Once upon a time, we made do with less television. Three broadcast networks dominated everything. (Channels weren’t flipped so much as triangulated.) We had a local public station and whatever oldies a UHF signal could tune in. Now? Now, we romanticize our cable-assisted, internet-borne so-called golden age and carp about the galactic girth of the streaming era. Somebody even lent the girth a fretful name: “peak TV” — the “money can’t buy happiness” of screen life.
In retrospect, less television has come to imply lesser — by volume, by value, by verisimilitude. But what was “Friends” lesser than? There are 236 episodes of it, merely one fewer than a combined tally of “Game of Thrones,” “House of Cards,” and “Orange Is the New Black.” Most of those episodes are perfect as tidy comedies. Maybe it’s hard to think of “Friends” as perfect, let alone as great, because it looked easy.
Most “old TV” looked easy — even when characters broke up, bled and died. That’s because, even when they did, they were obviously not in a movie. TV now is the movies, so we love it more. We believe it more. For its entire existence, the American sitcom was anti-cinematic, beholden to the demands of advertisers.
Before there was too much TV, there was simply a lot, including a lot of NBC’s “Friends.” Think about the effort required to make about 24 episodes in a nine-month season (certain scripted shows somehow made more). This was impossible work that we at home took for granted. A network like NBC could turn “granted” into “mandatory” with maximal FOMO threat. “Let’s all be there,” it demanded in the 1980s. A decade later, we had to be there for “Must See TV.” Technologically, it was an uncertain age. If you missed an episode, who knew when you’d be able to catch it again?
“Friends” was easy TV at an elite level. So many jokes, so much body comedy, so many surprises and awwws, and squeals of live-studio audience excitement. Hairdressers were doing — and not infrequently botching — the Rachel. Coffee shops became people’s second homes. Tens of millions of Americans watched all of that writing and directing and acting, all of that seemingly effortless effort, for all 10 of its years. That work and a country’s devotion to it feels like proof of a golden age of something.
Familiarity is the magnet of every decent American sitcom. The “com” can’t compete alone and neither can the “sit,” even though, together, they’re obviously quite the sandwich. But the many nights I’ve spent recumbent on my sofa laughing at, say, Ross and Phoebe debating evolution, or Phoebe, Joey and Ross impersonating Chandler, or Chandler blanching at Monica’s desperate new cornrows or Rachel taking forever to tell somebody who the father of her baby is — those nights have never really been about the situation comedy of “Friends.” They’ve only ever been about us — me and these six people — and my apparently enduring need to know what they’re up to and how they are, even though I’ve known for 25 years.
“Friends” debuted on NBC in the fall of 1994, ran for an entire decade, typically had around 25 to 30 million viewers a week (sometimes many more) and now airs in Nickelodeon’s Nick @ Nite block, which my cable conglomerate has stationed near the top of the channel pyramid. That means if you’re a chronologist like me, the five-channel trip from NY1 — past the local news, TNT and “The Simpsons” — always terminates at Chandler, Joey, Monica, Phoebe, Rachel and Ross. Laziness is a factor. (Do you use the number keys on your remote? I’ll bet you don’t even have a remote at this point.)
But, really, it’s simplicity. “Friends” actually is enormously easy to watch. “The genius of “Seinfeld” (and “The Simpsons,” too) has everything to do with the “com” arising from the “sit.” What trouble will Jerry and the gang instigate? Whether you’re watching an episode for the first time or the 27th, the inciting premise is a major element of the pleasure. The premise of “Friends” is the friends.
Of course, the friends started out with a touch of the Jerrys. They, too, were a white cohort living in New York City (the West Village rather than Seinfeld’s Upper West Side). And many an early episode involved defending social etiquette (“Those are not the rules!” Ross barks at a foe in a laundromat) and trying out twisted dating schemes (Monica and Joey try to bust up a couple in order to have the newly single partners for themselves). But on “Seinfeld,” the city and the characters’ righteous belief in their own norms spurred them on to increasingly lunatic misanthropy. They were anti-socialites.
Not so on “Friends.” Matters of behavior and economic inequality only seemed to bring them together. Take the show’s 29th episode. Everybody goes out for a nice dinner to celebrate Monica’s promotion, and Phoebe, Joey and Rachel order the cheapest items on the menu, then balk at evenly dividing the bill. Income turns those three against the other three, until Monica loses her job and Joey valiantly offers to pay for her $4 coffee — with Chandler’s money. The theme song didn’t lie: They really were there for each other, punch lines and all. That thereness was the show’s intangible hook. The writers could engineer plots for the directors to orchestrate. But these six actors working together, on anything, on nothing — it was the highlight of many a person’s week. That thereness was phenomenally elastic, too. These were six people who could snipe at one another, who could fight and lie and practice what we’d now call radical honesty yet keep so many secrets, who can break up (many times, in many ways) but, as a sextet, keep snapping back together. I like them that way, as half a dozen. I like them in tandems and trios, as human math problems, as chemistry experiments. Maybe 10 times I’ve watched Chandler, Joey and Monica break down and confess to the other three that, yes, Chandler did pee on Monica’s jellyfish sting.
I don’t know how many takes that sequence took or how much caffeine was consumed. But it’s never less than a marvel of harmonized hysterics. That kind of exclamatory, high-energy comedy could happen in any configuration of the cast because it was the best such collection in the history of television. Other hall-of-fame comedies, like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Cheers,” had wits and jesters and clowns mixed in among the goody-goodies and grumps. Some, like “All in the Family” and the first few seasons of “Designing Women,” were all zingers, personality and delivery before the whole thing went to schtick. A few permanently watchable jewels like “The Golden Girls” and “Frasier” sneaked in a combo platter of slapstick, vinegar and fuzzies. But the proportions were bigger on “Friends.” They went for more, more often, and rarely missed.
For one thing, the actors had more to play with. The “Friends” friends started out as types. Rachel was a princess, Monica a control freak, Joey a dumb actor. But the types kept recombining.
Ross seemed like a geek because his paleontology was frequently mocked and there’s something gluey in the music of David Schwimmer’s whine. But Ross was sad, needy, insecure, quick to anger — dark, basically — and built like a jock. Phoebe evolved rapidly from hippie naïf to schemer, dreamer, peacekeeper, and pot-stirrer. In another era, she’d have been the “Three’s Company”-era Suzanne Somers of the bunch, a hapless bombshell. But Lisa Kudrow, with her akimbo intelligence, brought the part in sideways. Not far into the show’s run, actually, some of the six are watching TV and Chandler, in Matthew Perry’s contagious sardonic snark, says “I think this is the episode of ‘Three’s Company’ where’s there’s some kind of misunderstanding.”
“Then I’ve already seen this,” Phoebe snaps and turns off the TV.
“Friends” could easily have been “Three’s Company,” where “sit” and “com” strained credibility. Chandler was so frequently presumed gay that he could have been Jack Tripper, the faux-mosexual from the other show. And Matt LeBlanc played Joey like Somers but by way of Tony Danza. That probably would have made Courteney Cox the Joyce DeWitt of “Friends” — neutrally sane. For a few episodes at least, Cox, as Monica, seemed meant as the crux of the pack. Monica was Ross’s sister. Rachel was an old high-school friend who became her roommate.
But halfway through Season 1, it was clear this boat had no captain, just a lot of oars. And the rowing Cox did has never received its due. She wasn’t as rubbery a funny person as Perry and Schwimmer or as radiant and tangy in her approach to comedy as Jennifer Aniston was as Rachel. She couldn’t physicalize sarcasm and shock with as much cursive and calculus as the other five. But athletic gumption launched Monica entirely beyond classification.
I mean, I guess her type was Type A. Monica made the most psychological sense, as a former fat person who’s holding on to whatever it took to shed the weight and keep it off. We can shake our heads now at the idea of the show’s laughing at her size through the fat suit Cox wears in flashbacks. These flashbacks also explain why she seemed to think everything was grist for competition, why winning and losing mattered so much to her, why control was so important. And Monica lost so much control, so much cool, so much coolness. Each actor managed to do a lot with intensity, but Cox made it a state of Monica’s mind.
People now ding “Friends” for all kinds of offenses — regarding homosexuality, mental heath, race, interracial dating, ethnicity. (Here’s pregnant Rachel, exasperated by the surfeit of gift diapers at her shower: “What are we feeding this baby — Indian food?”) “Friends”-as-problematic disserves the show’s complex relationship to those issues. Sometimes it winked at them. Monica did a lot of winking, especially under a spell of casual blackness. Her cornrows and Chandler’s disdain for them were one thing. My favorite, though, is the time she comes down with a cold but refuses to give up on sex with Chandler. He’d rather not. She comes at him anyway, in a bathrobe as plush and scarlet as a Muppet, full of mucus and the R&B of Guy. “Are you saying,” she asks, thrusting her body at her man, “that you don’t wanna. Git. With. This?” It’s peak Monica: addicted to victory, unlimitedly white.
There’s a way to watch “Friends” so that its very whiteness — and the associated entitlement — is the problem. That magical casting configuration probably couldn’t happen now without considerable umbrage — umbrage I’d understand. For a great while during “Friends”-mania, Eriq La Salle, of “ER,” was just about the biggest star on a smash-hit show who wasn’t white. “Friends” gave you white people who leave infants on city buses without consequence, who only rarely face a challenge to their permanent spot at Central Perk (for many years, a “reserved” card rested on the coffee table). But I’m not sure this was the show to do the labor, to open those doors with the same alacrity.
“Friends” could never have had, say, Joey drop by a black party in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn and tell Chandler how strange or exhilarating an experience it was without it also becoming a Very Special Episode. For some of its run, “Friends” aired opposite “Living Single,” on Fox, a good, “Friends”-ish show that was also the black party. As it is, Ross and Joey did date nonwhite women without their race being even a point of interest in the 1990s and 2000s, and even if that seems willfully naïve, it actually did feel special.
“Friends” made most of its social bets on gender differences, the way men get away with being chauvinists and lust buckets and layabouts, and the woman have to pick up the slack. But tweaking the stereotypes became a meaningful staple of the show. Once, the girls’ failure to know the boys as well as the boys knew them cost Monica and Rachel their apartment. To be fair: Do you know what Chandler does for a living? Nonetheless, their place suddenly belongs to Joey and Chandler. It remains a shocking turn of events. I watched the early years of this show with roommates in the dorm of a college where bad housing could ruin friendships. I wasn’t watching a comedy that night. I was watching a cautionary tale. The show knew our loyalties were with the women and that Monica might not survive making breakfast in a man cave. So it refused to shake the Etch A Sketch. She unleashes a scream of “no” fit for no sitcom. It belonged in “Hamlet.”
“Friends” left prime-time television in 2004, just as the culture began to distrust meaningful inter-gender adventure. Its offspring — “How I Met Your Mother,” “The Big Bang Theory” “The Mindy Project,” “New Girl,” the short-lived masterpiece of repartee “Happy Endings” — did their best. But “Sex and the City,” which hit HBO in 1998, and the movies that sprang from Judd Apatow’s laugh factory would so convincingly relocate the sexes into ladies’ nights and boys’ clubs that the culture never quite came to reinvest in the coed comforts of a Central Perk.
“Friends” wasn’t a fantasy during its original run. But I can see why so many people who weren’t alive the first time around have devoured the show on cable and streaming like it’s a tub of ice cream. (I know of a 10-year-old as “Friends” conversant as I am.) There are no sexual threats, just Monica, her robe and her cold; just a vengeful guest star, in Julia Roberts, stranding Chandler in a pair of her underwear as comeuppance for a preadolescent prank; just a last-run of Rubik’s Cube hookups and occasionally vaguely funny lechery. Otherwise, the show was an oasis: adult women hanging out with adult men, with no monsters to fear, run from or prosecute. That could explain why droves of us are addicted to it. Sure, it’s excellent Easy TV — funnier, dirtier and more audacious than you heard it was, than you remember it being. But maybe, now, “Friends” is a fantasy. If you’re looking to restore some thereness to your life, maybe it’s more than must-see TV. Maybe it’s a clue.