25 years of Friends: What have we learned?

Picture of By Ellen Schokker

By Ellen Schokker

[mks_dropcap style=”letter” size=”52″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]I[/mks_dropcap]t has been almost 25 years since the pilot of Warner Brothers’ Friends aired on NBC television. Since then, the series has been a huge success and is still going strong on Netflix. But for how long? There’s been rumours that Warner Brothers is taking it off Netflix so that they can stream it on their own streaming service, which doesn’t have a name yet. The fact that Netflix is recycling the sitcom still, after 25 years, is a huge treat for all the Friends-fans and a remarkable choice of Netflix. Taking into consideration that it’s costing them a hundred million dollars. What makes Friends so timeless and valuable? And has there been any critical acclaim so far? Let’s rock the boat!

The power of the archetypes
First of all, what matters most are the characters. Every character in Friends in an archetype. An archetype is a formula of pattern in storytelling. Ross is the nerd, Rachel is the spoiled one, Monica is the neurotic one, Chandler is the funny one, Phoeby the crazy hippy and Joey the womanizer. Everyone can relate to somebody, somehow. Especially when you are in the same age group (20 to 30) and trying to make it work. Friends tackles topics like job loss, relationships, desperation, baby struggles and family issues. It’s showing how complicated friendships can be but in the end it all turns out fine.

Particularly on Friends, you want to be part of the gang and hang out at Central Perk.

This comforting message gives the viewer a warm fuzzy feeling. The situation comedy, or sitcom, is the most common, successful and culturally significant type of television comedy. Friends has set a cultural standard of how to interact, how to maintain your own life and still be a likeable person. Particularly on Friends, you want to be part of the gang and hang out at Central Perk.

Theories applied on Friends
When you look at Friends closely, you’ll find a lot of scientific theories that can be applied to the story lines and the character development. The story lines are not just funny, they are almost like a soap opera with a touch of drama and suspense. You want to see what happens next and follow the lives of the characters. You want to see good things happen to liked characters and negative things to disliked characters. However, good people who are too lucky must come down, because arrogance and vanity is not appreciated and should be ridiculed. In every Friends episode, there’s a line that’s being crossed by a character. The other characters set this line straight and make a fool out of him. It’s that predictability that makes it so easy to watch.  

Friends has always used a live audience which has given it a theater-feel. It gives the viewer a cue for laughter. People need to know when something is supposed to be funny. Laughter is the best medicine, and Friends knows how to do this. We like to laugh at the misery of others and we love to laugh to release tension.  

Critical acclaim
However, if you dig a little deeper into these characters, you come across a few worrying aspects. Exactly how many people, particularly in the United States, can really relate to them? Obviously, the actors are selected mostly on their likeability. They are all white, young and attractive (but approachable) and not politically outspoken or morally engaged in any way. Only Ross – with his special interest in dinosaurs and science seems to have a more intellectual way of thinking. He’s being mocked by the group from the get go. His scientific stories are considered boring and annoying. So, intellectual curiosity and education are not promoted nor activated in the American culture, at least not by Friends.

Critics say many of the stories, situations and characters are problematic. Stories of homophobia, sexism, emotional abuse and sexual harassment wouldn’t make it to the writers’ room in 2018. However, in the nineties, this was the common thread and considered as funny punchlines. They say the lack of diversity is “inexcusable” and “embarrassing.”  Harmless fun can easily turn into cultural deprivation.

25 years is not only an achievement, but also an explanation for the outdatedness of punchlines.

But maybe making Friends a cultural issue is giving it too much credit. Friends is a comedy, designed to entertain and enjoy, not to be perceived as an accurate representation of our culture. Maybe we have to see it in its time and realize 25 years is not only an achievement, but also an explanation for the outdatedness of punchlines.

Cover: NBC/Warner Bros / Final Editor: Fabian Bais

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