How a TV Sitcom Triggered the Downfall of Western Civilization
David Hopkins

I’m delighted to read a contemporary article about Friends that hasn’t been written by a millennial in a poorly executed attempt to eviscerate the show, so thank you for that.

Your analysis of Ross is hilarious — I’d never thought of his character as one who fell in with the wrong group of friends. I don’t agree, but that’s not why I’m responding.

Instead, I’d like to offer up evidence to refute the second (primary?) aspect of your essay: The death of intellectualism and/or the assault on those with “nerdy” tendencies.

I think that 2004, rather than being the start of anti-intellectual era, was in fact quite the opposite. Consider…

In 2006, a mere two years after Friends, Al Gore released An Inconvenient Truth, which arguably kick-started the entire conversation on climate change — a conversation which now involves every country in the world at the highest levels. While his was partially an emotional appeal, Gore’s main tool to engage his audience was science. Devastatingly compelling science.

In 2006, Neil deGrasse Tyson began hosting Nova and went on to become a household name as a popularizer of science with an unprecedented amount of fame considering his topic. Some might argue Bill Nye did more to foster our interest in science, but it’s Tyson’s voice I hear more often.

In 2008, Barack Obama won the White House. How he did it is a story best told by others, but the simple fact that an intellectual candidate won out over McCain/Palin (and again over Romney) suggests that the U.S. public was more open to intellectual values in a post-Friends world.

In the same year, Iron Man became a smash hit and an enduring cultural icon. Yup, a really smart guy who invents his own super-charged exoskeleton to help save the world. Not a guy dressed like a bat who wants to beat on criminals, not an alien with super-powers. A fiendishly clever engineer with enough money to fund a private army.

These are just the highlights that pop immediately to mind. There’s plenty of other evidence to suggest that tolerance in general and nerd culture specifically have been ascendant for most if not all of the 2004–2016 time period (another commenter pointed out the huge success of Big Bang Theory), but I’d like to switch to some personal anecdotes.

As a 46-year-old, I’m exactly contemporary with the cast of Friends. That show was about, and aimed at, me and my cohort. I’m now the father of a teen and a pre-teen (who, as an aside, binge-watched Friends and loved it) and I’ve had the opportunity (as I’m sure you have as an educator) to see first-hand how profoundly things have changed for this generation.

If I had espoused an ongoing interest in Star Wars after the age of say, 11, I would have been ridiculed/teased/bullied by my peers back in the 80s. In fact, I was. Today, being a Star Wars fan isn’t deemed childish — it’s celebrated, and by a huge chunk of the global media-consuming public. Likewise, a taste for other nerdy, science-y shows like Doctor Who would have marked you as a social pariah. Today? My son’s school has a Doctor Who fan club. And a chess club. And a debating club. And a social justice club. And an LGBTQ-straight alliance…. and none of the students are made to feel bad by their peers for joining any of them. I’d say that’s a big win for Ross and every kid who can relate to him.

So while it’s fair in the current environment of mindless Trump boosterism to feel that intellectualism has been dealt a huge and possibly fatal blow, it’s not fair to connect the themes within Friends as any kind of catalyst. In fact, what I think we’re seeing is the continued hollowing-out of the middle of our society, leaving only anti-intellectualism on one side and a deepening appreciation of sane, well-reasoned scientific and at times nerdy discourse on the other side.

Don’t let the anti-intellectuals with their reality-TV obsessions, celebrity-worshipping ways and choice of political leaders convince you that science, reason, and intelligence are on their death bed. It’s simply not true.

And don’t blame Friends. It was a fun show that still makes us laugh, even if the easy-going, relatively care-free Clinton era that birthed it now feels like a distant memory.

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