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What is it about ‘Friends’?

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I remember binge-watching Friends before I went to university. Three years have passed and I’m a completely different person; but bizarrely, I still find Friends hilarious. And I’m not the only one. For some reason, Friends is a hit with almost everyone who watches it, regardless of their age, occupation, or stage of life. This is especially impressive for a show which came out in the 90s, meaning a good decade before many of its current viewers were born. What is it about Friends that lends it such widespread, enduring appeal?

The show’s popularity surely has something to do with the characters. Two things stand out: they are diverse, and they are likeable. The cast are not racially diverse, but they are diverse in the sense that they are at very different stages of their lives. Monica, for instance, has things broadly worked out: she has a steady job, an apartment, and wants to find a partner. Compare her with Joey, whose acting career is still largely a dream, and who doesn’t yet want to find anyone. Or better yet, compare them with Ross, who we find in the interesting position of having once had everything worked out,  but whose idyllic life disintegrated when his wife divorced him. Monica is close to living her dream, Joey isn’t, and Ross has already lived it. Part of the appeal of Friends, then, is that you will find some character relatable; whether you are single and sixteen, or divorced and forty.

The characters are also universally likeable, which is interesting, because they are also quite obviously flawed: Phoebe is kind but ditzy, Rachel is brave but immature, Ross is clever but insecure, etc. Part of the formula might be that the characters’ foibles rarely cause them to hurt each other. Joey is often incredibly slow, but the other characters don’t mind, so it doesn’t get annoying. Monica is obsessively tidy, but this manifests in her cleaning all the time, not in nagging or berating anyone. The characters’ are flawed, but critically, these flaws are harmless, so we don’t begrudge them. Another interesting feature of Friends is that we are presented with a backstory for each of the main characters very early on, and these backstories often serve as justifications for the characters’ behaviour. Chandler, say, is cynical and distant, but we learn straightaway that he has been hurt by the behaviour of his mother and father, so can we blame him? Friends creates flawed, but still loveable characters, because their flaws are largely harmless and largely the result of experiences they cannot help.

Friends is also emotionally undemanding; it very rarely touches on deep or distressing topics, and part of its appeal is surely linked to its heartwarming and generally easy-going storylines. Some have argued that this makes Friends ‘cheap’, a show which soothes us with a totally superficial, airbrushed vision of life. The characters are all undeniably attractive, and they effortlessly climb the career ladder, getting richer and more successful each season. Is Friends a pleasant, but totally uncritical fantasy-land? I don’t think so. Certainly, Friends is pretty easy-going; but this isn’t because of anything superficial. There are plenty of films and programs with attractive, rich characters, but which I certainly don’t find heartwarming (think Wolf of Wall Street). No: I think Friends presents an attractive world because it presents a world in which close friendships are central and totally reliable. Friends is heartwarming because the characters get angry at each other, wrong one other, make mistakes and argue… but always forgive. Their lives are far from perfect, in that they all go through break-ups, job losses, and bereavement. But Friends is easy-going because the central six always support one another through these hardships. The characters are easy on the eyes, but what we really envy them for is their relationships. So Friends does present us with an airbrushed world, but not a superficial one. 

I don’t think anyone could write an article praising Friends without addressing the fact that the show’s characters sometimes express attitudes that are no longer acceptable. Chief examples of this include Ross asking his lesbian ex-wife to ‘put aside’ her lesbianism, or being uncomfortable with a male nanny. People also take issue with the frequent fat-jokes about Monica. I think we may be in danger of equating homophobia being on-screen with homophobia being justified or encouraged. Certainly, it is wrong and ignorant to ask someone to put their sexuality aside. But the show doesn’t make out that Ross is some kind of macho hero for doing so; Ross comes across as overwhelmingly weak in saying this, evidently longing to return to a past he cannot quite accept is gone. As regards his comments towards the male nanny, it seems quite clear to me that Ross is the butt of the joke here. His prejudice is shown to be unfounded, and Rachel consistently calls him out for his attitudes. So Ross does express sexist attitudes about the male nanny, but when he does we laugh at him, not with him. Similarly, I’m actually not sure if there’s anything wrong with the jokes about ‘when Monica used to be fat’. I used to be a lot bigger than I am, and my friends make jokes about what I was once like too. But these are actually really encouraging; it’s lovely to have people recognise that you’ve undergone a transformation. Certainly, the on-screen jokes are not ‘fat-positive’, because they suggest it is a good thing that Monica has lost weight. But if this is what Monica herself thinks, who are we to tell her she should have different opinions about her own body? Drawing on my own life, I think I’m better off at my current weight, and it’s nice that my friends do too.

Friends has an extraordinarily wide appeal, and one that has lasted over two decades. This may seem surprising due to the fact that the show sometimes presents us with attitudes we no longer find acceptable. But the show doesn’t encourage these attitudes, and characters which are toxic are usually the butt of the joke. The true appeal of Friends lies in the fact that its characters are all at different stages in life, meaning that every viewer finds something relatable, and these characters are overwhelmingly likeable for a variety of reasons. Friends is an escape for many, but it isn’t superficial; Friends presents us with a world in which friendships are always reliable, regardless of the ups and downs of life.

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