Are Friends Eclectic?

I’ve got a confession to make: I’ve been binge-watching on Netflix.  I have no excuse to offer: it’s not even a new series like Black Mirror.  No, the programme I’m currently streaming into my consciousness is one I’ve watched a dozen times before.  Not only that, we have it on DVD (though in storage) and prior to that, we had about a hundred VHS tapes which we gave away to a deserving cause.  Yes, it’s the sitcom which they used to say that at any given moment in time someone in the world would be watching.  It’s Friends, the New York story of three men and three women over a ten-year period as they progress from youth to settling down.

There’s much to dislike about Friends.  It’s kinda schmaltzy in places and, though all the characters claim to have hang-ups about their appearance, they are all quite stunningly glossy (apart from Matthew Perry, which is perhaps why Chandler is my favourite character.)  There are also hardly any black or Asian characters in it – at least until series 10 when Ross dates fellow academic Charlie.  It’s also set entirely indoors, apart from a few outside broadcast scenes at the beach and an unconvincing studio ‘street.’  But aside from these shortcomings, Friends has so many strengths I hardly know where to begin.  Like Frasier, it combines intelligent comedy with slapstick: though less overtly intellectual than the Seattle-based sitcom, there has clearly been a great deal of thought given to the characters and situations.  Where Frasier’s Achilles heel, his ego, lets him down each time, in Friends each person has a different character flaw.  Rachel is self-centred and narcissistic; Ross is the spoilt Jewish Peter Pan; Chandler is avoidant, Monica has OCD, Joey is a hedonist and Phoebe a fantasist.

Friends epitomises the melting-pot of America; each character represents an aspect of (white) America.  Ross and Monica are Jewish, Rachel is a WASP, Chandler is Dutch, Joey is Italian American, and so on.  From time to time their families come into the story and give the characters background and texture: would we understand Monica’s OCD so well if we hadn’t seen how her mother treats her?  Would we realise why Ross is so pathetic if we hadn’t seen him with his parents?  Would we condone Phoebe’s fantasy world if we didn’t know about her previous life on the street?

Materially, they each represent different strata of society: Rachel has a rich, privileged background while Phoebe was abandoned as a baby: Chandler had a materially privileged though emotionally deprived childhood, Joey grew up in a large, hard-up family and Ross and Monica hold the middle ground.

Now let’s consider the story-lines.  These are a brilliant mix of long-term and short-term; the longest-running being the on-off-on relationship between Ross and Rachel which started before episode 1 and isn’t resolved until the last minute of the final episode.  Rachel and Monica went to school together, and we get glimpses into this history from time to time.

The second longest is the relationship between Monica and Chandler.  They get together in series 5 at Ross’s wedding and stay together until the end, by which point they have adopted twin babies.  A comic storyline interweaves between these, centring on the ubiquity of Janice.  Originally Chandler’s girlfriend, the loud woman with the grating laugh surfaces in every series and even turns up to plague him in the very last episode.  In series 4 he has to take a plane to Yemen to get rid of her.

Then there’s work.  Monica progresses through various unsatisfactory jobs to be a head chef: Phoebe is a masseuse (and remains one, as befits her anti-materialistic character), Chandler spends most of the decade in data processing but eventually quits to begin a new career in advertising: Ross progresses from working in a museum of prehistory to lecturing at the university and Joey’s career has all the ups and down’s you’d expect from a jobbing actor.

But the character who goes through the most changes is Rachel.  Jennifer Aniston is far and away the best actor of the six; though it’s a tribute to the levelling effect of the series that she doesn’t appear to be the star.  At the start, Rachel has run out on her wedding to Barry, an unreliable but wealthy dentist, whom she is marrying mainly for reasons of social status.  Rachel is spoilt and dependent and has no idea how to support herself: she gets a job at the coffee-house where they all hang out but eventually quits before she is fired, and finds her way into fashion.  By the end of the series she has become her own person.

Friends is more than a sitcom: there’s a mix of comedy and seriousness which is nicely balanced.  In the saddest moments there is comedy; and in the funniest there is seriousness.  The dialogue is also sparkling: check out the scripts on this site:

I could go on and on about this.  But I won’t.  And to think, this post was originally going to be about Quakers…

Kirk out



Who are You and What Have You Done with JK Rowling?

Yes, I’ve finished it and here’s the review.

It’s not that ‘A Casual Vacancy’ is a bad novel.  It’s not even an indifferent one – it’s quite good in parts and there are one or two flashes of brilliancy – it’s just that it’s impossible to believe that this is the same woman who created Harry Potter.  Where are the stunning, interweaving plot-lines?  Where is the overarching world-view?  Where are the light-touch characterisation, the visual acuity, the spot-on dialogue revealing character far more devastatingly than acres of description; the wicked, understated humour?  Where is the incredible fecundity of invention?  Where are they?

Who is this woman and what has she done with JK Rowling?

When the book came out I was excited: I put my name down asap on the library list – even so I was already no. 23 – and then I went home to wait.  Time ticked: the book did not come my way and somehow the lack of a ‘buzz’ around the first few weeks of its release must have dulled the edge of my anticipation.  Still, I waited, I held off reading reviews and finally the volume came into my hands, and I began.

It starts with a death: the death of a local councillor which leaves the ‘casual vacancy’ of  the title; meaning a vacancy which can be filled without a formal election.  Most of the book is concerned with the fallout of this; the machinations of various inhabitants of this village to re-elect someone who either will – or won’t – expunge the sink estate (‘The Fields’) from the village’s boundaries and the effect of this on their lives and relationships.  On one level it’s a novel about parochialism (Little Whinging transported to the country) – but it’s also about marriages and relationships, childhood and abuse, drug addiction, privilege and deprivation.  But it’s not a simple parable: hardly anyone comes off well in this tale; everyone is selfish, self-serving, unthinking, greedy, power-hungry and mean: it’s as though she’s showing us that she can do a book without heroes as well as books which are full of them.  There is also the lack of a central viewpoint, though this is something the book shares with many contemporary novels: the narrative focus shifts from character to character giving an unsettling feel.  Perhaps this is why of late I am turning more and more to detective fiction, because at least there you have a central character, a denoument and some kind of moral compass, however skewed.  But I expect that’s because I’m just too weak to cope in a post-Christian world where nothing is certain any more.

Yeah.  That’ll be it.

But in the end the main defects of this book were not in the lack of a central viewpoint or anything along those lines; but in flaws you’d have thought a writer of Rowling’s calibre would avoid by instinct: giving acres of reported conversation instead of actually writing the dialogue: telling us at length about a character instead of letting us see them; not distinguishing characters sufficiently from each other by, say, the use of the telling detail but writing pages of background – if I’d been her editor I’d have written ‘show don’t tell’ so often on her MS it would have seemed like a mantra.

There are a number of themes in the book besides Nimby-ism – there’s failed (and failing) marriages; child abuse, domestic violence, drug addiction, self-harm and of course death: an interesting trope is how several locals hack the council website and post messages as the ghost of the man who died.  This ghost hovers over all the action like Hamlet’s father’s – however we didn’t see enough of him when alive for this to mean much to us.  Nor could I quite believe in the novel’s setting: unlike Hogwarts and all the locations in the Potter series, so brilliantly visualised, the village of Pagford reminded me of nothing more than Great Pagwell, the setting for Professor Branestawm’s exploits:

and calling the local hospital South West General took me straight into the world of ‘Tootsie’:

It pains me to be so critical of a writer whom I have previously admired – greatly admired – for years.  If I had come across this novel by an unknown writer I would probably have thought it wasn’t bad – even that it showed some promise – it’s just that I was so looking forward to seeing her turn her talents ot the ‘real’ world: to do the same job on that as she had done on the wizarding world – and as such, ‘A Casual Vacancy’ represents a great disappointment.

Kirk out

Death Comes to Little Whinging?

I have finally got my hands on JK Rowling’s venture into adult fiction, ‘A Casual Vacancy’ – and what do I think of it?  Mmm… It’s hard to know what I would have thought, had I come across this by an unknown author.  ‘Needs more work,’ I think.  Or ‘needs to learn to show, not tell’.  I’ve only read a few chapters so I shall hold off on a full review till I’ve finished but sad to say, I don’t think it’s that good.  It’s not bad – and certainly not awful – in fact there are flashes of brilliance; but I find myself asking, after three or four pages of reported dialogue, why the hell didn’t you give us the actual dialogue, Jo?  She was so brilliant at conveying character through just a touch of dialogue in the Potter books; her visual sense, equally brilliant in that series, also seems to have deserted her here: I know a great deal about the background and history of these characters but I can’t see them: I can’t hear them.  This is all very sad, and I hope she either finds her form in adult fiction or returns to children’s stories.  Potter is almost an impossible act to follow – but it did remind me somewhat of P D James’ venture into fan fiction, ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’, although it is not, so far, nearly as bad as that novel.

Anyway, I don’t seem to have much more to say this morning.  Though on a lighter note, we were talking about bread this morning.  I mentioned bread makers, which I don’t like very much as I prefer oven-baked to steamed bread.  ‘Yes, bread-makers are difficult,’ said Mark.  ‘You just have to bung everything in there and leave it.’

I couldn’t stop laughing at that.

Kirk out