In spite of how the audience’s opinions have changed over the years (much like Rachel Green’s hairstyle), we all agree upon one thing: Friends is iconic. There are moments when it is genuinely funny. There are moments when it is truly heartwarming (sometimes poignant), so much so that you feel like texting or calling your best buddies, or visualise watching the show with them (preferably huddled up in blankets). There are moments when you relate to each and every individual in the group, on some level, be it when it comes to Joey’s ridiculous asininity, Ross’s condescending intellectualism, Chandler’s over-the-top “jokes”, Rachel’s fashion sense, Monica’s (undiagnosed) obsessive-compulsiveness, and Phoebe’s… Phoebeness (yes, that can definitely be a thing too, much like “moo point”). But that’s all that the show is: a compilation of moments that work, and some other moments that definitely do not.
But the point is, Friends is so iconic that I do not need to even provide a basic storyline or character introductions for readers (non-watchers especially) to understand this review. A sitcom that focuses on the life of a group of six best friends (in their mid-20s to early 30s) as well as their adventures and misadventures in New York City while struggling to adapt to a newfound sense of maturity and adulthood needs no detailed explanation or analysis. It is simple. It should be relatable. But I guess my initial tone has given away what I intend to discuss about this show. Friends may have spawned an entire population of memes, inside jokes, catchphrases (yes, yes, “How you doin’?”), vernacular changes, Friends-themed cafés, hairstyles, fashion choices, cinematic imitators (more like parodies that were absolute failures; it is arguable whether Friends was a partial rip-off of or cinematic homage to Seinfield, and perhaps How I Met Your Mother repeated history by doing the same with Friends), and renditions of ‘I’ll Be There For You’ by The Rembrandts (something that might be labelled as the Friends anthem now), but it is also capable of engendering something much more problematic: a sense of indifference within the viewers, due to which the most troublesome aspects of the show (there are, honestly speaking, quite a lot) are excused by the audience, who justify these using the defence of Friends being a comedy.
In the first episode of Season 1, when Monica says, “Welcome to the real world. It sucks. You’re gonna love it.” I choose to completely agree with the latter half of her quote, because it accurately describes Friends. It sucks, on many levels. It sucks because the reality it chooses to offer you is covertly (and often conspicuously) racist, sexist, ableist, fatphobic, homophobic, transphobic, classist and, to keep this short, is a manifestation of every latent form of discrimination in our world. Even the presence of three independent working women who are perfectly in control of their life and opinions does not prevent the injection of slut-shaming, casual normalisation of sexual assault, lesbian fetishism, regressive patriarchal notions and toxic relationships (familial or otherwise) into the screenplay. But perhaps this is reality, and perhaps viewers have come to love this reality. Perhaps reality is as dark as this, as problematic as this. Perhaps this is their reality, a reality where social evils wander everywhere dressed in the garb of relatable comedy, and perhaps this is your reality, towards which you have been desensitised. But what purpose do these serve when they rest on foundations of social issues, especially issues that have traumatised and plagued human beings for generations?
Then again, Friends can also be unrealistic. The comedy often crosses certain borders to achieve favourable reactions. Friends is subjective. It is everything that cinema stands for, especially in its power to influence the masses. But there is something that all of us can agree upon, and it is the fact that while it is fun to watch this group of six friends, they should never be glorified. Their actions should never be glorified, and the way they treat their relationships should never be glorified. Friends has not aged well; it belonged to a time period when awareness and sensitivity were barely priorities for people. But today, in this day and age, I find no cause for celebrating this show. Even in the 1990s, Friends was never the perfect representation of American middle-class life, and that was perceived by many individuals back then.
A scenario involving six good-looking, privileged, fairly rich, well-settled white people living in fine apartments does not come across as good representation to me, especially representation of a diverse nation, or even the world. They often complain about their jobs or end up unemployed sometimes, but miraculously find a way out all the time. While there are scenes or even episodes that focus on temporary monetary troubles, these look like they have been added solely to show that the six of them do have some very real things to worry about, and they are subsequently forgotten until they are brought up again. These are mere additions to pour content into episodes where there is actually nothing much to present. Other episodes spend half the runtime recapitulating older episodes (nostalgia is great, but these were stretched way too much), or in creating unnecessary flashbacks (especially towards the end of the series) to overdevelop the characters for no reason. Such flashbacks were obviously scripted much later in the series, and unfortunately, they were evidently not planned out properly.
Important events such as 9/11 were completely ignored in the course of the show, and we barely know any of the friends’ political motivations or opinions in general (there are instances of displaying some contrived feminism via the three female leads who, ironically, endorse sexism, slut-shaming and the like, and entertain the lesbian fetishism, female objectification and homophobia that the male leads are obsessed with). Perhaps these will appear trivial in the long run, but everyday occurrences and personal opinions are integral to good character development. What is character development if not a culmination of experiences, opinions and conflicting, changing emotions? After all, Friends is a show about six characters. A series with 10 seasons and 236 episodes should mean good character development, and Friends achieved that to a certain degree, only to squander all that towards the conclusion in the hopes of achieving a “happy ending”.
But let us focus on the group of friends instead. After all, they are the show. It offers some great performances by the ensemble cast, which comprises Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer, who play their unique characters with a lot of conviction, making them real and relatable. All of them have really great chemistry together. However, great acting does not excuse the problems associated with each individual portrayed in the series. Perhaps problematic, flawed humans are part of our reality; in fact, I would pay to see a relatable grey character instead of a sanctimonious paragon of virtue. But if flawed characters are being presented on the big screen, then they must be portrayed as such. Their flaws must be criticised, not celebrated. Their insecurities should not be displayed for laughs. However, Friends failed to understand that. Everything in the show comes across as a joke, from Ross and Rachel’s toxic relationship to sexually inappropriate behaviour in general, the latter being downplayed for comedy. It was disturbing to hear a laugh track being played in the background when Phoebe and Chandler were inappropriately groped in different scenes, and that itself tells us a lot about the show. Friends does not just highlight the perspectives of a few fictional characters; it highlights the warped outlook of the creators, which does not belong in today’s world.
If comedy is as subjective as cinema, then there is something common to both that we can all agree upon: the influence. A single show that glosses over all of its problematic content has influenced generations of individuals. It has influenced how people view toxic behaviour, sexual assault, racism, and homophobia. Friends’s impact has not been tiny. Scroll through social media stories and posts, scroll through their comments. Read the lines where people choose to defend the problems in the show in order to suit their narrative. Perspectives get twisted; take, for example, a YouTube video of Paolo (Rachel’s ex) groping Phoebe that has been titled “Paolo Hits on Phoebe”. We cannot ignore the positive impact that Friends has had, but we sure are overlooking the negative one. It was reported that Netflix paid $100 million to keep the series, and its social media pages continue to bank on Friends memes, references and jokes. If we fail to identify the problems in Friends’s comedy, then perhaps we are the problem. I wonder if anybody has tried watching a scene without a laugh track in order to see whether they actually feel like laughing instead of being induced to laugh.
Despite all their good moments together, I am surprised that this group of friends survived for a whole 10 seasons, even with all the miscommunication, the lies, the possessiveness, the emotional manipulation, and the occasional backbiting. It does not exactly prove that their bond is pretty strong; it shows that they are victims and perpetrators of normalised toxic behaviour, so much so that sticking together ends up being a need for them. This is a group where everybody looks down upon everyone else. This is a group where the wrongdoings of each member are pointed out rarely, and encouraged otherwise. This is a group that ridicules mental health when some of the friends have experienced severe trauma in their lives. This is a group where most of the time, a person’s important life decisions are jeopardised due to the selfish needs of others. Homosexuality and “effeminate” men are an absolute no-no, but ogling at two women kissing is absolutely fine. In fact, the cheers of the audience should have ended with the depiction of Ross and Rachel’s toxic on-and-off relationship, one of the most famous examples of the cinematic “will-they-won’t-they” trope. They should have ended with the disturbing portrayal of Monica’s (undiagnosed) OCPD, unhealthy competitiveness, and controlling behaviour, which are character traits that have been sources of comedy rather than matters of serious consideration in cinema so far. They should have ended when Chandler’s jokes began to border on offensive. They should have ended when Joey chose to constantly objectify women. And they should have ended when Phoebe chose to prove that she was the epitome of hypocrisy and misperception, time and again. Often, all these problems overlap for each and every character, so it does make sense that they would choose to stick together.
We cannot entirely blame them for this. After all, they were either neglected or brought up in an extremely unhealthy manner by inconsiderate parents who chose to impose their selfishness and prejudices on them; it would not be surprising if they chose to carry on that terrible legacy. Nobody gets the opportunity to criticise the group’s actions in any way or form. When they seat themselves on the hallowed couch of the Central Perk coffeehouse, they are in their own bubble, and everything and everyone around them ceases to be of any significance. Anybody who is too perceptive of their shortcomings is reduced to a caricature (for example, Maggie Wheeler’s Janice), and anybody who had the potential to redeem the show’s faults is removed very quickly (the most important example being Charlie Wheeler, played by Aisha Tyler, the only representative of a marginalised community who got to appear in at least a few episodes before her character was brutally crushed in a single one). Therefore, except for Paul Rudd’s character, Mike Hannigan, no other supporting character’s voice has been considered significant in the course of the show. They are outsiders, and their opinions were never meant to belong here.
Nevertheless, one cannot deny the fact that Friends has been one of the most successful TV shows over the years. It was a defining series for every single member of the cast, and it gave the audience reasons to laugh, cry and flex bittersweet smiles. It impacted the lives of millions of viewers across the globe, and continues to do so; therefore, it will never be forgotten. There is something in the show, something that has ensured that the spotlight is always on it… and it is abstract, unexplainable, and pleasing (in a warped way). With the upcoming Friends Reunion, everybody will be smoking the weed of nostalgia, irrespective of how the show has affected them. But nostalgia and catharsis are not justifications for ignoring the sugar-coated problematic aspects of Friends.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.