Friends. We all need them. Of all the relationships we engage in during our time on earth, friendship is unique. Although friendship is less intimate than marriage, like our spouse, we get to choose our friends, and there are very few barriers to friendship other than the ones we put up ourselves (and even those tend to be artificial). Friendship has the potential to cross boundaries of age, marital status, gender, sexual status, social standing, religion, and even, these days, great spans of distance, as social media has opened up the possibility for real communion with people across state, national, and international boundaries. But the advent of social media friendships has also led us as a society to perhaps be more disconnected than ever before. We are busy all the time—busy and distracted and often uprooted from reality. Online, it’s easy to keep people at a distance behind a carefully crafted Internet persona.
Distance contributes to a lack of intimacy, and without intimacy, friendship lacks the power to help you grow.
I doubt I have to convince you that friendship is important. In entertainment—across books, television, and movies—it is one of the most common themes, and usually one of the best handled. Culture shows how our friends act on us as outside stimuli, encouraging us, for better or worse, to grow and change. The most successful sitcoms tend to focus on friend groups, including, of course, the long-running aptly-titled Friends. The very best friends-based sitcoms are the ones that, like Friends, balance humor with topics relating to friendship and what makes friendship so vital to the human condition.
It’s been 14 years since the Friends finale, with many new shows contributing to the subject. One of my favorites, written and created by Elizabeth Meriwether, New Girl is a Friends for the modern Internet Age. Anyone familiar with both shows will know the premise of New Girl has many similarities to Friends: A distraught 20-something woman fresh out of a bad relationship needs a new place to live, stat, so she moves into a loft apartment with virtual strangers, and voila! New friendships are born, dating hijinks ensue, and battles of the sexes commence. It’s a formula that worked for Friends in the ’90s, and with a diverse cast that delivers lines with comedic brilliance, it works today for New Girl.Sometimes it takes a “landline” and a little bit of getting up in each others’ business to see exactly how much friendship works for our good.
Jessica Day, played by Zooey Deschanel, is the titular “new girl” of the show, and the woman in need of new housing after she catches her boyfriend cheating on her in the pilot episode. Despite being a bit of an odd duck, when she moves into the Los Angeles loft apartment, she is bound and determined to make friends with the loft’s current occupants. They are Nick, an underachieving bartender; Schmidt, a driven businessman and hopeless womanizer; Coach, a focused fitness guru; and Winston, a former athlete with a heart of gold and some quirks of his own. Over the course of many misadventures, and with the help and intervention of her model best friend, Jess does manage to endear the guys in the apartment to her, and friendship is established as the main theme of the show.
New Girl displays what binds people together despite differences, and it does so with plenty of laughs. It’s a microcosm of relationships most people probably have. That one friend who’s way hotter than everyone else (why does she/he even hang out with you?). That friend who is more driven than anyone you’ve ever met. The friend who could be so much more if he or she just worked harder. The quirky friend. The workout nut. The one person in your group who is shockingly lacking in self-awareness. These are people we all know, whether in real life or virtually, and New Girl takes a slice of the most extreme personalities, magnifies them for comedic relief, and mashes them all together in a loft apartment to see what happens when they collide.
Unsurprisingly, more often than not funny things happen, but every now and then New Girl also manages to hit a poignant real-life note with surprising nuance, reminding us that watching sitcoms is not entirely void of moral value. This is what happens in Season 4, Episode 5 in an episode titled “Landline.”
In it, an issue with cell reception necessitates that Jess and the gang purchase a landline telephone for the loft. The camera shot of all of them hovering over the new green telephone, marveling at it and wondering amongst themselves over what to do with it, is pure comedy gold for my generation—one that grew up with landlines, but like Jess and the rest, hasn’t needed to use a phone with a cord since high school or earlier. The nostalgia is strong and the humor stronger as the phone rings and nobody answers because they’re all too busy staring at it.
It soon becomes clear that cell reception isn’t the only reception issue the loft mates are having. Over breakfast, Nick tries to communicate to his friends that he misses hanging out with them, as everyone is in a season of busyness and distraction. But nobody seems capable of hearing him. Tied up with work and life issues, they breeze out the door without addressing Nick’s admission of loneliness.
Alone in the loft after everyone leaves, the phone starts ringing, and Nick starts answering it because he’s the only one home. They don’t have an answering machine, so Nick takes it upon himself to take messages for everyone, probing into the minutiae of his friends’ lives. His whole aspect changes as the episode progresses. He finds purpose as the “loft secretary,” he becomes cheerful and engaged, and he begins to feel as though he knows his friends again. His friends, on the other hand, unused to having one of the others so intimately in their business, find his message-taking meddlingly intrusive and seek a way to stop him from answering the phone.
Even though the episode is about in-person friends living together with actual poor phone reception and a real-life landline phone
, the whole story plays out like a metaphor. And from it, we can learn a little about how friendship is supposed to work, whether it’s our own in-person friends or our online friends. The landline, being a tangible thing rooted in the apartment, is a metaphorical shared connection between Nick and his friends. It is a funnel for all their “business,” and it becomes simply unavoidable that they will share their business with each other. For example, Nick is fielding calls for Schmidt from a magazine called Business, Man! This extends the metaphor and makes the whole thing both funnier and a little more poignant, as Schmidt wants Nick to essentially get , “out of his business, man!” (Get it?)
Winston gets it, and together he and Schmidt purchase an answering machine to replace Nick. What Schmidt and Winston don’t understand, though, is that answering the phone makes Nick feel connected to them. They see someone intruding on their privacy, so they try to reinstall buffers they have become used to, an attempt to curate their real-life privacy settings. What they fail to see is a friend alone in a crowd who longs to feel visible and worthwhile, needed and loved.
When the machine inevitably doesn’t work, and the conflict comes to a head, Nick admits these things to his friends. He tells them he’s been missing them—the same words he spoke at the beginning of the episode, but this time, they hear him. He says answering the phone makes him feel connected to them.
” is an episode about connectedness and friendship and what it means to let people see you so you won’t be alone in a crowd. Sometimes it takes a “landline” and a little bit of getting up in each others’ business to see exactly how much friendship works for our good. Because it is good, and it is good because it was created that way for us. God is a relational God who not only created friendship, he understands it. He enjoys perfect communion in the Trinity, and as a man on earth, he surrounded himself with friends who helped him carry his burdens. Jesus didn’t present a carefully curated version of himself to the apostles—he let them get up in his business. Jesus loved his friends, and they loved him. When Lazarus died, Jesus wept. When Jesus was dying, he gave his mother over into the care of John, his good friend.
To follow in Jesus’ example in this area of life is to cultivate meaningful friendships with people with whom you can share your burdens because friendship is a gift from God and intrinsic to our soul’s development. For some of us who are introverted and busy, we fall back on social media relationships, and the Internet is a fantastic place to interact with people and find new friends. But it can also become a devastating place to be alone in a crowd. I would be the first to argue for the validity and value of Internet friendships, but it is doubly hard to fully know and be known if all your relationships exist online. Cultivate landlines in your life and in your friendships. Get all up in each others’ “Business, Man!” Become the “loft secretary” and force a little connectedness, if necessary. For the health of your soul, don’t let your social life stagnate.