A Study In Contrasts With Intense Friendships On Television: Partners and Sherlock

There will be not one but two intense platonic friendships on television this year, which is really exciting in a pop culture landscape where romantic connections or growing romantic connections seem to be the order of the day. Looking at pop culture and never seeing yourself gets immensely frustrating after a while, and the general lack of representation of aromantics and asexuals is really irritating; when we do show up at all, it’s often in a highly negative context. We are the socially suspect, the serial killers, the people to be feared because there’s obviously something broken and wrong with us.

BBC’s Sherlock features an update of Doyle’s classic for the modern era, with a more emotionally complex and deep friendship between Holmes and Watson. The two men complement each other in a way that might look on the surface like a romantic relationship—to both fans and other characters—but what they have is a platonic friendship. And one that is unapologetically and unambiguously so. It is a friendship that is not going to change; they are not going to pull a U-turn and suddenly create romantic involvement, because that’s not what the relationship is about.

Unlike almost every other show on television, where two closely connected people must either be having sex, or planning on having it, or intended to have it at some point by the creators. So many beautiful friendships have been absolutely ruined in pop culture by the decision to force characters into a sexual relationship because creators seem to think that’s what audiences want and relate to. It seems safe to assume that this won’t happen with Holmes and Watson, though, given Watson’s very heteroness and Homes’ asexuality, or at least strong leanings that way. He just doesn’t seem to care about sex, let alone romance, and doesn’t feel the need to justify or explain it.

It’s refreshing and somewhat relaxing, honestly. I’m so tired of getting into friendships and loving characters and identifying with their partnership only for it to devolve into yet another romantic relationship after a night of heated, messy sexuality. These endless reminders that people can’t be friends, that friendships aren’t enough, are a constant refrain in pop culture.

CBS, meanwhile, is running with a buddy comedy, Partners, which would fit into the usual stack of such shows except for the fact that it’s being explicitly billed as a show about friendship and the deep friendship that can exist between two men. Their relationship has, viewers are informed, outlasted any of their romantic attachments, exhibiting real staying power and lasting attachment in a connection that is not romantic or sexual in nature. It’s unfortunate that CBS seems to be playing this for comedy, though; the copy says it’s ‘almost like a weird marriage.’

Right, because being in an intimate relationship that is not sexual or romantic is ‘a weird marriage.’ Certainly people have never been in marriages like that historically and there’d be no reason to marry a close friend on the basis of emotional compatibility and shared interests. Obviously, such a connection would be laughable. As indeed it will be, CBS promises, because everything will go topsy-turvy when one of the men decides to propose to his girlfriend. Clearly his marriage will trump his friendship, right?

I suspect we can look forward to exhibitions of naked jealousy that are supposed to be funny and amusing, rather than tragic. The idea that it might be possible to be in multiple intimate relationships is probably slightly outside the ken of CBS and their creative teams, which means someone has to go. And the person going is clearly just being silly, instead of devastated by a friendship ended by social norms (and narrowminded creative teams).

Two different intense friendships with two very different messages. The Holmes-Watson dynamic is strengthened by the things both men get from outside the relationship and their friendship isn’t weakened or threatened by, for example, the fact that Watson dates women. In Partners, the friendship is torn asunder by the development of romantic attraction to someone outside the relationship, and it’s yet another reminder that intense friendship isn’t ‘real,’ and that deep emotional connections are primarily sexual and romantic in nature. Once your practice friendship is over, you can graduate to an adult relationship.

Seeing depictions of genuine friendships where one might expect to see romantic connections in pop culture is rare. The idea of media that revolves around friendship rather than romantic attraction is even more unusual, which makes it all the more exciting. Sherlock is first and foremost about a complicated relationship between two men and the things they do together, the emotional connections they develop, and the mysteries they investigate. Partners, on the other hand, is based on the premise of a friendship but will very quickly turn into something else.

I was struck in Sweethearts by the depiction of a deep friendship between two people whom readers might expect to develop a romantic attachment. Rather than falling in love with each other, though, the characters shared intense emotional experiences and grew a powerful bond with each other that forever shaped their lives; but they still weren’t romantic, and they weren’t interested in having sex with each other. This type of connection appears frightening to creators, given how rarely it comes up. Is the bogeyman under the bed really the idea of a best friend so ‘best’ that the relationship is viewed as equal to or even greater than a romantic or sexual relationship?