This is the preachiest thing you will read all day
By David Kennedy
Staff Not My Lobster
I’ve watched every single episode of Friends, many of them multiple times, over roughly a three year span. So it’s far too late for me to pretend I’m better than it, but I’m going try anyway.
I sat watching this show for hours at a time in high school. Now, after three years of consistent viewing, I still couldn’t recite very many of its jokes. Right now, I couldn’t give you a detailed plot synopsis of any of the episodes without watching them again. I remember the basic overview. I know that Ross is supposed to get with Rachel. I remember Chandler being self-deprecating and witty. I remember Joey being a slob who eats cake off the floor and that Monica is a neat-freak. I watched the show, but somehow it has not really stayed with me.
A big part of this is probably that, even while I was watching it, I never thought of Friends as a great show or even as a show that I loved or felt connected to. I thought it was low art, just a crappy sitcom. To watch it, you just turn your brain off and passively absorb sounds and images from your TV. I have since learned that this opinion is more controversial than I thought. Friends is a surprisingly big deal.
At least, I was surprised it was. When I was watching it, I never would have thought Friends was ahead of its time. Again, I thought it was just a dumb TV show, but apparently it predicted some things. So I have to appreciate that it was the first sitcom to really blow up that was about a group of charming, clumsy twenty-somethings struggling to find their way in life, which is really its own genre now. This kind of group dynamic had not really been explored on television in this way before. When it first came out, people really connected with it. So, strange as it is, Friends became a cultural force, the ripples of which can still be felt in the kinds of things we see on TV today.
It is not just that Friends was revolutionary for its time though. What really surprised me was when I found out that people my age really like Friends. I came out of whatever hole I spent most of high school hiding in and met people with sincere, sentimental attachments to this bad sitcom I watched. And I thought it was weird. I think it is weird that people my age claim to have learned things from this show. I think it is weird that people strongly identify with these characters, enough that they get offended when you question the show’s quality. I was especially weirded out when I actually met real people who, upon arriving at college, expressed joking excitement over the idea that their life was going to be like a sitcom now. I don’t know about you, but life with a laugh track sounds pretty horrifying to me.
Seeing how excited my peers were by the show made me start to think about all the latent issues I had with it. When I thought nobody but me and my brother were watching it, I kind of just dismissed any criticisms I had of the characters or the storytelling because it was just a dumb TV show; it’s harmless. Now I see people half-jokingly referencing Friends as a template for how they want to live their lives. Then I’ll re-watch an episode and ask the question: why would I want to be friends with these people?
Because the friends from Friends are all pretty shitty people. There are way too many examples of this to list here, but I’ll try to come up with a few consistent ones. Everyone always makes fun of Ross because of his job. He’s dedicated his life to paleontology and whenever he tries to talk about it, his friends call him a nerd and boo him offstage. Everyone is constantly lying to each other. For example, nobody will tell Phoebe that she’s a bad singer, which may be sparing her feelings in the short run, but it shows how content they are to just allow her to continue embarrassing herself and to perpetuate their friend’s naiveté. Not to mention that all the male characters on the show represent the most juvenile kind of masculinity. There’s actually a line where Joey, in reference to a bunch of female dancers, says to Ross, “They’re not objects. Just kidding, let’s go!”
But it’s not just that the characters are bad people. It’s not even that they’re especially bad people. They’re all pretty average bad people, but I find it kind of weird how easygoing the show is about their bad behavior. This wouldn’t be a problem if they were more cartoonishly bad, but these characters are supposed to be relatable. They are your friends. Seinfeld and George aren’t your friends. They’re assholes, and it’s obvious, and that’s the joke.
I think the laugh track might be the worst part because it seems to be there to convince the audience that what’s going on is fine, and not a big deal. Someone makes fun of Ross, laugh track. Chandler hates himself, laugh track. Phoebe lacks self-awareness while Joey says something shitty about women, laugh track. I don’t understand why people want friends like this.