Why is it that there are certain television shows that, despite sharing common themes, could hardly be more different:? How I Met Your Mother and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, for example, initially struck me as being, on the surface, quite similar. A group of friends in the big city, focusing on their entanglements, romantic and otherwise, with a heavy emphasis on bar life… At first glance, they’re practically the same show! And yet my wife Anna and I just finished watching HIMYM’s entire run for the second time, whereas I’ve only ever watched 5 episodes of Philadelphia, and each one left me feeling kinda sad.
Dr. Who and Torchwood is another, even more striking example. Torchwood is actually a spin-off of Dr. Who, and the content and setting is, in many cases, very similar. But Dr. Who takes place in a universe full of wonder, where the utter impossibility of a happy ending only makes that inevitable happy ending more marvelous… whereas Torchwood, despite taking place in the same universe, ended its run by taking an unwilling child from the arms of his screaming mother and literally torturing him to death in order to save the planet from aliens.
Finally, the story of the recent film adaptation of Les Miserables has a great deal in common with the 1967 classic Cool Hand Luke. A man is put in prison for a frivolous crime, punished far beyond reason, under the control of a cruel taskmaster, trying again and again to escape but each escape only makes things worse and worse, until finally the main character dies with a smile on his face. Despite these similarities of plot, the tone and atmosphere of the films could hardly be more different. Luke declares the doctrine of a pointless, cruel world, the best response to which is unflagging coolness; the world will kill you eventually, but best to mock it till the very end. Les Miserables, however, despite death and hopelessness on a scale far exceeding the plights of a single man, reminds us again and again that suffering is not meaningless, that our actions can shape the world, and that death is not the end.
But what is the cause of such division? Why does Ted’s (seemingly endless) adventure of meeting his wife enthrall me and Anna, whereas we can hardly make it through an episode of Philadelphia? Why is the Doctor so very happy, and Jack so very sad? Why is Luke left with only a legacy of mocking coolness, and why does Jean Valjean sing triumphantly of the light awaiting the wretched of the earth?
The answer, I think, is a sense of hope. Philadelphia recognizes the essential sadness of existence; Torchwood, the horror and cruelty; and Luke, the essential unfairness and futility. But the others dare to go further. There is deep sadness in HIMYM, but the very title and premise of the show promises that at the end, all of this sadness is redeemed. There is horror and cruelty in Dr. Who, but it is always overcome. And life is unfair to the wretched and downtrodden of France… but to call their struggle futile is to entirely miss the point.
This is, of course, why some prefer shows like Philadelphia. A show about broken, tired people, doing the best they can in their broken, tired lives; sometimes it’s enough, often it’s not. There is no hope for happiness: Not real happiness, anyway, nothing beyond the momentary pleasure that sex and alcohol can provide. And to those who feel that this hopelessness, this futility, accurately reflects reality, then Philadelphia is doubtless to be preferred to naive, childish shows like HIMYM.
They have a point: this is, indeed, how life used to be. The bar life of Philadelphia is eerily reminiscent of another, much older account of the hopelessness and futility of life.
But no more, as of 2,000-odd years ago. Because that’s when Love Himself came into the world to give us hope again, to heal our wounds and redeem our souls. We now live in a world that, though broken, will be fixed; though sorrow is real, it will be wiped away; though pain is all around us, it will be ended. That is the world that HIMYM, Dr. Who, and Les Miserables portray, and for that, I love them.
They recognize hope. A hope of redemption, of an undeserved and unexpected happiness waiting for those who only need to reach out their hand and accept it. A hope, at bottom, of a grace that goes beyond the cold, hard, “facts” of existence, that defies the “realism” and cynicism that so attracts our culture today. These shows remind me that Christ came that we might have life, have it to the full, and that we might celebrate in living. And God bless us, he even brought the drinks.