It’s almost impossible to find a defining work for any one era. Eras are so innately multifacted that no single piece can capture it. The 1990s were particularly vexing. What summed up the world that covers both the unrest in the impoverished areas and the radical wealth of the upper class? Nothing could do such a fascinating era justice.
What you can study are the popular works because in those you find not reality but ideals. World War 2 movies reflected a fantasy of a messy fight. Sitcoms like Leave it to Beaver and I Love Lucy traded in the imagery of domesticity. The youth films of the 60s expressed an idea of what rebelling looked like in theory. The yuppie works of the 80s depicted a very slick idea of the world while John Hughes celebrated the suburbs. And one work above all others showed what the dominant culture fantasized about.
Friends wasn’t the biggest show on TV in its peak–ER and Seinfeld were bigger with the show between the two often drawing higher ratings–but it felt like the biggest show on TV. The media could not stop covering it. The stars were treated as the next big things. It was watercooler TV in a way we haven’t had in the 13 years since it went off the air.
But why? Looking back, it’s almost impossible to grasp how this show became so vital. It had a great cast, but so did so many shows then and many lower rated shows now. It was very funny but again, there were funnier shows. It was adult, but other shows were pushing the envelope. Why this show?
It comes down to this: Friends truly is the perfect encapsulation of how mainstream America fantasized about itself in the 1990s. It depicts a world of beautiful people with no real troubles who have constant sexual encounters. You might talk a big game about financial issues in this universe but you never actually have them. It’s a blindingly white world where the only POC to enter into things are just obstacles in the way of true love. There are non-cishet people in this world but they’re hip accessories at best and at worst they’re toxic freaks at worst. This was a fantasy world for people on either side of this story.
I have profoundly mixed feelings about this show and as time goes by I have increasingly negative thoughts on it. Friends feels like what it is. It’s an artifact of a moment where people thought they were being progressive simply by referencing certain things. It reflects grasping at growth but not getting there. And really, what better way to sum up the 90s is there?
This is going to be a messy essay broken up into sections but I really don’t know of any better way to get my point across so follow me as I dissect the ultimate 90s cultural artifact.
Friends is the epitome of a character driven show. To discuss anything about the show before discussing the characters is to utterly fail the discussion. The show hinged upon its six person lead cast, all of whom had to stay with the show for it to work. Had even one actor left, the show would’ve ended. As it is, to study the ensemble is to study the show. I’m listing the characters in cast order.
Rachel Green/Jennifer Aniston: If there is a perfect symbol for me for this show’s appeal, it is this character and actress. Everything about them is “enough.” Aniston is a pretty enough, talented enough, funny enough actress. She’s utterly unexceptional but not awful. That’s Rachel Green too. Her stories are interesting enough but she doesn’t shine. For the first few seasons she fills the role of the fallen rich girl but that ends fairly fast and she gets a string of ludicrously unattainable jobs. This is where Aniston being “enough” is vital. Rachel’s ludicrously nice life is pure wish fulfillment and it doesn’t work if she’s someone we feel is impossible to identify with. As is? It’s doable. Rachel is the POV character.
Monica Geller/Courtney Cox: Monica is probably the one character on the show who feels like she could work in a more current sitcom. She’s not the funniest character but she has a fascinating set of very complicated issues that never get resolved. She’s a formerly overweight woman who endured years of abuse over her weight only to pursue a career as a chef with severe OCD. Seriously, this is a fascinating character that the show more or less created by accident. Cox is a superb actress who doesn’t get nearly enough credit for turning a character written as shrill and bitter on the page into a profoundly empathetic character. That said, pay attention to the fat shaming. I’ll return to it.
Phoebe Buffay/Lisa Kudrow: If Monica is the accidental trauma victim, Phoebe is the deliberately crafted one and honestly, I think the show does a marvelous job depicting someone who refuses to hide her scars. There’s extreme darkness here and it gets only vaguely masked by a ditzy, bubbly persona. Kudrow correctly won a Best Supporting Actress Emmy in 1998 for her turn, managing moments of pain and extreme humor often within a single scene. All of the characters ached. Phoebe was just honest. Oh and yeah her songs ruled.
Joey Tribbiani/Matt LeBlanc: It’s very hard to play a character intended as “the dumb one” and not create an embarrassment. Look back at the annals of characters whose defining trait was this. Thus it’s genuinely impressive that LeBlanc turned in such a great performance. He made Joey a lunkhead but a warm, lovable one. The problem was the character was often written in that glorious 90s tradition of characters I had trouble believing could function in actual society. Joey’s lack of awareness at times feels implausible. There’s rarely any balance either. He doesn’t have hidden strengths. Just a nice guy.
Chandler Bing/Matthew Perry: I know, everybody loved Chandler. He was extremely funny and Perry had a gift with quips few actors on TV have ever had. That said, Chandler was, until his relationship with Monica, a horrible human being on a level only one other character not on a dark comedy in the 90s ever touched. Chandler verbally abuses every single one of his friends with every syllable he utters. He’s a vicious, hate filled man who blames his drag queen father for his problems far more than would be acceptable in 2017. He’s the one character in the show who feels headed to a severe meltdown. But he is oddly likable through all of this. Seriously, Perry deserved far more acclaim than even he got.
Ross Geller/David Schwimmer: OK, we all know Ross is the worst character on TV in the 90s. After a bad breakup he aggressively stalked his high school crush, only to get over her after a trip, only to dump his new GF for his HS crush, only to cheat on her after a fight, setting up an agonizing on/off fling that never actually ended in him owning up to all of this. Since we all know this, I want to praise Schwimmer for constantly leaning into all of this and rather brilliantly playing up his toxicity. He never once seems unaware Ross is a bastard. There’s a powerful darkness to his turn. I will also argue in a blackly misguided way, Ross is also an audience POV. He’s not as appealing as everybody else and he thinks the world has it in for him. Today Ross would be a vital member of Reddit communities.
Gunther/James Michael Tyler: Gunther in a weird way might be the show’s ultimate wish fulfillment example. He’s the guy everybody feels superior to. Now, in the real world people often form some connections with the proprietors of the businesses they frequent. I’m on a name basis with the gas station clerks I deal with. It’s even more likely there would be a connection since he employed Rachel and IRL people do make connections with coworkers. But no, on the show he’s the perpetual whipping boy who serves as a symbol for the self indulgent fantasy of the show.
Janice/Maggie Wheeler: Somehow, I think Janice had it far worse than Gunther. If you really watch the character, there’s not much objectionable about her except her voice. In fact she’s portrayed as a rather likable character to be around.And that voice being an issue kind of exposes another thing about this show: it’s almost disturbing how much the show tries to make everything as scrubbed bland as it gets. A good character who likely years later looks back on her encounters with the sextet and laughs at ever having been so fixated on them.
Just as Friends is defined by its characters, it’s also defined by the interactions between those characters. The various character dynamics provide a strong glimpse into the strengths and weaknesses of the show.
Ross/Rachel: This is the ongoing thread that captured the hearts of viewers in the first two seasons and which wouldn’t be resolved for good until the last episode. So I’ll be blunt: this is the tumor that destroyed my love for the show when I watched it the first time. I was invested for the first three seasons but with the show’s s4 premiere pulling the rug out AGAIN, I realized they were never going to resolve it. What makes this worse is that upon reflection, these two really didn’t belong together. They shared no interests. They didn’t really like each other. What I think they liked was what the other symbolized. Ross loved the status symbol of the prettiest girl in school while Rachel fed on Ross’ fixation on her as such. Each made the other feel better about themselves in a very unhealthy way. Oh and just to be clear, Ross was at fault in the breakup. Even if they were on a “break,” going out and sleeping with another woman the night of a fight is a vile, spiteful action that he NEVER admits to.
Chandler/Monica: Here is the exact opposite, ironically starting at the exact moment the show destroyed Ross/Rachel for good. Chandler and Monica became the show’s soul, first with a casual flirtation, then with a hookup, before finally settling into their permanent status quo as the show’s central couple. They reflect an extremely healthy relationship, serving as a check/balance system for each other. They actually force the other to grow. Chandler greatly benefitted from having to be sincere about something for once in his life while Monica could relax and have fun. So much of this really is down to Perry and Cox having powerful chemistry not jut comedically but dramatically. We love these characters as a unit and the show did too, giving them the best writing.
Chandler/Joey: One of the two defining friendships of the show. I have to admit, this one suffers greatly from the incredibly sour dialogue given to Chandler in the early seasons. Chandler berates Joey nonstop and it gets awkward. There were times in the early seasons where it felt like their primary shared interest was a love of hot women. But with time I did come to buy into this, especially as they grew and evolved.
Rachel/Monica: The show’s other standard bearer friendship and probably the most realistic. These two have been welded at the hip since their youth and find themselves still connected yet in vastly different places in their lives. Monica grew up and became an adult while Rachel didn’t. In fact Monica outpaces Rachel for much of the show in the way real friendships often go. There’s raw honesty here.
Joey/Rachel: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show so openly admit to a mistake. I’m also not sure I’ve ever seen a show be as wrong about that “mistake.” Honestly, Joe and Rachel marked one of the smartest ideas the show has ever had. I bought these two would be attracted to each other. They shared a number of interests and Aniston and LeBlanc had really stellar chemistry. I think the idea of Joey maturing into a relationship and Rachel evolving past Ross was a great move. Status quo killed it. Boo.
Ross/Monica: These two constantly spending time together is the definition of bullshit. No, I didn’t for a second believe these two would be constant presences in each others lives. They really don’t get along much if at all. They’re bitter and mean to each other. I’ll concede she might have at first put up with him out of pity but the worse he pursued Rachel, the more she should’ve hated him. He was an abusive asshole to her.
Phoebe/Joey: One of the great oddities of the show. Their entire interaction feels like there should be something here. There’s not. Hell, Matt LeBlanc even pitched something. So, yeah there’s a blip here. That said, it’s honestly a needed blip. They’re the only platonic m/f pair–Ross and Phoebe have very little connection–on the show. LeBlanc and Kudrow were both extremely smart actors playing dim, turning their interactions into a wonderful private joke. Loved them together.
Phoebe/Rachel: If there’s a nice dark horse thread, it’s Phoebe and Rachel. Phoebe’s genuine street smarts came out next to Rachel’s naivete. Kudrow was a wonderful foil for Aniston and brought out her actual skills. Rachel was arrogant and vain while Phoebe was flighty yet actually knew how to function in the real world.
The 90s Context
I want to focus a bit on this element before delving into the show fully. Friends was an extreme phenomenon, in some ways creating the very culture it leaned into. But it greatly reflected that culture as well.
Friends is almost most notable for what it lacked rather than what it had. It was the last culturally significant work to exist without the internet. There were references here and there but this was a show about socializing that existed without Facebook or even smartphones. This show would be completely different just with those two things.
The show also reflects vividly the economic context of the middle class, namely the age of conspicuous consumption. This is a show which constantly focuses on shopping, eating in the nicest restaurants, and owning the nicest things. Up until 2008, 4 years after the show, this was a massive virtue in our society. Credit cards were so safe. After all, the stock market only went up.
You also saw wave upon wave of trends on the show. Coffee had its grand moment in the culture in no small part due to the show. The massive fixation on fashion that dominated the media in the 90s showed up here. Internet chat had one subplot in one episode. Ross working as a paleontologist feels pretty linked to the dinosaur boom. Then of course there was the hair.
Yet despite this, Friends feels today not quite of its moment. It scarcely feels of the same moment as Pulp Fiction yet it debuted a mere 4 weeks before. It depicts characters of the same basic age as the characters in Reality Bites yet it exists far away from them. The entire indie world exists right at its door and it fled from it. Why? I’d have to examine the problems with the show to make this clear.
The Problems With Friends
I strongly suspect the majority of you have read this far just to get to this section. Don’t worry, I’m going to make you happy. There was a hell of a lot wrong with this show. In no order:
Aside from Monica and Chandler, the characters existed in a rather numbing status quo up until the end. This is probably the grand problem that sinks the show in my book. Up until the very last season, 4 of the 6 characters were stuck in a constant status quo. Ross and Rachel couldn’t get resolution. Phoebe couldn’t succeed professionally or romantically. Joey was similarly doomed. Rachel was almost always in crisis, which included her pregnancy which somehow managed to change nothing in her character. As a result, there were no stakes. The show ran for nearly 10 YEARS and only Chandler and Monica received an appreciable shift in status quo. But even then not really as they simply shifted sides of the table.
The show gave voice to rather toxic sexism. I’m not going to tar Friends as a sexist show. It had a number of women as writers and it gave more than equal focus to the women. But it sure as hell allowed for sexist perspectives all the same. Ross Geller was truly a toxic misogynist who never really paid for his behavior. Joey was a fountain of hormones that looks cringeworthy in retrospect and bless him Joyey coined the term friend zone. Nice guy Chandler could be rather atrocious to women in his own right. But seriously, Ross. Good GOD was he awful. He slept with women far too appealing for him. He slept with a student. He stalked Rachel. I just…I can’t with him.
Homophobia pervaded the show. There are so many ways that Friends blew it on this matter that I’ll just address the one way it does do things right: Ross’ ex-wife and her wife are treated respectfully as an at least plausible portrait of a lesbian couple the few times we see them. That said, this show makes so many jokes at the expense of gay people it could’ve done a 2 hour clip show and never shown them all. Chandler’s entire existence in early seasons is as a walking embodiment of mistaken for gay and gay panic. He constantly fires off homophobic comments about his drag queen father who the show eventually cast with a cis woman in the role as a joke, thus managing to be sexist and ageist as well as transphobic all at once! The show never depicts gay men as anything other than stereotypes. And while we’re at it, Carol and Susan? Clear case of lesbian chic in that light. An alternate universe ep where Ross proposes a threesome to Carol is almost mindmeltingly offensive.
There were few POC on the show and it didn’t go all that well when there were. Hoo boy. This is one of the show’s dark legacies. George Carlin noted he liked the show for being realistic because these characters wouldn’t have black friends. Let me pause to note that George Carlin in the late 90s/early 2000s was extraordinarily outdated. And you know what, even if he’s right, it speaks to the giant issue this show had with race. It was set in NYC, one of the most diverse cities on Earth, and non-whites barely show up even as extras. Come on! Why was almost every small role so goddamn white! Like I found a video noting how many POC showed up in small roles and it was both short and padded. But here’s the frustrating thing: there were two POC to show up. Both as love interests to Ross. Lauren Tom played Julie and really unfortunately was unfairly treated. Aisha Tyler also showed up, though thankfully it felt like her character was written out as too good for Ross. Still, that’s TWO characters in TEN seasons.
Friends was the most mainstream promoter of fatphobia. If Friends has a dark legacy, it might very well be this. In fact, the wikipedia entry on fatsuits lists it first, though there were earlier uses. Friends was a mainstream, progressive show that repeatedly mocked fat people without even once seeming to grasp how disgusting this was. It thought it was hysterical to show young Monica as fat and to constantly describe her antics. There was never a sense this was ok. When in a flashback Monica decided to lose weight, it was to spite a man and treated as a laugh line. It goes without saying the show never actually showed a fat person as anything other than a joke in the present day. Ashley Graham and Tess Holliday would be pointed at and mocked here.
The affluenza gets toxic. OK, put the 90s aside. This was a show where nobody lived in a one room apartment, nobody had to cut their budgets to make ends meet, and nobody was actually poor. Friends I think succeeded heavily on this basis. It was a fantasy world where none of these problems ever mattered. All well and good except the characters worried about money nonstop! Seriously, it gets rage inducing watching characters whine and whine about money while living a fantasy life. You can’t have it both ways but Friends tried so hard. Post financial crisis, the show looks far worse for this.
The show suffered from the standard tropes all sitcoms faced in the 1990s. Put this as an umbrella for serious problems but problems all sitcoms face. The revolving door of love interests meant this is a show about people who in real life would qualify as sex addicts. There’s also the incessant cruelty that qualifies as gags. Things are almost ludicrously eventful on the show with major episodes happening to characters repeatedly. Also seriously, the show’s writers needed to learn something about paleontology if Ross was going to discuss his job.
The show ran way too long. This is an unfair criticism, given that it really was in the hands of the network and the producers, but let’s use Friends as a perfect example of the unwillingness of all involved to let go. By the end the characters were tired and the show often cut corners. Not many shows went to the clip show well the way this one did. 5 seasons and done should be the rule. It never is.
There, roughly 1000 words on the problems. Now, time for the opposite.
The Reasons Friends Worked
You can’t be this successful and fail at everything. In fact, you can’t be this successful and fail at most things. Friends succeeded at quite a few things. In no order:
The show was impeccably made. This was one of the best ensembles in TV history both in characters and actors. It was also supremely well written and often a bit better directed than the norm. Put Friends next to other shows of the era and with the exception of Seinfeld (still a better show), they seem dead. Friends was a livewire.
This was a fairly (white) feminist show. Ok, putting aside the fact that this was hardly a model of intersectionality, Friends does get credit in my book for writing its women strongly. Very few mainstream comedies mixed their ensembles as evenly as this show did, a fact likely attributable to the high number of women who held power on the show.
Friends was sex positive. This is a big deal and I think it could easily get overlooked in the wake of shows that came after it. This was a show that dared to suggest that yes, women had sex drives and it didn’t judge them for it. Did the show go too far? Yes, but that’s a sitcom for you. Still, how nice was it to even see a show going this far. Bonus points for discussing safe sex frequently.
The show was fair for its time on gay rights. Friends seems toxically homophobic because it absolutely was. But here’s a sad truth: You could cut an hour of homophobic jokes out of every sitcom on TV in the 90s even if it aired for one season. I’m going to credit the show this: it had a rare depiction of a functional same sex couple, one which even raised a child. That’s small now but go back. It’s stunning there was no custody plot then.
The main cast never changed. This is a giant thing that might explain why the show syndicated so well. Friends had 6 actors who easily could’ve bolted but never did until the end. In fact the cast negotiated contracts as a unit. Had Matthew Perry or Jennifer Aniston bolted, the show would’ve died and you’d be left with the awkward post-script seasons. The show ran too long but at least it was the same show then.
I never write an essay like this in isolation. With this essay, I absolutely talked to my friends and asked their thoughts. Some loved the show while others despised it. I found this divide to be nearly 50/50 but with an interesting determining factor. Those that hated it all seemed to fall under 25 with the exception of a couple who would’ve hated it in 1994. Those that loved it seemed to be older and often saw it first run.
Friends is an artifact. It’s a show that definitely exists in its specific moment. It doesn’t capture it very well in my opinion, but it exists in 1994-2004. To watch it is to look back at the values of a moment now passed in American pop culture. It’s a show that started when I was 10 and literally ended the night my freshman year of college ended.
It’s a well made artifact, but does it hold up? I have to ultimately conclude that frankly no, the show doesn’t hold the same power in 2017 it held in 1994. It has dated and dated quite poorly. The values the show reflects don’t work today. In fact, they’re incredibly painful to watch. This is a pretty offensive show in its worst moments. I don’t blame my friends who came after the show for not clicking with it. I’d be bugged too by that.
However, it’s also not nearly that easy to reject it. The hard truth is comedy rarely holds up over time. There are exceptions but comedy is innately of the moment. It’s the pulse of modern standards. As a result, virtually the same script can seem transgressive in one age and hopelessly quaint in another. (The Producers) If comedy is indeed progressive then it must progress.
That’s really my fundamental fascination with Friends. It embodies this idea perfectly. It was incredibly fresh and hip in 1994-1997. Today, it’s fairly stale. It’s not so much that the show was always bad. It’s that standards changed and society shifted to move past such a white, cishet view of the world.
And I want to pause here to stress I’m not saying shows today are all far more progressive. The Big Bang Theory and the funny at first Modern Family all have violent issues worthy of study even if MF tries to move past them. No, I’m pretty sure sitcoms will always feel a step back.
Friends also feels dated just in its style. The laugh track, constant verbal abuse show is aging poorly. Typical, unambitious sitcoms are dying. Shows as boldly playful as The Office and Parks and Recreation look like the future. Michael Schur seriously requires watching. This? It’s as old as Three’s Company was to a viewer then.
The thing is, Friends advanced the format to the point that much of what we see today sits in its wake. I firmly feel the debacle of Ross and Rachel inspired other shows to get smarter with their will they/won’t they with The Office answering its big question all of 1/3 the way into the show. TV got racier due to Friends. I also feel like actors stayed with hit shows longer, seeing how much better off they were. Writing at least tried to get up to the standards here. It’s hard to watch this show when you’ve seen what it inspired.
So with all that conceded, how do I personally feel? Well I started this mixed and I fear I’m ending it mixed. I have tremendous nostalgia for this show and up until the “break,” I think it was one of the great sitcoms of all time. I still think the Monica and Chandler plot is the utter best, one of the finest portraits of a couple in the medium but they’re balanced but the utter worst of Ross and Rachel. The show could be great and it could be painful.
I’ve rewatched it a few times and I suspect even after this essay I’ll go back to it. But the urge to do so fades with time. All the same, if I don’t love it like I did, I respect it. So I’m mixed positive in the end. A fun artifact but just that.
Epilogue: Where Are They Now (in my head)
The genesis of this essay came from me wondering where the characters wound up. I theorized none of them still talked, an outcome that horrified a few people. I’ve had time and I’ve built and expanded this theory. In doing so, I definitely have changed my mind.
That said, there’s no way Phoebe is in contact with any of the main characters. I firmly believe she lost touch with them and I think she’s happier for it. They were always rather cruel to her and I think she’s at peace in her own world.
Joey likely moved back to the New York area after the events of Joey. I think he ultimately shifts into teaching acting, probably on a high school level. He’s happier teaching rather than acting I’d figure. He’d do well with high schoolers. I figure he wound up marrying his love interest from Joey, having a few kids.
Those kids are extremely close with their Uncle Chandler. Yeah, I definitely think Joey and Chandler are still close. Possibly even neighbors.
Chandler wouldn’t be the same person he was though. I think he and Monica had a major crisis emotionally after the adoption. It’s common after a life change and both survived a tremendous amount of abuse. There were fights and both entered therapy. Chandler came to terms with his past and mellowed out. I think he’s even the one to reach out to Joey to tell him about the guilt he feels over his cruelty to him. Chandler quits his job and writes a memoir about his past. It’s a best seller.
Chandler and Monica make it. No question. They even adopt another child.
Monica opens a restaurant in her new hometown. She continues to work as a chef. After therapy, I think she puts back on a decent amount of weight. She comes to terms with the verbal abuse she suffered growing up. She has virtually no connection to her parents in the present day. The falling out was ugly but overdue.
Does she still talk to Rachel? Yes, but there’s finally distance there.
Rachel and Ross don’t make it. Come on, there’s no way they do. When they have their last breakup (roughly 6 months after the finale) though, it’s finally a healthy one. They finally admit they’re living out their past through each other but at this point it’s the past of 10 years ago. They part kindly with Ross a constant presence in his daughter’s life. They occasionally hook up but it’s finally allowed to be fun and without commitment. Rachel never settles down.
Neither does Ross. I’m going to have to credit my friend Sean Fallon with this fate for Ross. I had one in mind and he came up with a better one. Ross leaves NYC completely and settles in Chicago or more likely Oklahoma City. There he gets clean of everybody. He’s not speaking to anybody but Rachel, getting caught in the backdraft of his sister’s fight.
Ross Geller becomes a different person freed from the world he was in. He finally gets to mature. He goes into therapy* and he winds up changing. He writes his own book on the topic of nice guys and winds up becoming a poster child for the topic. Ross admits his own errors. He’s still a serial womanizer but he admits it now. He’s growing. As a result, he’s a better man.
I think in the end everybody’s happy.
Oh, and I picture one more scene. Ross, a year after te finale but before he’s started growing, sits in a bar. He meets a guy who reminds him of himself. He tells that guy everything toxic he thinks and believes and the guy listens. The conversation winds up impacting both. Ross realizes that night he needs to grow up.
The guy, Ted Mosby, thinks he’s met an oracle.
*I’m in therapy. I like it. Sue me.