Why do TV friends punch each other in the face so much?
By 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, okay? 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 Web site 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 center 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 Center 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 throwing punches when Dawson accused Pacey of stealing answers to the PSAT. But sometimes punching equals friendship.
On the second-season premiere of CBS’s “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.
Emily Yahr is an editorial aide in the Washington Post’s Style section.