JAIME WEINMAN: Well, now. Twenty years of Friends. Does that make you feel old? It doesn’t make me feel old, mostly because I already felt prematurely old when the show began. I remember I was a big Seinfeld fan at the time, and I sort of dismissed the new show as an attempt to cash in on the Seinfeld phenomenon, with a bunch of white New Yorkers hanging around, and multi-plot episodes (a structure Seinfeld really helped popularize) based on seemingly trivial details of city life and dating. A lot of people dismissed the show that way when it began. The pilot, famously, did very poorly in testing, and it got very mixed reviews. But NBC seemed to sense that it had something special here, and something very distinct from Seinfeld despite the surface similarities. They were right, and what they wound up with was – for better and for worse – the show that has cast the longest shadow over the last 20 years of sitcom history.
Of course, no one knew that at the time; we just knew the show was big. So before we talk about why it has been so enduringly popular, we might talk a bit about why it was such a huge hit. A lot of people attributed it to coming along at a time when the whole concept of “Generation X” was popular (it was the year of Reality Bites, remember) – youngish people, well-off and educated, marinated in pop culture of every kind, but not really knowing what to do with their lives. The Friends were never intended to represent that generation, but they sort of seemed closer to it than any other characters on TV; they seemed contemporary, now, ’90s, or at least our fantasy of what contemporary life would be like if we were all beautiful and got lucky every week.
And the show, like Seinfeld, brought a new kind of pacing and style to sitcoms. Most sitcoms, including the good ones, were kind of slow and leisurely – the biggest hit of the previous season, Frasier, was in that classical sitcom style, where every episode has a slow beginning and builds to a big comedy setpiece at the end. Friends not only took place partially in a coffee shop, its style was what the creators described as “caffeinated”; there were several plots per episode, jokes came at a rapid clip, and they might pack whole comic setpieces into the short pre-credits sequences alone. People are always talking about the declining attention spans of viewers, but few sitcoms did anything to cater to those shorter attention spans. Friends was crazy fast and if you didn’t like one plot, just wait, there’d be another one in about a minute.
There’s something else I wanted to bring up about what fuelled the show’s success, but I’ll leave it to later. Right now I’m wondering, as someone of a (cough) younger generation, what you think has made the show popular – not only in its own time, but 20 years later?
ADRIAN LEE: It does make me feel old, but in a very literal sense. I was four years old when it began. My school-day summers were flush with Friends reruns, though, and I’ll still watch an episode whenever it’s on. I think it’s popular for the same reason Girls is popular: we want it to explain young people dealing with fraught futures, and young people want to be reflected in a genuine way on screen. And NBC, to its credit, let them: they hired young writers; the brass thought a coffee house was this weird, too-hip place but relented; they decided not to have a character named Pat the Cop who would hand down sage lessons to the gang (seriously, that was going to be a thing.) Sure, the apartments are preposterously nice for how little it seemed they were making, and sure, the cast was profoundly un-diverse, but I can watch an episode today and have it resonate still. Although, compared to Seinfeld—and certainly compared to its contemporary Frasier—Friends is seen as low-brow. Is that fair?
WEINMAN: I wouldn’t say Friends is seen as lowbrow exactly, but it definitely doesn’t have that “classic” air about it that Seinfeld does. Seinfeld was an edgy show at the time, at least for a network sitcom, and its writers have gone on to do even edgier things like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Borat. Friends was clearly influenced by Seinfeld, but it’s much more sentimental and sweet; it had all the serious moments and romantic arcs that Larry David refused to do. That was one of the big legacies of Friends, the eureka moment for networks: it proved you could combine the up-to-date sitcom style of Seinfeld with the sentimentality and “heart” that executives prefer, and tie all that together with serialized storylines (especially later in the run) to keep viewers talking about what was going to happen next. Virtually every sitcom about a group of friends follows the “Friends” formula in those respects: a fast pace, lots of banter and pop-culture references, heartfelt moments and big serialized romance arcs.
In some ways, Friends encouraged the worst tendencies of network executives, particularly their preference for casting young, beautiful people in comedies. They got very lucky with Friends because the cast they put together was attractive and relatively young, but also had a ton of comedy experience: Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow and Courteney Cox were already veterans of many failed shows. The Friends imitators have mostly tried to cast actors for their looks or “likability” rather than comedy ability, leading to a bunch of shows with nondescript casts. The U.S. version of The Office helped turn this around a little bit, but you still see a ton of people cast because they “could be the next Friends” instead of because they’re funny.
And yet the odd thing is that though the DNA of Friends is all over the last 10 years of sitcoms, there hasn’t really been a clear successor. How I Met Your Mother is the closest, though it’s never quite been a major hit. New Girl and Happy Endings tried to become the next Friends in the single-camera, no-laugh-track format, and I think the inability of both shows to catch on with a broad audience (Happy Endings is gone and New Girl couldn’t sustain its initial success) demonstrates how important the audience-laughter format was to Friends‘ ability to get young people and their parents watching together. Quite unexpectedly, the show that has come the closest to filling Friends‘ place in the culture is The Big Bang Theory, which airs in the same time slot that Friends once occupied, and has kind of re-created Friends for a more self-involved, some might say sociopathic era: a bunch of friends who don’t seem to like each other all that much. But then, part of the subtext of any sitcom about friends hanging out is that no one else can really stand them.
But maybe the era of the big, broad sitcom hit is over, which leads me to ask: do you think networks should just abandon looking for the new Friends and concentrate on making quirkier shows like Happy Endings or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – friends-hanging-out shows that don’t necessarily have to play to multi-millions or be a worldwide sensation? Is the success of Friends a relic of an older TV delivery system?
LEE: Could Friends exist today? My feeling is no. You can’t binge watch it. We’d get too antsy over Ross and Rachel; the part where Joey gets together with Rachel would feel like a middle finger to the audience that knows full well that Ross and Rachel are meant to be. In any case, Friends survived, and it’s all over the place now. We’re basically seeing new Friends-lite shows every season. New Girl, Happy Endings—these are all shows that wear their inspiration on their sleeve, and there are others that fail every year.
By the way, whatever happened to David Schwimmer? Ross and Rachel were the heart and soul of the show, and Schwimmer hasn’t gone on to the fame enjoyed by Jennifer Aniston, Matthew Perry and, to lesser but still significant degrees, Lisa Kudrow and Courtney Cox. Tell me, Obi Wan – you’re my only hope.
WEINMAN: Ah, Star Wars references. My single favourite thing about the ’90s is it was the last time Star Wars references were considered obscure and old, as they should be. But I digress. The thing about Friends that made it a little different from other friend-centric shows – even Seinfeld – was that it didn’t exactly have a lead. Yes, I agree that Ross and Rachel sort of were the de facto main characters, but in terms of the size of their roles, they didn’t really overshadow any of the other four characters. It was a six-person ensemble without a star. That’s something few shows have dared to do even after Friends, with some exceptions like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Modern Family.
Usually there is a clear lead, even if we don’t really find him that interesting (How I Met Your Mother) or even if she’s kind of annoying (New Girl). One of the things that made Friends kind of refreshing was that democratic spirit it had, which allowed the viewer to focus on any character or characters and know that they would get their fair share of screen time. But it’s not so surprising that most of the actors haven’t gone on to superstardom: they were all, in essence, playing supporting parts, and the advantage of the way the show was set up was that the producers could go with three guys who probably weren’t strong enough, individually, to carry a show. Modern Family, I think, is one recent show that has absorbed that lesson from Friends; by making every family sort of equal, they were able to cast the entire show with supporting players who don’t necessarily have star charisma. Stars can be fun, but they can also be vortexes that suck a show in and destroy it.
I agree that Friends isn’t made for binge-watching. The form in which sitcoms tend to thrive is syndication, where you get an episode a day, or occasionally a marathon of randomly selected episodes. You drop in and out of the show, slowly letting it wash over you, and before you know it you find you’re used to the characters, you can anticipate the running gags (and find it funny when the show subverts them, like finding one of many variations on “We were on a break” or “How you doin’?”), you watch it casually and then realize that you’re no longer a casual viewer, you’re an obsessed fan. One of the problems the TV sitcom faces today is that so many shows, particularly the ones that are being commissioned by Netflix and Amazon and the like, are more geared toward the binge-watching model: shows where you’re supposed to turn your brain on full gear and make an effort to get through an entire season at once, congratulating yourself on your accomplishment when it’s over. And that’s fine, but meanwhile, syndication is starved for sitcoms that work for more relaxed viewing, slowly but surely revealing their secrets and stylistic tics to a viewer over a long period of time. Comfortable shows, you might say. Friends is the ultimate comfortable show, and that’s why it’ll stay in syndication long after the Communitys and 30 Rocks have fled to new media; it’s not necessarily lesser than those shows, but it is more accessible to the viewer who just wants to relax and laugh and watch some likeable sociopaths.
LEE: And on that note, this likeable sociopath is going to go watch an episode or two, and bliss out in a total state of unagi.