On-screen Characters/Off-screen Life
I once belonged to a book club that tackled Sigrid Undset’s mammoth historical novel Kristin Lavransdatter. This long work (a trilogy, actually) traces the title character’s life in medieval Norway, depicting the harm she (and later her well-meaning but impulsive and undisciplined husband) inflicts on herself and others through her willfulness and lack of self-governance. Outwardly, in some ways her life was conventionally lived: She married, bore and raised children, and managed a large household. But her inability or unwillingness to submit her wayward emotions to the regulation of reason drove her to many poor choices that, once made, had to be lived with, including her marriage to someone equally unregulated. Despite achieving a good and perhaps even holy death from the Black Plague, Kristin can at times make this wonderful novel a frustrating read for those rooting for her to (as the Mom in Freaky Friday daily admonishes her teenage daughter) “Make good choices!” One of my book club members found herself actually praying for Kristin at critical points in her story, so real had the fictional character become to her and so deeply did she empathize with her.
But good fictional characters are like that: They make the reader hope for a way these beloved figures can (like the also-fictional Pinocchio) become “real” someday—perhaps so real that they could even be smuggled some way into the colorful company of heaven.
Even much more pedestrian fictional characters living the prosaic sins of our own era can make us wish that. I was pondering the destinies of sets of sitcom characters being streamed into my household by members of my family during this Covid-19 year of limited entertainment options. None of us were seeking edgy or esoteric series during this anxious period. Instead, we were variously craving the equivalent of comfort food, which among other offerings meant for some of us many hours of Friends and The Office, interspersed with the slightly later and snarkier Big Bang Theory.
When you ingest long series this way, not spread out thin over distracted years but in big thick batches, you notice even minor changes in the characters—development, of a sort. In the ordinary sitcom, people fall in love with the wrong people and then eventually with the “right” one, and they may flounder a bit professionally until at last latching onto a career or lifestyle that better conforms to their needs and aptitudes. They frequently release some childhood resentments, maybe resolve a fractious family relationship. They grow up—to a point. But not so far that the chemistry of the series and the largely predictable actions and reactions of the protagonists are altered out of recognition. The series is a brand, and as some of us remember from the 1980s “New Coke” debacle, we don’t usually like our comfortably familiar brands messed with.
But like my friend praying for poor deluded Kristin, I found myself wishing these sitcom characters could not only progress much faster in the journey to maturity, but much farther as well. Thinking again of Pinocchio, I silently told the screen characters, “You will never become a ‘real boy’ [or ‘real girl’] unless you dig deeper than that, sacrifice more, think more clearly, love more devotedly.”
For instance, watching Friends characters Rachel and Monica flounder through a series of shallow and unsatisfactory relationships and even one-night stands, I wondered what would happen if one of them had a true epiphany, rather than one of those mini-epiphanies so plentifully spread about this and other sitcoms, like “He really is too young for me,” or “It makes no sense to keep dating him, we want different things.” No, I mean a life-changing, series-changing illumination like, “Why am I sleeping with everyone I date? What is the purpose of sex, anyway? Isn’t sexual intercourse implicitly enacting a total gift of self that is therefore a lie if, at best, neither of the parties even knows where this is going or is prepared to promise forever?”
Or take the episode in which Ross and Monica’s grandmother dies. Along with many genuinely comic bits in the hospital and in clearing out her home after her death, this episode cruised closer than usual to some deeper things, leading the younger Friends generation to imagine their grandmother and her friends as young twenty-somethings who once also hung out with their friends—but that is as far as the episode went. No one dug even in a gingerly way into the meaning of this repeated generational handoff of life, or delved into what the family’s Jewish ancestral religion might be able to contribute towards a theory of an afterlife, or its characteristics, or its requirements.
Or take Rachel’s unplanned pregnancy with ex-boyfriend Ross. Yes, she decides to have the baby (who, after the first few newborn months, pops in for briefer and briefer scenes snatched from Rachel’s more interesting burgeoning social and professional life). But the scene in the Ladies’ Room where Rachel waits for the result of the home pregnancy test suggests that the determining factor in her not seeking other options is that she wants the baby. What if she didn’t want the baby, but still worked her way through to some deeper realization of the objective reality of the unborn as a fellow human being? What if that led her to rethink her lifestyle and choices, resolving to better respect her God-given power to create such a human person and the huge responsibility that entails?
Or what if, to turn to another character, the repeated jokes about Chandler’s pornography use led him (and others, such as Joey) to examine just how pornography affects his relationships with women—including, ultimately, his relationship with his wife Monica? Or what if one of those apparently fairly frequent hangover mornings prompted one of the characters to reluctantly admit an alcohol abuse problem? It wasn’t a problem that wouldn’t have occurred to the cast, since one of them struggled off-screen for years with addictions.
The standard response to these “what ifs” is that a sitcom is light comedy that attempts to appeal to its contemporary audience, perhaps in part by steering clear of deeper matters, particularly those that might divide and alienate viewers. And in this Friends resembles most of its genre. Oh, some sitcom writers and producers fondly believe they are edgily probing important societal problems or challenging less evolved viewers by, for example, running characters in gay marriages, but instead of “courageously” producing edgy comedy, they are chiefly collaborating in an echo chamber of accepted opinion. True edginess would be depicting a gay person struggling, not without defeats and temptations to despair, to live a chaste life. Or it would be an episode displaying the emotional, psychological, and biological havoc of transgender transitioning in teenagers. Or it would be confronting the viewer with the sheer Emperor’snew-clothes insanity of believing gender is fluid or changeable.
Or how about something really radical: a straight religious character who believes neither an active homosexual lifestyle nor transgender transitions are morally healthy—or healthy in any other way—but is not portrayed as a Taliban member, a bigot, or an ignorant and hate-filled fanatic? In other words, why not convey a little of the reality of conflicting opinions and the experiences that form them? Or are “it’s not fair” and “people should do what will make them happy” and “you’re a hater” deemed to fully plumb the depths of progressive thought?
Or maybe, while in the throes of romantic heartache, job termination, or a parent’s divorce, one of the friends might contemplate suicide, prompting all of them to consider what makes life worth living, and under what circumstances they might consider ending it—or might consider not intervening when a friend chooses to end it. Or maybe the marital regrets of Rachel’s mother and her ensuing divorce could nudge Rachel to reflect on what a marriage vow is, the sorts of escape clauses it may or may not offer, and whether, perhaps, Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons correctly captured the nature of a vow or oath: “When a man takes an oath . . . he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water [he cups his hands] and if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.”
But this kind of edginess seems largely absent not just from popular comedy but also from many contemporary dramatic presentations. Like the Socialist Realism of Stalin’s Soviet Union, our own era’s dramatic questions have their smugly self-satisfied answers, the opposition members are cartoon characters, and the conversation never gives more than a socially shallow consideration of “What are we doing here?”
I don’t mean to sound dismissive of the Friends cast of characters or all the other casts of sitcom characters who are now being binge-watched during Covid-19 shutdowns. In fact, an abundance of gratitude for whiling away many a tedious hour drives me to want more from them and for them than a superficial coasting along the surface of life. Surely their energy and emotions should not be exhausted by bobbing from one emotional attachment to another, where jobs and boyfriends and a really killer pair of boots end up all seeming roughly commensurate, because they all derive importance from the intensity of the pull of attraction or push of repulsion. It makes me sympathize with Geppetto’s ambitious desire for more for his marionette creation. Or maybe my feelings more closely resemble those of a good teacher who urges her students to uncover a yet deeper layer of meaning, rather than the stereotypical therapist of comedy who confines his efforts to asking his client, “So how did that make you feel?”
In fact, I wish that “more” not only for the Friends cast and the cast of The Office and The Big Bang Theory but even, reaching back over the decades, for the cast of Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners. I sometimes wonder what happens to Alice and Ralph Kramden in the years following the filming of their series. Do they ever have children? And do they raise them in that cramped apartment, or manage to move to a house in the suburbs? What happens to those children, who would have grown up in the 1960s and come of age in the 1970s? Are they disastrously caught by the culture’s toxic undertow? Do they veer into radical politics or sexual permissiveness, shack up with someone, get dumped, and exercise their freshly granted abortion right? And how would Alice and Ralph react to all this? What exactly were Alice and Ralph’s deeper beliefs about life and death?
If characters are drawn well enough for viewers to muse about their post-screen lives, then they are real enough for scriptwriters to give them apprehensions of higher meaning or the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual resources to meet possible tragedy, address hard questions, respond to assaults on their values. A sitcom can’t grapple with any of these more than tangentially or episodically, but it could suggest to us elliptically and allusively, in a thousand casual details and throwaway lines, the nature and degree of ballast they have to withstand the storms of life. Like us, these characters may perhaps shrink from facing hard truths or risking rejection by loved ones; they may be confused and carried along by the shallow tributary that our own times have steered us into, and risk running aground. They may turn out not to be like the people we thought them, resembling childhood playmates with whom we share no common ground years later. But if these characters are given nothing significant to confront, they are merely marionettes rather than “real” people.
The pleasantly pacifying sitcom format with its winsome characters and snappy comebacks has its place among us, like mac and cheese for the frayed psyche at the end of a tiring day. And in this limited supportive role, perhaps it is acceptable that the characters moving across the screen do not stray too far from their largely self-absorbed but rarely mean-spirited selves. It suits our craving for a particular, easily digestible experience, rather than the more demanding complexities of life and death, the problem of pain, the pursuit of the good, the high cost of love.
“Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” said T. S. Eliot in Four Quartets. This has been so since the serpent spun his fantasy in Eden of a world where human creatures could “be like gods”; certainly it is true in our own era, where human beings cling to their own version of the same fantasy. “Like gods,” the tech wizards and their hopeful followers expect to end death. “Like gods,” human geneticists and biologists tinker with alternate versions of our DNA, with dreams of recreating humanity. “Like gods,” some people choose to inhabit “female” or “male” bodies they were not born into (or at least the best mock-up that hormones and cosmetic surgery can achieve). Such ambitions to dethrone the Creator are extreme rejections of reality, but we all participate in more modest ones, employing ingenuity to eclipse from our view the sublime simplicity of God and to replace our civilization’s earlier attempts to address the great philosophical questions about ourselves and our place in the world. Instead, our greatest minds—our scientists and technical wizards—mostly engage in puzzle-solving, often, though by no means always, with good results.
And side-stepping these great philosophical questions or accepting superficial and self-serving answers has cost us. For example, it has dropped us below the level of even the most primitive peoples in our ignorance of human nature and society. For much of the series, Friends offers jokes at Chandler’s expense about his insecure sense of masculinity and what that might imply about his sexual orientation. His bizarre family background, with a publicly promiscuous mother and an equally public transvestite father, are the implicit roots of his insecurities. Instead of acknowledging the psychological harm of his unconventional childhood, his friends enjoy his mother’s celebrity status. Monica pushes him to invite his father to their wedding in a scene that takes place in the club where his father performs in drag. Never does Chandler discuss the rightness or even the wisdom of his parents’ choices, although he shares ways in which their conduct embarrassed him. Nor does he discuss with them or others the narcissistic self-indulgence of their lifestyles.
More ordinary forms of moral blindness also surface throughout the series. For example, Chandler and Rachel both suffer from their parents’ divorces; however, such suffering is depicted as real but necessary collateral damage for the sake of the parents’ happiness. Monica’s relationship with a much older man whose children are now grown founders on her desire to have children. The disagreement is presented as emotionally wrenching, but the characters discuss it solely within the limited realm of conflicting emotions and preferences. Her desire to marry and have children, which would be understood in almost all other times and places as not only natural but contributing to the survival of the community and aligned with the creative will of God, is diminished in Friends to a personal ambition that she hopes eventually to achieve with someone else who also wants children.
Even in her parents’ generation, this understanding of marriage had begun fraying. By the Friends generation, re-engineering past arrangements and rethinking former conventions is the main order of business. The series opens, after all, with Rachel jettisoning her own conventional future by jilting her betrothed on their wedding day. In this same episode Ross discovers his wife has left him for a woman (and shortly thereafter he will learn she is pregnant with their son, whom the two women intend to raise).
So the show’s premise is not that we learn the fundamentals of how to live happy and fulfilling adult lives from our parents, who form part of a millennialong chain successfully handing on the template of human life to us, so that we in turn can pass it on to our children. Instead, Friends displays a more developed version of something we have been familiar with since at least the 1960s (and incipiently for much longer): the replacement of the hierarchical family with our peers as primary supports and guides in carving out a generation’s path through the jungle of undifferentiated choices.
The marital ambitions of the women in Friends are not outlandish or wrong: They would be considered legitimate as far as they go in many, perhaps most, times and places. Emotional stability, love and companionship, and children are primary personal motivations for marriage even among the most traditionalminded persons. But when volatile emotions and idiosyncratic preferences are identified as the only legitimate bases for our decisions, or at least the ones carrying the most weight, there is very little moral ground to challenge the less noble and self-sacrificing and even faulty moral choices of others. On what grounds can we criticize them? Because they hurt other people? The divorces of Chandler’s parents, of Rachel’s parents, hurt others too, but the screenwriters do not depict them as questionable on that account.
As mentioned earlier, even Rachel’s decision to keep her baby is decided on emotion, and therefore can’t serve as a moral yardstick or even experienced advice for others in unexpected pregnancies. There is no suggestion that anyone among the Friends group would have been appalled (on grounds of principle) at her decision to abort, however squeamish they might have felt, and whatever Ross’s paternal instincts might have been. In other words, just because the protagonists do not defend or discuss abortion or gender choices or anything else on the ethical table today does not mean, given how they habitually arrive at their decisions, they would not find any or all of these acceptable if the person making the decision “felt” it was the right one.
But of course the Friends cast has plenty of company on the other side of the viewing screen. In fact, by the mid-1990s when the series began airing, as far as deciding major life decisions on purely emotional grounds goes, the camel’s nose had long since gone under the tent, although portions of its anatomy since on display were not yet revealed to the tent-dwellers.
In the current extremely divisive conditions of our country, a divisiveness that has been building for decades but has found fertile conditions for growth in the past year, Friends may seem light years removed from our situation. But the “if it makes you happy” tolerance on display in Friends—and the boatload of other series whose characters largely share the same emotional decision flowchart—is directly related to our bitter cancel culture and its rejection of past role models. Both spurn reason, history, and tradition as guides to thought and behavior and refuse to acknowledge that we “stand upon the shoulders of giants.” Both also reject or ignore religion or else refashion (mostly non-Western) religion in their own image. The sitcom world, so pleasant and comparatively serene (at least for the viewer) even in its recent snarkier incarnations, presents the domestic or professional lives of characters ripe (little though they know it) for getting “woke.”
Without anchoring their lives in any tradition more substantial than Secret Santa, with almost no knowledge of history or adherence to a religious faith deeper, more dogmatic, or more morally challenging than pop-Buddhism or Pachamama-style paganism, without grounding Western concepts of natural law and the God-given value of the individual, without an engrained understanding of the value of sacrificing for others, without the virtue of temperance to arm them against their materialist culture, these characters seem poised to be swept away by levelling political passions and our era’s tribal bonding, though that strong tide demands repudiation of a religion and civilization that (after all) they never learned to know, love, or appreciate.
“Come on, Rachel! Come on, Monica! It doesn’t have to be this way!” I tell them as I watch them steer for the unprotected edge of the flat, two-dimensional world they inhabit. But judging by the limited internal resources they and their like have been given by the scriptwriters, things don’t look too good for our side of the screen either.
Ellen Wilson Fielding, a longtime senior editor of the Human Life Review, is the author of An Even Dozen (Human Life Press). The mother of four children, she lives in Maryland.