Most shows define their social universes geographically: They are populated by people whom circumstance has thrown together, physically. The throwing could take place in a bar (Cheers), in a coffee shop (Friends), in an apartment (New Girl), in an office (The Office), at a taxi dispatch service (Taxi), at a TV studio (30 Rock), or, of course, in a house (pretty much every other sitcom ever). Regardless, in the social—and, you could say, moral—cosmology of the typical sitcom, it is spatial connection that leads to social connection.
In part, these physical spaces are plot devices that explain to audiences why this small group of people seems to be always together, and always so insulated in their togetherness. In HIMYM, the friends’ go-to bar, MacLaren’s—conveniently located in the basement of the building where three of the five characters live—functions in the same way that Monica’s apartment (and Mindy Lahiri’s ob-gyn practice, and Greendale Community College) do: They allow the audience to suspend disbelief. They sacrifice the inevitable frictions of real-world social relationships—the vagaries of distance, the misalignments of schedules—at the altar of sitcomic convenience.
There are obvious production-side reasons for that social narrowness, too, of course: Actors are expensive. Contracts are a pain. TV programs, even in the age of the DVR and the stream and the binge-watch, need to offer their audiences some sense of stability, episode after episode. But what those constraints amount to, ultimately, are shows that embrace an eponymous approach to family itself: According to the most basic logic of the sitcom, one’s family is “the group of people that situation has thrown together, comedically.” So we get The Office‘s ironized treatment of the workplace family. And The Big Bang Theory‘s haphazard fusion of work life and home. And Modern Family‘s casual confidence that an entire TV show can be premised on demographics alone…
HIMYM may have done this for the same reason that, say, Sex and the City often treated its male characters as expendable—that reason being that that’s just how sitcoms are—but it amounted, in context, to a premise that was often misaligned with the realities of friendship as its audience was experiencing them. It’s worth noting that the show, which premiered in September 2005, came of age in the age of social media. (Mark Zuckerberg launched TheFacebook in 2004.) At a time when many members of its audience were experiencing friendship as newly expansive, and newly transcendent of geography, HIMYM‘s five characters hunkered down at MacLaren’s. They hung out in a single apartment. They dated one another. They married one another. And they used and/or ignored the people who existed beyond their tiny social circle. It was Central Perk all over again.
Sitcoms are bounded in numerous ways (limited number of characters, fairly formulaic storylines, similar kinds of jokes) but this analysis of space is quite interesting: for convenience and forced interaction, characters keep gathering in a public/private space. One question would be whether this geographic narrowness on TV matches reality for average Americans. At the least, they would have more knowledge about the outside world, whether current events or sports or celebrity news that simply isn’t included in most sitcoms (the info would be dated by the time it airs, etc.). Yet, good portions of our lives are spent in bounded areas like work and home. Meeting in third places like bars and coffee shops? Not so much.