Culture Re-View: The one where 'Friends' became a cultural phenomenon

Friends drink milkshakes together.
Friends drink milkshakes together. Copyright Warner Bros. Television
By Amber Louise Bryce
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22 September 1994: The first ever episode of 'Friends' is broadcast.


What began as just another sitcom about six friends navigating life and love together in New York City has become a behemoth of 90s pop culture, spawning a million personality quizzes, situational references, reaction GIFs and too many t-shirts with lobsters on. 

But how did we get here? 

Pivot, if you will, back to 22 September 1994 when the very first episode of 'Friends' aired on American broadcasting network NBC. It was an immediate hit, averaging at around 30.8 million viewers during its second season and attracting big celebrity guests like Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts.

Created by David Crane and Marta Kauffman, the show was originally titled 'Insomnia Café' and focused on a relationship between Joey and Monica. After the pitch was sold to NBC, its title underwent several more changes, including 'Friends Like Us' and 'Six of One' before settling on 'Friends'. 

It starred Jennifer Aniston (Rachel Green - the one with good hair), Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe Buffay - the one who sang that song about a smelly cat), Courteney Cox (Monica Geller - the one who has a secret closet), Matt Le Blanc (Joey Tribbiani - the one who really likes food), Matthew Perry (Chandler Bing - the one who's funny), and David Schwimmer (Ross Geller - the one who likes dinosaurs). 

Unusually, each main character had their fair share of screen time, making it one of the first true ensemble cast shows. 

Photo by NBC - © 2012 NBCUniversal, Inc. - Image courtesy
Joey (Matt LeBlanc), Chandler (Matthew Perry) and Ross (David Schwimmer) hanging out in Central Perk.Photo by NBC - © 2012 NBCUniversal, Inc. - Image courtesy

It would last for a total of ten seasons, ending on 6 May 2004 with an episode aptly titled 'The Last One'. This attracted 52.5 million viewers in the US and remains one of the most-watched TV finales of all time.

Much like scrunchies, smelly gel pens and Furbies, 'Friends' is considered a hallmark of 90s nostalgia. From "The Rachel" haircut to the little in-jokes it cultivated at the water cooler, it would also often play in the background of peoples' lives, the characters and sets as comforting and ever-present as an old armchair.

The show's enduring popularity undoubtedly stems from its ambience of cosiness. The Warner Bros. studio settings, especially Monica's iconic apartment and the Central Perk coffee shop, which are filled with warm lamps and plush sofas, offer a time capsule to seemingly simpler times. 

While especially bonded to millennials, the show's themes and format has proven timeless with younger generations too, continuing to cultivate new fans despite shifting perspectives surfacing its more problematic elements - fat jokes, casual homophobia and Ross's toxic masculinity being some examples.

Ultimately, there's a comforting routine to a sitcom. Everything usually works out, people and places don't really change, money is no object, and there's always a laughter track to break any uncomfortable tension. It's a stunted but soothing version of life that allows viewers to escape easily, blending the atmosphere into their own and bonding with the heavily stereotyped characters until every single line is quotable. 

"I'll Be There for You" sang The Rembrandts in that umbrella-heavy opening. And it's true, 'Friends' has always been there for us, and likely will continue to be (unless streaming services axe it). 

It's like hanging out with friends that you never get sick of - even after 29 years. 

Ross is pretty annoying though. 

Here are three random facts about the show you might not know. 

1. That peephole picture frame was a happy accident

Warner bros.
The iconic peephole picture frameWarner bros.

The cartoony yellow frame on the back of the door in Monica's apartment has become an iconic piece of set design and treasured piece of pop culture merchandise that you'll find replicas of in every UK Primark store. 

Its appearance was actually an accident, though.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, set designer Greg Grande recalled how it was found at a flea market and meant to be a picture holder.


“While we were dressing the glass in it broke and I told one of the guys, ‘Well let’s see what that frame looks like around the peephole.’ And they put it up there for me and that’s where it lived for the next 10 years. It actually was as simple as that. Kind of a funny mistake," said Grande. 

2. Courteney Cox turned down the role of Rachel

Photo by NBC - © 2012 NBCUniversal, Inc. - Image courtesy
Monica and Rachel in 'Friends'Photo by NBC - © 2012 NBCUniversal, Inc. - Image courtesy

While it's hard to imagine anyone else but Jennifer Aniston playing perfect-haired Rachel Green, actress Téa Leoni (Bad Boys, Deep Impact) was actually first in line for the role but declined, opting to star in another sitcom - 'The Naked Truth'. 

The producers of 'Friends' also wanted Courteney Cox to play Rachel, but Cox turned it down in favour of playing the cleanliness-obsessed Monica, who she felt more drawn to. 

3. The ever-changing views from Monica's kitchen window

TBS / YouTube
Monica's kitchen window view, which mysteriously changed at points.TBS / YouTube

If you watch a TV show enough times, you're bound to notice some inconsistencies. Eagle-eyed 'Friends' fans have noticed a particularly odd one: the view from Monica's kitchen window seems to change throughout the ten series. While it's mostly looking out onto a brick building, at other times it's a more desirable view of Manhattan - or even just a plain studio wall. You'll never not see it now.

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