Friends Revisited

(Welcome to Nostalgia Bomb, a series where we take a look back on beloved childhood favorites and discern whether or not they’re actually any good. In this edition: grappling with Friends, the classic sitcom that is as comforting, and as frustrating, as home.)

I do not know where Friends takes place.

After living in New York for a little over a year (albeit in Brooklyn), and having spent several years prior visiting and familiarizing myself with the landscape, I have no idea where Friends, the culturally ubiquitous sitcom that aired for 10 years on NBC from 1994 to 2004, is set. Its frequent establishing shots suggest lower Manhattan, in the East and West Villages, but its actual references to New York landmarks are few and far between, and its attempt to create an artificial version of New York so blatantly casts aside any version of the city that it barely qualifies as an “idea of New York” the way that Woody Allen’s Manhattan or How I Met Your Mother do.

I’ve spent most of my life with Friends. Late nights sick or bored. Friends, with its unchanging landscape and immovable sense of time, its reliably growing or immaturing of its six leads, is insular, never engaging or touching a reality outside of itself, like the Bermuda Triangle of ‘90s sitcoms. And yet, for all of its lack of change, and its consistent hegemony and homogeneity, or because of it, it feels a bit like home.

Admittedly, it’s the kind of home you grow out of and seek to get away from, that’s not necessarily good for you, but nonetheless shaped – for better and/or worse – your view of the world, and, god forbid, your speech patterns (Could I be anymore self-deprecating?). Rewatching Friends once every few years is like returning to Connecticut to remember that Connecticut is kind of trash and boring, and there’s a select part of it that you like, but you mostly find it unbearably myopic and kind of bigoted, and not even in a way that you can excuse with, “It was the ‘90s” anymore.

Ironically, I started rewatching the series again because I finally lived in the place where it ostensibly was set, but the world of Friends has never felt so devoid of an analogous real life location. It’s the home, the family dinner, the small town you mostly don’t like, but where you remember the route to get ice cream better than you know your mother’s cell phone number (in my defense, she keeps changing it). You could fall asleep here, but you’d need to take the train home the next day before you get sucked in.

The One with the Ensemble and Question of “Progressiveness”

Little of Friends seems progressive, per se, and I don’t think that was ever the intention. But even within the context of sitcom history, its formula was simple: juggle its six leads – Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross – so that they are, in one way or another, adhering to some failure of communication. With each other, with lovers, with enemies, with co-workers or bosses or employees. No one is talking straight. Granted, the talking is pretty good; for its first four seasons, its colloquial approach to the close dynamics of its cast, and the impressive chemistry between them, lent the show an authenticity that was, and continues to be, its primary selling point: you want to spend time with these characters not because any of their follies are particularly interesting, or that they’re particularly interesting people (save maybe Phoebe and Joey; what do these people even do again?), but because they seem to genuinely like being with one another.

If the show were a bit more self-aware, it could have been bent as a caustic comedy about horrible people being horrible, but maybe we didn’t need Noah Baumbach on NBC’s primetime schedule. There is an ease and effervescence about the performances for the bulk of series, that the actors know their characters arguably better than the writers do, which is perhaps why it’s been so easy to conflate the careers and lives of its stars with the people they played. Maybe you wouldn’t really want to be friends with Chandler, but the idea of being friends with him was, at least, somewhat entertaining an intellectual game.

Ironically, the authenticity imbued into these characters for 10 years was never given to people people, but, as maybe is the trend for the show, the idea of people. Everyone – Rachel’s rich brat, Monica’s shrill neurotic (I am aware of “shrill” being a loaded term), Phoebe’s ditsy hippie, Chandler’s misanthropic comedian (lord know what he actually does for a living – transponster?), Joey’s lothario actor, Ross’s pathetic paleontologist – is really an outline, and so much of the heavy work seemed to be left up to Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc, and David Schwimmer to fill in the lines. They’re just short of caricatures, but by design.

The One with Phoebe’s Class Discourse

In the time since the characters vacated their unrealistically rent controlled East Village two bedroom, Lisa Kudrow has rightfully be hailed as a comedic genius, with a talent on par (maybe more deserving) with the much ballyhooed and over awarded Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She’s done Web Therapy and The Comeback, and she never feels like she’s doing a different version of Phoebe; rather, Kudrow is just a flexible, talented comedic actor. Kudrow’s Phoebe is kooky, Your One Weird Friend Who, and, more so than Joey, is a placeholder for any discussions (read: lowbrow jokes) it wants to have about class and poverty in New York. She’s weird and we love that she is weird, because, in spite of the fact that Phoebe’s head is constantly in the clouds, she is, along with Joey, one of the most grounded characters on the show.

She’s honest in a way that is coded as a way of survival; her past on the streets, living in destitution after her mother’s suicide, is a cruel kind of texture that rarely feels satisfying as far as character backstory, but it does reveal why she’s as close with the group as she is: friends like these (the show’s original title) are not to be taken for granted. Her devotion, and her flightiness, in relationships feels a little more meaningful because we’re told that she didn’t have much before, which makes every decision a cost/benefit analysis.

It’s never explicitly detailed, not does it actually make much sense, but Phoebe’s arc is a reversal of Rachel’s. The impetus for the show laid out in the pilot was a loose riches to rags joke: spoiled Long Island girl leaves her fiance at the altar and tries to make it in New York, confronting the realities of what that implies by being cut off by her wealthier than thou family, working as a waitress, and hanging out with middle class people. That narrative is thrown out by season three and five, when Rachel gets a job at Bloomingdales and Ralph Lauren, respectively, and while it’s admirable to watch someone who has, so we’ve been told, been so dependent on others become self-sufficient, little of it lands on its own terms.

Conversely, Phoebe slowly, but surely (and with no explanation!), becomes more and more affluent, if only evidenced by her clothing and her spending habits. She has the least steady job out of the entire cast, freelancing as a masseuse, and yet ascends to a financial stability where she can live alone by late season seven (she had previously lived with someone named Denise). And although she’s alienated by her soon-to-be husband Mike’s (Paul Rudd) extremely wealthy family in season nine (he roughs it as a piano bar guy), the implication is that she’s become at least as middle class as the rest of the group.

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