I’ll be there for you – when the rain starts to pour. I’ll be there you – like I’ve been there before. I’ll be there for you – cos you’re there for me, too. Whenever I’ve needed a little televisual pick-me-up in the last 20 years, Friends has been there for me. And I really mean that. Sure, it’s not as sharp as The Simpsons or Arrested Development, it’s in no way dark like The League Of Gentleman, Black Books or Always Sunny In Philadelphia; it doesn’t make you question the nature of the cosmos like Rick & Morty or play with convention and meta-humour devices like Community, Scrubs or Green Wing. It’s not absurdly funny like Father Ted, Fawlty Towers or any Monty Python stuff for that matter, and it doesn’t have the aloof, seemingly rudderless genius of Seinfeld. It doesn’t deliver incisive, cringe-inducing hilarity like The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm and it cannot match the beautifully plotted mishaps and emotionally charged familial issues of Fraiser.
The most similar comedies of recent times I can think of are the equally immensely popular shows Cheers and The Big Bang Theory – programmes which explore notions of friendship, family and belonging, and how despite our differences, we can find common ground on which to forge lasting, meaningful bonds. Friends and The Big Bang Theory in particular are like the U2 and Coldplay of sitcoms; hated by many, loved by many more. Scorned for their predictability, accessibility, safeness and crowd-pleasing, anodyne nature, lauded for their impressive consistency, longevity and broad appeal. However, Friends is also struggling to pass the test of time – for a variety of reasons which I’ll go on to explore. When the show was released onto Netflix in December 2017, there was an immediate backlash – many of those streamers were new viewers who hadn’t grown up with the show, and subsequently found some of the issues dealt with (and the way they’re dealt with) archaic, inappropriate and just plain wrong.
But for all the things that Friends isn’t, for all its flaws and for all the things it could’ve done better, it still remains one of my favourite sitcoms of all time. Despite the fact that the more it grew, it became the work of larger teams of writers – taking it further and further away from the original conception of David Crane and Marta Kauffman (and let’s face it, most of these shows are at their strongest when the original auteurs or creators are seeing their vision realised) – Friends remained heart-warmingly funny and pleasant throughout. For all that Friends doesn’t have, there is one key thing it does have – heart. And that’s what makes it special.
The One Where We Watched The Same Thing Over And Over Again
I actually decided to write a piece on Friends because me and my wife Pru have been watching them all again from the beginning. We wanted something easy-going and short to occupy us while we ate dinner – and despite having plenty of things to choose from on Netflix that we haven’t seen (and would probably enjoy just as much) we decided to rewatch a bunch of episodes of a show we have both seen countless times before. Why do we do that? I love experiencing new things – reading new books, trying new foods, visiting new places. But I also love familiarity and routine. In fact, I crave it. When I start to go out of sync with my routines (both big and small), I know I begin to feel stressed and discontented. For example, I love going to music festivals and getting off my face, but after five days at Glastonbury, I am desperate for a regular bedtime, toast and tea breakfast and some kind of purpose beyond just watching bands and getting fucked up.
The Freudian in me would suggest that repeating such behaviours over and over again is a mark of maintaining control of oneself and over one’s life – just like the way Freud observed his grandson playing with the cotton reel and saying “fort”, “da” (gone and there). Freud believed his grandson was trying to accomplish the mastery of the traumatic situation of his parents leaving him (and later coming back) by mimicking the process by throwing away and then retrieving a cotton reel. This is the nature of obsessive compulsive disorders, too – we repeat actions over and over again, even though we know flicking that light switch on and off won’t actually save us or anyone else from any harm. It’s irrational and ridiculous – but it somehow offers the sufferer comfort. Perhaps, in the same vein, watching those same, familiar, warm, comforting episodes of Friends over and over again is just one tiny element of my way of mastering such in-built traumas and past experiences. Or maybe it’s just funny, short and I’ve seen it so many times, I don’t need to concentrate while watching it after a long day at work. Who knows? Either way, I love it.
Of course, when I say I love it, what I mean is that I love it as a whole. In actuality, like every TV series, it has its peak and it has its Jump The Shark moment. And from that moment onwards, it’s still good. But it’s never as great as it was. For anyone who doesn’t know that expression (I didn’t until my boss told me about it a few years ago), there is a ludicrous episode of Happy Days when Fonzie quite literally jumps over a shark on jet skis – it is suggested that at this moment the Happy Days writers had run out of ideas for the show and it was never as good again thereafter.
For me, and most Friends fans I believe, the show’s peak is the first three seasons. The main narrative driver is the infamous Ross and Rachel will-they-won’t-they story thread, which is finally realised in The One With The Prom Video in season two. After a whirlwind romance, cracks start to appear and Ross’ jealousy (fuelled by Rachel’s personal and professional developments) leads to the couple breaking up. For me personally, the show then reaches its nadir at the end of season three/beginning of season four with the exceptional season-straddling two-parter The One At The Beach followed by The One With The Jellyfish. This is of course where Ross and Rachel end up getting back together (at the expense of poor, bald Bonnie) and then immediately break up again, with Ross famously shrieking his ‘catchphrase’ of the time – “We were on a break!” Incidentally, my favourite lines from those various outbursts have to be “You had rambled on for 18 pages – front and back!” and “Y O U apostrophe R E means you are – Y O U R means your”. Emotionally charged Ross breaking point moments are just glorious – I defy anyone to move house having watched Friends and not shout “PIVOT” at their significant other while moving furniture.
Anyway, after that point, I don’t believe the show is ever as strong again. Ross and Rachel finally start to verge into different narrative paths and the significance of their relationship loses its impact – even though they both fall for each other again at various points; just never each other at the same time – until the end, which felt like a squashed after thought and only really included to satisfy the needs of the hardcore Coldplay/U2 collective. Mike was also a bit like that. I’m kind of surprised they didn’t bring in a late life partner for Joey – although that would’ve robbed us of the dreadful two seasons of the imaginatively titled Joey in which Matt Le Blanc would star upon Friends’ conclusion.
All this isn’t to say that there isn’t plenty of magic between seasons four and the finale – Chandler and Monica’s love story takes over as the main narrative thread from the immense Ross-Emily London wedding two-parter onwards, Ross’ subsequent breakdown is painfully funny at times and the build-up to Monica and Chandler being exposed is superb. However, once their relationship is finally revealed to everyone, I believe the show really begins to lose its edge (if it ever really had one). Baby Emma’s arrival does nothing for me, Elle Macpherson’s spell is an aberration and, as previously stated, I never really buy Mike Hannigan (despite loving Paul Rudd – sorry, they should’ve just brought David back sooner from Minsk).
Monica and Chandler’s adoption storyline (while an admirable subject to promote) is a bit silly and rubbish, but the moment when Friends really jumps the shark is frighteningly poignant – because it actually involved sharks! My friend Nick Mecham and I would watch the same Friends episode twice a day on E4 at university – once at noon and again at 5pm. That’s how much it comforted our lazy student asses. And we would never grumble – except when The One With The Sharks came on. Monica basically walks in on Chandler about to masterbate in his Tulsa (bloody Tulsa!) hotel room and, after he quickly changes the channel to a nature show, believes him to be fondling himself to sharks. It’s really dumb and, for me, the point where the show has really lost its magic. There’s also a stupid Mike-Phoebe-Ross storyline involving her fake ex-boyfriend ‘Vikram’ which grates. Luckily Joey saves the day a bit – he dates a woman who he’s certain he’s slept with before and doesn’t remember him, only to realise he’s actually bedded her roommate. Classic Joey (although his womanising is of course just one of Friends’ fatal flaws).
Friends’ fatal flaws
There is more to Friends’ problems than just a lack of strong narrative purpose – right from the off we find out that Ross’ marriage has broken down due to the fact his wife is a lesbian. This becomes a constant source of ridicule for him on the part of the rest of the group – at times his masculinity is questioned (can’t you keep a woman happy? type stuff) and at times the notion of being a lesbian is essentially derided. I don’t think it’s ever done maliciously, but there were countless moments throughout where I was grimacing a bit at some of the ‘lesbian banter’.
It’s not just lesbianism in question though – there are plenty of moments when homosexuality generally gets treated with a sort of jokey disdain; particularly among the three male protagonists. Whenever they share a hug or tender moment, it often seems to be followed by some kind of suggestion that they’re doing something wrong; Ross hates it when his son Ben decides to play with dolls and insists he should play with boys’ toys; it is often assumed Chandler is ‘a bit gay’ – and he is generally mocked for it (think two copies of the Annie soundtrack – both his). The notion of masculinity and what it means to be ‘manly’ comes under scrutiny throughout the show – but it’s particularly pointed in relation to Chandler and Ross.
In fairness to the writers, they do attempt some late absolutions in respect to Chandler’s dad – a transgender female who’s lifestyle choices are pretty shamefully critiqued on occasion. I’m certain I don’t recall being disappointed by this when it first aired (which shows how times have changed for the better), but now when I watch Friends, the depiction of this character is particularly off-putting. Fortunately, Chandler eventually appears to come to terms with his father’s choices when he marries Monica, and they share a nice moment where Chandler realises that all which matters is that he loves his dad, and his dad loves him. Ross’ moment of personal growth comes when he and Rachel hire Freddie Prinz Junior to be their male nanny. While this concept is (of course) mocked throughout, the writers do a decent job of exploring exactly why Ross feels so uncomfortable about having such a sensitive man doing a ‘woman’s job’ in his home and they uncover some of his own deep-seated issues with his masculinity. It reminds the viewer that it’s okay to play with dinosaurs, wear a tank top in summer – whatever. Be who you are and be true to yourself. You don’t have to be anything that anyone else wants or expects you to be.
The final flaw regards intellectualism – again involving Ross more often than not. His yearning for more high-brow discussions and references to his (immensely impressive and exciting) paleontology work is usually portrayed in a negative light – like it’s boring or embarrassing to enjoy such intellectual pursuits. The jocks basically win too often in this respect – personally, I’d bloody love to have a beer with Ross and chat about homo erectus…
There’s more to life than Ulysses
Speaking of high-brow pursuits, it’s time to gear up for the finishing straight of this blog post – because I’ve spent too long explaining what’s wrong with Friends. Now it’s time to remind myself why I still love it so much.
I tried to read Ulysses by James Joyce a few years ago when I was working my way through various lists of highly recommended literature. I read In Search Of Lost Time by Proust, For Whom The Bell Tolls by Hemingway, Catch-22 by Heller, Darwin’s Origin Of The Species, Dante’s Inferno, Hamlet by Shakespeare, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Catcher In The Rye by JD Salinger, a selection of Kafka (including The Trial) and I’d already read the likes of Don Quixote by Cervantes, Heart Of Darkness by Conrad, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four by Orwell and The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald.
Most I loved, some not so much. But all worthy of significance for one reason or another. Yet with Ulysses, I got about 125 pages in and then gave up. It just wasn’t for me. I know there are supposed to be so many layers to the book – that it is a masterpiece. The same sites and people that recommended many of the other great books I’ve read put it on a pedestal as something to be celebrated. I just couldn’t get into it. Whereas with Friends, I’ve never really been disappointed. In fact, it always makes me smile. It always makes me laugh. And it always makes me feel warm and contented. To compare the two is probably silly, but the point is this – classics come in all shapes and sizes. To some, Friends is banal – to me, it’s witty and charming. I know I’m not watching Shakespeare, but I am watching something which makes me happy – and that makes it a classic for me.
Kant stay mad at you
As well as the light-hearted humour, relatable, mundane storylines and fantastic comedic performances, I think much of the appeal of Friends stems from its moral law – there is a universal code of ethical conduct which the characters tend to adhere to, and if they stray from it, they usually make amends eventually. They are good, kind, friendly people who care for each other; they look after each other and they help each other out. They are also flawed in different ways and they make mistakes – but they learn from those mistakes and grow as characters.
And with the title of the show being Friends and it’s modus operandi centred around companionship and fulfilling the roles and duties thereof, it’s the kind of morally virtuous incarnation that Immanuel Kant would’ve approved of (I’m sure he’d actually have hated it). Like when Ross apologises to Julio the cat because he hurt Phoebe’s feelings, or when Joey calls every woman in his phonebook to apologise for mistreating them after getting a taste of his own medicine. Or when Phoebe helps to show Rachel and Monica how much they really mean to each other after their vicious fallout over the former moving out to make way for Chandler. Rachel starts off as a selfish, spoiled, lazy sorority sister who never worked a day in her life but transforms into a strong, independent career woman and mother – all with a little help from her Friends, and their all-encompassing moral law.
Friends and Genuinity
Friends is just one of those shows which makes you feel happy when you watch it (at least those of us who like it). Genuinity is strong in Friends – the show champions love, companionship, fraternity, family. The characters might struggle to deal with the existential rigours of staying true to themselves and who they are at times, but they generally embrace their freedom – their true selves shine through and their goodness is what we fell for; it’s what sustains our love for those characters. They demonstrate the childish spirit of Genuinity, inextricably linked to the Tao – and (more than you’d realise) that feminine energy which is so important to Taoism and Genuinity. The characters in Friends raise each other – they look after one another; they nurture each other; they’re gentle, empathic and sensitive. They trust each other and they connect – on a deep, spiritual level. And they are positive characters – they have their ups and downs (like we all do), but they support each other and help each other through hard times. I’ll be there for you – because you’re there for me too. That’s some strong Genuinity.
Love is for everyone
Friends is an idealistic utopia in many ways – a group of like-minded, nice people living in a thriving city; they all (eventually) have decent jobs, financial security, love, good sex, nice homes and good health. It’s what most of us aspire to. And it seems a shame to end on a negative, but it needs to be said – for all the wonderful stuff Friends has and does, it makes one big mistake – it forgets to show that love is for everyone. There is an obvious lack of racial diversity in the cast throughout the entire ten seasons. And I’ve already alluded to the show’s troubled attitude to some of the LGBT issues. For all the good vibes that the show sends out; for all the positive messages it shares, Friends just needed to show a bit more scope for the wider community – love isn’t just for straight white people – it is for everyone.