How Friends Illustrates the Depressing Insularity of Our Lives
Friends, Season 1.
Friends ended less than a decade ago, but it’s already a relic of a bygone era — a critically respected network sitcom that enjoyed massive ratings. That’s the central irony of the Must-See TV show’s legacy: It was one of the last programs to enjoy a national audience before cable and the Internet fully segmented audiences, but the show itself prophesied that fragmentation through its 10-year-long portrait of increasing social segregation.
Friends started out as a somewhat realistic (for network TV) exploration of metropolitan young (white) people, in the same way Roseanne sought to capture (white) working-class Midwestern life. In their original treatment, creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman described the show as a look at “a time in your life when everything’s possible,” when the future was “more of a question mark.” It was a Girls before Girls — Monica and Rachel are 24 when the show begins, just like Lena Dunham’s Hannah — but much more optimistic because the economy hadn’t yet vomited all over itself after another binge-and-purge cycle. Thus, it’s no coincidence that so many of the complaints lodged against Friends — unrealistically expensive lifestyles, pervasive whiteness, youthful frivolity, all that sex — are now being recycled by the anti-Dunham crowd.
Crane and Kauffman contrasted their show against traditional living-room and workplace sitcoms with a then-innovative, now-rote concept. “It’s about friendship, because when you’re single and in the city, your friends are your family,” read the original pitch to NBC. (The peacock execs were apparently so uncomfortable with the idea of a show about twentysomethings that they suggested the creators add a middle-aged man to dole out fatherly advice. Perhaps that explains that NBC also-ran sitcom where Ernest Borgnine played Jonathan Silverman’s BFF?) The great achievement of Friends’ 10 seasons is that Crane, Kauffman, and executive producer Kevin S. Bright convincingly carried the sexy sextet through several life stages: marriage, parenthood, divorce, and the rocky, too-often humiliating road to a fulfilling career.
But as the seasons progressed and its mythology expanded, the show shriveled, folding into itself. At the same time, the story lines became increasingly outlandish — the nadir of the head-scratching plots being Joey and Rachel’s doomed romance — yet still somehow more depressingly realistic. The source of these two phenomena lay in the show’s illustration that, as doors shut in your face during your twenties, you’re not just increasingly penned in professionally, but also personally. The overarching narrative of Friends charts how its characters’ lives got smaller and narrower until they could no longer comfortably accommodate their makeshift friend-families — just a spouse and a child or two.
Kauffman articulated the show’s ethos of “maturity means friends or children” when she denied rumors of a follow-up to the show earlier this year. “Friends was about that time in your life when your friends are your family,” she explained. “Once you have a family, there’s no need anymore.”
To be fair, most sitcoms function as narrative islands. But from the start, Friends had sociological aspirations, making its observations of life as a post-collegiate lost soul in the big city more significant and purposeful than its time-slot neighbors like Seinfeld and Frasier. And during the early years, there were good reasons for the sextet to stick so closely together.
In the first two seasons, when the show hewed to its slice-of-life ambitions, money was a constant source of anxiety. Friends implied that the high cost of fun made a lot of activities off-limits; its New York was never the playground of luxury and fashion that is Sex and the City’s Manhattan, not even for clotheshorse Rachel. Early in the second season, the show had its most explicit episode about income and friendships, where three of the have-not Friends — Phoebe, Rachel and Joey — balk at their better-earning counterparts’ plan to buy Hootie and the Blowfish tickets (heh) for Ross’ birthday. Say what you will about the sextet’s caffeine addiction — Scientific American certainly did — but those venti mugs probably didn’t exceed $5. Since both lattes and talk are cheap, Central Perk kept the Friends together by offering itself as an economic oasis.
The characters mostly take advantage of their urban environs by treating them as one long speed-dating assembly line. Friends relied heavily on the sitcom cliche of the Significant Other of the Week, a plot device that inevitably resulted in the SOW being dumped by the end of the episode, though some lasted a month or two. Especially in the earlier episodes, SOWs were routinely cast off because one of the other Friends disliked them. Over time, the repetition of the SOW story lines served to foster a loyal conformity among the Friends, as well as the creation and enforcement of a particular strand of promiscuous, gay-panicked, white-privileged, yuppie heterosexuality.
The decade-long accumulation of rejected romantic partners eventually turned Friends’ New York from a marketplace of possibilities to a menagerie of freaks, thus providing further incentive to stick to the clique. It makes sense that Phoebe, who marries Paul Rudd’s Mike in the last season, was the exception to the rule, since she has the most tenuous connection to the rest of the characters. (According to Splitsider, she is also the only character who doesn’t share a previous sex partner with any of her Friends.)
By the show’s end, having gone through all of white Manhattan, four of the six characters settle down with a mate from within their group. For all the cosmopolitan setting, then, the Friends eschew the romance of urban serendipity for incestuous familiarity. (This also explains the characters’ lack of interest in people of other races — or even other boroughs.)
Like a lot of ensemble sitcoms about single characters, Friends eventually becomes a screed against dating. The parade of flawed, unworthy, or just-not-right partners is so long that settling down with (and for) a good friend ultimately seems like the most sensible choice: better the Long Island Princess you know than the one you don’t. (The Friends copycat How I Met Your Mother goes even further in this regard by making its protagonist’s two decades of dating merely a prelude to his wedded destiny, and explaining away its most promiscuous character’s obsession with sex as the product of severe neurosis.)
By the end of its run, the show groups its couples essentially by census bracket. The pairing of Monica with Chandler and Ross with Rachel unite the friends who are the most financially and ethnically similar (Rachel and the Gellar siblings are Jewish; Chandler is the Jew-adjacent kind of goy). Across town, masseuse Phoebe marries musician Mike, her “rightful” partner in anti-bougiedom. Friends has often been accused of being cash-stupid show — e.g., Monica and Rachel live in a huge West Village apartment despite no outward signs of being millionaires — but it’s always been a very class-conscious one. Opposites may attract, but familiars breed.
The ultimate sign of the show’s tenet of “settling down as settling for who’s around” is the reunion of the will-they-now-or-will-they-later couple, Ross and Rachel. It’s a pairing that only worked in the early years because of David Schwimmer’s hangdog eyes, and the relationship’s initial dissolution was rather welcome, not least for bringing out a sarcastic edge and a screechy feistiness in Jennifer Aniston.
Despite the characters’ mutual attraction, they were always wrong for each other: Ross deserves a partner who’s more intellectually challenging, Rachel one who’s more fun. When they create a child and rekindle their romance in the show’s last two seasons, their happy ending feels like a tragic death — of adventure, of idealism, of question marks. No longer so young, and yoked together by their kid, they see sense in trying to fall in love again, however many times it didn’t work before. Their fate isn’t written in the stars; it’s dictated by two much more powerful forces: convenience and familiarity.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.