Friday, November 25, 2011

A Strained Attempt At Justifying My Emotional Commitment To Television

After the end of last week’s How I Met Your Mother, I was legitimately sad. It wasn’t especially crippling or debilitating, and I’m happy to report that I’ve since made a full recovery. But one question remains, and it’s something I’ve been having a hard time figuring out for years: why do I continually let the actions of fictional characters affect my emotions? And couldn’t this emotional energy be put to much better use if I directed it towards people who are actually, you know, real?

(Very quickly: the answer to the second part of the question is “yes.” Now, onto the first part.)

I started thinking about this approximately one while ago after coming across an article that said Jenna Fischer had recently gotten divorced. I didn’t care, to be blunt, nor do I care about most celebrity divorces that make it into the news. It’s a very easy way to feel morally superior, and I would recommend it to anyone.

The article did, however, fill my head with thoughts of The Office and how I would react if Pam ever got divorced from Jim. Given that I’m capable of discerning the differences between television and reality, I don’t think it would upset me too much. At the same time, I can almost guarantee that it would upset me more than the news of her actual divorce did. In other words, a real life event that had a real life impact on two (probably more) real live people made me feel virtually nothing. On the other hand, a hypothetical made-up event that would have a made-up impact on two made-up people (probably more, although they would all be made-up as well) would disappoint me. Something about this seems wrong.
I think it boils down to a pretty simple concept: I know Jim, and I know Pam, and I don’t know Jenna Fischer, and I literally don’t know her first husband (the “literally” is there because I don’t know what his name is). And the more I think about it, the more I realize that I don’t just know Jim and Pam. I know them very, very well.

Given that I’ve seen every episode of The Office, this means that I’ve spent, at minimum, around 56 hours getting acquainted with Jim and Pam (probably more when you factor in reruns) (also, yes, that number does kind of depress me. I think I’ll go outside after I finish writing this). And it hasn’t just been 56 hours of random small talk and inane chatter. Rather, it’s been 56 hours of revealing character development mixed with a healthy dose of often revealing humor. I was there when Jim got rejected by Pam, when Pam got rejected by Jim, when they started dating, when they struggled through a long distance relationship, when they got married, when they had a baby, etc., etc. It’s almost as if some higher power—let’s call it a “network”—has been deliberately making sure I witness a relatively constant stream of important events in these characters’ lives so that I’ll feel a strong enough attachment with them to keep checking in week after week. But when you put it that way, it just sounds sinister.

Contrastingly, I haven’t spent any time with Jenna Fischer in person. The few times I have seen her as anyone other than Pam, she’s either been portraying a different fictional character or in promotional-tour-late-night-talk-show mode, which I assume and hope is not her genuine personality. I’d get suspicious if anyone was really that cheery and full of amusing anecdotes in real life.

The same thing that’s happened with Jim and Pam has happened with Barney and Robin, whose failure to get back together about two weeks ago caused my aforementioned sadness. I’ve now been hanging out with them for six and a half seasons (give or take a few episodes from season five—I slacked off that year), so at this point, I know a significant amount of information about their personalities, their jobs, their families, their love lives, and their catchphrases.

(Digression: whatever happened to “suit up?” I feel like Barney hasn’t said that in years.)

In real life, when you know this much about another person, you call them a friend (exceptions: historical figures, anonymous sources, people you’re stalking). And if one of your friends just, say, broke up with someone to be with someone else who then decided not to be with them, it seems natural to empathize.

So I guess this means I’m friends with Barney and Robin (and Jim and Pam. And others, but if I start thinking about that too much I’m afraid the list might get embarrassingly long), which in turn explains their ability to make me feel feelings. I’m not entirely comfortable saying that because, again, these are two people who don’t exist. But after spending so much time with them—and, as with Jim and Pam, this time has been purposely constructed to consist of multiple defining, poignant events—I don’t think there’s another option.

Apart from not watching the show anymore. But, come on. I couldn’t ditch my friends like that.

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