You cannot deny that Friends is perhaps the most iconic TV show of all time. The NBC sitcom ran for ten seasons between 1994 and 2004, and over its decade-long run, it had many of us rapt. The evolving storyline featuring the titular group of friends seemed to grow with its audience, and by the time the credits rolled on the final episode on May 6th 2004, fans of the show were left wondering just where the past ten years had gone, looking back on the 236 episodes they had watched and rewatched in what was a total odyssey of the modern condition.
Notably, the show had an ensemble cast, but it was thanks to its stars that it was able to run for so long. There was Jennifer Aniston as Rachel, Courtney Cox as Monica andv Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe. Their male counterparts were Matt LeBlanc as Joey, Matthew Perry as Chandler and David Schwimmer as Ross. The sextet live and work in Manhattan, New York, and over the course of the series, we watch them blossom from their confused mid-20s to their ’30s, a time when they seem to have found their place in the world and, if not, have come to understand how life works a little bit better.
Whilst not a perfect decade by any stretch of the imagination, the 1990s was the most optimistic period the world had seen since the 1950s, but without the impending spectre of mutually assured destruction as the era of Elvis, Diners, and drive-in movie cinemas had. The Berlin Wall had fallen in 1989, and by 1994 when Friends debuted, The Cold War was fading into distant memory, eclipsed by the hope that Generation X felt. For the first time in their life, the future looked incredibly bright, with its promise of good jobs, good haircuts, and infinite possibilities.
This is the thing about Friends and accounts for why it has remained the most iconic TV show of all time, uniting Generation X, millennials and Gen Z. It captures that glimmering moment in time, where F. Scott Fitzgerlad’s green light of the orgiastic future seemed to have finally arrived, with the middle class and social mobility available to everyone, helped by what Francis Fukuyama famously hailed as ‘The End of History’, where Western-style liberal democracy had triumphed over its great enemy, the Communist Soviet Union, and asserted hegemony over the world.
Added to this potency is iconography. Across the show’s first few seasons, we observe the imposing obelisks of neoliberal economic dominance, The World Trade Centre looming over New York City, reminding everyone of just how far America had come over the 21st Century, and the extent of the West’s development since 1945 when Europe was nothing more than a smouldering landmass.
The story of The World Trade Centre is one we are all familiar with. On the morning of September 11th, 2001, as New York flocked to work in the optimised, mechanical way that Henry Ford had first dreamed of, America and the West’s hegemony was directly challenged, broadcast into every home with a TV set. The tragedy of the two hijacked airliners that were driven into the two buildings created a whole new epoch. It was full of war, death and destruction, and it saw the unfettered hope of the ’90s and the promise of the new millennium turn grey.
Although the absence of The World Trade Centre in the backdrop was eerie, Friends carried on, as New York did, refusing to give in to the tragedy of 9/11. It came to represent the hopeful time when we were young, the brief years of light between The Cold War and The War on Terror, and duly, for anyone who was sentient then, it is the most nostalgic show out there. Whether it be Rachel’s ’90s outfits, the side characters, or even the God-awful theme tune, for a lot of us, it’s the best portal back to our greener days, when all we did was look forward.
This does not make it good, though. Regardless of what it represents and the large rose-tinted spectacles with which you view it, Friends is a terrible TV show.
For the most part, the characters are cringe-inducing, and in the post-MeToo world, Ross, in particular, is borderline repulsive. He’s a gaslighting manipulator that makes Rachel feel guilty for landing her dream job at Bloomingdale’s. In fact, many of the main characters are repugnant, and whilst you may posit that this is the point, which it could well be, then why do we love them all so with such blinkered vision? However, I digress, and that’s a story for a different day.
We have to remember that first and foremost, Friends is a sitcom, and although it did the situation part fairly well, managing to keep its fans engaged for 236 of them, despite how ridiculous the majority are, it’s the comedy element which has always left me confounded. Of course, there are parts in which you can’t help but smile due, but these, on reflection, are very rare. The type of comedy it employs is stupid, obvious, and just not very funny. Although this is Friends‘ USP, it is genuinely astounding that people are more than happy to trawl through the whole thing and literally laugh at loud at Joey walking into a room.
From the hysterics produced from the moment Phoebe finds out about Monica and Chandler’s relationship by mistakenly catching them doing it at the window, or the group’s collective joke about Rachel’s eye problem, chiming in with quips such as “how much did I love The King and eye?”, there are many countless moments in friends that people guffaw at, that as an onlooker are truly mystifying. I do not want to sound like a curmudgeon, but it is a glaring truth that a ten-year-old could have written most of the jokes on Friends.
I know it was en vogue at the time, but the canned laughter only makes the jokes worse. It’s as if you’re in a medical clinic with two attendants at either side, pulling your mouth apart to show your teeth in a grotesque manner like the painting of a clown in a funhouse.
Objectively, there is nothing funny about Phoebe’s dumb songs or Joey saying, “How you doin’?” Compounding this is that much of the movement of the cast is incredibly forced, and the more you watch it, you realise just how sterile it is. There’s nothing natural about Friends, and it is as fake as the set it’s filmed on. Comedy is meant to be natural, not over-rehearsed nonsense.
Whilst you may be drawn in by the heavy dose of nostalgia that Friends delivers, do not be deceived into thinking that it is a good or even great TV show. As far as quality goes, it’s simply terrible.