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17 years of ‘Friends’ finale: The One where it became a cultural phenomenon

When David Crane and Marta Kauffman created the pilot for Friends in 1994, starring relatively unknown actors and a very broke Matt LeBlanc, never did they imagine in their wildest dreams that the show would become such a phenomenon. 

Friends was a defining moment in the 1990s, and this decade-long fan favourite amassed a massive cult-like fan following like nothing before. In fact, even to this day, the show continues to reap heaps of revenue after 17 years since its finale aired on May 6, 2004. If you go around asking people what their favourite TV shows are, nine out of ten will likely have a place for Friends among their top three picks. Highly commercialised, people can be seen sauntering along the streets sporting Friends merchandise or even using cheesy character-defining pickup lines from the show. 

Transcending decades, the popular K-Pop group, BTS’ leader Kim Namjoon, has often said how he learned English on his own by watching the sitcom and has emphasised the popularity of the show in South Korea, so much so that apparently all parents make their children watch the sitcom. Thus, it is not only a phenomenon restricted to the English-speaking community but has touched lives all over the world. You are probably bewildered reading this and wondering what is so special about the show that has helped retain, if not increase, its popularity so many years later. Let us take a walkthrough to understand what makes Friends, and especially its finale, a cultural phenomenon. 

The premise of the show is relatively simple. Six odd young adults in their early to mid-20s are best of friends and live in Manhattan while trying to find their way in the world. With a series of characters, the main focus is on the six who have brilliant character development over the course of the sitcom. Their problems and flaws are relatable enough to make the audience crave for a friend group as close-knit and perfectly imperfect as theirs. It chronicles their comedic lives, romantic exploits and bitter-sweet experiences while struggling to achieve their dreams and aspirations. They keep each other grounded while helping each other navigate through the obstacles that lie in their path. 

Rachel Green, initially a spoilt brat, emerges to lead a fulfilling life after having a successful job in the fashion industry. Monica Geller, a rigid and uptight chef, finally finds her true purpose and falls in love with one of the best characters in the show, Chandler Bing, a sarcastic and self-critical accountant who gradually grows more confident of himself. Joey Tribbiani, arguably the most adored character on the show, is slightly dim-witted, is a huge foodie, womaniser and a struggling actor trying to make ends meet. Phoebe Buffay is an eccentric and quirky masseuse, while Ross Geller is an insecure yet smart palaeontologist who is irrevocably in love with Rachel. The storyline is beautiful; viewers are most likely to be left with truckloads of tears on viewing the last episode. As soon as the iconic theme song starts playing, nostalgia sets in. 

Friends made a star out of each and every cast member. Jennifer Aniston set some pretty high standards for the ’90s fashion as Rachel. Her changing hairstyles, overalls, turtlenecks and iconic clothing have had an impact on people all over the world who still try to emulate the Rachel green swagger. Not only did Rachel leave an impact but also the other cast members; fans suddenly wanted to be as cool and seductive as Joey with a “how you doin’” or as quirky as Phoebe. The endless Buzzfeed quizzes should confirm our obsession with the sitcom even now.

I started watching Friends pretty late. Being a millennial, I never imagined that a show with recorded laugh tracks and somewhat slapstick humour would crack me up. Despite various problems underlying the series, it has become comfort food for my soul, something I like turning to on my rainiest days. Before I elaborate on some of the problematic aspects of the sitcom, it is pertinent to note that the show was set primarily in the mid-90s. The political correctness humour changes rapidly, and thus when a millennial or a Gen-Z watches the show, they might find certain jokes unfunny, offensive or problematic. While the show had a series of ongoing gags, from Joey being a dimwit to Chandler’s excessive sarcasm, which often got him into trouble, the sitcom has been severely criticised for the lack of representation, casual sexism, homophobia, problematic representation of certain communities and more. From Chandler cracking jokes that are offensive to the LGBTQ+ community to Ross having a problem with the male nanny or his son Ben playing with a Barbie, the show has had a wonderful interplay where, by highlighting the problematic and flawed aspects of the character, it has given a direct commentary on the life during the ’90s. 

However, having said that, Friends also was progressive in a lot of ways. For example, Ross’s first wife, Carol, falls in love with Susan, divorces Ross and marries the latter. Ross even does the honour of walking her down the aisle. Chandler’s father is shown to be a cross-dresser belonging to the LGBTQ+ community; Monica and Chandler even end up inviting him to their wedding despite being aware of the eyebrows that shall be raised. Given how the ’90s were not really kind to single mothers, portraying one of the more popular characters, Rachel, as a badass single mom working a damn good job was indeed groundbreaking. The show also dealt delicately with sensitive issues such as fertility, surrogacy as well as adoption. 

There were many other shows that tried to uphold the beauty and relatability that Friends had to offer. Shows like The Big Bang theory even infused science with comedy while keeping the theme of friendship afloat. However, none managed to leave an impact as indelible as that of the much-loved Friends, the main reason being the immense relatability the latter had to offer. Over the ten seasons, not once does the show feel stretched or drab. It is interesting and has new things to offer. It makes one wonder if they shall ever be blessed with such a diverse yet loving group. Friends is a safety blanket for a lot of us and has even helped some of us get through our darkest times. 

The finale aired in 2004 and was called The Last One. Spoiler alert, I bawled my eyes out after the episode ended and have still not been able to recover from the heartbreak. Season 10 was pretty much about tying the loose ends. While Phoebe finally settled with Mike, Joey and Rachel tried a brief whirlwind romance before realising that they were better off as friends. Monica and Chandler finally decide to adopt and become proud parents to a set of twins. Rachel gets offered a job in Paris but does not leave as she realises that she still loves Ross and would rather build a life with him. Monica’s apartment is now empty as she is moving to a countryside home with Chandler and her kids. The showrunners are brutal with the ending. 

The six are seen gathering at Monica’s apartment one last time as if it is time for a curtain call. As they hug one another, one can feel their eyes stinging with tears. After they all leave to get coffee at Central Perk, their favourite hangout spot, for one last time, the slow montage shows the various empty corners around the apartment, which reek of the memories they have made for over a decade. It ends with a closeup on the oh-so-familiar door, and it is almost as if we are forced out of the door to bid goodbye to our favourite characters who became a huge part of our lives. The impregnable void inside our hearts makes us miss the six even more, but all good things must come to an end. 

What struck me about the finale was the realism that was embedded in the sitcom. Had I been Rachel, I probably would not have let go of the opportunity to go to Paris, but what do I know? The ending is poignant, heart-rendering yet wholesome. Over the ten seasons, the characters mature (yes, even joey) and learn to sort their priorities. The audience understands that Monica and Chandler will not be able to build a home, and there must come a time when we must depart from our beloved ones. 

The ending keeps wild conspiracy theories fuelled; maybe they still remain friends but move on with their individual lives. Maybe they still meet up on Thanksgiving to hear about their antics and to laugh at Joey’s giant appetite. Probably, they still host Halloween parties that are now bustling with kids. Who knows? Despite all the speculation, it is important to note how the show ended on a perfect note, with the audience craving for more yet secretly knowing that beyond this, it would probably be a drag. Viewers unconsciously imbibe the lesson of cherishing and preserving memories of their loved ones yet learning to move upwards and onwards from the crossroads of life when the time comes. With the new reboot being shot for Friends, fans are excited to see what the cast has to offer and how the lives of the six have changed since 2004. 

However, I will always cherish the lessons and the memories the original show had to offer. I will forever be grateful to have stumbled across it on accident and have been an absolute fan ever since.

In each of our lives, the six characters slowly become a huge part of our lives. In our friends, we look for Monica’s caring nature, Chandler’s humour, Joey’s warmth, Phoebe’s idiosyncrasies, Rachel’s independence and Ross’ dependability. Seventeen years later, the show continues to win hearts and continues to turn a frown upside down. That is the beauty of it. As the song plays faintly in the background, we cannot help but hum along, thinking of all the good things and all the laughs the show had to offer on our coldest, darkest nights. Starring Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Matt LeBlanc, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer, Friends is no longer just a show, it is us living the busy manhattan life via the eyes of six different characters, trying to escape the boredom of our everyday lives by encapsulating ourselves in the warmth and glow of comedy, love and friendship.  

“I’ll be there for you

‘Cause you’re there for me too

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