Channel Surfing #8: Friends Edition – unREAL, Casual, The Americans

Best Fiends Forever

Money.

Dick.

Power.

When the second season of Lifetime’s unREAL begins Rachel and Quinn are getting matching tattoos of the three words above. These aspirations are what they want out of real life and out of Everlasting, the Bachelor-esque reality show that they are producing. In that order. They don’t get matching “Peace. Love. Serenity” tats or “Namaste” or some other touchy-feely bullshit. That’s not the relationship they have. Written in a scrawl, the tattoos recall something you’d write on your best friend’s arm with ballpoint pen in junior high. Except these are tattoos that bluntly spell out to everyone that they are in it for success – permanently. They want what the men around them already have and seem to get automatically. But most importantly they want the same things at the same time – together. Whatever issues that the first season of unREAL had (and it had and still has some real, fundamental problems) the relationship between Rachel and Quinn was always the solid, if creepy, foundation. unREAL was more than a hardcore soap opera shrouded in a cynical workplace satire because of this relationship and these two characters. It was the relationship that informed the characters of Quinn and Rachel and it was the relationship that grounded the show.

That takes care of money and the power. It’s the middle thing that gets me. Quinn and Rachel can get money and power together. Dick, sex, men – they do that separately. It’s really the one thing that disconnects the two, it’s the one thing that keeps their relationship platonic. They don’t interfere with each other’s sex lives, not really. They just don’t seem to care very much about what the other is doing in that regard. “Dick” may in fact mean different things to both of them – sex for Rachel and, perhaps, some kind of power for Quinn (at one point in the most recent episode, after a particularly gruesome and successful bit of contestant manipulation, she grabs her crotch and shouts, “I’m so hard”).

Rachel and Quinn do love each other in some twisted way. In fact, this season, Rachel is outwardly, showily and unsubtly becoming the new Quinn in such an obvious way that multiple characters comment on it. A lot. It’s not the only mirroring or morphing that this season plays with either – there is a young producer (a lowly and abused production assistant in the first season), Madison, who is turning into the new Rachel and there is a contestant, Yael, who is called, by the entire crew, “Hot Rachel” (much to Rachel’s chagrin. In fact, she asks Quinn to stop with it and Quinn counters with, hilariously, “No, that’s her name!”). The fascinating thing about Rachel and Quinn is that they are not friends in the conventional sense – they don’t really look out for each other because they both have their own self-interest and self-preservation as their number one goal. They manipulate each other just as much as they play everyone else. But they are often on the same side and they want to make the best show possible – or at least that was largely the case in season 1. They are a team, they are partners. The most recent episode shakes this up and may position Rachel and Quinn against each other. But, they are at their (destructive, manipulative) best when they are working together. And I’d argue that the show is too. As the new, smarmy show runner Coleman says: “the two of you together are terrifying”.

Best Friends Forever?

I had a love-hate relationship with Casual throughout its first season and that has largely extended into its second. The love was for anything surrounding Michaela Watkins’ Valerie and the hate was for almost everything else. Casual follows the relationship trials and tribulations of a brother, Alex, and sister, the aforementioned Valerie, living together in Los Angeles, along with the sister’s teenage daughter, Laura. In season 2, we find Valerie primarily where we left her. Newly divorced, socially challenged, looking to move on from previous relationships and repair the ones that she had all but destroyed by sleeping with Alex’s girlfriend and starting a relationship with Laura’s high school photography teacher (and crush).

Rather smartly, though, instead of starting the season by giving Valerie a new love-interest, the season starts by exploring a platonic relationship (at least for now) that Valerie begins with another therapist, Jennifer, who works in the same office building. Casual builds the relationship like a romance and Alex even calls this a “friend crush”. Valerie tries to traverse the world of friendship as an adult after essentially being shunned by her former (horrible) friends. What works well about this story is that, at its heart, Casual is a romantic comedy and now is using those terms to explore a friendship. Making a new friend when you are over 30 isn’t as easy as it was when you were 6. Maybe it is just as difficult as a romantic relationship, maybe even more so. Adults have all of this baggage and history and, usually, want much more from each other than to play dress-up or Super Nintendo for 12 hours straight. At first, Valerie feels like she needs Jennifer much more than vice versa. We know as much about Jennifer as Valerie does at the beginning: she’s gorgeous, charming, casually cool, smart, already has a bunch of friends – the exact kind of person that anyone in their right mind would want to be friends with. We see what Valerie sees in Jennifer and their friendship is one that we can root for. And, crucially, Jennifer likes Valerie right back. And if this is headed towards a disastrous outcome like most of Valerie’s forays into the dating world, then so be it. At the moment though, it is just as fun and exciting for us as it is for Valerie.

Best Friends For a Moment

My favourite brief friendship so far this TV season was the one between Elizabeth (posing as a woman named “Patty”) and Young Hee on The Americans. Like Jennifer on Casual, it is easy to see what Elizabeth finds so appealing about Young Hee. They are similar in some ways – young mothers with school-age kids with devoted though sometimes absent husbands. Young Hee is fun and funny and brings Elizabeth out of her stoic shell and teases out a kind of humanity that seemed foreign to Elizabeth in earlier seasons. Elizabeth has always been very good at keeping her emotions separate from the intimate situations that her work demanded. But with Young Hee, her guard is lowered and she experiences a kind of friendly intimacy that she – very much unlike Philip – had always done her best to avoid. Throughout the seasons, we’ve seen in Philip’s relationship with Martha, his discovery of EST and his bond with Stan that he has the ability to make real connections and, although these connections make spying more complicated, he is able to get closer to people, to find out more about them and, really, explore humanity and empathy in a way that Elizabeth won’t allow for herself. In some ways this ability for emotional connection makes Philip a better spy. But it also makes his spy game a more dangerous one.

Elizabeth doesn’t have an outside escape where Philip does/did. Young Hee is that escape, momentarily, even if Elizabeth knows it was fleeting. For a moment, she allows herself to get close to someone even though she knows that she will inevitably hurt them, even if she knows that, in the end, she will also get hurt. And this is what’s most important, that Elizabeth cares about hurting Young Hee. What starts as a fake friendship quickly becomes something real, something exciting, something giddily fun. Elizabeth behaves like a teenager when she gets tipsy on wine with her new friend. But the occupational hazards of spying are great, especially when you become friends with the person you are spying on. In a season full of exceptional moments, there was one that hit me hardest. Elizabeth, sitting on her bed, after she has destroyed her relationship with Young Hee and potentially Young Hee’s marriage, says to Phillip, the only person she can tell, the only other person in the world who will understand, her only other friend, “I’m going to miss her”.

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