TV’s Greatest: The Best “Best Friends”

It’s the Top Ten Besties of All Time.

John Spencer, Valerie Harper, and Alyson Hannigan

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In the spirit of the Post’s Greatest TV Theme Songs series (found here, here, and here), welcome to that most obvious result of success: a spin-off! Internal discussions provoked the question, “Who is the greatest TV detective?” which only prompted more questions. What about doctor or lawyer or super-hero or public servant? It’s a daunting prospect. But one way to start an uncertain journey is at the side of someone who makes you feel safe, so who better to start with than the greatest Best Friends? Reliable, frequently funny, and always there for you (when, as we’ve been told, the rain starts to pour), here are the best of the BFFs.

10. Willona Woods (Ja’Net DuBois)

Good Times 1974-1979

Ja'net Dubois
Ja’Net DuBois in 2012 (s_bukley / Shutterstock.com)

Willona Woods embodies a lot of the qualities found in TV Best Friends; she’s simultaneously the nosy neighbor, a lead character’s sounding board, and occasional comic relief. Her bond with Florida Evans (Esther Rolle) is one of the staples of the entire series. When Florida’s husband, James, dies, it’s Willona that she leans on more than anyone else for support. Willona also had the rare chance to be a Best Friend that becomes the lead; when Rolle departed for the fifth season, Willona assumed the central character position, watching over the Evans kids and adopting Penny (Janet Jackson). When Rolle’s Esther returned, DuBois’s Willona was right by her side. When the whole cast was able to move out of the projects to the Gold Coast in the series finale, Florida and Willona managed to remain neighbors.
Bonus Ja’Net DuBois Fun Fact: she co-wrote and sang the theme for another show produced by Norman Lear: The Jeffersons.

9. Ed Norton (Art Carney)

The Honeymooners 1955-1956 and sketches from 1951-1978

The Honeymooners cast
Jackie Gleason, Audrey Meadows, Art Carney, and Joyce Randolph of The Honeymooners in 1955 (CBS Television PR image via Wikimedia Commons; Public domain)

In many ways, Ed was the prototype wacky best friend. When his buddy Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) had his fits of anger, Norton usually shrugged it off. When Ralph really screwed up, it was frequently Norton that showed him the error of his ways. Still, despite that, Norton was always ready to put up with Ralph for the next scheme. Maybe it was job as a sewer worker that allowed him to put up with other people’s . . . er . . . bad sides. Norton also served as the direct inspiration to another TV Best Friend: Barney Rubble of The Flintstones.

8. Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver)

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis 1959-1963 and TV movies in 1977 and 1988

Gilligan Island stars Dawn Wells and Bob Denver
Bob Denver with Mary Wells in 1990 (Vicki L. Miller / Shutterstock.com)

 

Dobie Gillis was one of the very first network TV shows to put teenagers front and center. One of those teens was Maynard G. Krebs, played by a pre-Gilligan Bob Denver. Krebs filled the “wacky best friend” role with his beatnik and proto-hippie stylings offered in opposition to the more (let’s face it) square Dobie. Krebs was the type of character who could offer surprisingly sage advice one moment, and then do something completely bizarre the next, which may be why audiences loved him. Fun fact: Krebs was the direct inspiration for one of the greatest animated best buddies of all time, Shaggy from Scooby-Doo.

 

7. Stanford Blatch (Willie Garson)

Sex and the City 1998-2004, both SATC films in 2008 and 2010, upcoming sequel series And Just Like That

Willie Garson
Willie Garson in 2014 (Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock.com)

This list was nearing production when the news broke that Willie Garson had passed away at age 57. The seemingly tireless character actor had appeared in everything from Twin Peaks to Buffy to Cheers while also working as a regular in shows like White Collar. On SATC, Garson’s Stanford was one of Carrie Bradshaw’s oldest friends, and her best pal outside the main circle of four women. One of his outstanding qualities was his typically unwavering support of Carrie, offering advice without (too much) judgment.

6. Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc)

Friends 1994-2004 and Joey 2004-2006

Friends cast
The cast of Friends at The Emmys in 2002 (with LeBlanc on the far right). (Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock.com)

Look, it’s obvious that Chandler and Joey were all-caps BEST FRIENDS. But the most consistent best friend to other five, well, friends, was Joey. Sure, Joey had his flaws (he was promiscuous, but at least he wasn’t Don Draper). However, Joey did get ordained so that he could perform the wedding ceremonies for both Chandler and Monica and Phoebe and Mike (in fact, he had even introduced the second couple). The food-loving Joey offered to go vegan in support of pregnant Phoebe when she was having food cravings. When he landed his role on Days of Our Lives, he greatly upgraded the furnishings of his and Chandler’s apartment. He babysat for Ben and Emma at varying points, tried any culinary experiment of Monica’s, and generally did his best to support everyone. Joey was the Best Friend.

5. Leo McGarry (John Spencer)

The West Wing 1999-2006

Actor John Spencer
John Spencer in 2001 (Shutterstock)

Former Secretary of Labor Leo McGarry had a vision, and that vision was putting his best friend, former New Hampshire Congressman and Governor Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen), in the White House. McGarry ran the Bartlett campaign and, upon Bartlett’s election, became his Chief of Staff. The pair’s friendship, marked by deep mutual respect and frequent arguments about the best way to do the right thing, became one of the cores of the series. The rest of the staff’s love and devotion for Leo was in part a reflection of the cast’s true love and devotion for Spencer. Spencer died before the conclusion of the series, and his untimely death was written into McGarry’s fictional passing during the final season. The last scene of the entire series, when Bartlett unwraps a gift left for him by McGarry’s daughter, underscores the importance of that friendship to the whole of the show.

4. Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance)

I Love Lucy 1951-1957 and The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour 1957-1960

Vivan Vance
Vivian Vance in 1964 (CBS Television PR photo via Wikimedia Commons; Public domain)

Ed Norton may have been the basis for Barney Rubble, but the gold standard of the best buddy that’s always getting wrapped up in schemes has to be Ethel Mertz. Whether it was Lucy trying to get into Desi’s show or some other hare-brained plan, Ethel was always right there. There is perhaps no better indicator of this, and maybe no better example of physical comedy in the history of television, than when Lucy and Ethel were working on the candy production line. When the ladies try to prove to Desi and Fred that being a housewife is harder than their jobs, he two pairs swap responsibilities in the season two premiere, “Job Switching.” While the men try and fail to do housework, Lucy and Ethel get a job at a candy factory. As the conveyor gets faster and faster, Lucy and Ethel try to keep up with hilarious results. It’s the kind of comedy only masters get right, and it’s the kind of situation that is shockingly familiar to real friends. The two worked together so well that Lucille Ball would bring Vivian Vance back as her best friend in two more shows, The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy.

3. Xander (Nicholas Bredon) and Willow (Alyson Hannigan)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 1997 to 2003; Willow also appears in three episodes of Angel 1999-2004

Alyson Hannigan
Alyson Hannigan in 2019 (Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock.com)

When Buffy Summers, Vampire Slayer, arrives in Sunnydale, the first friends that she makes are already best friends: Xander Harris and Willow Rosenberg. Deeply unpopular, the irresponsible and irreverent Xander and the reserved and exceptionally smart Willow provide instant contrast to the burdened Buffy. Almost immediately, the pair discover Buffy’s secret and become her two most loyal allies. Willow eventually learns magic and becomes a powerful witch. Resolutely human, Xander hurls himself into danger in defense of his friends dozens of times, eventually losing his left eye in battle near the end of the series. At the end of season six, after the love of Willow’s life, Tara, is murdered, Willow’s unchecked magic nearly destroys the world; only Xander is able to stop her by talking her back from the edge. That’s a pal.

2. Dr. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh)

Grey’s Anatomy 2005-2014

Actress Sandra Oh
Sandra Oh at The Golden Globes in 2019 (Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock.com)

Caustic, competitive, and confident, Cristina Yang could have easily been the main antagonist of fellow brilliant surgeon in the making, Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo). Instead, they surprise one another by becoming the best of friends, eventually deciding that they are each other’s “person,” the one that they turn to no matter what. The pair would fight over surgeries and life choices but always did it from places motivated by honesty and their mutual love for one another. Even Meredith’s great love and eventual husband, Derek Shepherd plays second fiddle to Cristina on many occasions (as in this one). Though Oh eventually departed the show and Yang left for a job in Europe, the character’s presence is still felt in references to calls and texts.

1. Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper)

The Mary Tyler Moore Show 1970-1974, 1975, 1977; Rhoda 1974-1978; Mary and Rhoda 2000

Valerie Harper
Valerie Harper in 2012 (Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock.com)

Another pair that got off on the wrong foot (Rhoda wanted that bigger apartment), Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore, of course) and Rhoda Morgenstern eventually became the best TV friends of their decade. A classic example of opposites attracting, Mary’s eager-to-please demeanor rubbed up against Rhoda’s acerbic New York attitude. Rhoda moved to New York for her own spin-off, but would appear again on the primary show (commiserating on the phone in a 1975 episode and popping up in a 1977 flashback). Similarly, Mary dropped by Rhoda several times, including the 1974 episode featuring Rhoda’s wedding; that particular show was one of the highest-rated single episodes of a series of all time, capturing an audience of more than 52 million viewers. The buddies proved so popular that they appeared in a made-for-TV movie 22 years after the end of Rhoda’s run. Mary and Rhoda explored how the pair reconnected and how they (and their college-aged daughters!) began new phases in their lives. With 30 years between their first and last in-character appearances, that makes Mary and Rhoda one of the longest-running sets of best friends in TV history. Though they played different characters, they had a nod-and-wink appearance, alongside Georgia Engel, Cloris Leachman, and Betty White in 2013 on the “Love is All Around” (get it?) episode of White’s show, Hot in Cleveland; the five women all shared the screen together for the first time since the end of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Featured image: Everett Collection, Joe Seer, DFree / Shutterstock.com

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Comments

  1. While this Top 10 list obviously had hard work put into it, and all of them are going to have positive meaning to some, there’s only one number 1, and 2 runner-ups. So let’s just get down to the nitty-gritty without further ado:

    1.) Vivian Vance (Ethel Mertz and Viv Bagley) for reasons that need no further explanation or justification.

    2.) Art Carney (Ed Norton) also for the reasons of supreme importance in a historical television series that couldn’t have existed or been successful without him.

    3.) Valerie Harper (Rhoda). Rhoda was wonderful for all of the above. The Mary Tyler Moore Show and I Love Lucy are my 2 all-time favorite classic sitcoms when all is said and done. Rhoda seemed to have much of the importance of Ethel/Viv and Norton in the first 3 seasons, but by the 4th (’73-’74) season was being transitioned out the show into her own. Betty White (as Sue Ann Nivens) was clearly the new female fuel injection of a very different kind, as the focus of the show dealt more with Mary’s interactions at work.

    Spin-off’s (thanks in large part to Norman Lear) had become all the rage, and Rhoda was a perfect candidate. Her wedding in October 1974 was one of THE biggest and most talked about events in TV history. Unfortunately, very soon after that, her show degenerated into being about her marital problems with her husband, and stayed that way for several years. When she was finally divorced and single again in the ’78-’79 season, the show was cancelled. Frankly, it’s a wonder it wasn’t cancelled years before late ’78.

    Mary’s show meanwhile in the ’74-’75 season (and all the way to the end), continued to get better and better. Phyllis was transitioning out into her own show (’75-’77 which was terrible) leaving Sue Ann and Georgette as the main female presence on Mary’s show. Again, no adverse affect on Mary’s show at all. So Rhoda, overall, was not the equivalent of Norton and Ethel/Viv for the duration of Mary’s series.

    The only good thing I can say about Dobie Gillis was the role it played in getting Bob Denver onto Gilligan’s Island, an all-time classic. I can see why Maynard and Dobie are here from the best friend aspect, but the show otherwise is unwatchably stupid. I watched several episodes in a marathon on Cozi or MeTV a few years ago and couldn’t take it anymore, it was that bad. Sorry. As for the rest here, fine I suppose. One of these though probably should have been swapped out for Laverne and Shirley, but whatever.

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