The One That Never Got Away: Why do we still watch Friends in 2020?

The One with the Controversial Obsession

Friends has always been a part of my life. As a millennium, you might (quite wrongly) expect me to be from the second wave generation that has just discovered Friends thanks to the likes of Netflix and Comedy Central. But take a step back and do the maths again (correctly this time): both the sitcom and I were born in the early 90s and with Friends instantly becoming popular in the US, making its way to Eastern Europe incredibly quickly, I was way under ten when I first caught a glimpse of an episode on our tv at home…and was immediately hooked.

True, thinking about it now a lot of the jokes would have gone over my head, but plenty of them did hit home. Even as a kid in a country that couldn’t be more different than the America portrayed on the show, I was absolutely obsessed – the humour managed to transcend borders and here I was, at the fresh age of 12 back in 2004, crying my eyes out with millions of people around the globe as Rachel got off the plane, Monica left the keys to that big purple flat on the counter and closed the door behind her one last time.

Some things simply didn’t need translating. The characters were just as compelling in their own silly, sitcom ways; I quickly developed a crush on Chandler (that I would cary with me into my future relationships) and identified myself as the strong type-A Monica (it won’t be until years later when I would realise that I, like a lot of people from my generation, ended up turning into the Chandler of the group – if you didn’t date him, the chances were you became him).

But most of all, as cliché as it sounds, it was the friendship in this group of six good-looking, 20-something New Yorkers that made all the difference. Something that has since been pinpointed as one of the main reasons Friends became such a successful show. Truth is, at some of my loneliest times as I was growing up, feeling misunderstood or like the misfit within my own friends group, I’d get that cosy, comfortable warmth within me as soon as these guys were on tv.

“The show was unrealistic, even absurd, in that first season. But it was wholly relatable in one crucial way: it was about friends. That was it. It wasn’t complicated. Everyone watching the show knew what it was like to have a close friend, or maybe a handful, so tight they felt like family.” *

Simple as that, the show was following the time in your life when you’re still figuring yourself out (as well as everything around you), when you’ve just moved to the city and your friends are your family. You’ve got the girl next-door, the guys across the hall, the funny one, the serious one, the sarcastic one, the mum of the group, the womaniser. And to a girl living in a modest country in Eastern Europe, these New Yorkers were as much a representation of this genuine friendship as they were an aspirational portrayal of life in your twenties. Growing up, moving to a big city, hanging out with your friends (that I would end up calling mates, because my city turned out to be London rather than NYC), spending hours at a cosy coffeehouse, dating, breaking up, being on a break…it looked like the absolute dream.

“The thing that mattered most about Friends was right there in that simple, one-word, unambiguous title.”*

But let’s come back to the topic in question. I’m now 27, just about the age of those guys in the first few seasons of Friends. By this time in her life Rachel has already left someone at the alter, Joey is navigating life as a struggling actor and Monica is falling hard for Richard. You would think that at this point I would be loving Friends the most.

You would be thinking right.

And I know I am talking not unlike a lot of people from my generation, people that grew up with Friends on the screen when Netflix didn’t exist the way it does today; back in the days when we were (im)patiently waiting for a week to see Monica and Chandler hiding their relationship…or getting a slap of an episode instead (wait a week to get flashbacks to old seasons instead of a new storyline? A problem of the past I don’t miss). Today, this is my ultimate comfort food wrapped in a tv show format.

I have long left home, that small country hidden across the continent. I’m in the early stages of my own career and am living in a cute flat in a big city; I’m falling in love and drinking coffee in equal amounts (and maybe I spend a bit more time in bars, too, compared to what they would have us believe on the show); I’m hanging out with my new friends as we navigate the pitfalls of life in our own twenties. The one thing that hasn’t changed at all though, is this: I can always turn my laptop on and walk into Central Perk. Suddenly the surrounding world doesn’t matter – I might be back home and ten and gushing over Matthew Perry, or I might be here in London laughing at the same joke (PIVOT!PIVOT!) with my boyfriend as we sit on the sofa with a Joey special (two pizzas) and a bottle of wine.

Because Friends, for all its issues, is indeed timeless. Some of the humour might not have aged well, but the themes and the characters haven’t gotten old – from the far-fetched scenarios to the topics that now might hit a bit too close to home. Such issues as being unhappy at your job, finding it hard to get pregnant or having yet another divorce (okay, admittedly I don’t actually know anyone who has had three divorces just yet). Suddenly, Ross sleeping with the copy girl feels a lot more real than it did when you were, say, eight and didn’t quite grasp the feeling of betrayal that devastated Rachel at the time.

When we say ‘the show had its issues’ we do mean it, as much as we do with (or actually a bit less compared to) other series of the 90s. But to judge this sitcom from today’s perspective would be hugely dishonest as above all, it is a product of its time. All this aside (and without diminishing or excusing its homophobic jokes), at the time it was first released, Friends was the first show to portray a lesbian wedding on primetime television, amongst the first with a transgender character, as well as exploring topics like surrogacy. Chandler eventually grew up to accept his dad, while Ross supported Carol as he walked her down the aisle as she was marrying the woman she left him for. None of this was done perfectly but it was a step, a necessary step that brings us to television a couple of decades later that has evolved (arguably at a glacial pace) enough to have openly gay characters without them being just the butt of the joke.

Finally, unlike other things that you can’t really control, I found that those ten seasons filled with Friends … just being friends, were always there for me at the end (a pun you cannot escape even in 2020). And no matter if the year is 2000, 2010 or 2020, Friends still has that comforting power, that aspirational quality of a life less complicated, one that always looks on the bright side, and will make you laugh no matter what.

What about the fleeting moments of insane happiness then? I find that there will never be enough times seeing The One with the Rumour no matter of the context of my life surrounding the screen.

* All quotes are from Kelsey Miller’s I’ll be There For You. The One about Friends. This was a little Christmas gift that I thoroughly enjoyed – even if you are aware of a lot of the facts and stories mentioned in the book (as were I), it’s still a fabulous read for the Friends fanatics amongst us.