If it wasn’t so obvious during the fallout years after the 2004 finale, it is now: Friends is here to stay. At least until the day we get the dreaded ‘You have one minute to seek shelter’ ping notification from the government or the entire cast are outed as serial killers.
Thanks to seemingly endless global repeats - here in the UK, Comedy Central shows on average 16 episodes per day - Friends Inc makes Warner Bros around $1 billion every year, while the cast themselves turn in a cool $20 million each annually in rerun revenue. Netflix remains shy about how what its customers watch, but given the streaming service forked out $118 million to acquire the sitcom’s catalogue in 2015 they were hardly running on blind faith.
So what? What does that have to say about a product’s worth? U2 make money. Does it mean they necessarily go harder than Led Zeppelin? Not really.
Likewise, there is no way to categorically prove that How I Met Your Mother brings more banter than Friends, but you can still apply the principle of Occam’s razor to it: people love watching the minutiae of a bunch of young, quick-witted, attractive city dwellers because it’s objectively nice to do so. In equal parts bawdy and safe, offhand and agreeable, trendy yet universal, Friends hit a cultural sweet spot that its subsequent twentysomethings-getting-by mimics just simply haven’t been able to trump, and likely never will.
Through ‘We were on a break’, Ross’ divorces, Fun Bobby, Dr Drake Ramoray, the ‘Rachel’, Ugly Naked Guy, Fat Monica, Gunther’s unrequited love, the meat sweats, Smelly Cat, ‘Oh my God!’ and a plethora of other tidbits, the language and mood of Friends has unquestionably effected the way we live (or at least try to) today.
Would the advent of Starbucks and coffee culture have happened without Central Perk, a setting which in 1994 was deemed weird over a diner - which test audiences originally wanted - for no other reason than that was where Seinfeld, Kramer, Elaine and George hung out?
Were it not for a decade of primetime Chandler Bing, the default tone of internet-speak might have been something besides sarcasm. Now obviously none of this can be proven, but when was the last time you heard someone telling you they were going to visit a replica of the Frasier set? Are any of your mates like Dr. Crane? Probably not, but one of them is definitely Ross Geller.
Thanks to an impeccable example of getting it right from the start, and with the exception of Matthew Perry’s fluctuating weight, a pre-HD production and a relatively conservative costume designer, the ten seasons of Friends is a pretty seamless and ever-welcoming romp. It’d be conducive for new consumers to watch it from the start, yet if they were to sneak in somewhere in the middle of season four, it’d be hardly jarring. Momento it is not.
This is why it’s bringing in new generations. It’s why people who saw it the first time round continue to watch it every single day in spite of knowing each syllable of dialogue verbatim. Friends, with its cosy, charmingly neurotic, simpleness, is not a weak sitcom as a result. Much the opposite.
It’s a daily refuge into a world of domestic and international comfort; the Clinton administration which The Onion would later go on to describe as ‘our long national nightmare of peace prosperity’, as well as for the most part pre-9/11 (ratings for the show went up 17 per cent after the attacks). We might not ever to live their lives personally, but vicariously is good enough.
Had it come out in 2014, the mise en scène would’ve been marred by harsher realities. Rachel and Ross’ initial dalliances would never have turned into the ultimate will-they won’t-they as she would’ve blocked him from all social media following his tryst with a barmaid during their hiatus near the end on season three.
At best, Joey’s constant shortcomings as a jobbing actor would’ve driven him into a bleak existence of unpaid bills and at worst, his jocky harassment of women would see him the victim of public shaming and lengthy court appearances.
You could forget about the coffee house, too, as not only would the friends never have the time to hang out there (they’d all be working two jobs to barely meet the rent Manhattan life necessitates) but because they’d most likely be living in the suburbs three separate subway routes away from any kid of centralised leafy bohemia.
‘Part of the appeal is wish fulfilment,’ the show’s co-creator Marta Kauffman says of its continued success. ‘And another part of it is because they’re on social media all the time, so I believe they crave human contact. They crave intimacy, and intimate relationships. They’re looking at screens all the time.’
Unlike Seinfeld, Friends is unapologetically aspirational. It isn’t as gladly acerbic (save maybe for Chandler) which might explain why the bruising cynics of the world refuse to admit they’re charmed by it.
Indeed, it might also explain why Gen X viewers had initial reservations when it premiered. One review at the time had it down as ‘anaemic and unworthy of its Thursday-night time slot,’ while a critic at the Washington Post labelled it a ‘ghastly creation’ that comes off as a ’30-minute commercial for Dockers or Ikea or light beer, except smuttier.’
Today, they read as naive as the up-in-arms naysayers of Elvis Presley. What people loathed about the Friends in the beginning is what ultimately made them successful. Yes, Rachel Green is a middle class horse girl, and maybe Ross lays it on a little thick with the gay jokes, but it’s a reflection of the times. You’re looking at a country that still outlaws sodomy in 14 states. Also: it’s fiction. God forbid these young detractors ever catch sight of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Could they be any more fussy?
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