How I Met Your Mother: "Friends" With a Conscience

Last week, in order to use an illustration, one of my profs quietly admitted to having watched a few episodes of Friends, and joked that none of us had to admit to it if we didn’t want to. I admit to it freely: my wife and I have seen every single episode at least 3 times, most of them many more than that. I honestly don’t think there are a lot of church folk in Generations X, Y, and Z (that’s “millenials”, but it didn’t flow) who would be embarrassed to make the same admission. It’s a great show about community, growing up, and what Joss Whedon calls “created family.”

I think far fewer would admit to loving How I Met Your Mother. In comparison this show is raunchy and raucous, like Knocked Up compared to 27 Dresses.  I’m not ashamed though, and part of the reason (besides finding it incredibly funny in seasons 1-4) is that I’m far more comfortable with its message than I am with the message of Friends.

If you’ve only seen a few episodes of HIMYM, that might seem a strange assertion, but behind its (very) thick veneer of vulgarity, the show supports a perspective that’s far more traditional, and compatible with my faith, than its predecessor. The easiest way to demonstrate is with a quick look at Joey and Barney.

Everybody loves Joey. He says so himself when he’s trying to convince Phoebe to name one of the triplets after him (“Joey’s your buddy. Joey’s your pal. Where is everybody? Oh, they’re hangin’ out with Joey!”). But something nagged at me as I watched. I just couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to be friends with him.

He sleeps with women and never calls them again. In the few situations when it comes back around on him, he gets a light slap on the wrist from the universe, but no comments from the group. In one episode he actually saves the day by convincing a woman that it was her who didn’t call. In another episode the woman is still in the apartment, and he can’t remember her name. And after 8 years of this, Phoebe sets him up with one of her friends, and Rachel decides to date him herself!

In ten years Joey’s exploits are never seriously cast in a negative light. His friends are never really disgusted, and he doesn’t ever suffer any consequences. On top of that, he rarely contributes to the well being of anyone else in the group.

Barney, on the other hand, gets the opposite treatment. He does all the same things, and with more gusto. He lies, cheats, and lies some more, all in a quest to sleep with another woman. He’s not so different from Joey, with two major exceptions.

First, the other characters on HIMYM savage him for the way he behaves. They call him disgusting and sleazy and are generally put off by him. More than that, they don’t even like him. He occasionally calls himself “the Barnacle”, which is a metaphor for his place in the group; they want to scrape him off, but he just keeps holding on.

The reason he keeps holding on is the second thing that sets him apart from Joey: he is constantly making sacrifices for the good of his friends. He gets one a job when his big opportunity falls through. He gives another a place to stay when she’s temporarily homeless. He sometimes goes behind the scenes to rescue them from their own mistakes. Every time they think he couldn’t possibly be any worse, he does something—like drag a depressed friend on an all night road trip to cheer him up—and totally redeems himself.

The show treats Barney differently, too. Barney’s lies routinely come back around to slap him in the face. Actually, it’s the women he’s lied to that slap him. He’s a sympathetic character, but not in the way Joey is. Barney is looking for something, and he thinks he’ll find it in sex, but he never does. Joey is just looking for sex. Barney is presented as simultaneously corrupted and naiive, a broken person trying to fix himself, and doing a poor job of it. Joey is just looking for sex. Friends’ treatment of Joey is a perfect example of calling evil good, while HIMYM’s treatment of Barney is an example of loving someone in spite of their behavior.

Aside from that, the other characters (particularly Ted, HIMYM‘s main character) demonstrate more palatable values as well. All Ted wants to do is get married and start a family. There’s an entire episode dedicated to how terrible it is to call a woman a “grinch” (only he didn’t say “grinch”), a word which is used without comment in several episodes of Friends. In one episode where he decides to let it all loose and try to party and have a one night stand, it’s presented glamorously, until the episode ending flashback, when he sees how terrible he’d actually behaved. Compare that to the episode where Joey trains Ross to lie to get a woman into bed.

Like Knocked Up or The 40-Year-Old Virgin, How I Met Your Mother uses outlandish plot devices and raunchy comedy to support some surprisingly conservative themes. Friends, while very entertaining, presses views (particularly related to sex) that are less consistent with Christian faith. Alan recently reminded us that there is a lot going on beneath the surface of the political ads, and the same holds true for TV shows and movies. We should be aware of the subtle views that are supported by what we watch, and not just the devices they use.

[Season five of HIMYM veered from the views and values I've described. Its creators acknowledged the change, and have promised to return the show to its previous focus (and glory). I hope they do. If not, then it's become just another bit of raunchy entertainment.]

About Charles Jones
  • http://www.pofgblog.com Joseph

    I’m not a HIMYM watcher, so I can’t really comment on that show, but I’ve seen just about every episode of ‘Friends’ either in syndication or in a friend’s dvd collection. It’s a great show in the history of television, for sure. And I’ve definitely noticed what you’re talking about in this article as far as the characters’ values.

    What I wonder, though, is if the difference in values portrayed between these two shows is possibly a result of their respective settings (i.e. ‘Friends’ takes place in trendy, liberal New York while maybe HIMYM takes place in a more conservative part of the country)? What is the setting for HIMYM?

    Either way, you’ve got me interested enough to put HIMYM on my Netflix queue for next summer…

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    Interesting article Charles–I think you bring up some good points.

    I have a hard time watching Friends now because of the very things you mention–not that I cannot stomach it, but I just find it distasteful–especially now that I am married. And I would add that its not just Joey–every character has very cavalier attitudes about sex–Rachel regularly gets blitzed and sleeps with men and aggressively pursues men based solely on physical desires. Ross and Chandler envy Joey and try just as hard to bed women at various points and these actions are never portrayed to have very serious consequences.

    All that said, I watched probably every episode through season 6 or so (at least via rerun on TBS) and it was a very well written show–the characters were hilarious and each certainly had redeeming qualities if only in relation to one another in their tight community.

  • http://pos51.org Charles

    HIMYM takes place in the same NYC that Friends does (just 10 years later). I think different settings would have made a big difference, but then HIMYM wouldn’t be able to play the compare/contrast game as it does; it’s subtly (and not-so-subtly) playing on the conventions set up by its predecessor. The only major difference is that while the Friends hung out in a coffee shop that used to be a bar near their apartment, the HIMYM group hangs out at a bar that used to be a bar near their apartment.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    I’d quibble with you at several points, since a disagreement about sitcom interpretation isn’t worth much more than a quibble ;-)

    For one, the other characters on Friends were about as unrealistic as Joey. Phoebe’s airheadedness, Chandler’s insecurity, Monica’s neat-freak-ness; etc., were all just as broadly drawn and in several cases, just as over the top as Joey’s lechery. To me, he doesn’t stand out all that much from the rest of the cast.

    I’d suggest that another difference is that Friends was funny, while HIMYM isn’t, but that’s probably a subjective evaluation. I do think, though, that you give Barney’s pals too much credit for their distaste of his behavior. They may be put off by it, but not enough to push him to clean up his act. The female characters aren’t upset enough by his treatment of women to tell him cut it out or take a hike, so I’d have to wonder how upset they really were. I also think Barney is basically a rerun of John Larroquette’s lecherous Dan Fielding character from Night Court and about as realistic.

    I’ll caveat these ideas by saying that probably 80 percent of the HIMYM I’ve watched has been on a TV at the gym via closed-caption when someone else has asked for that channel, so if I’ve missed episodes that contain what I’ve brought up feel free to ignore this comment as readily as I usually ignore the show.

  • http://pos51.org Charles

    You’re right, they’re all caricatures in some way, but discussing all of them would have been a ridiculously long post.

    I think both shows are very funny, but HIMYM doesn’t lend itself to periodic or uninvolved viewing. Neither I or my wife liked it when we saw random episodes on TV, but it was really entertaining when we watched the DVD set. And you can’t really judge a sitcom based on closed captions.

    As far as the group’s treating of Barney, I have to disagree with you. They don’t make him leave, but that’s because he is constantly contributing to the well-being of the group. They’re also good people that realize Barney is so lonely and needy and co-dependent that they can’t, in good conscience, shut him out. They do try to influence him to change, but the show kind of depends on him, so it can’t really go anywhere.

    If he’s a copy of Dan Fielding, it’s an interesting connection, but I don’t think it takes anything away. Not any more than his being a copy of Joey, or any other character in the history of film and TV. There are only so many types, especially in an ensemble when the characters have to be so distinct and stereotypical.


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