Prompted by the first kiss between Nick and Jess on New Girl, Todd VanDerWerff writes about will-they/won't-they relationships on television, and the benefits (and difficulties) of staying on the chaste side of the equation:
What I am is something closer to a “friendship shipper.” Instead of wanting to see two people on a show I like sleep together, I have a tendency to want to see them strike up a mutually beneficial friendship that skirts the uneasy lines of sexual politics and becomes a relationship of deep and abiding respect, but no more. When, in the 30 Rock finale, Jack Donaghy professed his platonic love for Liz Lemon — in German, no less — it was the ultimate moment for the friendship shipper I am deep down inside. I just want these people to respect and appreciate each other, then maybe go and get a sandwich together so they can bitch about work. Is that too much to ask?
I appreciate the distinction. A deep friendship is one of the most rewarding things in life, and it should be represented in popular culture. Jack and Liz (please don't combine the names) were the heart of 30 Rock, and it was important that each trusted the other not to endanger their strange compatability for the sake of sexual adventure. And I think most of us agree with VanDerWerff on Mad Men's Don and Peggy. ("If the series finale of Mad Men ended with Don giving Peggy a firm handshake and saying, “Y’done good, young lady,” well, I think my heart would just about melt.")
It's generally more interesting to watch — and, consciously or not, identify with — characters who have intelligence, self-awareness, and the ability to deliberate before they act. That's a strength of shows like Mad Men, The Good Wife, Friday Night Lights, Deadwood, etc. But good storytelling often demands that they be willing to do things we would reject out of hand as impractical or immoral. We like stories that give us a chance to see what might happen if we followed through on some fleeting thought, like stealing money at work (another "but he wouldn't do that!" plot on Mad Men) or having an affair with someone else's spouse. ... When our favorite characters, as opposed to simpletons or stock villains, do these things, the stories can be much more powerful.
These shows would be boring if their characters didn't frequently make bad or impulsive decisions. But it's sad to think of every platonic relationship as something to be sacrificed when a show's writers can't think of anything else to do. (It used to be easier to just set the reset button, as Taxi did by giving Alex and Elaine one roll in the hay before restoring their just-friends status, but Cheers established the rule that sex must have permanent consequences.) One reason that 30 Rock worked is that Tina Fey made it as clear as possible that Liz and Jack would never "go to there."
The Liz-and-Jack relationship has a lot of similarities to one of the greatest platonic pairings in TV history, Mary Richards and Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In the penultimate episode of that series (in a final season with some similarities to the last year of 30 Rock), Mary and Lou finally entertain the possibility of a sexual relationship — not because they suddenly find each other physically attractive, but because they're just tired of being disappointed by other people. "Lou Dates Mary" ends with the pair attempting to make out but dissolving in laughter. "That was really silly kissing," Lou says with some relief, and the two friends immediately agree to keep things as they are.
It would have been thrilling to see Mary and Lou become a couple in the series finale, just as many 30 Rock fans would have teared up the show ended with Liz and Jack in each other's arms. But in both cases, the thrill would be fleeting. It's much more satisfying to think of Mary/Lou and Liz/Jack as friends, able to advise and confide in each other without sexual agendas getting in the way.