Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Casual is a television sitcom directed by Jason Reitman.

A Hologram for the King is a film starring Tom Hanks and directed by Tom Tykwer.

Neither will find a large audience, both because of distribution (Casual airs only on the streaming service Hulu and A Hologram for the King had limited cinema distribution) and because their subject matter concerns the tribulations of people over 40 trying to right the course of their social lives.

Casual is about Valerie, a recently divorced psychotherapist in her mid-40s trying to re-learn how to make friends (she’s also trying to re-learn how to date, but that’s a secondary thread).

A Hologram for the King tells the story of Alan, a recently divorced salesman in his late-50s who is sent by his company to Saudi Arabia. Once there he struggles with carving out a new social place for himself; like Valerie, he’s also trying to re-learn how to date but, also like Valerie, he’s rediscovering how to make friends.

The perils of reverse-engineering friendship as an older person was also the subject of a recent segment, Why Can’t We Be Friends?, on This American Life, part of the episode The Perils of Intimacy.

Here’s how host Ira Glass introduced the topic:

OK, fellow adults, here’s a question. When did you last make a friend? Like, I mean an actual friend who you see regularly, you talk about actual, personal things. It’s hard, right? To make a new one? To get to that point? To get through the awkward “hey, you want to hang out sometime” phase?

I’m in this thing right now with this guy who, honestly, I thought like maybe we’re going to become friends. And he sent me an email saying, like, hey, let’s have dinner. And I thought, great. And I responded with a specific time. I said Thursday, how about Thursday? Heard nothing.

Then a few days later, in an email about something completely else, he suggested again, like, hey, we should do dinner sometime. And again, I was like, great, how about Thursday? Again, heard nothing.

What is that, people? How do adults become friends? Neil Drumming, on our staff, has run a little experiment with human guinea pigs on this particular subject.

As an old(er) friend-making-challenged adult, there’s much to be mined from this material. The machinations that play out in all of the above bring to mind What is Friendship?, a chapter in one of Oliver’s books. It’s helpful to see the struggle played out in the adult population, in drama and documentary form: it gives me hope that it’s a thicket that can be untangled.

Making and Keeping Friends title page scan.