Friends-to-lovers: the trope of a pandemic

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Can men and women ever be just friends? Ross and Rachel, Harry and Sally, Ron and Hermione all suggest otherwise. Nora Ephron’s romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally proposed this question in 1989, and it has since been a source of debate for psychologists. “Whether it necessarily translates to a sexual relationship is another story”, Dr Dana Dorfman argues, “but I think it would be very difficult for it not to at least be a consideration.” From Ted and Robin in How I Met Your Mother to Nick and Jess in New Girl, we have become invested in the fictional friendships which develop into love, raising the question of why the slow-burning romance plot is so compelling. In the wake of the pandemic, as many of our new emotional attachments have been formed with old acquaintances, it has become glaringly apparent that the friends-turned-lovers trope has transcended our screens.

Out of twelve million viewers, a study found that Friends was the most binge-watched series in 2018, despite airing over two decades ago. Its longevity is arguably sustained by the enduring relationship of Monica and Chandler that, whilst originally written to last a couple of episodes, has transformed into one of the most renowned marriages in television history. In turn, novels which narrate the euphoric revealing of concealed desires are regularly adapted into films, as the union of lovers is rendered with cinematic spectacle. Namely, David Nicholl’s One Day follows graduates Emma and Dexter for twenty years on the 15th of July, and its circularity instils the hope that the pair will finally recognise their inseparability. The film is a “persuasive and endearing account of close friendship”, as Harry Ritchie writes, depicting both “resentment and sometimes yearning.” Similarly protracted, Harry and Sally take twelve years and three months to confess their emotions. In Cecelia Ahern’s Love, Rosie, only after tolerating separate partners, living in separate continents, and embarking on different career paths, do the childhood companions come together in a final scene of epiphanic passion.

The prolific portrayal of this storyline has inspired pandemic couples

The prolific portrayal of this storyline has inspired pandemic couples, rising from the romantically barren wasteland of the Covid-19 era. University students have spent the past two years gathering in small bubbles, sitting at tables in clubs, and partying in pantries. The mythical 70% statistic in Durham, if not already validated by the collegiate system and idyllic scenery, now seems even more probable.

A second-year student explained that “being locked in together in households of fifteen meant that everyone became friends far quicker.” Living on the same corridor as her partner, she explained that the restrictions “sped up a process that might have happened anyway.” Although she disagreed with Harry’s assertion that “men and women can never be friends”, the student acknowledged that “relationships that come out of a friendship can be particularly special.” Regardless of whether they have crossed the platonic boundary, the bonds that have developed in the past year at university have been undoubtedly strengthened by the unique pandemic climate.

As government measures are now being lifted, our anticipation for new social experiences is paralleled by television duos who are constantly tilting on the precipice of love. From Jim and Pam in The Office to Lorelai and Luke in Gilmore Girls, their painful missed opportunities and coy interactions captivate the audience. Despite dramas presenting to us the intensity of physical lust, it is the comedy genre which produces the greatest relationships, as their compatible personalities and playful interactions ignite our compulsion to click ‘next episode’.

Whilst not all friends become lovers, the entertainment industry builds a convincing case

Whilst not all friends become lovers, the entertainment industry builds a convincing case. The most coveted relationships in film and television are often those which don’t begin romantically and are enshrouded by a gloss of serendipity as a result. With the easing of Covid restrictions, we are no longer distanced from others by masks and Zoom calls, and so we can experience the same relief as the couples whose long-awaited unions burn bright on screen. As we watch Harry lyrically declare his love for Sally in the celebratory lights of New York, we are also left yearning to “have what she’s having” this Valentine’s Day.

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