Warmth, wisecracks and will they/won’t theys: Why Friends has always mattered

The famed US sitcom has had its cringe moments and misfires but its popularity across the decades has rarely waned. As a reunion one-off airs this week, Lauren Pinnington remembers the series’ undeniable pop culture alchemy

Wednesday 26 May 2021 13:19
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<p>From turkeys and smelly cats to dance routines and brain transplants, just some of the best of ‘Friends’</p>

From turkeys and smelly cats to dance routines and brain transplants, just some of the best of ‘Friends’

The night before my best friend and I moved to different cities for university, we each picked an episode of Friends to watch together as a balm to soothe our anxiety about the impending transition. This was back in 2005, a year after the series had ended its mammoth 10-season run and we were as unwilling to let go of it as we secretly were our lives at home. Our comfort-watch worked, just as we knew it would, because that’s what the show has always been for the millions who grew up with Ross, Rachel, Monica, Joey, Chandler and Phoebe.

Of the myriad generations who enjoyed Friends over those 10 years between 1994 and 2004 – and the years since – many will have a similar story, tethered to their own personal narrative. Depending on how old you were and what was happening in your life when you first discovered it, Friends will hold a different meaning. Gen Xers, in the throes of young adulthood when the series debuted, are now witnessing their teenage children race through a decade’s worth of Central Perk hijinks thanks to Netflix. My mother, who made it a staple of her Friday night entertainment back when it aired weekly on Channel 4 in the Nineties, now relies on back-to-back Comedy Central repeats as weekend background noise in lieu of company.

The formula to the show’s enduring appeal is simple. Friends deftly married relatability with an aspirational quality (if at times unrealistic – hello that ginormous apartment) that spoke to lots of young people. The show’s comedy style was never particularly irreverent or dark, but broadly crowd-pleasing and keenly paced. All six main characters were uniquely fleshed out from the moment a bedraggled Rachel appeared in her wedding dress in episode one, breathless and seeking a port in the storm from Monica, the high school bestie she had lost touch with as their lives took different paths.

This character roundedness promoted a natural inclination to latch onto whichever friend resonated with us most – I coined myself a Monica (Chandler rising), long before Buzzfeed-style internet quizzes existed. And story-wise, the exploration of relationships between the gang evolved constantly, guaranteeing long-term emotional investment from fans – for example, originally Monica and Chandler weren’t meant to couple up seriously until showrunners Marta Kauffman and David Crane saw how positively their audience reacted to the pair having casual sex during the London episodes in series four.

In hindsight, this all sounds like such an obvious formula that it’s difficult to imagine a time when there was very little choice television of this ilk geared towards young people. When Friends premiered in 1994, one of its closest genre counterparts (and, in time, historic “rival” when it came to ratings) was Seinfeld, which had already been on the air for five seasons. But although Seinfeld featured a tight-knit friendship group composed of men and women in their twenties living in New York, that was where the similarities between the two fictional universes ended. Seinfeld had an acerbity that was underpinned by deliberate lack of character growth within the core four, with their hilarious absences of the moral compass and self-serving natures. Friends was about nice people who really cared about each other. Whereas Seinfeld proclaimed it was a show about “nothing”, Friends seemed to be about everything by comparison. Everything that pertained to a group of white, middle-class twenty-somethings living in massive Manhattan apartments, that is.

Friends never purported itself to be on the bleeding edge of cool, and it didn’t need to be. Despite its appearance as the sunnier – some said frothier – alternative to Seinfeld, Friends was always impactful for the way it covered so many topics that were ubiquitous and perennial among young adults. It was buoyed by humour that felt appropriately zeitgeisty, packaged up as a primetime sitcom. The list of topics Friends covered was endless: from fractured family relationships (Monica’s mother hates her! Phoebe is estranged from her twin sister!) and pendulous careers (Dr Drake Ramoray, RIP) to infidelity (famously contested, of course) and unplanned pregnancy (whatever happened to Emma Geller-Green?!).

Friends was also known, on occasion, to dip its toes into larger issues like gender politics (Monica’s decision to sleep with a guy on their first date was a bold choice in 1994 and one that prompted an NBC executive to go as far as to call her character a “whore”); alcoholism (remember the Fun Bobby episodes?); and socio-economic status (salary discrepancies within the group were highlighted early on, with Ross, Chandler and Monica being high earners, while the rest of the group are not). Even the very first promo for the series, a send-up of Calvin Klein-style advertising, seems to be taking the temperature of the era as Monica interrupts to call out their lack of clothing.

Inescapable: the ‘Friends’ cast on magazine covers during the show’s peak

But you could always find real emotional punch among the zippy comedy beats. The Thanksgiving episodes were consistent highlights of each season – hilarious but touching celebrations of the people in your chosen family. The iconic Ross and Rachel break-up episode in season three remains heartbreakingly brutal, with tour de force performances from Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer. All 22 minutes are a masterclass in how to showcase the breakdown of a serious relationship realistically, with events unravelling, like a play, in real time. Friends was also quick to master the power of the catchphrase, embedding the likes of Janice’s “Oh My Goddd” in our psyches forevermore. Joey’s “How You Doin’?” was voted number 12 in a poll of the UK’s top 50 favourites as recently as 2019.

By the second season, average ratings in the US had jumped from 24.8 million viewers to 31.7 million. But towards the end of season two, the Friends phenomenon became a victim of its own success and the show came dangerously close to, if not right on the precipice of, overexposure. The cast seemed to be everywhere, from the female cast members who were regulars on the pages of women’s lifestyle magazines that fawned over “the Rachel” (the haircut that Jennifer Aniston told Allure back in 2011 was “the ugliest [thing she’d] ever seen”) to all six involving themselves in multiple brand endorsements, such as a cringeworthy Diet Coke partnership and 1996’s Got Milk? campaign. Critics likened it to prostitution – after all, celebrity brand endorsements back then were in no way as commonplace as they are today.

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The show managed to claw back viewer loyalty during the third season, however, propelled by the Ross and Rachel break-up storyline. Then came the novelty of the London episodes in season four. Allegedly, the creators had wanted to challenge themselves by moving their Los Angeles soundstage production to an on-location stint on this side of the pond, but what they hadn’t anticipated was the bevy of story richness that the two-episode arc drummed up. As well as, perhaps, the power of the special relationship: the show was extremely popular in the UK, with the final episode, broadcast on Channel 4 in 2004, drawing a record audience of 8.6 million viewers.

But perhaps us Brits were merely buying into the fantasy. As a 2016 Vice article about the UK’s preoccupation with the series notes: “Friends shows us a very privileged view of American life – it’s all about getting along, helping one another out, and essentially being in the same boat … Some British people still believe that is America, when it’s a complete myth.” Perhaps this is true even more generally. It certainly wasn’t a coincidence that ratings increased after 9/11. Friends was the most watched show in America during 2001-02, with viewers likely seeking light relief by transporting themselves to a fictional version of New York (and America as a whole) that hadn’t been infiltrated by terror and tragedy.

Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow, David Schwimmer, and Matt LeBlanc in the ‘Friends’ reunion

But for the new fans who come to Friends in more recent years – the British Gen Z’ers among us – the show’s merits reportedly lie in its comedy and endearing characters. More specifically the zany charm of Phoebe Buffay and Chandler’s endless supply of sarcastic rejoinders. In a YouGov survey from 2018, Chandler polled first as the “funniest” friend and Phoebe the “nicest” between 18- to 24-year-olds. And while there are certainly elements of Friends that have not aged well, from the dissarming lack of cultural diversity to the gay stereotyping and slut shaming, and which have been written about in countless think pieces since, polls suggest that its popularity hasn’t waned. In that same poll, 35 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds said they “love” the series and 36 per cent said they liked it – that’s a total of 71 per cent who’ve had a positive response to it.

By the time the series wound down, Friends had remained popular with audiences everywhere, but the critical reception was mixed. The finale, which delivered happy endings all round, was watched by 52.5 million people in the US – but The New York Times noted that NBC had “drained the fun” out of the action, concluding that Friends was unoriginal in its send-off.

And yet Friends really isn’t about its critics or the question of whether it could ever maintain the sort of integrity usually expected of art that isn’t mainstream. Friends is, and always was, about six good mates navigating young adulthood – and fans loved them for it. Its long legacy is one of undeniable pop culture alchemy. And anyway, you only have to look at the chemistry and connection between the cast during the reunion special, as palpable and compelling as it was during the show’s original run, to be reminded of the hows and whys. During a recreation of a table read, Lisa Kudrow’s Phoebe-isms – which appear to merely have been laying dormant since 2004, ready for action when called upon – are completely delightful for even the most fair-weather of fans. And let’s face it, delight is a treat after the 14 months we’ve had.

Friends: The Reunion is on Sky One on Thursday 27 May from 8pm and on demand on Sky and NOW from 8am the same day

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