Friends, Why Being First is Important (and other discussion topics)

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.

New Book Celebrates the Historic Significance of Mies van der Rohe, Father  of the Modern Skyscraper
I may not actually like his stuff? But you see what I mean about everything looking like it, right?

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.

And Marie's the name...: carole_and_co — LiveJournal

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.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show Apartment Was the Epitome of Single Girl Cool |  Apartment Therapy
Mary Tyler Moore changed apartments halfway through the shows run, and lost two supporting friend characters. Because it wasn’t a “family” sitcom at heart, it was a show about our one central character. Friends was about the home, the family, everything equal

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.

Was Ben actually saying 'Monica BING' and foreshadowing Monica and  Chandler's marriage in Friends S0308? - Quora
I read an interesting thought a few years back about Monica and Chandler. They were a matching set from the start, because they had a similar attitude towards the friends group, both of them clinging to this fake family. Ross and Rachel were both eager to be married and move on with life, Phoebe and Joey didn’t necessarily acknowledge a need for stability and family, but Monica and Chandler were the ones who want the Friends Thanksgiving, who want the group parties, who have the apartments and push people to visit them. I don’t think the writers planned that in advance, but I think crafting this sliding scale of backstories meant that Monica and Chandler ended up in the same place of “not a tragic backstory, but something that makes them eager to find a place in a new family”.

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.

10 "Friends" quotes that we now use in everyday conversation | HelloGiggles

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.

Wayne Brady Returns to How I Met Your Mother - Daytime Confidential
Not only was Barney’s brother Black, he was gay. And even more impressive, Lily was casually bi without it needing to be a big deal.

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.

18 thoughts on “Friends, Why Being First is Important (and other discussion topics)

  1. “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”

    It’s funny because this morning I was watching a documentary about John Ford’s movies and they said something very similar about Stagecoach: Now it looks like just another western full of cliches but it’s not, because it was the first movie to have this kind of scenes.

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    • Yes! The group of people thrown together and each with their own story of redemption and so on. It’s done a million times, but that was the first one.

      Like

  2. I feel this way about Citizen Kane. I remember having to watch it for a class in college and thinking it was fine, but it didn’t necessarily blow me away. If I think about it solely in terms of the films that came before it and not what came after it, then its standing as a groundbreaking film makes a lot more sense to me, but college-aged me was a lot more dismissive!

    Also, I LOVE Chandler and Monica and I liked this summary of their relationship:

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    • Yes! I saw Citizen Kane not in college, just at a random film night somewhere and I thought it was okay. And then (thank goodness) by the time I saw it in a college class I had been fully prepped on everything that made it spectacular so I could appreciate it. There are so many groundbreaking technical/narrative/visual techniques that it invented, and which everyone in the world has imitated to death by now. And the same with Friends, even something like throwing in an unplanned unexpected new couple halfway through the run of a show. Now we start a show thinking “I wonder which of these people will become a couple in season 4”, but back then there was the central couple and the supports and no one would have thought of two friends hooking up late in the show.

      And that is a great video!!! It’s true, Chandler and Monica always appreciated each other as people pre-relationship, and they continued to feel the same way post-relationship. The essential enjoyment of just spending time together remained.

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      • Yes, Friends totally set a precedent for everyone wondering “If/when two main characters who were previously unattached would get together to the detriment of some TV couples. I don’t think the Robin/Barney relationship ever quite worked for me because I really liked them as just friends, but that being said I’m not sure I’ve seen every episode of the later seasons? I gave up trying to get caught up because I knew how things ultimately ended in the series finale, so it was hard to get invested in later seasons when their relationship took up such a huge portion of the storylines.

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        • SO FRUSTRATING! Robin and Barney really started working for me in the last two seasons. Which is of course right when the writers decided to ruin it.

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          • Oooff yeah. That final season must be brutal since it’s just the lead up to their wedding.

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          • Second to last season too, the whole second half is this great culmination of their romance and mutual character growth and so on and so forth. Which then ends up being meaningless as they both complete regress by the end (blech!)

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  3. You may be on to something with Friends having that “special something” that hit the chord not only in America but elsewhere too – it certainly felt that way when I first saw it, growing up, too! It may also be that all the characters felt likable and sincere – you wanted to follow their stories to see where they went.

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    • That could be it! All the characters, especially in the first few seasons, were so open with each other and the audience. These was no pretense or fake sophistication.

      On Tue, Mar 2, 2021 at 8:09 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

      >

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        • It’s answered! Chandler has a really good job, and Monica is living based on rent control, and Phoebe is living in her Grandma’s rent controlled apt. Ross is the only one that is ridiculously nice, but I guess he is supposed to be very stable and successful.

          On Tue, Mar 2, 2021 at 10:08 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

          >

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  4. I read your post and for some reason images and lines from Reality Bites have kept popping into my head. I saw the movie Reality Bites in the theater 3 times, often in empty theaters. My friends and I glommed onto it. The idea that adulthood wasn’t all boring. Now I raise my eyebrows at some of the film’s messages, but it was so important to me. Friends came out my first year of college, when I didn’t have a TV. I could watch movies, but not TV. It has been in the background of my life but was never such a part of it as it was for the rest of the U.S. So for me, friends was great, but Reality Bites was first.

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    • Yes! There was a whole Zeitgeist of young adulthood, post-college, as a time of continued growth instead of stagnation. And Friends-the-TV-show was obviously the product with the biggest reach, for whatever magical reason. Maybe part of that was also the place TV had? I’m thinking of the physical object. I had a friend in middle-school who was SUPER into the show. She and her friends couldn’t go to the movies alone really, at least not every week. But they could grab the family TV and watch the show. This was the era when TVs were getting smaller and cheaper, so you might have a TV in your dorm room, or in your cheap first apartment, or in your basement for the “kids”, and could watch a TV show that spoke to you a lot more easily than you could see a movie. Especially a TV show on broadcast television.

      On Tue, Mar 2, 2021 at 11:34 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

      >

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        • I’m wrong, my spouse, with whom I was only friends in college, got really into the soap opera Days of our Lives because Marlena was possessed by the Devil. We must have had TV, I just didn’t watch it.

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  5. Had the same (Mies van der Rohe) feeling with Satyajit Ray. Last scene of Apur Sansar, he’s walking away slowly and then his little boy starts running after him and I thought “This is a cliche” and immediately realized it’s a cliche because of this.

    I think Ross and Rachel were much, much funnier apart and it was smart to keep them like that until the very last minute (although, yeah, they should have thought of a better reason). In real life they wouldn’t work as a couple and don’t really seem to like each other very much.

    One thing I really liked about Chandler and Monica is that they didn’t really tease it. The late eighties and early nineties were all about will-they-or-won’t-they relationships (Cheers, Moonlighting, Remington Steele. etc.) and they never did that sort of thing with them. They did, of course, briefly do that with Rachel and Joey, which was a dumb idea.

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    • Yes! Chandler and Monica were together, and then they stayed together. I would say, the only time they messed around was the engagement episode, but even there they kind of highlighted it by explaining that their engagement was so inevitable that the couple had to set up a game for the other to make it a surprise.

      Agree, Ross and Rachel were no fun when they were together! But there had to be a better way to keep them apart than what they landed on. The first breakup was really good, in ever possible way, logical and dramatic and meaningful and stuff. I would have been happy if they had just stuck with that through to the end, a really mess horrible painful breakup that it takes years to set aside and get together again. But no, they had to get together and breakup and get together and breakup and on and on and ON.

      Like

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