Questioning the popularity of Friends in 2019: 25 years on, it is clear why the sitcom hasn't aged well
(Editor's note: In 2019, FRIENDS is as popular as it is polarising. As FRIENDS turn 25 years old today, we present contrarian views about the definitive sitcom of the 90s. For the opposing view, by Devansh Sharma, click here.)
How do you put a price on a piece of content? There are no rules or set benchmarks, but the $100Mn that Netflix shelled out last December to keep sitcom Friends on for another year definitely was a new high. This September, Friends celebrates the 25th anniversary of its first airing with fresh rumours of Warner paying $425Mn to have the show on its new platform HBO Max for the next five years.
To me, these numbers seem about right. After all, I’ve binged through the show multiple times from the time Rachel walked into Central Perk in her wedding dress to the six leaving their key to Monica’s apartment on the counter before going down for one last cuppa; I can even recite certain lines from memory. It isn’t tough to analyse why the show has the kind of following it does. If you were anywhere between 15 and 30 in the 90s, this was the one show that everyone was discussing sitting around their overpriced mugs of java. But if like me, you’ve tried to watch an episode or two recently, you’d realise that the show really hasn’t aged well.
There’s a reason why the demand for Friends is fuelled by Gen-Xers, but hasn’t managed to find that kind of love from a younger audience.
Over the years, Friends has been called out for homophobia, misogyny and an absolute lack of sensitivity amongst other things. But it’s the hackneyed central cast of characters that lay the very foundation for all that’s wrong with the show.
Take Ross, a palaeontologist who’s constantly the butt of jokes for ‘playing with dinosaurs.’ The idea that someone with a Ph.D can’t be anything but a nerd with bad social skills is just so… neanderthal. Not that people haven’t continued to do it well into this millennium a-la characters like Sheldon Cooper (The Big Bang Theory) and Temperance Brennan (Bones). It’s a trope you see less of these days though, and when you do, it’s treated with respect and as a means to push a character arc, like with Walter White (Breaking Bad).
If smart can’t be sexy, can sexy ever be smart? To balance Ross’s character, the writers threw in Joey, who’s a ‘chick magnet’ but—you guessed it—dumb AF. Joey’s the only non-Anglo Saxon character amongst the group and given his Italian roots, it’s absolutely inconceivable for him to have any brains. A struggling actor, his life revolves around failed auditions and ’picking up’ girls; his is a character that could have walked straight out of any Sean William Scott movie. This is where the misogyny in the writing begins to rear its ugly head.
When Amaani Lyle, a writer’s assistant on the show, spoke up publicly last year and shone a light on what went on in that writers’ room two decades back, it’s easy to put two and two together: you see that toxic culture reflected on the show. Head writers Adam Chase and Gregory Malins would allegedly discuss their sexual fetishes (including cheerleaders with pigtails) as part of their creative process. Lyle’s testimony in court included an oft-repeated fantasy of Malins’s in which Joey sneaks up on Rachel in the shower and rapes her.
If you’re sexualising women in Hollywood, you just have to have a ‘dumb blonde’. Enter Phoebe, whose character is mostly utilised for bad sexual innuendo and the occasional joke on people without privilege. Her back story, which you don’t hear too much of except the occasional tale of living on the streets, is only ever used as a humour device, sometimes to make jokes on suicide and incest. God forbid that you play up the fact that she’s risen from nothing, that she’s a strong, independent woman or that she’s got serious street smarts. You can almost hear this deeply intellectual conversation between the writers. “Let’s give her a job that can create more blonde jokes, preferably sexual. Great, let’s make her a masseuse!”
While women are being sexualised, you’ve also got to have the prom queen, right? Remember the writers’ fantasy about the cheerleaders, the pigtails? Rachel is the perfect embodiment of every darling America’s ever had over an entire century of filmmaking.
Rich and spoilt—check.
That’s it. That’s all Rachel’s character graph is. And, nobody cared.
The popular girl always needs a best friend who’s not good looking, and that’s what Monica’s character is used for. You’re reminded time and again about Monica’s weight problems in high school—that fat suit is probably displayed somewhere in a Warner Bros. museum for fans to come and click polaroids with. She’s constantly reminded about her past self, and we’re constantly reminded that you can only make something of your life once you’ve shed that weight. In a show that doesn’t rely too much on physical comedy, the occasional break into clowning around is provided by Fat Monica. The rest of the clowning around is provided by that other sidekick, Chandler. After all, Ross by association with Rachel, eventually becomes the hero of our show, and therefore deserves a sidekick too.
Chandler’s character is probably the most interesting of the lot. He’s not particularly brainy and not conventionally good looking, not rich and privileged, not driven to achieve. So, in the minds of the writing team, he has everything to be resentful about. He resents the fact that nobody knows what he does or even cares, even though he’s probably the one making the most amount of money amongst them. He resents being bullied in school because his father was gay. But do the writers explore any of this? Not really. This subplot is used only to make a series of jokes and Chandler’s father is this caricature of a gay man that every homophobic person in the world carries—that of an OTT drag queen. It’s like the writers believe every gay person in the world is always dressed up for a pride parade.
The worst of it is that this story thread isn’t the only part with homophobia. You hear stuff being called ‘so gay’ all the time, and the six asking each other, ‘have you turned gay?’ So not cool.
The thing about Friends that appealed most to the generation growing up in the 90s, was the relatability to a cast of characters who were constantly searching for their individuality, for a vocation over a job.
You see Monica and Rachel waitressing at different points on the show, trying to make ends meet while they find the careers of their dreams. Joey’s always looking for his next audition, but the roles keep getting smaller. Even Chandler at one point decides that he wants to give up his well paying job and find a career in advertising, starting out at the very bottom. Ours was the first generation that began to question our parents’ ideas of success. And this is where Friends should have had a connect with people in their twenties and early thirties, regardless of the decade they were born in.
And then you see them living in upscale Manhattan apartments, wearing the best of clothes, eating the best of food and sitting around all day in a café drinking giant mugs of coffee. When you’ve been through the grind in real life, all of this stops being aspirational and becomes just plain unrealistic. You’d gloss over this stuff back then, given the show had so much else going for it.
Today, in conjunction with everything else that looks so out of time, it just becomes a sick joke. Forgive me for not being interested in the lives of six incredibly good-looking people who sit around whining about their lives.
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Updated Date: Sep 22, 2019 15:48:58 IST