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What I learned binging all 10 series of Friends during the pandemic

I was a latecomer to the whole television thing. Netflix passed me by for many years, while keeping up with celebrity culture always seemed like a waste of time. Sure, I enjoyed certain shows, but dedicating time to telly never really appealed to me. I preferred reading or writing to consuming pixelated drama, and my centre of pop culture gravity suffered as a result.

However, in recent years, I have discovered a sense of enjoyment in television, an appreciation for the escapism it provides. Having a culturally alert fiancée helps, and a year in various shades of state-mandated lockdown forces you to find new hobbies and pleasures. I now have all the standard subscriptions – Netflix, Amazon Prime, reams of sport – and sitting down to watch something is a key part of my daily relaxation. It helps me switch off when life seems overwhelming.

How watching all 236 episodes of Friends helped me during lockdown

In this regard, I was always vaguely aware of Friends, the wildly successful American sitcom, but I never really got it. I have stumbled upon repeat episodes, of course, and the show has a permanent place on almost all Top 10 must-watch lists, but the bandwagon seemed to have left town without me. The final episode aired in 2004, meaning that, soon, there will be adults on this planet who have never witnessed a new Friends storyline. That always seemed a little daunting, and I steered clear of the show as a result.

Nevertheless, in October 2020, while scouring Netflix for something new to binge, Patrycja and I finally bit the bullet and committed to watching all 236 episodes of Friends – in order. We were tired of the incredulous inquisition of colleagues who learned of our Friends-less existence hitherto, and getting involved seemed to fill a gaping void in our bank of televisual knowledge. We had mixed expectations at the outset, but the experiment definitely worked, and we emerged four months later as devout fans.

Admittedly, we struggled to understand Friends at first while attempting to navigate the inherent culture clashes. The earliest episodes are particularly littered with 1990s tchotchke, and there are undoubtedly whole storylines that can be difficult to follow. It can be tough to understand the basic premises on which Friends is built, but taking the time to do so is very rewarding later down the line.

Patrycja and I watched the first couple of seasons in our Liverpool apartment, waiting for the purchase of our new house to be complete. There was a sense of nostalgia as we watched, our flat getting bearer and bearer in the process, and we will always cherish those memories. The concept of avoiding Friends spoilers from 20 years ago was also hilarious, while the confusion of others who learned of our new routine was priceless.

Why is Friends so popular?

You see, it is easy – chic, even – to bash Friends, to write it off as cringeworthy or cheesy. Telly snobs tend to lambast the canned laughter and eviscerate the outdated jokes. But we should never underestimate the power of visceral companionship, and it is that sense of reconstructed unity that makes Friends so great.

As we have learned over the last 12 months while trapped in our houses and minds, the most innocuous things – music, sport, even walking – can save us from loneliness, negativity and despair. Thus, we should never snigger at that which makes other people happy, whether we find it worthwhile or not. We all need fulcrums of escapism, and they are fashioned from within, not by committee. You never know what people are going through, so such judgements are meaningless, anyway.

With Friends, it never was – and never will be – about the lukewarm narratives or the unoriginal cinematography, the farfetched puns or the logical inconsistency. No – with Friends, it is about warmth, irreverence, camaraderie and presence. It is about the inane chitchat and the mindless meandering of dreams. It is about meeting at Central Perk to enjoy coffee with friends, not to broker a business deal or work furiously on a laptop. It is about time and space, two things sorely lacking in our modern world, and that is why this show continues to captivate long after its finale.

How ‘90s nostalgia fuels Friends’ resurgence

Digging deeper, Friends is now a monolithic trendsetter all of its own, this group of laconic acquaintances becoming a pop culture reference by virtue of making pop culture references for over a decade. Friends represents the genesis of so many hipster fads – from coffeehouse dwelling and oversized sweatshirts to smarmy pickup lines and ubiquitous sarcasm – that it can be difficult to keep track. So many people try to dress and talk like their favourite Friends characters, and that speaks to the pangs of nostalgia fuelling the show’s popularity.

Indeed, according to USA Today, Warner Bros. continues to earn $1 billion per year in syndication revenue from Friends, which is available on various streaming platforms, depending on territorial agreements. Per industry whispers, each headline cast member receives 2% of such syndication revenue, meaning that Jennifer Aniston, Matt LeBlanc, David Schwimmer, Courtney Cox and Lisa Kudrow routinely land upwards of $20 million annually from the show, in which they last appeared 17 years ago. Fine work, if you can get it.

Friends has also evolved into a commercial juggernaut, with merchandise and retail arms of increased visibility. One can barely visit Primark or Lidl these days without being attacked by a myriad of Friends-branded toys and trinkets – from Top Trumps and travel mugs to pens and pyjamas. There is a giddy glow to these products, which are consistently awful yet seem to provide momentary respite from the cynicism of everyday life.

To that end, watching Friends has become a comforting form of time travel for many people, especially those born after the franchise enjoyed its initial pomp. There is a mawkishness to the show’s simplicity that leaves you wanting more. That is why Patrycja and I enjoyed it so much, because after long days filled with modern obligations, the guys were always there to cheer us up – anachronisms of nonchalance radiating joy.

How Friends created a new blueprint for American sitcoms

There is a physicality to Friends that hearkens back to a simpler age, although it is not so long ago as to be unrelatable. The show is defined by its singularity, its consistency and its dependability. It revolves around the sweet triumph of doing over planning, and it reminds us of bygone moments when everything was okay – before mobile phones, before social media, before internet saturation, back when the only distractions were Ross browsing a newspaper and Chandler reading a book.

Here, we see how Friends was emblematic of the zeitgeist in which it was created, perhaps more so than any other show in television history. To that end, Friends also refined an outrageously popular blueprint for American sitcoms – all future tales of social entropy and unrequited love based in city apartment blocks lending gravitas from the creation of David Crane and Marta Kauffman.

From How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory to Rules of Engagement and Arrested Development, there is no shortage of shows that lean on the Friends playbook, and that may be its greatest strength of all. Therefore, even people who claim to dislike Friends inadvertently enjoy the techniques it helped conceive and master, so there is no escaping the show’s importance.

Sure, Crane and Kauffman borrowed tactics and tics from more traditional sitcoms – including Cheers, Living Single and Seinfeld – but the definitive miasma of Friends was unique and pioneering. All these years after the show’s inimitable peak, spartan flats and kookie coffeehouses are still the starting point of many sitcom ventures, and a conscious effort is required to fashion something fresh. Friends did not have that framework to fall back on, however, and its routine flouting of old comedic rules spawned a sitcom revolution that is unlikely to be replicated.

Is Friends overrated? Addressing the perpetual criticism

Still, it is often said that Friends is overrated, and that the show is barely even humorous. However, that is not entirely the point of Rachel, Ross, Joey, Monica, Chandler and Phoebe clumsily stumbling through life together. Rather, Friends is about something deeper than mere comedy. As the title suggests, it is about friendship, funnily enough, and its portrayal of scarce loyalty teaches us all something about our roots. It tells us not to forget those we love so dearly.

To be fair, Friends does rely heavily on the same three or four hackneyed jokes, and there is a repetition to the show that can be misunderstood. Monica’s historic weight issues, for instance, or Joey’s lack of intelligence. Ross’ frequent encounters with divorce, for example, or Chandler’s nicotine addiction. There is a tedium to Friends, which can even seem pointless to some observers, but a more nuanced analysis is required. You have to look beyond the concept and enjoy the phenomenon. Friends works because it is so predictable, its steadfast availability belying the frenetic pulse of contemporary life.

Of course, latter day viewers have even decimated Friends due to stories, stereotypes and phrases that jar with modern orthodoxy. Amid our cancel culture bubble, the show has been accused of peddling racist, sexist, homophobic, fat-shaming and transphobic motifs. That may well be the case, but we must remember this show first aired in 1994, and it also pioneered diversity in various ways. Judging it now for transgressions then lacks appreciation for context, and the woke mob will never cancel the most successful sitcom of all-time.

Will there be a Friends reunion, and can it even work?

Thus, for all the incessant talk of a Friends reunion, and with the legendary cast set to reconvene for a pandemic-delayed special, I’m not entirely sure the undergirding concepts – carefree fun and insouciant romance – can work today. We live in a very serious age of snipe and counter-snipe, preconceived hostility and faux offence. Society would shame Joey into getting a job these days, while Chandler would probably run a drop-shipping empire that eats up all his time. Somewhere along the way, our values and priorities changed, perhaps to such an extent that Friends would now get lost in the noise. Maybe it would be better if we left it untouched.

At its zenith, in 1996, Friends attracted 52.9 million viewers for one episode. For context, that is akin to the entire population of Colombia stopping simultaneously to watch a television show. Certainly, the thought of so many people coming together at exactly the same time to watch – and enjoy – exactly the same show now seems preposterous. In this epoch of on-demand streaming and round-the-clock catchup services, gigantic live audiences are a thing of the past. Getting that many people to do anything at once these days is virtually impossible, let alone using a 23-minute sitcom as the only enticement. Yet such was the scope and scale of Friends, its eminence unlikely to be trumped in our lifetimes.

Final thoughts on Friends in 2021 – a concise review

My televisual palate may not be the most diverse, but Patrycja and I found Friends to be an enjoyable part of our daily routine during the stresses of moving home and adjusting to the pandemic. Whereas once I never would have made time to sit down and watch a television show, entering that idealised world of caffeinated Manhattan became a comforting conclusion to each day. Regardless of what the critics say, that means something to me, and it will continue to do so.

Patrycja and I have tickets for FriendsFest in Manchester this summer, pandemic permitting, and that would have been highly unlikely less than six months ago. Back then, we never knew what all the fuss was about, questioning the passion of enthusiastic fans. Now, though, we are excited for our very own Friends experience, even if this brutal world can be cruel to such divergent tastes. You could call Friends our guilty pleasure, and that would probably be a fair summation. But we should never feel shame for enjoying a television show, regardless of what the mainstream says.

☕ ☕ ☕

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