WHY “FRIENDS” NEVER LEAVE
Writing a sitcom that all generations love
Friends is still one of the most-watched TV series of all times even 26 years after its creation. The series was for the first time broadcasted in 1994 and ended in 2004, 236 episodes through 10 seasons.
It’s a series that stirred up the sitcom world in the ’90s because it broke with some of the structures established at the time. It was also one of the first series to talk about unconventional issues of that era like gay marriage. However, today many of the jokes and dialogues of the series could be labelled as homophobic and sexist among other things which are unacceptable nowadays. Despite everything, the series is not only remembered by those nostalgic of the ’90s. Friends still gets daily fans and even manages to get the attention of new generations.
The industry knows, Friends sells and a lot. Proof of that is the odyssey that Netflix lived to have the series in its catalogue. In 2015, Netflix paid WarnerMedia $30 million per year to acquire its streaming rights. When the streaming platform announced that the series was going to leave Netflix on January 1, 2019, fans raised against it on all social networks. Encouraged by the possible loss of subscriptions, Netflix acquired the rights for another year only for a modest price of $100 million. Nevertheless, Netflix lost the battle when WarnerMedia decided to launch its own streaming platform, HBO Max, and secured the series exclusive rights for five years for $425 million. Therefore, in the United States Friends cannot be streamed on any platform until the HBO Max official launch this spring. In some areas, the series is still available on Netflix, HBO and Amazon Prime. Until when? Nobody knows, but they will probably end up losing the rights.
Both the audience and industry continue to have a clear interest in the series that seems to never go out of style. Friends right now is, if possible, more popular than when it lasted in 2004. What captivates us so much about the series that makes us binge-watch it over and over again?
MAIN THEME ABOVE ALL
Before Friends, the dominant theme of many of the most popular series was family. Marta Kauffman and David Crane, the creators of the series, knew how to fill a gap that would make many people feel identified. The original series pitch for NBC made it clear: “It’s about friendship because when you’re single and in the city, your friends are your family.”
Friends is about a group of six friends that meet in a cafeteria to talk about their jobs, their love relationships and sex. However, the same title is a declaration of intent. The first title version was “Insomnia Café”, then evolved to “Six of One”, “Friends Like Us” and, finally, “Friends” which is much simpler, shorter and perfectly explains what it is about. Because, although the series characters fail at work and their hearts get broken, Friends is still about how to overcome those moments thanks to friendship. That is the principal theme that prevails over everything else and is a universal concept.
VERY RELATABLE CHARACTERS
Another reason why Friends is so successful is that it’s super easy to relate to its characters. We all have said or heard many times: “Which Friends character are you?”. Each character’s personality is so varied and so well defined that it’s inevitable to relate the characters to people of your group of friends.
All the characters have a principal trait that defines them: there’s the sarcastic Chandler, Joey the handsome, the arrogant Ross, the controlling Monica, the eccentric Phoebe and Rachel the posh. These traits follow them in absolutely everything they do. For example: if each character had a date, each scene would be completely different between them. They would react according to his or her main attribute, and that would mark the dating course.
Besides this main trait, all of them have another characteristic that balances the main one. Chandler uses sarcasm as a defence mechanism as he actually is an immature and very dependent person. Despite being handsome, Joey is pretty dumb. Which, on several occasions, has deprived him of maintaining a stable relationship. Ross is an arrogant professor but with a tremendously sentimental side. Monica is, without a doubt, the wisdom voice. Besides Phoebe’s oddities, this character has a golden heart. Finally, Rachel is the typical friend that you can take everywhere so, although being posh she’s very outgoing.
They not only have a principal trait and a characteristic that works as a balance, but also each of them has other peculiarities that end up forming the character. One quality that all Friends’ characters share is that they’re freaks. It doesn’t matter how eccentric they are because that doesn’t take us away from the characters, but it brings us closer to them.
I personally believe that some of the jokes’ success has to do with the fact that it’s a series that makes us participate actively. Not only because of its fast pace and mathematically calculated jokes but because it makes us feel like we belong to that group of six friends.
Everyone has inside jokes in their group of friends. The series invites you to be part of that group and their inside jokes so that you, then, use those jokes inside your own group. ¿How many times have you repeated with your friends “We were on a break!”, “Unagi”, “How you doin’?” or “Pivot!”?
The series shot on the set of Warner Bros studios in Burbank, California. Its set had an area for the public where the canned laughs where recorded. At the very same moment, screenwriters modified and rewrote gags based on the public reaction. Another key aspect of the gags was surrealism. The series screenwriters took reality and exploited it to build many of the jokes creating surreal scenes that make the public crack up.
Friends used scenes that collided with reality and were quite quirky because they made us laugh and were difficult to forget. Everybody remembers that first episode where Rachel breaks into the Central Perk wearing a wedding dress. Not to mention Joey wearing all Chandler’s clothes, the Thanksgiving scene with the turkey head or even when the group of friends sings along “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” to say goodbye to Marcel, the monkey who becomes famous. They’re great impact jokes because they’re exaggerated and sitcoms benefit of that.
Friends is an easy-to-watch series, and that is one of the things that makes it so popular. It perfectly understands how sitcoms work and, most importantly, why people like sitcoms.
People like to entertain themselves. That is something quite evident that not everyone understands. Sometimes it seems like we have to justify ourselves for watching something that “doesn’t make us think” when we should value the quality itself. The reality is that we watch series and screenwriters write series to entertain us, it’s basic. “Friends” knows to address to that public that all they want to do after a long day is to disconnect.
The series aired before the internet explosion and the popularization of social networks. The main characters held existentialist conversations about the fear of future or maturity but from a very simple and innocent point of view. And that innocence is what catches and moves us. Unlike other current sitcoms such as Girls or Fleabag, Friends doesn’t have a dark tone nor intends to delve too deeply into existentialist issues. The series reminds us of an age where everything was, or at least seemed, easier.
Friends offer us an idealized version of life that, although we know it’s not real, we buy because we would like it to be. Cook, waitress, masseuse, actor, professor and, nobody really knows what Chandler does! But, for sure, none of the characters have any kind of profession that could afford the rent of a flat like the one they live in New York. No one in their twenties could afford to live in an apartment like that in Manhattan! It’s also not very realistic the time they spend at the Central Perk or how they exchange flats as they were t-shirts.
The series proposes an accurate view of the problems that many young people face on their way to adult life but with an idyllic touch. Which, instead of bothering us, makes us love it.
Apart from all the elements mentioned above, there’s an aspect that also contributes quite a lot to make the series prevail during time… the cast. Taking into account that the series had six main actors it was unlikely that everyone had the same chemistry between them. However, a miracle happened. The actors not only had chemistry on set but outside it. From creating their own union to request a salary raise to meet every Thursday to watch Friends, the actors took the series premise very seriously.
It’s funny how Friends’ characters lived in a world where social networks didn’t intervene and how ironically now social networks are helping the phenomenon to never get old. When last year, Jennifer Aniston, finally joined Instagram and also posted a picture with the group, social networks went crazy. Later on, the same happened with the disappeared Matthew Perry. Not to mention the rest of the photos that, for example, Courtney Cox shared hanging out with the cast.
Friends has always been a series for real fans that always made a lot of noise. After insisting a lot, Warner Bros confirmed that the long-awaited reunion of the characters will happen in their new streaming platform HBO Max. However, it would be a one-hour non-fiction program where the creators and the cast will meet. Each actor will be paid $3 or $4 million only to appear in the show and that, probably, will not be so expensive for Warner.
In conclusion, Friends is one of the few series that doesn’t expire. Would it have been so successful nowadays? Probably not. However, it has managed not only to remain one of the most-watched series but to win an audience that it didn’t have before. Friends it’s a curious and quite rare phenomenon that actually responds to very basic rules on a sitcom.