charlotte, when in actuality I was every one of them depending on the day of the week. To this day I lavish in the reruns E! provides, thrilled that they've made them vaguely child friendly. I am embarrassed to admit that my four year-old daughter not only recognizes Big but hates when he appears on The Good Wife as if he's tripped through a time machine and now resembles her Pop Pop.
And then HBO and Lena Dunham devised Girls, and I fell down the rabbit hole once more. I'm a good decade away from those young women, but Hannah's neuroses and frantic behavior channeled Woody Allen and made me feel normal. I wasn't apparently the only one foolish enough to think she could write a book in a day or looked good in neon mesh shirts once upon a time. I wanted another SATC experience. I wanted another Carrie...but something felt off. I still swear by Girls' witty writing, not to mention the fact that Lena D. is willing to whip off her shirt whenever she wants, kicking traditional beauty stereotypes to the side. But a vague sense of loss plagued me with each new episode, and then it hit me. The women of Girls aren't, well, friends.
One of the characteristics of Bradshaw and co. is without hesitation, without cattiness or hate, that the women support one another. Sure, they throw up caution tape when Carrie embarks on her third, fourth, and fifth affairs with Big, but they still catch her when she falls. They defend Miranda when she is accused of having a fat ass in a casino, they rally around Samantha during her breast cancer ordeal, and they um...retrieve...Carrie's stuck diaphragm. It isn't simply a matter of wanting to be Carrie (or Samantha or Charlotte or Miranda) but rather wanting them all as backup singers to my life. In contrast, the young women of Girls feel like friends by default. They've been assigned to the roles of supporting one another, but there is continually the subtext of jealousy or inadequacy. Do most women feel those emotions? For sure. But what SATC most brilliantly achieves isn't at all the relationship between the women and men but rather an exemplar of what the relationship between women and women should be.
Will an audience follow characters that instigate constant drama with one another and define the term frenemy? Absolutely, but they will STICK with characters who support one another and model a dynamic of friendship that we all crave. This revelation made me reconsider the relationships of the protagonists in my current project and take away a bit of the edge. They can be flawed, they can fall down, but if they don't have the right hands to pick them up, the audience will be happy to let them stay there.
Moral of the story? Build characters that truly, selflessly, have the capacity to love one another.
The new season of Girls starts in January, and I will definitely continue to watch, but ten years down the road, when sanitized reruns hit E!, I'm not sure I'll have a taste for it the second time around. I do, however, think I will always succumb to Sex and the City.
A mother, teacher, and writer who enjoys all good stories and believes in the magic we can make every day by telling them.