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…