Why you can’t like ‘Friends’ if you like ‘Seinfeld’

While at a basic level, both shows are about close-knit groups of friends, one could not be more different from the other

April 08, 2022 03:16 pm | Updated April 09, 2022 08:55 pm IST

‘Seinfeld’ is noir in the garb of a sitcom, with nary a character possessing a single redeeming feature.

‘Seinfeld’is noir in the garb of a sitcom, with nary a character possessing a single redeeming feature.

It began with a WhatsApp conversation with a friend the other day. We were talking about favourite TV shows, and the friend said she liked Friends, while I, desisting from saying what I usually do when the show is mentioned, simply said Seinfeld was my favourite. (I have many favourites. I thought of Seinfeld because both shows were popular at about the same time, and constantly pitted against each other.

When she responded, “OMG, I loveSeinfeld, too,” throwing caution to the winds, I remarked that it was an impossibility. She said, “Why not? Both shows are about close-knit groups of friends, aren’t they?”

While at a very basic level that could be a similarity, you can’t in any real sense like both Seinfeld and Friends, I posited (although I rarely posit, presuppose or predicate), presenting what I thought were strong pieces of evidence for why the twain would never meet. She responded with some evocative emojis. The discussion came to a civilised end.

Happily selfish

Why did I find what my friend said so wrong? After all, that both shows are about a group of friends who spend all their time with each other is a pretty accurate summation, isn’t it? Because, while being an ‘accurate’ definition, it’s a woefully inadequate one.

While both shows are indeed paeans to old friendships and camaraderie — brought on more by exclusion than inclusion — Friends valorises, glamorises, idealises and romanticises togetherness, whereas Seinfeld unapologetically celebrates what such a brand of togetherness really is: utter selfishness.

Rachel, Ross, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe and Joey (arguably the most recognisable fictional names in TV history), in the vein of the Seven Dwarfs, could just as easily have been named Frivolous, Nerdy, Tight-ass, Snarky, Flaky and Thick, respectively, for that was how identifiably their makers branded them. But it wouldn’t require close examination to figure that despite their supposedly diverse ‘USPs’, they were all just the same person: loyal, reliable, giving, and selfless when the situation demands. And good-looking. They saw themselves that way, too, with no irony whatsoever. A diligent mix of these noble qualities, the show tells us, is the glue that holds them together. Plus their good looks, of course. They could each be with anyone they wanted; they chose to be with each other.

Jerry, Kramer, Elaine, and dear abominable George, on the other hand, are together — and stick together — because they are aware of each other’s and their own deep-rooted self-centredness. If they were to be named after their chief characteristics, they would be Subtly Selfish, Eccentrically Selfish, Timidly Selfish and Unabashedly Selfish. They don’t pretend to be anything else, and the writers don’t see them as anything but. The glue that holds this bunch together is convenience. Jerry, for a ‘persnickety’ guy, is a pretty tolerant one who allows his friends to traipse in and out of his apartment at will. And that becomes the meeting point for a bunch of misfits who have merely gravitated towards each other. Their togetherness hasn’t required much effort, nor has there been much choosing involved. But the most important factor of their inextricability is that no one else can tolerate them above a day.

If Friends is an American version of a Sooraj Barjatya film disguised in ’90s New York attire pretending to be a comedy, Seinfeld is noir in the garb of a sitcom, with nary a character possessing a single redeeming feature.

Friends ends with the clique (mostly) unsingle, happily domesticated, turning back with one last tearful look at their favourite hangout, Central Perk. Their special, exclusive, six-member-only bond — and their good looks — have ensured them a happy ending. In that last scene, we know they will go their separate ways… but will always stay in touch. And — as the title song goes — will be there for each other through childbirths, sicknesses, graduations of offspring and, heaven forbid, divorces, too. Till the end of time. And if we are lucky, they will reunite (for astronomical fees) in Friends: The Movie or Friends 2.0 and allow the fawning public to bask in nostalgia.

Friends appeals to the Indian idea — young and old — of family and friendship.

Friends appeals to the Indian idea — young and old — of family and friendship.

Refreshingly unsentimental

Seinfeld ends with the four friends in jail, put there by all the people they have excluded, victimised and walked over, finally incarcerated for the worst crime of all, one they have been getting away with for nine seasons: their irredeemable selfishness. We can see they have no future. They will serve their terms, and chances are they’ll reunite at a seniors’ facility in Florida, Del Boca Vista perhaps, still single, to spend their twilight years in joint, anonymous, selfish misery. Because no one else can or will have them.

The ending is a refreshingly unsentimental antithesis to all long-running TV shows which say goodbye with self-conscious, self-referencing last looks at the now iconic set where it all happened as if to say, ‘look, how great we were, this is where we made history’ before tearfully closing the door for the last time. To say the two shows are similar because they are comedies about cliques is like saying No Time to Die and Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery are both films about British secret agents who aren’t conventionally good-looking. To be able to like both Friends and Seinfeld is to admit you haven’t watched either anything but superficially.

That Friends has takers by the million in India, and is constantly trending here, is no surprise. That the takers belong as much to my generation as their offspring is no surprise either. It appeals to the Indian idea — young and old — of family/ friendship. It features good-looking people who are ‘cool’ and ‘modern’ as suggested by their choice of attire and lingo, but who are ‘warm’ and ‘traditional’ when it comes to values like loyalty and reliability. Despite their jumping into bed with each other, they are squeaky clean. Despite the periodic appearance of Rachel’s nipples through her tight tees, they are conservative. Friends is how Indians see themselves. A blend of modern and traditional (and good-looking). Whereas Seinfeld is who we really are, without the wit or self-awareness — anarchic, inelegant, and pathologically self-obsessed.

Remember the Seinfeld episode where George’s fiancée Susan dies? She ingests a deadly toxin while licking the dodgy glue on the envelopes of their wedding invites; skinflint George has bought the cheapest stationery.

Jerry, Elaine and Kramer rush to the hospital to be by their friend’s side. They are sympathetic. For a minute. Soon, they mumble an excuse and fade away, leaving an abject George to take care of things. And Seinfeld fans will tell you that George, too, would have done exactly the same in reverse. Can you imagine such a situation in Friends? Would the tragic death of a principal character’s fiancé be handled with such utter irreverence?

In another Seinfeld episode, while standing in line at a theatre, Elaine learns that her boyfriend has met with an accident and is in hospital fighting for his life. Does she rush off to be by his side? Not exactly. She completes the task at hand (getting herself a box of Jujyfruit) and then ambles across.

That is so us. Come what may, Indians will look out for Number One: themselves. Whether flood, famine, pandemic, or alien invasion, we must perform that puja, attend that wedding, or waddle off fatly on that vacation. Why? Because it was on our agenda, dammit.

Yet it is Friends we love. In our heads, we are the Sassy Sextet: caring, witty, loyal and good-looking. Not like the selfish and somewhat scruffy Seinfeld lot.

Comedy’s enemy

When Friends came out, I watched it like everybody else. And I liked it. But I didn’t adopt it for life like all of India has been doing. (Or like I did with Seinfeld.) I didn’t know why then. I do now. Sentiment. I find sentiment to be comedy’s worst enemy. Or, for that matter, of all art.

What would Chaplin be without his sentiment, you might ask. Good point. But there’s a principal difference between Chaplin sentimentality and the Friends variety. It’s who the sentiment is reserved for. Chaplin was a champion of the downtrodden. He was them, a tramp. His sentimentality seemed like it was for himself, but he was speaking for an entire social class. In Friends, they are sentimental about themselves. And given their looks, health, money and privilege, this is not just off-putting, it’s offensive.

We can see why the show is so popular in India. It appeals to privileged, self-obsessed, English-speaking urban Indians who go to good schools funded by Daddy & Mummy, marry similarly entitled folk, and go off in cool clothes to sip wine on foreign vacays. Just look at the pictures on social media. Go to a café or beach resort. See the fuss the privileged make about themselves. I am yet to go to a wedding in recent times where the couple doesn’t think they are starring in a romcom biopic, and we are all cheering extras called in to fill up the background of their big-budget spectacle.

While Chaplin’s art is forgiven for being maudlin because it comforted the disturbed, Friends commits the unforgivable sin of comforting the entitled. But Seinfeld, like the best satire, does it best. It embraces the fact that everyone is shallow. When we like Seinfeld, we accept that we, too, are profoundly shallow. And when we do that, well, we have to dislike Friends.

A friend’s friend asked me recently, smiling knowingly, “So, in this group of yours, you are more Chandler than Joey, right?”

“Wrong,” I said. “I’m Gunther.”

“C’mon,” he said.

“Actually, I’m Newman,” I


“Who’s that?” he asked.

I rest my case.

The writer is a novelist, columnist and screenwriter.

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