THE FACT OF THE MATTER
BY PAUL HOPKINS
My only daughter when aged about 16 would repeatedly say to me: “Ah, Dad you have to watch Friends. It’s the best thing ever. Even the boys love it.” Knowing, vaguely, it was a comedy about young people hanging out and not doing much else, I figured that, as a grown-up father of three teens, I was well past the sell-by date.
It was only years later when Niamh left home to set up an apartment with her future husband and I got my favourite TV seat back, that I willy-nilly found myself watching an episode of Friends and then another – and another. And then I was hooked. I became hooked on the humour, deadpan or otherwise, the fine acting and deft drawing of the characters of the six main protagonists. Friends was clever and cute and appropriate to the lives and times of young people.
The series ran from 1994 for 10 years and is still running, streaming repeatedly on Netflix. I’d say at this stage I’ve seen every episode at least three times and each viewing gives me more to laugh about and ponder upon.
For many, Matthew Perry’s sudden death was a jolt, because he as Chandler – and the show he helped create – was such a fixture of many lives for so long. One of those TV shows that feels as if it’s just always been around – and never fading into irrelevance.
Netflix paid WarnerMedia something close to $100 million to keep the show on its service for a single year after fans went belly-up over a proposed platform change in 2018. And five years on, the same deal is annually renewed. When the show first became available on Netflix in 2015, it prompted a wave of think pieces about millennials who were rejecting Friends over its outdated cultural politics. Offended by Ross’s anguish over his gay ex-wife and Chandler’s transphobic comments about his father, such critics predicted that Friends’ supremacy would soon be over. In a twist of TV fate, the opposite came about. Friends is somehow more relevant than ever.
In the initial decade it ran, Friends never materially changed in format. A group of six young adults — Joey, Chandler, Ross, Monica, Rachel, and Phoebe — live in close proximity to one another and preserve the unity of their ‘family’ at all costs. They reside in New York City but are rarely filmed outdoors or at work, instead mostly occupying one of two large apartments or the Central Perk café, where they regularly put their shoes on the furniture.
Various romantic permutations come together and break apart, threatening but never destroying the family’s integrity. Outsiders (like Phoebe’s eventual third husband Mike) may only become permanent members of the community by submitting to the group’s codes; all others are given the cold shoulder.
Probably the best-known critique of Friends came from Oprah Winfrey. In 1996, she had the cast on her show, where she told them: “I’d like y’all to get a Black friend. Maybe I could stop by.”
Race didn’t – doesn’t – come into the equation, with the entire social group being white, despite living in an extremely culturally and ethnically mixed city. The show never intended the white-only casting as a statement but the effect was to alienate many people of colour in America and elsewhere. In reality, a New Yorker would have to live a pretty cloistered life to end up in such a homogeneous clique.
From its very first scene, Friends offered its viewers an odd mix of fixed gender roles, with accompanying satire. Chandler is an indulgent portrait of self-obsessed masculinity, while Monica’s terrible taste in boyfriends is the punchline about women’s inability to understand men.
Though every ‘friend’ is straight, Friends tried to have its politics both ways by including gay characters who were simultaneously mocked and admired by the other characters. Ross’s ex Carol is certainly meant to seem smarter than him, but Ross makes many more homophobic jokes than Carol gets lines at all.
There is also a large quantity of trans-bashing on Friends, as Chandler bemoans his “gay dad” who seems much closer to a trans woman. Friends acknowledged the existence of gay people, while not treating them – disturbingly so – as quite fully human.
Despite its obvious flaws – more contentious today than back in 1994 — the death at 54 of Matthew Perry has brought positive reminiscences in the media, many calling it “the best ever show about 20-somethings”.
That goes for this writer too …