When “Friends” debuted on NBC 25 years ago Sunday and took American culture by storm, becoming one of the most popular sitcoms in television history, much of its success was attributed to how relatable the characters and their lives were — how they become friends to the viewer as well as to one another.
But so much about the cast and their lifestyle was anything but typical — at least for a group of 20-something New Yorkers — and the program presented a white-washed bubble of privilege inhabited by self-absorbed individuals unaware, or at least unconcerned, with how breezy their lives were compared to just about everyone else.
For a show synonymous with the 1990s and Gen Xer culture, its most lasting legacy might well be the false portrayal of the real world that it bestowed on the millennials who consumed it as they grew up. It showed them how adults who didn’t have glamorous jobs could live in nice, big apartments, shirk many of their responsibilities and act immaturely well into adulthood.
The obvious, eternal criticism of “Friends” is the fact that, from the start, roommates Monica and Rachel live in a huge apartment in great condition in the chic West Village that, even if rent-controlled as the script claimed, strains believability with its $200-per-month price tag. Even the smaller apartment that Joey and Chandler reside in across the hall is spacious, especially for their modest combined income.
But that’s hardly the only unrealistic detail that still inspires hair pulling two-and-a-half decades later. Many of the six lead characters are underemployed or unemployed, at least during the first half of the series, and they seem to just drift along, enjoying their roomy pads, plentiful down time at the Central Perk cafe and lack of concerns beyond gossiping about and interfering with each other’s lovers and lives. Even when they do have jobs, they’re still able to commute back home and congregate in the middle of the day for coffee. And let's be real: Trying to get half a dozen friends together in NYC on even an occasional basis is a daunting challenge.
Further, the New York City represented in the series is an idealized, whitebread, Middle American dream of Manhattan, free of attitude, grime or crime. (Ironically, as Queen Latifah has noted, “Friends” seems to have been inspired by the black sitcom she co-starred in, “Living Single,” which premiered on Fox a year earlier and ran for five seasons.) While the folks on “Seinfeld” who lived a little farther uptown were also narcissistic jerks, they represented far more realistic New Yorkers and situations.
A majority of episodes of “Friends” could have taken place in Anytown USA, while the group restaurant scenes look like they were filmed at the Hollywood Marriott. The ensemble never faces traffic, problems finding cabs (or parking spaces!), broken subway lines, sirens, garbage trucks or any of the other basic features of the messy, frustrating, exhausting experience that is getting through a day in the Big Apple. Such situations can be grating, but they serve as comedic fodder on “Seinfeld.”
One of the more realistic episodes is telling because it’s so rare: the one with the storyline that deals with income disparity among the group, and the frustration those with less well-paying jobs (Joey, Phoebe and Rachel) feel at having to evenly split the expensive dinner bill racked up by their better-off friends. This is very New York.
And for a show about supposedly young, hip New Yorkers, the characters are cultural dweebs. They get excited when half the gang hangs out backstage with Hootie and the Blowfish, the epitome of ’90s blandness. C’mon, the average urbanite is cooler than that. Props to the writers for sneaking in references to Baudelaire’s “The Flowers of Evil” and a partially visible Motörhead t-shirt (on Phoebe's half-brother), and getting Chrissie Hynde to play an acoustic cover song in Central Perk, but these are blips on the radar.
To be fair, the writers unleashed some witty writing and sharp one-liners — but they did so in the service of underwhelming people. The ditzy but endearing Phoebe is the show's one truly interesting character, with seemingly liberal inclinations that occasionally nod to the harsher sides of life in New York. Her intense, dark backstory is played as dramedy, but it deserved more poignancy than it received at times. Kudos to actress Lisa Kudrow for coping with playing this part and the dumb waitress role (Phoebe’s evil twin sister) on “Mad About You.”
But the cloying Ross/Rachel relationship that runs throughout the entire 10 seasons and fascinates so many people is a bummer, starting with how needy, obsessive and more than a little creepy/stalker-ish Ross is, always waiting too long to profess his true feelings for Rachel. For her part, she cripples his happiness with anyone else he dates, particularly the perfectly nice Julie, and shows up in London to emotionally disrupt his wedding to someone else. (Later, when Monica suggests that Rachel can now reconnect with Ross, the latter replies that she is not into recently divorced men. Monica smartly retorts, “Right, you only go for them five minutes before they get married.”)
And there was much that was problematic beyond the characters: the repeated jokes about the younger Fat Monica, underlying homophobic references and sexist treatment of woman. (Joey popularized the term “friend zone,” as if all women were potential bedmates for men.) The most disappointing example came at the show’s climax, when Rachel lands a high-profile position with Louis Vuitton in Paris, playing once again into her on again-off again thing with Ross.
After all the twists and turns, including an accidental pregnancy that leaves them co-parenting a child but still not committed to each other, Rachel’s impending move overseas in the series finale finally does it: Ross’s emotional plea for her to stay at Newark Airport motivates her to abandon this amazing opportunity to be with him. But seriously? Ross moving to Paris with her would have really been manning up. Ultimately, this show is conservative: The woman sacrifices for the man, not vice versa.
To its credit, the show did push some boundaries. Despite Ross’ frequent jabs at ex-wife Carol’s “lesbian lover” Susan (as he liked to call her), the show did portray the two women getting hitched in 1996 — although we did not get to see them share a wedding kiss (which disappointed the two actresses). Also unrealistic: Their son, Ben, disappears after Season 8.
The inclusion of Chandler’s estranged father as a drag queen performing in Vegas (played by Kathleen Turner) was also ahead of the curve. But the character becomes a source of ridicule at times, and Turner herself has admitted that the program has not aged well.
Altogether, “Friends” is really just a bland show about bland characters living bland lives. That millennial buzzword “adulting”? It seems to have been inspired by the co-stars and their immature ilk. Some of the nostalgia for the show may be fueled by the seemingly more innocent time they inhabited, in which friends interacted more in real life, but that feels like setting the bar low.
“Friends” is a show about a group of self-involved people dwelling in a bubble despite living within a diverse metropolis. Sometimes socially awkward and lacking in serious motivation, they generally seem to think they can have things handed to them and skate through bad life choices without major consequences.
Aren't those the main complaints that many Gen Xers have about millennials?
- Bryan Reesman is a New York-based reporter, author of the book “Bon Jovi: The Story” and host of the podcast “Side Jams”
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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