With a TV show (like any other piece of art), the impact left behind is as much a function of the show’s quality as it is of your own state of mind or the stage of life you are at when you watch it. If my introduction to these six characters from Manhattan had happened a couple of years before it actually did, I would have dismissed them and switched to something more slapstick. A couple of years later, and I would have passed off the show as lightweight compared to the House of Cards and Game of Thrones of the world. But I watched Friends when I was going through a transition in my life: the confused stopover between adolescence and adulthood. I had just grown out of school uniforms and comic books. I was introduced to the show just after I entered college, on the screen of a freshly assembled desktop, its hard drive ripe for filling up with movies and TV shows, much like my teenage brain. So for my three-act love story with Friends the timing of its entry in the first act was essential.
This was also a time I had left my town and family for college. I found this show while myself looking for new friends in a new city. When I watched the pilot, having stepped out of the protective cocoon of a loving joint family, I had the same fish-out-of-water feeling as the runaway bride Rachel. So at the end of the pilot, when Monica tells her, ‘Welcome to the real world. It sucks. You are going to love it’, it was serendipitous motivation for me to pull up my socks and get ready to face the realities of my world. That sealed the deal, it was love at first sight. It was also the cue to a sabbatical from assignments and attendance as me and a bunch of classmates pulled all-nighters in the hostel (the phrase ‘binge-watching’ was a decade away) watching season after season of Friends. We were on the lookout for Rachels and Monicas around us during the day. In our heads, we were all Chandler Bings, with wisecracks and repartee, although looking back I am sure with unformed opinions and inadequate vocabulary we came off more like Joey. Being labelled as one of the characters was a badge of honour, although some wore it grudgingly if the label was Phoebe. A friend’s girlfriend was always Janice, while your own was Rachel. Breakups brought out the Ross in every guy minus the laugh track and with additional glasses of beer, at which point we diligently called for an intervention. Ross and Rachel’s will-they-won’t-they became a repeating theme of polemical bouts. Quote-offs from the show became our version of arm wrestling. It breaks one’s heart to see the same guys now arguing on social media over fake forwards. Yes, the show has not aged well but apparently neither have many of its fans. That is the real world, I guess.
The best shows are not purely escapist: they are slightly exaggerated versions of a reality that you identify with. Aspirational, not utopian. I am glad I watched it a time when I could enjoy it as a form of unadulterated fun. We didn’t worry about the political correctness of jokes, diversity in representation (the show regulars are all white, privileged and conventionally photogenic) and all those ‘woke’ filters that, of late, we have applied to every work of fiction, while our reality remains unfiltered and grim. Few things are daft and pure at the same time, e.g., laughing at Ugly Naked Guy or Gunther. In reality, we do not always sit with friends and discuss Brechtian alienation or the subjugation of classes. Yes, discourse is a key element in life, but so is merriment.
My love for Friends is as much for the show as it is for a phase of life, our own version of Central Perk (Chicha’s Tapri) and the real-life friends I made while watching it. I have never been the one rooting for a reunion of the show. It is for the same reason I am not overtly enthusiastic about a reunion with those college friends: what resonated then does not anymore. I might still give the reunion a watch, like that nostalgic look I have given my college campus while passing by, knowing very well that this new structure is vastly different from the one in my memories. For me, the show will always remain a time capsule preserved by my younger mind: when I think of Friends, I am 17 again, back in my hostel room, the dial-up modem in the room is acting up, strains of the Rembrandts song flow out of the speaker, and Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Joey and Phoebe come alive through VLC media player. I am just glad they were there for me.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.