The End of an Era, You Might Say
Upon the twentieth anniversary of Friends, I long for a sitcom world that is fading away
Friends, that multi-camera, laugh-track sitcom, too often minimized as conventional from the vantage point of television’s New Golden Age — with this age’s boundary-pushing depictions of vice, or its mockumentaries replete with self-aware mugging and deadpanning — played a huge role in my life. I was nine when the series premiered in September 1994, and I watched it with burning ardor every week from about fourth grade to the end of high school. I had a friend named Hector in elementary school who was similarly enamored of the series, and I remember recapping episodes with him and my fifth-grade teacher like “The One the Morning After,” a shining example of how deft Friends was with its comedy. The episode contains the most dramatic event of the whole series, the fight between Ross and Rachel after the former’s infidelity, but that weight is beautifully balanced by the unfailing comic relief of the other four players, trapped overnight in the next room: Joey needs a new, “‘take notice’ walk”; the friends ingest depilatory wax for sustenance.
PHOEBE: We could eat the wax! It’s organic.
CHANDLER: Oh, great. Food with hair on it.
PHOEBE: No, not the used wax.
CHANDLER: Because that would be crazy?
If you know Friends, you can easily hear Matthew Perry’s unmistakable intonation: “The hills are alive with the sound … of music!” These are characters that were honed and briskly perfected in season one, and even as Friends abandoned the touching struggles of its James Burrows-directed early episodes for the slapstick and burlesque of its latter half (dual meanings of burlesque, with Kathleen Turner guest-starring as Chandler’s father), I loved it all, the mature and the madcap, the thoughtful and the farcical. Some of the most magical moments unfolded from the physical antics: climbing down a high fire escape, flawlessly tipping over on a bicycle, choking on gum in front of Jill Goodacre, pivoting a mammoth couch, snaking under a bed to hide from Bruce Willis, drunkenly handling hot plates without oven mitts — many performed by an underrated David Schwimmer.
The friends actually did cope with problems, too, and those early episodes reliably hit that sweet spot of humor leavening young adulthood’s travails. All six friends, as one example, had to navigate parental conflicts, whether it was Monica with a captious mother’s incessant criticism, which only later became a running gag; Rachel with split allegiances (“The One With the Two Parties,” another instance of that nimble balancing); Phoebe with paternal, and maternal, identity questions; or Chandler with a homewrecking houseboy (“More tahr-key, Mr. Chandler?”).
Furthermore, despite the image that the friends spent too many hours at Central Perk and not in the workplace, where I suppose we all belong — “Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!” writes Ishmael — the group of terrifically gifted writers across the life of the series made sure to give their characters full career arcs. Joey goes from Al Pacino’s butt double to Days of Our Lives to a Vegas shoot for a film that loses funding; Chandler goes from unnameable transponster to bottom-rung internship (Quite prescient?) to successful mid-career switch; Ross goes from museum to sabbatical (“on account of my rage”) to tenured professorship; Rachel goes from her father’s credit cards to Bloomingdale’s to the “Did she get off the plane?” offer by Louis Vuitton in Paris.
It is easy for a fanatic to rattle off these frivolous lists, these minutiae of a world that doesn’t exist but was nevertheless lovingly constructed and enthusiastically adored. In the debate on whether television has recently surpassed film as the dominant cultural medium, TV’s supporters cite the immersive environments and the intricate narratives that ostensibly cannot blossom within the confines of a feature film’s standard length. (Fanny and Alexander’s miniseries version, after all, is richer than its theatrical cut.) I followed these characters over a decade, and I did accumulate pieces from them that summed up to something deeply personal and familiar. I childishly but instinctively raise my defenses when faced with attacks on Friends about realism. The explanation of rent control in the show’s final moments for how Monica could afford her enormous apartment may be dismissed as facile hand-waving, but Ira Sachs’s film Love Is Strange (spoiler alert) presents an equivalent resolution for its beleaguered couple. Why can Love Is Strange deploy an attractive-British-guy ex machina with a production-designed, rent-controlled West Village apartment, but Friends is branded with the label of reinforcing dull fantasy?
Throughout years of dedicated viewing, I missed only a handful of more than two hundred episodes as they aired live on NBC. For the ones I did miss, there was no DVR, just a TV/VCR combo, VHS tape cued, buffer on both sides of the programmed recording time. The communal experience of moviegoing is trumpeted to be worthy of preservation as audiences become more fragmented on their personal devices, and Friends’ “Must See TV” milieu fostered an enviable communality with its truly lightning-in-a-bottle cast and writers, staging their comic theater, at the same time for everyone, on Thursday nights. It was a series so popular that it attracted Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Gary Oldman as guest stars.
Friends’ only Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series was bestowed on its 2001–2002 season. That eighth season premiered immediately in the wake of September 11th, and as artists in every medium grappled with the idea of continuing onward amidst indignation and profound tragedy, Friends proceeded simply and didn’t diverge from its typical late-period recipe of broad comedy, character relationships, and zaniness. As the titular character declares in Sullivan’s Travels: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh.”
I graduated to the not at all real world of the American college as the six comic actors — who, if somewhat maladroit outside of these iconic characters, were all undeniably magnetic, perfect, in them — emerged from their own bubble to a slate of projects of varying quality. Schwimmer directed Run, Fatboy, Run and Trust; Perry seemed to disown Chandler with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip even though the personae of actor and character had long since merged; Matt Le Blanc started his Joey spinoff immediately (which, even as a Friends fan, I thought ill advised) and later found Golden Globe glory with Episodes. As for the actresses, Courteney Cox starred in Dirt and Cougar Town; while gossip rags continue to write opinion pieces on whether Jen can keep a man, Aniston’s film career steadily continues, and her two-season coiffure still endures in popular culture, enough to be referenced in a Pynchon novel; and Lisa Kudrow, probably my favorite, broke my heart while dressed as a cupcake with her aching nuance in The Comeback.
I reflect on Friends as it approaches the twentieth anniversary of its premiere, complete with pop-up Central Perk in SoHo — but I also reflect on it because I am now, to my chagrin, well into the age of the fictional characters I’d grown up with, a temporal gulf once safely nestled in between. Actual age numbers only come up a few times in the series, and the intrepid fan, no doubt, has already constructed the chronology of this universe and found its internal inconsistencies. (Why do Rachel and Chandler not know each other in “The One With the Flashback” when they clearly met in the later aired, earlier set “The One With All the Thanksgivings”?) However, I only remember a few figures. In “The One Where Chandler Crosses the Line,” Chandler buys an entertainment set out of guilt from kissing Joey’s girlfriend. When unsuspecting Joey asks how he could afford everything, Chandler, feigning insouciance, replies, “I’m 29. Who needs a savings account?”
So now that trivia, that insignificant minutia — a cold number — comes back to terrify me in a way that I never anticipated. I was 12 years old on that episode’s air date. How did I ever reach the age of brushing off a savings account? How did the thread of my life continue unspooling forth while make-believe Chandler’s was arrested by the Fates? An odd phenomenon exists within me: in a mind saturated with the moving image, I had tended to think that I’d always be a child, and that any adult on the screen would always be older. I watched Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait this year — a film I think to be quite depressing if you want to ruminate on a life’s mistakes — and I was baffled when I calculated that Gene Tierney was 23 on the film’s release. To me these silver- and small-screen men and women assertively project the invulnerable authority of adulthood, a thing I sorely lack and feel so many decades away from attaining. I was raised with “You can achieve anything with hard work” and came of age in my late twenties, in a recession that’s absolutely merciless on the middle class and a social environment not far from that of Spike Jonze’s Her.
And that social environment is ultimately where my most wistful feelings over Friends arise. I watched six people share apartments, swap apartments, bear triplets, call each other “hon,” teach each other poker and football and sailing, rotate best men and bridesmaids, get divorced thrice, lose jobs, win jobs, move to Westchester — all in the tightest, most intimate support group you can conjure with your writerly skills. And I wonder how much of that is idealization — Annie Hall’s “trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life” — and which exquisitely fortunate people can point and say, “I have that in my life.” In an age when the contact between people listlessly but inexorably drifts, and the gulf between us is a strange, digital one, I write an elegy for the end of an era.