Why TV friends are so quick to fight (and make up)

Punch-ups between friends on television are ubiquitous. Why do we swallow such implausible plot-lines asks Emily Yahr

Jake and Matty are best friends, but Jake finds out that his girlfriend and Matty have a past. Jake punches Matty. Matty fights back, clocking Jake.

"I [had sex with] your girlfriend!" Matty yells, in front of the entire school.

ONE EPISODE LATER . . .

Jake: "Dude, I don't want our friendship to go out this way."

Matty: "Neither do I."

Jake: "So what do we do?"

Matty: "We just move on, and we tell each other the truth, OK? About everything."

Jake: "Yeah, good for me."

_ MTV's"Awkward" (August 2012)

- - - -

Picture that scenario happening in real life. Let's all say it together now: Really?

Life's not without physical confrontation, but for many of us, it's blessedly rare. Yet on television, rumbles break out all the time, even between best friends. Often, characters patch things up, then continue as if nothing happened.

We know that even reality TV shows have little basis in reality. But television's parade of friend-vs.-friend fights is surreal. If a friend or co-worker punched you in the face, you probably wouldn't hang out with them later that day. And how often do you see two buddies trade blows, then move on without intervention from police, lawyers, therapists or HR?

On television, all the time.

It's the kind of thing you probably don't think about while enjoying your favorite show. Dan Humphrey punched Chuck Bass in the face on Gossip Girl (twice) after Chuck's shady behavior with Dan's sister (twice), and then the two became pals. Jason Street made up with Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights after a heartbreaking fight scene over Street's girlfriend. No one knows how Rick and Shane delayed disaster for two seasons on The Walking Dead, given their brawls. And bloggers have decided that feuding friends Bill and Eric on True Blood are, as WetPaint.com put it, "caught in a bad bromance."

Why do we see this bizarre plot device so frequently? Several TV experts and historians offered the same answers: The root of any great story is conflict; people like to watch protagonists do battle; the story has to evolve somehow.

"There's definitely a recurring impulse to see the good guys fight each other," says Andy Daglas, a writer and editor for the website This Was Television. "It's the idea that when you have built a show on a core relationship of a couple of friends, an easy way to open up some drama and do something new is to split them apart."

Fights have been a part of television at least since Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello. Even if it's just morbid curiosity, there's something fascinating about watching people duke it out. If the opponents are best friends, that just adds to the fun.

The problem: As Daglas points out, bad blood between two characters at the centre of a show, especially a sitcom, can't last. Writers can split headliners apart, but they have to get them back together sooner, not later. Viewers love consistency. It makes television work.

- - - - -

Duncan and Logan, best friends who fall for the same girl, are sitting in a high school class. Their teacher is talking about repairing a leaky sailboat.

"Couldn't plug her right the first time, huh?" Logan asks, looking at Duncan, who's dating the girl Logan is in love with. Their classmates start snickering.

Duncan attacks Logan, drags him out of the classroom and slams him against a locker. Logan punches Duncan in the shoulder. Cut to both sitting in the school nurse's office, with bloody noses and black eyes.

TWO EPISODES LATER . . .

Duncan approaches Logan: "So, I was thinking. Maybe we should get together Thursday night?"

Logan: "You're on."

_ UPN's "Veronica Mars" (October 2005)

- - - - -

TV provides an escape to a world where things stay the same. A sitcom is, after all, a "situation comedy" - writers can't destroy the setup viewers love. Conflicts demand resolution. Even the ridiculous (and ridiculously popular) comedy Saved by the Bell couldn't get mileage out of Zack Morris and A.C. Slater's fight over a girl. And let's be honest: Cory and Shawn probably needed some space after a shoving match by the lockers on Boy Meets World, right?

No, thanks. "Television is all about going back to the status quo - we want the characters not to change," says Peter Desberg, co-author of Show Me the Funny: At the Writers' Table With Hollywood's Top Comedy Writers. "I think it's an important point about TV that people miss today. Even if the arc of the series changes, the characters themselves really shouldn't change."

Whatever conflict arises, writers have to get characters back in the same apartment or office next week. A little thing like a haymaker can't get in the way.

"There always has to be a way to bury the hatchet very quickly," says Jeffrey Davis, an associate professor of screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University's School of Film and Television and Desberg's co-author.

- - - - -

Roommates Nick and Winston argue at the grocery store. Winston shoves Nick.

Nick: "Don't push me in a supermarket, man. You started this."

Winston slaps him in the face.

Nick: "Did you just slap me in the face?"

Winston slaps him again; a full-on slap-fight ensues.

TWO SCENES LATER . . .

Nick is at home, icing his hand with a frozen pita.

Winston: "I was gonna ice my wrist, but . . ."

Nick: "How about this? (Rips apart the pita.) Take half, pal."

Winston: "So kind of you."

Both look at each other, chuckle and never mention the fight again.

_ Fox's "New Girl" (March 2012)

- - - - -

Given the emotional nightmare that is adolescence, many friend-on-friend fights happen in TV land's high schools. But adults have fights, too. Clashes also transcend gender and genre: Whether it's a comedy, drama or zombie dramedy, writers use them because the incongruity of two friends punching each other makes viewers pay attention. When a clip of the scuffle goes viral online - the aforementioned Walking Dead fight has more than 34,000 views, while the Veronica Mars one has about 70,000 - the more buzz the better.

"So much of TV now - not the better TV - is about coming up with that clip, that three-minute clip that's going to wind up on YouTube," says David Bushman, of the Paley centre for Media, a pop-culture think tank.

But fights don't have to be part of a social-media campaign. According to Desberg, they can just be a crutch for writers, like any other lazy writing technique, such as abandoning a convoluted plot if it proves unpopular with viewers or having characters hop into bed with no consequences.

"You fall back on tricks," Desberg says. "Sometimes you are sort of writing yourself in a corner, and you really want to go home or go out to dinner."

Still, writers wouldn't be eager to have characters do battle if viewers didn't respond.

Why do we like to see fists fly? Do we all secretly want to assault our friends and co-workers?

Viewers enjoy watching fight scenes for the same reasons that crowds gather around real-life brawls: They're a break from the norm. They're shocking. And it's cathartic to see characters on the small screen handle things the old-fashioned way. If two guys traded blows over a girl at your office, it wouldn't be romantic, but psychotic. By leaving the fighting to imaginary characters, we can experience drama without getting involved.

Sure, it's unlikely that Dawson and Pacey would have made up so fast on Dawson's Creek after exchanging punches when Dawson accused Pacey of a theft. But sometimes punching equals friendship.

On the second-season premiere of CBS' How I Met Your Mother, for example, Marshall is devastated after a breakup and wonders if he should give his ex-fiancee a call.

"No, no, if you call her when she asks you not to, you're just gonna look weak and you're gonna regret it," his best friend, Ted, explains. "Now listen, whenever you feel like calling her, you come find me first - and I will punch you in the face."

Marshall smiles. "You're a good friend, Ted," he says.

The Washington Most

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'