Saturday afternoon. My 13-year-old goddaughter and I sit on the sofa and watch four episodes of Friends, back-to-back. I’ve seen them a hundred times before; so, apparently, has she, but this doesn’t bother us. We are equally rapt. We laugh at the same bits. We anticipate the same lines.
“Which one do you fancy?” she asks, at some point.
“Uh, Joey, OBVIOUSLY,” I reply. “I have eyes. You?”
“Uh, Joey, OBVIOUSLY,” she says.
I’d had a similar conversation, two and a half decades earlier, with my friend Jules, only Jules had chosen Chandler, “because he’s funny”. I’d held forth at length on how that alone encapsulated crucial distinctions in our characters. Jules had said it was useful because it meant we faced less competition for the affections of two fictional TV characters.
“Jules fancies Chandler,” I tell my goddaughter (Jules is her godmother too).
“Weird,” she says.
“Yeah, but: less competition,” I say.
Friends is 25 years old and yet perpetually on our TV sets and laptop screens. It is seen far more, and far more widely, now than when it originally ran, premiering on September 22, 1994 in the US (Channel 4 picked it up for UK markets six months later).
Despite its age, despite its ubiquity, despite it being viewed so many times already by so many people, despite it being beyond parody, despite its jokes being repeated so often they should be reduced to ragged comedy cliché, despite it being denounced variously for not being as funny as it’s supposed to be or for not being as politically correct — as woke — as we are supposed to be, Friends remains extraordinarily hot property.
It is seen far more, and far more widely, now than when it originally ran.
In the UK, in 2018 and 2019, it was Netflix’s most streamed show by a significant margin, which explains why the streaming service paid a staggering $80 million in 2018 to keep it (this deal runs out next year, at which point WarnerMedia gets its mitts on Friends, despite Netflix having offered a rumoured $100 million to maintain the rights).
A report published in January 2019 on young people and the media found it was the most popular TV show among five to 16-year-olds (the report went on to specify that they watch it alone and on mobile phones).
Urban Outfitters sells Friends-branded T-shirts and sweatshirts to its essentially teenage and early-twentysomething customer base. A recent series of broadsheet newspaper articles compared the dynamic between the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to that of Monica and Chandler, in happy anticipation of its readers knowing what they meant — which, of course, they did.
Yesterday I noticed an advert for an estate agency on the Tube that showed a picture of a sofa accompanied by the words “Pivot! PIVAAAAAAHT!” — a reference to the 16th episode of the fifth series, in which Ross tries to manoeuvre a sofa up a stairwell (a clip of which has been viewed one and a half million times on YouTube). While we’re on the subject of Ross? His and Rachel’s shifting, evasive, on-and-off-and-on-again affair is surely the single most routinely invoked relationship archetype of our times, up there with Romeo and Juliet’s.
If I were to name any of the six main characters, in isolation and out of context, you’d immediately know to whom I referred. And if I were to say, “WE. WERE ON. A BREAK,” you’d immediately know to what I referred too. In short, in the greater scheme of cultural reference points, Friends is the most universally understood of our time.
Which is bizarre, given how fractured we are in almost every sense these days — how scattered our viewing habits, how niche and various our tastes, how high our standards, how split our politics and our sensibilities and our generations. It’s more than bizarre. It is extraordinary.
A recent series of newspaper articles compared the dynamic between the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to that of Monica and Chandler.
I mean, I know exactly why it means so much to me. I was 22 years old when Friends first aired, recently graduated, working full-time as a barmaid, sharing my first flat in London with friends from university (Jules and Martha, future mother of my goddaughter, among them), broke, deeply unsure if anything good or accomplished or purposeful would ever come of me — but hopeful and having a nice time, nonetheless.
Friends couldn’t have been more squarely aimed at me and my lot if we’d done it ourselves, which we couldn’t possibly have done; we lacked the talent and the rigour. Last month vulture.com ran an extract from Saul Austerlitz’s book Generation Friends, which detailed the experience of those who worked in the Friends writers’ room, who regularly endured 14 to 16-hour shifts in a seventh-floor boardroom that Austerlitz described as “simultaneously a party room and a prison cell”. I felt tired and panicked just reading it.
I can clearly remember seeing a trailer for its premiere on Channel 4. (There were only four channels on our TV at the time, I was hardly likely to miss it.) “What do you reckon to that?” I asked Jules. She said it looked like it might be worth setting the video for.
So we did.
I’m not sure what happened next. I can’t remember the exact process of Jules and me in particular, and our entire generation in general, falling in love with this one show, this brief weekly interlude in our lives. I can only remember that one day it wasn’t there and the next it was everywhere and everything.
In the greater scheme of cultural reference points, Friends is the most universally understood of our time.
A (deeply flattering) mirror to our lives and an influence on our dress sense and haircuts and the rhythms with which we spoke (could we BE any easier to manipulate?); an aspiration, a marker in our life stages. They weren’t us. They were American and better looking, they had — puzzlingly — much more free time (“time porn” was how the media of the day referred to their surplus of hanging out), and they drank a lot more coffee (coffee shop culture, you may recall, had yet to land in the UK).
But still! They served as the telly equivalent to a soundtrack of our twenties — I fell in love to Friends, got my first break in journalism to Friends, bought my first flat to Friends — and, if we didn’t feel as though we were them exactly, we certainly felt as though we knew them. As the show continued, over ten series and ten years, as those six characters evolved and were refined, their glitches, their psychologies and their dynamics became more pronounced and precise — we really did come to know them, in a way. When I re-watch Friends one of the things I feel is affection.
So of course I like Friends! Of course it means a lot to me! It was my era! I lived in a time before iPhones and YouTubers, and no one knowing how their life would pan out, but no one worrying about it too much either, because we just didn’t.
I lived it with them. Never mind that I also heard those jokes and witnessed those plot twists for the first time, as they happened. Never mind that, for some weeks in ‘97, Jules and I became obsessed with a specific low V-neck T-shirt style that Rachel Green wore through great swathes of season three and dedicated ourselves to tracking it down so that we too might wear it. (We eventually worked out that it was by Calvin Klein, but Warehouse did a passable copy.) My experience of Friends was tinged with freshness and sharpness and cool.
But why does it mean so much to everyone else? To people 20 or — in the case of my goddaughter — 34 years younger than me? People to whom it can’t possibly seem fresh, sharp or cool, people who seem so distanced from me in so many other respects.
When Friends hit Netflix, some of the millennial generation were distraught to discover how staggeringly un-diverse the cast seemed, how incredibly middle-class and white, but also how prone to make jokes about fatness, or at the expense of the only gay character on the show (Ross’s ex-wife Carol), or in response to Joey’s gradual realisation that he’d been sexually assaulted by his tailor.
I fell in love to Friends, got my first break in journalism to Friends, bought my first flat to Friends.
A “wokelash”, I called it, a backlash designed to denounce Friends’s ageing values. I was scathing about this wokelash at first: all those youngsters raising their voices in condemnation, so confident that the things they thought and said, felt and believed wouldn’t seem preposterously outdated 25 years hence too … but then I realised you only judge a cultural property by today’s values, if it is still relevant according to today’s standards and habits. Which, of course, Friends is. Generation Woke may not approve of it, but they are watching it anyway.
Theories abound regarding its enduring popularity.
1) It’s gentle and nostalgic, it has no edges and no surprises, and we need that sort of cultural comfort blanket desperately, given terrorism, Trump, knife crime, our unknowable political circumstances etc.
2) It’s technically immaculate TV, each episode designed so that it might be watched, understood and laughed heartily at out of sequence, even if the viewer hasn’t seen it before.
3) It showcases widely underappreciated comic genius on the part of the cast. “Watch Jennifer Aniston in it,” a TV producer friend once said to me. “Imagine the words she says written down. See how flat they are. See what she does with them. Then bow down before her brilliance.” So I did — and she was quite right. David Schwimmer’s physical comedy is immaculate too, it should be said, and Courteney Cox getting caught up in the revolving cord of a floor polisher, or with a Thanksgiving turkey on her head, is equally, infinitely rewatchable.
But then 4) it is beautifully silly. Its comedy relies as much on our eternal capacity to enjoy Phoebe Buffay’s breakout hit Smelly Cat as it does anything else. Silliness — a much underrated virtue — doesn’t age.
And 5) It is about friendship. Friendship is the situation in this comedy, the precinct for it. More than that, it’s about friendship as a viable alternative to traditional yet dysfunctional family set-ups. It kicks off with Rachel running away from her wedding, and Monica’s bad relationship with her mother, the suicide of Phoebe’s mother and Chandler’s non-existent childhood at the hands of narcissistic parents are the backbone of their individual psychologies. Those stories do not age either.
Ultimately, I think, Friends works, and keeps on working, because it is a very kind show. Un-woke, of course — no one was woke in the 1990s — but deeply kind, nonetheless. It’s about a group of people who do their best by each other. Who wouldn’t want that as their No 1 recurring, constantly streamed, repeatedly referenced, endlessly money-spinning cultural touchstone?