It occurred to me the other day that the popular television show ‘The Big Bang Theory’ contains a lot of similarities to the 90’s break out hit ‘Friends’. In fact, the similarities are quite uncanny. Each show is built around the mutual friendship of a group of men and women; each show contains a gullible scientist in love with the attractive, yet ditzy, waitress; each cast has an aspiring actor/actress; each show contains notable, and frequent, guest stars; each program is set primarily in two apartments conveniently located across the hall from each other; in neither of the apartment buildings is there a workable elevator. If one was to look deeper, I imagine that many more similarities could be easily uncovered. There is however, one notable difference.
The Big Bang Theory is a better show.
When I say ‘better’, I am not speaking of the writing or acting – although I do feel that this is the case. Rather, I am referring to the fact that The Big Bang Theory conveys a much more positive depiction of friendship, relationships, and the call to sacrificial love. Let’s be honest, Friends was about the constant pursuit of individual happiness, primarily through the medium of sexual encounters. Relationships were self-focused and self-obsessed. For Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Joey and Phoebe, individual happiness was that which justified all actions. For example, after a one night stand, Ross justifies this to Rachel under the cry of ‘We were on a break!’ Here there is no self-sacrifice in light of a love to the other, nor is there recognition of how one’s actions affect the other. It does not matter if Rachel is justifiably upset with Ross’ dalliance; He sees no problem in it. Ultimately, Ross’ relationships are about the maximization of his own pleasure, and not about self-offering for the care of another.
This same is clearly seen when Ross rejects his new wife’s demands to not see Rachel again. Instead of setting aside a dysfunctional relationship with a past lover, Ross maintains this relationship at the expense of his own marriage. The justification is that if Emily ‘truly loved’ Ross, she would not keep him from his friends. The group stands by Ross as he dumps his wife in favour of Rachel. They do so because any attempt to support Ross’ marriage, would affect the self-obsessed happiness of the group. Clearly, care for Ross and his marriage is never the concern. Rather what matters for the remaining 5 is how their own happiness may be affected by Ross’ decision
Equal examples can be given in the lives of the other main characters of the show. At one point Chandler has as an affair with distained girlfriend Janice. Janice’s own husband cheated on her, thus giving justification for entering into a relationship with Chandler. Again, matters of commitment, promise, and perseverance crumble under the desire for personal happiness. Her relationship with Chandler ends when she is seen kissing her husband and decides to give her marriage another try. This dynamic continually takes place amidst all characters. On Friends, no relationship is ever stable or secure, for all are subject to the ever-shifting whims of personal happiness. Ironically, a theme song that sang “I’ll be there for you, when the rain starts to pour . . .” was rarely modeled in the program.
Against the plotlines of egoistic happiness we see the true strength of The Big Bang Theory. Here, friendship and love take on a different quality. Amidst the jokes, jibes, and humorous arguments that define any relationship, it is clear that each character dynamically cares for the other. Howard Wolowitz, who began the series as one focused on the pursuit of sexual adventures, is the first of the group to experience a major personal growth. This occurs largely through the role of Bernadette, whom he marries at the end of season 5. In a touching episode, Howard sings a song to Bernadette, a song which highlights the extent to which she is the defining person in his life. (see it here). Bernadette is not simply the one who makes him happy, she is the one who provides Howard with his very identity. His own happiness is encased in making her happy. This relationship of self-giving love is also found in Bernadette herself, as she continually places her own comforts aside in order to support Howard’s relationship with his mother.
As strong as the Howard’s personal growth is, however, perhaps the biggest example of selfless love for another comes from the most emotionally stunted of individuals, Sheldon. While Sheldon and Amy interact primarily on an intellectual level, it is clear Sheldon has deep affection for her. This is evidenced by the fact that Sheldon does not shun physical contact with her. Holding hands, a small kiss, dancing, and caring for Amy when she is sick, are all instances where Sheldon brakes out of his normal idiosyncratic style for the sake of connecting with Amy. When Penny asks about his relationship with Amy, Sheldon states “All my life I have been uncomfortable with the sort of physical contact that comes easy to others. . . .but I’m working on it. Just recently I had to put VapoRub on Amy’s chest. A year ago that would be unthinkable.” When Penny follows this by asking if the two will ever have a physically intimate relationship, Sheldon admits “It’s a possibility.” This confession is both profound and highly significant to his person growth, and his feelings for Amy.
This desire to give one’s self for the care and love of another is seen in all the major characters of the show, minus one. The only person who has not experienced the same level of true love or friendship is Rajesh Koothrappali (Raj). While Penny and Leonard, Sheldon and Amy, and Howard and Bernadette have all experienced the gift of self-giving love, Raj is the only person who has not. Perhaps this is because, unlike the others, Raj is still focused on what a girlfriend can do for him. Raj’s quest for a girlfriend is not a quest for the intimacy that comes through self-offering. Rather, his longing for a companion is more about satisfying personal status and esteem. Raj’s quest for personal happiness through the sole medium of sexual activity stands in opposition to the rest of the cast, and serves to highlight the authentic love and friendship that exists amidst the other characters.
The Big Bang Theory points its viewers to examine the dynamics of authentic relationships. It challenges us to move beyond our self-focused agenda’s and to willingly place ourselves before the other in loving service. In many ways, the characters model what is often sung in our churches:
Sisters/Brothers Let me be your servant
Let me be as Christ to you
Pray that I may have the strength
To let you be my servant too.
Even though no-one may ask their hair-dresser to give them ‘The Wolowitz’, the constant expressions of loving service is this reason The Big Bang Theory is a worthwhile program to watch, and the greater depiction of true love and friendship.