On television sexual tension used to be unresolved, now it’s simply unseen. In a wave of prominent new shows, the traditional couple – two lovers, one narrative – is no longer the fulcrum for the storytelling. Writers and producers are finding new relationships, sometimes communal and often inclusive, to link together and test their fictional characters. That old chestnut of “will they or won’t they?” feels like a throwback to an earlier television age. Nowadays it’s better to be friends than to actually duplicate Friends.
Aside from wanting to swerve away from convention, it’s easy to see why television’s creators might want to avoid pairing up their protagonists. A show that relies on the romantic attraction between two characters often feels like it has reached a dead-end when the duo finally gets together – the screwball banter of Moonlighting, one of the joys of 1980s American television, never quite recovered from Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd’s private eyes becoming full-time partners and then parents.
The current show that makes this change explicit is Five Bedrooms, the pathos-infused Australian drama that jumped from Network Ten to its corporate sibling streaming site Paramount+. The show’s focus is a five-piece of thirtysomethings, initially stuck together on an odds and sods table at a wedding but soon united by free alcohol and expensive housing. Pooling their deposits – and their issues – lets the quintet buy a family home as a grown-up share house. Pillow talk is replaced by kitchen chats for these budding friends.
At the start of the recently released second season Kat Stewart’s Liz, who is so often torn between logic and emotion as she tries to rebuild her life, is drawn back to the husband she left, Stuart (Rodger Corser, giving a finely judged performance), who dangles the prospect of them reuniting and becoming parents. She ends up refusing his entreaties, literally saying goodbye on the phone and joining her friends. She goes towards what television once had its characters leave behind.
These shows are still love stories, but the definition is increasingly fluid and fascinating to unpack. In Hacks, the terrific new HBO comedy streaming in Australia on Stan, it’s the incessant demands of work that initially unite two comedians seemingly divided by age, wealth and their faith in punchlines. Both legendary Las Vegas drawcard Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and Los Angeles upstart Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) define themselves by how they work for laughs, and that steadily deepens after the former hires the latter.
At the start of one episode Ava has what she describes as “a sex-ish dream” about Deborah – the Millennial is a master of self-doubting explanations – but their bond is essentially defined by work. When you don’t believe that you have time for a private life, or at least one that’s meaningful, your job and who you do it with and who you do it for becomes central to your life. Flinty and unwilling to yield, the intimacy between the pair, which propels Hacks, is a relationship without easy boundaries.
One of the best versions of platonic love on our screens is about to come to an end, as the fifth and final season of the ABC’s small-town-in-Tassie comedy Rosehaven winds up. Celia Pacquola’s Emma Dawes and Luke McGregor’s Daniel McCallum are best friends who may be closer than a couple. The frankness with which the two eccentric real estate agents respond to each other’s failings is more prickly than pleasant, and they make fewer allowances for flaws than a married couple in a similar situation would.