I did not watch a single episode of Friends until after it had been off the air for a few years. I want to say it was 2007-ish? I was sick in bed for a long time and got through a few nonconsecutive seasons of reruns. My reaction was mostly, “Oh, ok, I understand this reference now.” I didn’t hate it, but it didn’t have enough of an impact for me to seek out more episodes once daytime basic cable was no longer spoon-feeding them to me.
A couple months ago, I read something in passing about how Friends is still a cultural landmark 25 years after it premiered. I thought, “Hey, it HAS been 25 years, hasn’t it? And, yes, Friends is a cultural landmark. Maybe I should actually watch it from start to finish and see what the big deal is.”
So I did. Here are my random observations on the show as a whole. Character observations coming next week!
It was fascinating to watch the 90s aesthetic fade into the 00s now that both are old enough to be Other Times. I’ve watched other shows from that time span. Fraiser is one of my absolute favorite comedies ever. But Frasier isn’t about trendy 20-somethings. Watching Friends, every other episode I was like, “Oh, yeah, I remember when that was a thing for five minutes!” Or in the latter seasons, “Hey, I still have that! Should I still be wearing clothes I bought in a year with two zeros?”
Young adults in the early 90’s were born in the 60’s. I know, this is stating the obvious. But Friends, a show about growing up, really highlights the effect our childhood has on our adulthood. On a superficial level, this quintessential 90’s show is full of pop culture references from the 60’s and 70’s. On a deeper level, the characters’ issues make a lot of sense when you realize their parents were their age in the era of Leave it to Beaver. The elder Greens and Gellers raised their kids for the lifestyles they themselves had as young adults. The driving plot of the show is Rachel running away from life as a traditional 60’s housewife, and Ross coming to terms with the fact that he’ll never love a woman who wants to be a traditional 60’s housewife. Alongside them we have Monica and Chandler finding a 21st century version of the white picket fence lifestyle, making room for Chandler’s gender-nonconforming personality and Monica’s dominant role in their marriage.
Why is everyone on this show tan as heck? Seriously, why? They all live in NYC and have indoor jobs and hobbies. There’s no logical reason for these characters to be darker than the cast of Jane the Virgin. Did people notice this when Friends was current? Was the episode where Ross gets a botched spray tan meant to lampshade this phenomenon?
Everything about the cast’s lack of diversity has already been said. But. I can’t help wondering if, in 1993, the showrunners did think they had a diverse show. Over half the ensemble is Jewish or Italian. Depending on the showrunners’ ages, either they grew up seeing those ethnicities as borderline non-white or they were raised by people who did. I remember older relatives on my white and brown sides talking about Italians like they were, I don’t know, brown-adjacent? None of these musings are meant to excuse the show’s lack of diversity, it’s just interesting to reflect on our country’s evolving concept of what does and doesn’t constitute whiteness.
The male/female non-romantic relationships are pretty cool. Each woman in the main ensemble has at least one close male friend who isn’t trying to get into her pants. That’s just really nice to watch. They can be alone together, do special little things for each other, go to each other’s family events, comfort each other when they’re hurting, and so on without the guys treating these gestures like sexual punch cards. I cried when Joey offered to stop eating meat during Phoebe’s pregnancy to cancel out the meat his vegetarian friend had to eat for her babies. It was so adorably thoughtful, and it truly was “just” an act of friendship.
The finale truly is perfect. I still can’t say Friends is “my show.” There are many shows from many decades that resonate with me more. But I’m glad I watched every episode in order if only to fully understand what a work of art the finale is. Everyone gets their Happily Ever After in a believable, satisfying way. I didn’t even care for Ross and Rachel’s relationship (more on that next week), and I was still a mess of joyful tears when Rachel came back at the end. And that final shot of the empty apartment, ending on six keys side by side? It was emotional enough after binging these characters’ journey over a couple of months. I can only imagine what it must have been like to watch that if the Friends were a part of your life for ten years.
Next week: Find out which Friend I related to the most!