Still Friends, 25 years later

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In this day and age, where trends, morals and perceptions change with exponential rapidity, and something six months old can glibly be deemed ‘so last year’, a ’90s TV show is still worth $100 million. Isn’t that the mark of something timeless?

Blurring the lines between friends and family since September 22, 1994... | Reuters

Even as I write this, the episode of Friends that I watched yesterday is making me grin. Ross, Rachel and Chandler are trying to manoeuvre a couch up a staircase, guided by Ross’ blueprint for the move and the word “Pivot”. For anyone who hasn't seen that scene, this might seem unremarkable (I mean why laugh at something so mundane, right?). But that is the USP of Friends — to make simple things hilarious, and to inject comedic value into incredibly serious real-life situations.

I am one of the very many fans of the show who own Friends paraphernalia, who keep watching re-runs whenever they are down, and who quote Chandler more often than they should.

Friends came into my life as I was just beginning to understand about American sitcom culture. I jumped onto the sitcom bandwagon much later than most urban youth of that era. Having grown up in a tier-II city, my staple entertainment was usually Tamil cinema and the occasional English flick translated into horrible Tamil. So when a cousin from Hyderabad one day said to me, “You absolutely have to watch Friends,” I nodded gullibly (He would also made me watch The Ring, which would make me swear off horror films). And there was no looking back. The café, the friendships, the characters, all fascinated me and I, like millions of others, became a religious follower of the show.

 

 

 

It was already in its seventh season when I first caught the bug. And before the word ‘binge’ had even made its way into regular parlance, I was watching the episodes back-to-back. When Rachel and Ross started dating, I hopelessly waited for their first kiss. When Chandler and Monica “hooked up”, I was scandalised as well as excited. And when Phoebe gave away her kids, I confess, I cried. At a time when sitcoms were all about the feel-good factor, Friends wasn’t afraid to add real heartache to its otherwise sheer LOL-able script.

The show diligently gave equal importance to each of the main characters. If we thought Ross and Rachel were the best, then in came Joey with his badly-timed proposal to Rachel. If we felt sad for Phoebe’s surrogacy predicament, in came Chandler and Monica’s revelation that they were unable to have a baby. In a way, this sums up the motto of Friends — you may be dim, ditzy, insecure, eccentric, compulsive, or a divorce force, but the camera doesn’t discriminate. For me, though, Chandler will always be the character closest to my heart. His dark humour, his childlike friendship with Joey and his way of being able to laugh at himself is a perpetual mood-lifter.

 

 

I don’t really have to say profound things about the show when its main draw is really that it never fails to make you laugh. And that is an accomplishment all by itself. Why else would Netflix buy the rights of a two-and-a-half-decades-old show for — ahem — $100 million in 2019? It also happens to be the second most-watched on the platform. (An interesting tidbit here: a former employee of Robert De Niro’s production house is alleged to have watched 55 episodes of the show over four days. That said, I am pretty sure there are other enthusiasts with a similar, if not better, record.)

Friends changed the television landscape of modern America. But its cultural impact was felt across the world. Television viewers across continents were acclimatised to the idea of young people at an upscale café and all they do is... hang out! Sure, there are majorly dramatic plot twists, and the characters are all fairly relateable, but what made the show so powerfully fascinating is its quintessentially ‘90s American lifestyle mixed with the amazing chemistry that the six characters clearly shared and recreated on screen.

The show has had many ups and downs. While, in my opinion, the first three seasons are not up to par with the latter ones, the smoothness of their plotlines and authenticity of the events easily make up for it. It was only later that we got some of the show’s most memorable moments — cases in point: Ross’ Unagi and Chandler’s “can I interest you in a sarcastic comment?”

 

I have grown up and aged with Friends. When Ross cheated on Rachel, I remember raging about it to my friend. I swore that he could not be forgiven. But then, when he snoozed over Rachel’s letter, it struck me as one of the high points of the show. That, right there — the ability for a work of entertainment to be able to make us laugh over a breakup, and prevent us from taking sides while taking sides — is probably what kept the show going for so long. And this is not to say that the show wasn’t serious enough. Remember Monica and Chandler’s proposal? Or Phoebe crying over her babies before giving them away? David Crane and Marta Kauffman knew just when to tickle you and when to make you cry.

And then there were the quintessential quirks and catchprases (“how you doin’?”, “could something BE more something?”, “We were on a break!”) to make sure that the characters became relateable and stayed that way thanks to regular reiteration. Granted, there have been spinoffs — and hints of a reprise — but I think the old magic is something that should remain untouched.

Today, as the PC culture has gathered steam, Friends comes in for a fair bit of criticism. Was it too harsh on blondes? Was it homophobic? Did it stereotype people? Here’s what I say to it — isn’t that the case with any piece of entertainment that is old? As time passes by, cultures evolve as do our perceptions. A side-splittingly funny skit might seem offensive and split us into sides when we rewatch it 10 years later. But, I personally won’t let this dilemma force me into detracting from what the show does for me — it makes me smile invariably. It has been my go-to succour after a bad day and, till date, never failed me in that regard. I would say that is a pretty good win for something that is 25 years old.

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