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The Rise of the Female Buddy Dramedy

Linda Cardellini and Christina Applegate in Dead to Me; Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever in Booksmart.
Linda Cardellini and Christina Applegate in Dead to Me; Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever in Booksmart. Photo: Netflix, Annapurna Pictures

In a scene near the end of Booksmart, best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) say an underplayed good-bye to one another and (briefly) go in their own respective directions. During that short-lived separation, Lykke Li’s cover of “Unchained Melody” plays plaintively on the soundtrack, highlighting what is obvious about Booksmart from the get-go: This is a love story. Not a romantic one, but one about the intense and complicated love that exists in platonic friendships between women.

Recently, there has been a spike in these kinds of stories — I’ll call them female buddy dramedies — in pop culture. I’m thinking of films such as Tully, one of the most underrated releases of 2018, about a mother and her complicated relationship with her night nanny; the aforementioned Booksmart; and Animals, the story of two hard-partying BFFs in Dublin that debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Though they deal less with female friendships and more with workplace dynamics between women, Little and Late Night also zero in on two women and how they learn to support each other. (Late Night may not be a buddy comedy or dramedy per se, but its poster certainly makes it look like one.) It’s not a coincidence that each of these movies was written by a woman, directed by a woman, or both.

To an even greater extent on television, the first six months of 2019 alone have delivered Hulu’s PEN15, about the co-dependent relationship between a pair of middle schoolers circa the year 2000; Tuca & Bertie, the Netflix animated series about the bond between a pair of female birds; and Dead to Me, also on Netflix, in which two women in a grief support group develop a friendship based on having more in common than they initially realize. They join preexisting series like Grace & Frankie, Killing Eve (which isn’t about a healthy friendship but is certainly centered on the strong, sexually charged connection between two women), and Vida, about two nearly opposite sisters attempting to reopen their late mother’s bar in gentrifying East Los Angeles. All of these series — again, no coincidence — were created or co-created by women.

Movies and TV shows have certainly focused on relationships between pairs of women long before now. To cite a few random examples just off the top of my head: Thelma & Louise, Absolutely Fabulous, Beaches, Ghost World, and Gilmore Girls. But during the past decade or so, the projects most celebrated for shining a spotlight on women have tended to be driven by a single heroine or anti-heroine (see Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Ladybird, Insecure, Veep, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Better Things) or they’ve been ensemble pieces in which the interplay between multiple women is the primary focus and source of empowerment (think Bridesmaids, Orange Is the New Black, GLOW, Good Girls, Girls Trip, Widows, Ocean’s 8, Ghostbusters, and Big Little Lies). When a series or film is defined by two women whose lives are intertwined, it has the capacity to dig deeper and more specifically into the ways that women relate to each other and how much they value their friendships. It can also offer a completely different way of looking at certain types of stories that we think we already know.

In many of the examples cited above, the bonds between these women are so tight that even physically, they’re constantly sharing the same oxygen. Tuca & Bertie, created by cartoonist and BoJack Horseman veteran Lisa Hanawalt, begins with Tuca (the wild toucan voiced by Tiffany Haddish), moving out of the apartment she shared with Bertie (the constantly fretting songbird with the voice of Ali Wong), so that Bertie’s boyfriend, Speckle (Steven Yeun), can take her spot. But Tuca more or less maintains her roommate status by simply moving into the apartment directly above them, and punching a hole in her floor/Tuca’s ceiling so she can poke her beak into Bertie’s business whenever she needs to, which is often.

In PEN15, the 13-year-old counterparts of series creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle are always in each other’s physical space, practically clinging to one another as though they function as human security blankets. When Anna gets to stay with Maya for a few days while her parents are out of town, they race around the house in utter glee while the Cranberries’ 1992 hit “Dreams” plays on the soundtrack. This really is the realization of a dream for them: living together every day, all the time, like actual sisters instead of just metaphorical ones.

Even Dead to Me, which is a female relationship study as well as an exploration of grief and a murder mystery, puts its co-protagonists in close proximity to each other. Christina Applegate’s Jen, a recent widow, invites Linda Cardellini’s Judy, whose engagement has dissolved, to live in her guesthouse when she realizes that Judy is essentially homeless. This touches on another key feature of these recent female buddy dramedies: the emphasis they place on women supporting one another.

American culture has frequently sent the message that women see each other as competition and relate to each other principally with cattiness. Reality TV, with its Real Housewives franchise, The Bachelor, and similar programs, may be the genre most guilty of perpetuating that stereotype. But in these one-on-one female relationship narratives, women often boost each other up instead of tearing each other down. As they deal with life’s more difficult transitions — the loss of a loved one, the birth of a child, graduating from high school, and the toughest of them all, middle school — the characters in these shows and movies act as each other’s ballasts.

Judy of Dead to Me assures Jen that she’s a great mother. In Tully, Marlo (Charlize Theron) is buoyed through the haze of having an unplanned third child by Tully (Mackenzie Davis), the night nanny who assists with child-rearing and housekeeping and even urges Marlo to cut herself some slack. (There are twists in both of these stories that add a whole other interesting layer to the significance of all this emboldening.) The tween and teen years are, notoriously, the time when body shame can begin to cement itself in a young girl’s psyche, but Molly and Amy in Booksmart (and Maya and Anna in PEN15) constantly reinforce each other’s sense of confidence. When Molly and Amy finally roll up to the party they’ve spent the entire movie trying to get to, they take a few moments to shower each other in compliments before they go inside. “My eyes hurt so bad from your beauty,” Amy says, with zero jokiness in her voice. She sincerely thinks Molly looks beautiful and wants her to feel that.

Even within broader ensemble shows, there are female buddy dramedy elements in a similar mode. Take Big Little Lies, which explores the dynamics between five mothers in Monterey, California, and their relationships with their spouses and children. But within that group structure, there’s a buddy dramedy going on between Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) and Celeste (Nicole Kidman), who frequently have heart-to-hearts in their cars, the easiest place for a private chat in between school drops-offs and pickups. Madeline is the one, in the first season, who encourages Celeste to consider working again even when her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) objects to the idea. In season two, they confide in each other even more deeply, telling each other things they can’t say to anyone. Without overtly announcing it, Big Little Lies makes the case that the marriage between Madeline and Celeste is healthier than either marriage they’ve ever entered into with a man.

The relationships in these shows and movies are not always smooth. Because every story requires conflict, there’s a point where the bestest of girlfriends inevitably go through a breakup, usually because one starts to make choices that spur the other to question how well she really knew her closest confidante, or herself. Often, these twosomes consist of a responsible one and an irresponsible one. That’s the case on Vida, where Emma (Mishel Prada) gets increasingly frustrated by the sometimes impetuous decisions made by her sister Lyn (Melissa Barrera), who in turn gets annoyed by Emma’s inability to acknowledge her creative talents and work ethic. Lyn craves Emma’s approval because it informs Lyn’s own view of herself. Tuca & Bertie may technically be cartoon birds, but they wrestle with a similar dynamic: Tuca’s the risk-taker; Bertie’s the risk-avoider. When Bertie and Speckle contemplate moving into a house outside of the city, Tuca can’t handle what such an “adult” decision will do to their closeness or what it says about her own inability to grow up.

In Booksmart, Amy and Molly are both ultraresponsible from the jump, and Molly is actually trying to convince both of them, on their last night of high school, to get a little wild for a change. Ultimately — spoiler ahead — Amy and Molly get into a huge, very public argument when Amy, eager to leave the party for reasons Molly doesn’t understand, lets it slip that she’s actually taking a gap year instead of going to college in the fall. Suddenly, Amy is the one who’s doing something that strays from the status quo, which flies in the face of everything Molly understands about their carefully co-sculpted life plan and the roles that each of them play in the relationship.

All of these films and shows demonstrate the degree to which women look to each other to figure out how to navigate the world. Which speaks to what is so vital about having all of these female buddy dramas to absorb right now, when we’re reminded that women’s rights and gender equality are so tenuous. Women need each other to help them figure out how best to put one foot in front of the other. But these works of film and television also serve an important artistic function in that each of them alters our perception of how certain genres and types of stories are told simply by placing two women at the center of it (and, as noted earlier, having women in significant creative roles behind the scenes).

As I noted last summer, Killing Eve takes the spy thriller, a genre that has traditionally been the domain of James Bonds and Jason Bournes, and steeps it in a feminine language that defines its sensibility and its sensuality. Booksmart is not the first high-school movie to take the “teens gone wild” concept, which used to be strictly boys only, and turned it upside down by proving that girls are also interested in sex and partying. (See 2013’s The To Do List or last year’s Blockers for previous examples.) But Booksmart does it even more overtly by putting a female twist on Superbad and adding loud and proud queer overtones that replace uncomfortable male homophobic undertones. When Amy’s parents, played by Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte, assume the girls are in a sexual relationship, Amy and Molly lean into it instead of feeling anxious about the implication. And when the movie takes a detour into trippy animation reminiscent of the hamburger guitar scene in Better Off Dead, even that is extremely female: Instead of watching a piece of meat play Eddie Van Halen riffs, they imagine themselves as Barbie dolls both horrified and fascinated by their utterly preposterous anatomies.

These female buddy dramedies accomplish something that every story does when you shift the point of view to one that pivots away from pop culture’s default setting, meaning one that’s male or white or cisgender or all of the above. It takes material you think you’ve seen before and opens your eyes wider so you can view it in a way that perhaps you haven’t before.

Dead to Me does this perhaps more slyly than some of the other examples I’ve mentioned. (This is the part where I say MAJOR SPOILER ALERT because I am about to discuss the end of season one. So if you haven’t gotten there yet, look away.)

In the final moments of Dead to Me, we see Steve (James Marsden), the former fiancé of Judy, floating facedown in the swimming pool in Jen’s backyard. It’s unclear exactly who killed him. It is clear that Jen now knows the whole story of what really happened the night her late husband was killed by a hit-and-run driver: Judy was behind the wheel, but Steve talked Judy into leaving the scene. It’s also clear that Jen, who understandably cut ties with Judy once Judy confessed to the hit-and-run, has called Judy to the scene because she needs her help. The last shot of the season is the two of them looking at a handsome cadaver bobbing along in that California chlorine.

That closing shot reminds me of a famous opening one: the introduction to Sunset Boulevard, a classic that begins with the image of screenwriter Joe Gillis floating facedown in the pool that belongs to Norma Desmond. Dead to Me and Sunset Boulevard don’t tell remotely the same story. But thinking about them in tandem underlines some parallel moments and themes. As the movie explains, before his death, Joe was staying in Norma’s guesthouse, much the way Judy stays in Jen’s guesthouse. Joe eventually realizes, with good reason, that Norma isn’t quite in control of her mental faculties, much the way that Steve, with fewer good reasons, repeatedly insinuates that Judy is “crazy.” By the end of Sunset Boulevard, we understand how and why Joe died: Norma shot him after he planned to leave and informed her that she has no chance of becoming a movie star again. It’s important to remember, though, that we interpret the story in these terms because Joe has been telling it. His voice-over narration from beyond the grave is heard from the very beginning of the movie, framing our understanding of everything that follows.

The point of view that introduces us to Dead to Me is, first, Jen’s. Then, gradually, Judy’s perspective is added. We don’t have a full grasp on all the nuances of how awful Steve is until the end of the season because Jen doesn’t know what he’s done, and Judy refuses to see the truth. This technique is the reverse of the Sunset Boulevard structure: Everything we know about the Jen/Judy version of life in California is shaped by the perspectives of two women, grieving different losses and coping with the absence of their male partners, rather than a single man.

Instead of getting final confirmation that the main female character has — forgive the pun — plunged off the deep end, as we do at the end of Sunset Boulevard, Dead to Me shows us two women who have a new problem and need each other in order to figure out their next move. Neither one of them is looking for her close-up from Mr. DeMille. They’re looking to each other because they know that they’ll be better equipped to confront a scary, uncertain future if they do it together.

The Rise of the Female Buddy Dramedy