10/01/2012 04:47 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2012

Where the Girls Aren't: What the Absence of Female Friendships on Network TV Reveals

No matter how many times I see my favorite I Love Lucy episode, the schtick never got old: Lucy and Ethel wrap bonbons as they lazily chug down a conveyor belt. Their smugness transforms into panic as the conveyor belt speeds forward, forcing the girls to stuff chocolates in their mouths, hats and blouses just to keep pace. Bonded (and sometimes tested) by these types of loony happenings, Lucy and Ethel's exploits functioned as more than a forum for Lucille Ball to showcase her physical, comedic elasticity; they also provided windows into the complicated world of female friendships.

On the small screen, Lucy and Ethel paved the way for Laverne and Shirley, Mary and Rhoda, Kate and Allie, Designing Women's Team Sugerbaker and even the original Fab Four: Rose, Blanche, Dorothy and Sophia. At times critically dismissed as "women's television," shows organized ostensibly around female friendships provide culture with critical perspectives and insights into women's experiences, possess the power to drive social trends (Cosmo, anyone?) and most importantly, communicate the sentiment that these relationships are crucial for women's well-being. This last caveat is particularly important to women who are caregivers, as they often slip into a vacuum due to the immersive nature of their responsibilities even though they need strong female friendships and networks even more than others. In network television's desire to capitalize on a renewed interest in programming that features discerning, accomplished and complicated female characters (e.g. The Mindy Project, New Girl, The Good Wife, Scandal) over those centered on female networks, they risk missing out on an important conversation about why a close group of female friends matter.

Leaving aside cable offerings such as HBO's critically acclaimed Girls and TV Land's breakout hit Hot in Cleveland that revolve around groups of women, network offerings are trending away from putting female friendships at the crux of plots or casting. One notable exception is CBS' Two Broke Girls. The show revolves around roommates Max, a young, working-class waitress who dreams of starting her own cupcake business, and Caroline, an upper-class heiress who finds herself destitute after her father was indicted on a massive Bernie Madoff-esque financial scandal. Much of the comedy results from humorously exploiting the girls' antithetical class, education, social and economical positions. Beyond this, Broke Girls presents female friendship as a key source of support that transcends disparities. The girls bridge their differences, performing the "partner in crime" roles for one another in ways similar to Lucy and Ethel (with fewer secreted bonbons) and in their diverse approaches to navigating female relationships, end up gifting each other with important self-worth lessons. Moreover, Broke Girls splits with convention in the way it structures the ties that bind the two women: Max and Caroline align themselves to pursue a goal not tied to marriage or family, but to professional and upward mobility.

Elsewhere on network telelvision, female friendships may factor prominently into the show, but are ultimately subordinate to narratives about coupling, families or careers. NBC's Up All Night with Christina Applegate as a first-time mom and successful television producer, Reagan, who works for her best friend, a well-known Oprah-esque lifestyle show host named Ava, played by Maya Rudolph. Rudolph's Ava is single, child-free and very much immersed in her career. Her support for Reagan often chafes against her humorously self-involved "diva" persona, which only serves to strengthen the realistic nature of their friendship. It is a smart and provocative depiction, which, due to Rudolph's prowess as a comedian, often seems to compete with the show's primary narrative that explores the ups and downs of first-time parenthood.

During a time when women's collective power figures prominently into nearly every aspect of our lives, from workplace advancement to social change, what does the shift away from women-centric network television shows reveal? On one level, it suggests that it is the contemporary woman's cross to bear for her accomplishments and drive to, essentially, "go it alone" with perhaps one or two female friends that are primarily placeholders for either romantic partnerships or career advancements. On another level, it signals an uneasiness on the part of industry with how to satisfactorily handle the intricate nuances underpinning women's friendships. Instead of grappling with their messy but incredibly rich facets, as Lena Dunham attempts with Girls, networks retreat to traffic in safer tropes: the career-driven woman with no time for a love life, the woman "always unlucky in love" or the smart, self-aware woman trying to figure out "how to have it all." And while these portrayals have merit, they leave a void for many women viewers seeking those integral support networks absent in their life or women who relate keenly to representations of close, female cohort. It sends a potentially disparaging message to women such as busy moms and caregivers who rely on female community to help strengthen resilience and relieve stress that these types of friendships are not as important as bonds formed with friends of different genders, coworkers or children.

Perhaps the lack of prominent female friendships in network television is the response to a kind of cultural anxiety. In the wake of books and articles trumpeting "the end of men," it might stand to reason that the idea of women convened around a kitchen table at 2 a.m. for cheesecake and gossip has become something even the most seasoned network insider could not have anticipated: radical.