At 20:30 on the 22 September 1994, NBC aired the first episode of a show that would go on to irreversibly transform an entire generation’s relationship with TV. Twenty years later, the names Joey, Ross, Rachel, Monica, Phoebe and Chandler have become indelibly etched onto the hearts and minds of millennials across the globe. However, Friends’ vintage can perhaps be seen in some of its questionable social attitudes.
The show’s popularity cannot be overstated. A look at ratings or viewing figures will get barely half way to telling the story. The knowledge that the sofa from the Central Perk coffee house recently undertook a worldwide tour might be slightly more indicative still. But to truly understand how popular Friends is, nip down to Princes Street, talk to the people of Edinburgh and see how long it takes to detect even a trace of indifference to the Manhattan-based sitcom.
Friends injected a solid crop of iconic phrases into our vernacular. Few people were familiar with the concept of “going on a break” before the Ross and Rachel débâcle, could take a stab at the definition of a “moo point” or a “nubbin”, or describe a feline companion as smelly and not want to break into song.
A panoramic retrospection into the 1990s evokes memories of Top Trumps, Charzards and light-up trainers. It was a decade full of crazes that were easily grown out of. What set Friends aside for ‘Generation Y’ was that we could grow into it.
Mahmoud Al-Shakarchi, a third year psychology student, recalls watching Friends from the age of seven. He remembers going down with his sister to the local video store in Qatar where the VCRs were released in four-episode batches, running back home and watching the shows with the rest of his family.
For Mahmoud, like many others, watching Friends became ritualised. Regardless of the content, for many people it became a family experience; there was enough slapstick and funny faces pulled for the kids and enough naughtiness for Mum and Dad.
Pre-pubescent fans of Friends probably didn’t understand what Rachel was talking about when Rachel shouted after Ross: “It’s not that common, it doesn’t happen to every guy and it is a big deal!” But as the years ticked by, Friends kept delivering something new to the students of today.
Friends didn’t have a cult following because it isn’t perceived as being divisive. It’s assumed to be easy and inclusive and therefore it doesn’t need a ‘FriendsSoc’ to propagate its virtues or defend its flaws. However, one question less frequently, and perhaps more usefully, asked of Friends is whether it should be as unanimously revered as it is.
Online parenting forum, Mumsnet, hosts a thread detailing all the ways in which Friends was anti-feminist. The extensive list includes; ‘the women are unhealthily skinny’, ‘frequent references to porn normalises it’, ‘Joey’s womanising’, ‘their jobs are all gender specific’ and ‘Ross’s aversion to male childcare’.
Whilst such criticisms may be debunked for missing the point of light entertainment, it is interesting to consider how the widespread admiration of the coffee-drinking, sofa-sitting, joke-cracking gang may overlook some increasingly dated social attitudes. Furthermore, these issues are often overlooked in favour of the show’s winning personalities. Asked about how she viewed Joey’s relationships with women throughout the course of the ten seasons, Tanya Richard, a third year business student, pointed out “while Joey is the biggest player, he also has the biggest heart”.
Moreover, Richard argued that while the show may have normalised porn and have other morally controversial or dubious undercurrents, it also brought same-sex parenthood to global attention, and helped to normalise that, through the character of Ross’ ex-wife Carol and her partner Susan.
Nevertheless, the show doesn’t cover all bases of representation. According to the US Census Bureau, the New York population in 2000 regarded themselves as 36 per cent ‘White’, 28 per cent ‘Black’, 24 per cent ‘Asian’ and 12 per cent ‘Other’. Hence, the predominantly white cast of Friends cannot exactly be said to be representative of life in New York. You will likely struggle to name five Friends characters from an ethnic minority backgrounds.
Worse still, the show’s writers were frequently prone to wheeling out and trivialising lazy national stereotypes; Rachel’s ferociously passionate but ultimately untrustworthy Latin American boyfriend, Emily’s beer-can-crushing ‘Rugger Bugger’ British friends and Joey’s Roman Catholic, incessantly populating family.
In this age of political correctness, of a heightened sense of accountability and calls to challenge inherited and stale moral compasses, Friends sits uncomfortably. Yet, almost without exception, we accept it. It is worth questioning what it is about Friends that has made a generation so happily overlook its flaws.
The question as to exactly why Friends remains so popular has been thoroughly exhausted, and will, in all likelihood, be meditated on for years to come. Alexandra Bachelor, a forth year business student, cites the ease with which you can relate to the characters as the main reason for its continued success. Others point to Chandler’s timeless self-deprecation, the ever-loveable Joey or Phoebe’s quirkiness and irreverence. It could be any or all of these things and a hundred other reasons too.
When the first episode of Friends was released in 1994, Miles Beller was The Hollywood Reporter’s man on the ground. Whilst essentially positive, Beller failed to predict the eruption of success that the programme would go on to enjoy. He wrote: “The interplay of characters is kickily, if slightly inartfully, accomplished in Friends’ commencement.” In Beller’s final paragraph, he comments: “Friends makes the lives of its protagonists humorously involving.”
Arguably, it is that final word that holds the key to the globally adored sitcom’s success. David Crane and Marta Kauffman, the show’s co-creators, sought to create a situation in which viewers could easily place themselves. To do this, however, didn’t necessitate ardent commitment to reality. To accept the landscape of the show one must conceive of a world where you meet your friends for breakfast everyday before work, a world in which you can afford to rent exceptionally furnished, and invariably huge apartments in Manhattan’s West Village on very normal salaries, and a world where you always get the sofa section of your local coffee shop.
Rather, Kauffman and Crane dip into just enough real-life circumstance to allow the minds of viewers to wander off to a point where they might imagine how they themselves would fit into the group dynamic. This, perhaps, goes some way to explaining the show’s success.
In the comments section of an article posted to The Guardian’s website regarding Friends’ 20th anniversary, perhaps the most amusing complaint made about the long-running series. Commenter ‘Wavypeasandgravy’ ruminated: “You’re supposed to laugh, and then masturbate about it all later, and then cough up for any products sold to you in the interval in the hope that it will get you laid with Jennifer Aniston. It won’t.”
Even if don’t share Wavypeasandgravy’s cynicism, Friends is sure to remain a long-time staple in students’ entertainment diets.