I finally found an interesting angle on Friends!!!! Well, interesting for me. Not necessarily interesting for you. And I want to write something to distract myself from work today, so I am writing this!
Years and years and years ago, I was reading a book about Chicago history and there was a story about an architecture class and the teacher trying to explain the importance of the Bauhaus movement and Mies Van Der Rohe, so he showed all the super cool classic Chicago skyscrapers. And one of the students said “but, everything looks like that? Why are they special?” And it’s true, all the buildings do look like that now (simple lines, glass and steel, very tall). But the point is, Mies Van Der Rohe was FIRST. Before him, nothing looked like that at all! Now his stuff doesn’t appear to be remarkable, because it is surrounded by other stuff built after him, some of it doing what he did even better than he did it.
And that’s a challenge with all kinds of art. When we say “dated”, sometimes what we mean is “it seemed special at the time because it was the first, but in the years since it isn’t special any more because of all the imitators many of whom ended up doing it better”. Sometimes what we mean is “not funny any more because all the jokes refer to things we don’t know about, and the social standards have moved on”. And sometimes we mean both.
Wait, there’s more to that second one “not funny any more because all the jokes refer to things we don’t know about, and the social standards have moved on” also requires understanding of context. First, there is a value to very specific jokes. It’s not a mistake to make a joke that refers to an exact news story or exact moment in time, it’s a choice to do a certain kind of humor. And second, the social standards may have moved on now, but you have to look at what kind of radical statement the product may have been making back then, at how it contributed to moving standards forward.
Now, let’s look at the TV show Friends!!!!! It wasn’t the first show to focus on young people living in the city, it even consciously referenced back by having Marlo Thomas guest star as a reference to her 1960s “That Girl” show. And you’ve got The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Laverne and Shirley in the 1970s all the way back to My Friend Irma in radio days and early days of TV.
What was different about Friends was the attitude towards the “young people in the city”. Friends is a family sitcom in structure. There is our “family” at the center of it, each of them taking turns being the focus of a story line, providing a home base everyone returns to and flows out of, and their stable relationships to each other building in both the tension and continuity of the show. The family starts out together at the beginning of the episode, then they go off to their separate adventures/problems, they support each other as they try to solve the problem, then come back together at the end for a happy sum up and resolution. The central set is the “home”, we are as familiar with it as we were with the All in the Family living room, or the Cosby kitchen. It’s stable.
That “stability” is I guess what is most different. Previously the “young people” sitcoms were about a life in flux. Young women living on nothing and waiting to get married. That’s kind of what made them fun, nothing you did mattered so much because you were just in a fun vacation part of life not a “real” part of life. But Friends said “no, this is real. This is scary and hard and serious and the people who get you through it are more than just one off guest stars”.
A big part of the reason Friends worked was the backstory for the characters. Again, now we think of this as trite, the set up where all the friends have their own wacky backstory and cute intro and blah blah. But Friends really thought it through, came up with 6 unique reasons that these young people are looking for stability from each other, not their original family or a new family. Nothing tragic (although Phoebe’s story comes closest), just reasons that a young person might want to break away and build a new family. The backstory was complicated (Chandler as a child of divorce, Ross going through a divorce himself, Monica struggling with parental disapproval, and so on), but the present day was reflecting a reality we simply hadn’t seen on TV before. Sometimes, people don’t get married right away. Sometimes for reasons of career, or life, or just simply not knowing the right person, you end up in limbo and alone. Cut off from your original family, and not yet able to start a new family. And then your Friends fill in the gap.
So that’s why Friends was special. A unique structure that took the family sitcom and placed it with friends, work put in to explain why these particular characters looked for family in friends, an awareness of a new reality where careers took a while to get started and not everyone married right away, and all of that resting on a really good cast and really good dialogue.
Let’s take a second for that dialogue too. Again, it’s hard to remember how special it was. But Friends took the casual “hang out” kind of jokes that Cheers was doing, one liners in response to long stories and whatever, and built them on the base of long term character interactions. Monica and Ross sniping at each other isn’t just funny because their lines are funny, it is funny because we have a whole history of the two of them together. Making the characters equals allows for teasing snarky humor in a way that a family sitcom (with parent-child relationships) would not, but making them a friend-family gives that added awareness to the humor. Plus, the dialogue is just FUNNY. It’s hard to remember now, because we have heard every joke and every line over and over again, but it’s really good stuff. I’m not saying uniquely wonderful stuff, but very very good. This wasn’t hack writing.
And finally, there’s the social awareness. I don’t think Friends was ahead of it’s time in terms of reality, but I do think it was ahead of it’s time in terms of showing that reality. Queerness, for instance. Gay people exist in the world of Friends, that’s a BIG deal for the fictional mid-90s. And not only do they exist, they get married, they have children, they are loving parents. Chandler’s father being a transsexual and also a very loving father is a storyline that took a while to be fully teased out, but the hints were always there. Yes, there were jokes and things. But the jokes weren’t about “ick, a gay person”, they were about navigating the reality of a world where gay people are part of society. Also, men and women have sex before marriage, as part of normal dating relationships. And sex is important, it’s not just “giggle giggle, wink wink”, it’s something you talk about as a couple in a variety of ways. Birth control, mutual satisfaction, mutual needs, prior experience, it’s all valid relationship talk. Heck, money! Friends actually treated money as a serious issue for young people. What do you do if you can’t afford the same things you friends can afford? How do you handle loaning money or helping someone over a rough patch? What about marriage, how do you handle joining finances?
None of this was handled in the Best way. If I look at the dialogue between friends on Friends and compare it with Happy Endings, Happy Endings is better. If I look at the way a group of misfits who need each other for various reasons and form a family on Friends versus on New Girl, New Girl did it better. If I look at the way queerness is handled on Friends versus How I Met Your Mother, HIMYM did it better. If I look at boundary breaking and challenging our perceptions on Friends versus Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23, Apartment 23 did it better. If I look at inclusion of non-white people, EVERY SHOW SINCE THEN did it better. And on and on and on.
But the point is, Friends did it FIRST. Yes, now we can look back at it and say “yet another pilot establishing the backstory and connections between these people. Yet another show centered around roommates in an apartment. Yet another ‘framily’ who snipe at each other and date one off guest stars”. But in 1994, it wasn’t “yet another show”, it was the FIRST one. The first one to do all those things and make it work (I am aware Singles the movie existed, and Living Single the TV show and so on, but Friends was the one that made it into a cultural phenomenon). And maybe whatever that special sauce is that made Friends work for America in 1994 is what makes it work everywhere. You don’t hear about Happy Endings or How I Met Your Mother translating all over the world into every culture the way Friends did. Something about it just makes it work as a “first”, as an introduction, as “Sitcom 101”. And then after you watch it, you can move on to “Sitcom 102-201-301” and then the advanced “Sitcom 501-Community” graduate seminar. But Friends is First.
Additional topics I didn’t have a good place to put in:
Friends versus HIMYM, which show suffered most from being allowed to run too long?
I’m gonna say HIMYM, but it is a very close thing. Friends was special because it was about that part of life when you are finding yourself. By about season 8 at least, all the characters had found themselves and the tension was gone and we were just spinning our wheels. But at least they had reasonable development which stayed in place by the end instead of being completely thrown away.
Ross and Rachel, at what point should all character logic have put them together and they are only kept apart for ratings?
When Ross divorces Emily. There is no real reason they don’t get together at that point. It’s dealt with one small stupid line of dialogue, Rachel saying “he’s gonna be messed up for a long long time”, as in, she is over it and not interested now. But it makes no sense! Until that point, there was always a tension that kept them apart somehow. Now they are both single, Rachel is aware she loves him and has forgiven him for sleeping with someone else, either all the feelings are really dead and they never get together again, or they get together right away. The continuing angst is stupid.
Phoebe or Joey, which character was most let down by later seasons?
Joey, but it’s close. Phoebe at least ended in an interesting place, realizing that she wanted the traditional marriage and family and kids she never had in her own life. Joey, no growth. Started as a womanizing actor with a soft heart and ability to love. Ended as a womanizing actor with a soft heart and ability to love. It almost would have been more interesting to watch him go dark, become a user and abuser and have his friends confront him. Instead of just continuing to thread that “nice guy, sleeps around” line.
Monica and Chandler, are there any flaws in the development of their relationship?
Nope! The best part is, there is no “love at first sight” nonsense EVER. Not only do they know each other really well by the time they get together, they take their relationship very slowly with lots of times to check in along the way, deciding to date, going away together, first fight, moving in together, getting engaged, planning a wedding and joining finances, planning a pregnancy, dealing with infertility, all the way up to buying a house and taking home their babies. They even have that great twist of all the “signs” telling them to get married, and them deciding to ignore the “signs” and move in together instead because that is what they actually want to do. Friends is remembered for the total failure and frustration of the Ross and Rachel on again-off again, but the real lesson of the show is how to handle a couple that is happy together and still make them funny.