The Infuriating, Confounding Appeal of Friends, TV’s Most Enduring Sitcom

It’s easy to dismiss the show, and just as easy to fall in love with its characters.

Photo: HBO Max

“How you doin’?” That pick-up line, first uttered by Joey (Matt Le Blanc) in season four of Friends and repeated almost 20 times during the NBC show’s decade-long run, became a ubiquitous phrase in the late ‘90s. The enduring popularity of those three words, delivered with boorish bravado—which is not to say bravura—says a lot about the appeal of a show that remains a problematic piece of wish fulfillment for a certain kind of white viewer enticed by the hermetic air of one of TV’s most enduring sitcoms.

Friends, which celebrated its recent debut on HBO Max with a much-ballyhooed reunion special, offers a leisurely form of escapism, a chance to spend time with a coterie of close-knit people whose petty problems are usually resolved by the end of each episode. It’s a show of blissful ignorance, unconcerned with politics or societal strife, and in which life’s difficulties can always be mitigated with a sarcastic quip. It brings to mind a T.S. Eliot quote: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

The twentysomething New Yorkers at the show’s center became cultural icons thanks to their quirky and clashing personalities and habit of finding themselves in laughably uncomfortable situations. Collectively, they lead insular and privileged lives filled with unlikely comic incidents and misunderstandings manufactured through lies and contrived failures of communication. They’re also prone to solipsistic obliviousness and codependency. The show apes the nothing-happens approach of Seinfeld, but whereas that Must-See TV show is irreverent and ridiculous in a Beckettian sense, capable of trenchant and exacting observations while remaining unapologetically aloof, Friends is always willing to go for the easy joke.

The genius of Seinfeld is its sui generis and gleefully selfish characters. It never tries to knavishly suggest, at any point, that they’re decent denizens, instead luxuriating in their lowness. Friends offers no such honesty (unless luxuriating in lowness is honesty), as it expects us to like these people, even love them, regardless of what they say or do. No one in Friends ever gets their comeuppance because we want them to keep doing what they always do—busting each other’s balls and reveling in canned-laughter raillery.

Friends appealed to Gen-Xers tired of wholesome depictions of nuclear units, and saw in this gaggle of garrulous misfits a new kind of kinship. The characters love each other when they don’t hate each other, and they’re supportive when they aren’t being passive aggressive and pernicious. Friends is an epochal show, rooted inextricably in its era, yet it remains a pervasive cultural presence. Millennials, allegedly a more enlightened generation, love it. A particularly fawning Cosmopolitan piece from 2016 opens with: “We all love Friends. Well, most decent, upstanding citizens of the world do, anyway. It’s a brilliant, timeless comedy about a bunch of friends living their best lives in and around a coffee shop in New York. Love it.” They were “living their best lives” and we, too, can live our best lives by watching, by fawning.

Some fans call Friends “camp.” The essence of camp, Susan Sontag wrote, is “its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Friends is nothing if not artificial and rife with exaggeration, yet its sense of humor belies the queerness we’ve come to associate with camp. It’s an outlandishly straight show, and its jokes often revolve around the shaming of otherness—fat people, sad people, poor people, gay people, old people, bald people, and so on. It’s not, in the parlance of our time, an inclusive work. Chandler’s (Matthew Perry) gay father, Charles (Kathleen Turner)—who’s also known by his professional drag name Helena Handbasket—is a repeated target of scorn and ridicule. “Don’t you have a little too much penis to be wearing a dress like that?” Charles’s ex-wife, Nora (Morgan Fairchild), asks at their son’s wedding.

Friends never passes up a chance to turn gayness or any instance of male femininity into a gag: the male nanny; the repeated mentions of Ross’s (David Schwimmer) ex-wife, Carol (Jane Sibbett), being a lesbian; Ross getting angry that his infant son plays with a doll; Ross being revolted when Joey wants to kiss him to practice a role. Just Ross in general, really. Then, of course, there’s the season-eight Thanksgiving episode, featuring a guest appearance by Brad Pitt, in which Joey gets the meat sweats, and it’s revealed that in high school the boys spread a rumor that Rachel was a hermaphrodite, all of which is played as a “boys will be boys” lark. Chandler gets berated because he kissed a guy once, and is constantly upset that people think he’s gay. He has “a quality.” (It’s worth mentioning that David Crane, one of the co-creators of the show, is gay, and initially considered making Chandler gay.)

All of the characters on Friends (save for Joey, who’s wholly good-hearted and earnest in his damfool delusions) are at times repellant (like Rachel tricking Ross’s new girlfriend, played by Christine Taylor, into shaving her head so that she’ll be less attractive), but Ross, quintessential nice guy, is irascible yet driftwood-dull and self-pitying. Early on, Ross is the show’s intellectual and romantic, a sad sack and recent divorcee (“This guy says hello, I wanna kill myself,” Joey quips in the pilot). Ross’s love of science is fodder for jokes and confrontations, such as the time Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) tells him she doesn’t believe in evolution, and the show seemingly wants viewers to side with her pseudo-science “all beliefs are equal” idea, making Ross out to be the insensitive one. You almost feel bad for the guy.

Ross has loved Rachel since high school, and we’re meant to cheer them on, but once he has her—and I say “has her” because she’s treated like a thing to have—he becomes possessive and jealous, gaslights her incessantly, and even berates her for finally finding a job she likes instead of being at his beck and call. And yet the chronicle of Ross and Rachel remains one of the most confoundingly beloved relationships in television history. When Rachel befriends a male co-worker, Ross smothers her, driving Rachel away and then blaming her for everything. When Ross and Rachel intoxicatingly get married and she, upon sobering up, asks for a divorce, he refuses. The series ends with Rachel giving up her dream job to be with Ross, a grand gesture that perfectly fits their tumultuous relationship.

Their on-again, off-again relationship is one of the least compelling of the myriad Sam-and-Diane imitators that proliferated in the ‘80s and ‘90s on the airwaves. For its first five seasons, Cheers revolved around the will-they-won’t-they storyline between Ted Danson’s Sam, a bartender lothario who used to pitch for the Red Sox, admired by bar regulars for his flirtatious braggadocio and little black book filled with names of his dim-witted conquests, and Shelley Long’s Diane, an erudite, sometimes snobbish waitress who takes stupidity as a personal affront. Their long-simmering sexual tension erupts into a passionate kiss at the end of season one, when, in the middle of a vociferous fight, Sam shouts, “Are you as turned on as me?” and Diane bellows back “More!” Then they embrace with the fervor of aching anticipation. These are fully fleshed-out characters, and Danson and Long are deft in their delivery of witty banter and acerbic asides, ensuring that Sam and Diane are never reduced to caricatures.

Compare Cheers, the best-directed sitcom of its time, to Friends, a show that features little discernible direction at all. (Ross and Rachel’s first kiss is a rare exception, for the way a mopey Ross is blocked outside the glass door of Central Perk and Rachel, after some difficulty, unlocks it and they embrace in the rain). And compare Sam and Diane’s mercurial courtship, the sense that these are real people with real flaws who really fell in love despite their obvious differences, to Ross and Rachel, their perfunctory break-ups and make-ups, Ross’s controlling jealousy whenever Rachel talks to other guys, like after the birth of their child, when Rachel gives a guy from the bar her number and Ross refuses to give her the message when he calls.

The great appeal of long-running sitcoms is a sense of not being quite so alone, watching characters share moments which, by proxy, make a viewer feel like they, too, are sharing these inimitable moments. Does Friends mitigate loneliness by promising viewers a form of vicarious companionship? Why did I watch the series in its entirety, staring glaze-eyed at the television for six, seven hours straight, cheering childlike every time Chandler made a sarcastic aphorism, every time Joey misunderstood something or ate gratuitously, when Robin Williams and Bruce Willis and Jeff Goldblum showed up and the audience erupted into raucous applause? Did I feel like I was one of the friends? Like I could waltz right into their apartments and be welcomed with open arms by these lying, conniving, crazy characters?

It’s easy to dismiss Friends, and just as easy to fall in love with its characters: the horny and hungry Sicilian-American, the bossy-pants brunette, the thrice-divorced paleontologist prone to adolescent outbursts, the spoiled fashionista, the kooky flower child, and the lonely desk jockey who’s quick to capitalize on a conversation by making a “that’s what she said.” These are clearly and concisely defined characters who remain the same for 10 years, 160 hours of binge-watching, a lifetime. Even when things change for them—switching apartments, getting married, having kids, dating each other with ill-advised incestuousness—the essence of the characters never does, regardless of what happens in their world or the real one. Isn’t that what we all want in our friends?

Greg Cwik

Greg Cwik's writing has appeared in The Notebook, Reverse Shot, Playboy, Brooklyn Rail, and Kinoscope.

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