By David Tassell
“I wish we had our own MacLaren’s pub!” Fans of How I Met Your Mother are likely to resonate with this sentiment. After several seasons, something about the familiar central place for the whole gang to meet and Barney’s antics to flourish becomes an attractive ideal for 20- and 30- somethings and our friends. For others, it’s Central Perk from Friends, and for the parents of HIMYM fans it might be Cheers. TV sitcoms even have the power to make a large table in a meeting room at a community college desirable, as fans of Community will no doubt agree.
What is it about these favorite TV hangouts that’s so attractive? What is it that makes the concept such a reproducible recipe for TV magic, and powerful enough to make a person believe a scotch and soda is actually good?
I am no psychologist but it seems possible that something about the way the sitcom narrative draws out a desire for a familiar hangout with friends is perhaps at least a little religious. Religion in this case need not be understood in terms of deities or the supernatural, but rather in a more Durkheimian manner of tribal identity and “sacred” rituals. There is something about belonging to a specific group, having a regular meeting place, and participating in common practices that resonates with the human experience, and some might say these are the building blocks of religion.
At the very least, I observe that the narrative framework of a common gathering location parallels the framework of religious worship. In these sitcoms, the writers often “gather” characters into these hangouts for character development and story formation. After which, the characters are “sent” into the rest of the story to act out the rest of the narrative. The gather/sent paradigm is a fundamental one to religious worship, and has been given attention recently by philosopher James K.A. Smith in You Are What You Love.
However, whether or not anyone finds that convincing as a true parallel (admittedly, it might be hard for some to imagine Barney Stinson or Joey Tribbiani as icons of anything religious), it still follows that religious practitioners might find some nuggets of truth about the human experience in fan attraction to TV sitcoms’ local hangout trope. What do we observe happening in these characters’ experience that resonates? How might this also be cultivated in a worship experience? I suggest that there are three possible areas in which this sitcom trope can inform worship: human community, ritual formation, and stability.
The first concept is perhaps the most obvious, and that is “human community.” The more overt appeal of what the viewer observes in MacLaren’s or Central Perk is a community of close friends and generally friends who are partaking in food and drink together. Historically, human community is a central component of worship in most major religions, as is partaking in holy meals. From the Eucharist to iftars, a religious meal with a community is a deeply moving human experience. However, in the U.S., local community can be elusive for many and loneliness is on the rise. The advent of the megachurch where one can “worship” in anonymity seems to be more symptomatic of the disease than a solution. CEO type pastors and corporate models of “church” often cater toward an individualistic culture, but perhaps instead, leaders of worship everywhere can look to TV sitcoms for a little insight into people’s desire for a small, intimate community around simple meals.
Speaking of simple meals, a less obvious component of sitcom hangouts is ritual formation. As I mentioned earlier, these hangout settings are often critical junctures in the episodes for character development and story formation. For instance, for the HIMYM gang, sitting at the same booth, drinking, group conversation, recurring characters, and more questionable antics like picking up a stranger for the evening are all repeated rituals which form the characters. A central idea to James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love is this idea that gathering for the same practices every week forms us and our desires, which determines who we are and how we live. Weekly worship which reinforces consumerism, individualism, majority-culture homogeneity, or whatever it be, is likely to produce individualistic consumers ignorant of differing viewpoints. Admittedly, in real life the HIMYM gang would probably be forming themselves for liver problems. What we observe though in the fictional story are rituals which form a group of people to grow closer and have each other’s backs through life’s difficulties (save to an extent in the disaster of a final season). A similar dynamic can be said about Friends and Central Perk, and religious worship has a similar, though even greater, potential. Worship rituals have the potential to form not only strong community, but also insightfulness into others’ life experiences, and a desire for the common good.
Finally, part of the sitcom local hangout’s appeal is stability. The strong community and formation occurs in the context of a place the characters can always be sure is there and filled with friends. The constant presence of the entire friend group at these hangouts is even laughably unrealistic when you think about it, but the subconscious is appealed to by unwavering stability. For worship, the line between progressive or “relevant” worship and historic worship is a subject of plenty of debate. Here, it seems worth noting the appeal of consistency over time. Is the goal for religious worship to blow your mind or produce a sense of belonging? Central Perk isn’t awesome because Gunther purchased state of the art lights and speakers for Phoebe’s new anthemic rendition of Smelly Cats. It’s awesome because it doesn’t really change and the Friends gang is always there.
The appeal of the local hangout is undeniable for fans of these TV sitcoms. After all, what would these shows be without these gathering places? Whether or not this appeal is getting at something inherently religious in our collective consciousness is a debate to be had, but the appeal of community, repeated antics, and uncanny consistency are betrayed by our desire to binge watch entire seasons we’ve already seen on quiet Saturdays. Religious worship has a complicated relationship with culture, and in the case of American Christianity has often succumbed to the less fortunate parts of culture. However, there may just be something about MacLaren’s pub to consider for your next holy gathering.