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.]