On a recent flight from Glasgow to Philadelphia, I sat next to a climate scientist who’d been in Scotland for an environmental conference.
“How bad is it?” I asked. As a Jersey Shore resident, I’ve grown accustomed to interrogating anyone more knowledgeable than me about rising sea levels. “How long until my home is underwater?” (I’m a lot of fun on long flights.)
“Fifty to one hundred years,” the scientist said. “Maybe.”
Then I plugged in my headphones and watched Season Seven, Episode Eight of Friends. In one scene, Joey Tribbiani explains to Rachel Green the meaning of “moot point,” or, as he thinks it’s called, “moo point.”
“It’s like a cow’s opinion,” he says. “It just doesn’t matter. It’s moo.”
Tuning in to a sitcom may seem like an odd thing to do when confronted with the imminent peril of one’s planet, but since its premiere 25 years ago Sunday, Friends has been the television equivalent of chicken noodle soup. Or maybe a cheesesteak.
“It’s comfort food,” Scott Burkhardt recently told me over the phone. A former writer for the NBC drama Smash who developed projects for NBC Universal and CBS Studios, he’s a lecturer in the University of Pennsylvania’s cinema studies department, where he teaches a course on writing for television.
Viewers are happy to keep eating that comfort food. Friends, which was created by Broomall native Marta Kauffman and Bala’s David Crane, is still widely in syndication, and there was a Twitter-sized panic last year when news broke that the show might leave Netflix (the streaming giant retained the rights until the end of 2019, at which point it will head to the new HBO Max service). Twenty-fifth anniversary celebrations have been going on all month, including a big-screen showing of beloved episodes via Fathom events on Monday, Sept. 23; Saturday, Sept. 28; and Wednesday, Oct. 2. They’ll be held in movie theaters that include many locations in Philadelphia and South Jersey.
“When I ask my students what they’re watching, more often than not, the majority hem and haw and then point to Friends on Netflix as the thing they connect to and enjoy the most.” It’s an extraordinary revelation, Burkhardt added, considering many of these budding screenwriters were toddlers when the show first aired.
I came to the sitcom late, too. In high school in the early aughts — when “The Rachel” hairdo was still a relatively new sensation and the country was fully entrenched in the “we were on a break” debate — I watched only sporadically and absorbed most of the story lines through pop-cultural osmosis. It wasn’t until my mid-20s, rocked by a few professional and personal disappointments, that I binged the series from beginning to end, fell hopelessly in love with Joey — in my defense, he’s more sweet than dumb — and began to understand the reassurances afforded fans of these overcaffeinated Gen Xers.
Friends was one of the first sitcoms to spotlight the 20-something experience in all its angsty, lovelorn, financially fraught glory. The show took the crises of young adulthood and aestheticized them. Today — when these crises have intensified, thanks to ballooning student-loan debt, social media pressures, and increasing eco-anxiety — Friends feels like syndicated therapy.
Inside the cozy confines of Central Perk, heartbreak becomes a rite of passage. Career floundering is charming and blessedly short-lived. Even questionable fashion choices (could Chandler’s sweater vests be any less attractive?) are endearing.
The woman currently being sued by Robert De Niro’s film company for watching 55 hours of Friends while on the clock? She may be the Worst Employee Ever. Or she may simply be a disillusioned millennial taking refuge in a fictional world where coffee breaks aren’t hurried, friendships aren’t virtual, and humble transponsters earn enough money to survive in Manhattan (or at all). It’s a show just real enough to feel relatable, and just ridiculous enough to provide true escapism.
Among the sitcom’s well-trodden critiques is that it appears to exist sans any political context. The closest we get to a substantive policy discussion is Rachel, Monica, and Phoebe swooning over Bill Clinton’s then-press secretary George Stephanopoulos in Season One. Perhaps this makes the characters unlikable and out of touch, or perhaps this speaks to the show’s perennial, aspirational appeal.
Imagine going back in time to a moment where six friends never appear disoriented by an exhausting news cycle, never come to blows over a presidential election, and never disavow the Phoebe of the group (who surely voted for Jill Stein). It feels downright Utopian. Is there any wonder modern undergrads are now streaming episodes with the same gusto Joey reserves for Baywatch?
Of course, there are other glaring problems. The whitewashing of New York City is upsetting. And there’s a valid case to be made that plenty of the jokes are homophobic (“How goes the dancing?” Monica asks Joey in Season Four. “Gay yet?”).
But the sitcom is progressive in many ways, too. For me, a Northeast Philly native raised on Italian cooking and Catholic guilt, Monica’s … enthusiastic, let’s say, description of the seven female erogenous zones serves as an empowering reminder to a society that often forgets: Women have sexual agency, too. Ross’ ex-wife Carol and her lesbian lover are intelligent, witty, self-actualized characters responsible for the first LGBTQ wedding ceremony on TV, 19 years before same-sex marriages became legal in the United States. Then there’s Joey — my sweet, lovable Joey — who, for all his boorish masquerading, knits potholders, tells his guy friends, “I love you, man,” and confidently wears a purse in public — no fragile masculinity here.
But, putting all the sociopolitical analysis aside — because how much philosophizing can a person really do about a network hit that gave us “Smelly Cat” and popularized peeing on jellyfish stings? — the real reason to watch Friends is that it’s funny. Remember that “Pivot!” scene, or Chandler’s attempt at blowing a bubble in front of Jill Goodacre? This simple, self-deprecating humor — grounded by emotional touchstones like the Bings’ fertility struggle or Rachel’s decision to get off the plane — allows us to see these friends as our friends. (Oh, like you’ve never imagined meeting the gang at La Colombe in Fishtown or visiting Ross at the Franklin Institute …) Sure, more contemporary sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory will leave you chuckling, too. But the difference, Burkhardt said, is that Friends viewers appear to be laughing with — not at — the cast.
We hear a lot these days about the golden age of television, our gilded era in which TV has ultimately surpassed film in quality and cultural import. But our obsession with Friends a quarter-century later is, perhaps, an indictment of the theory.
“If audiences are connecting to a 25-year-old show, what does that say about current television?” Burkhardt asked. “That it is now and forever niche, with specific shows appealing to specific audiences? Or that writers and networks just haven’t cracked the code of connecting with a broader audience in this day and age, like Friends once did?”