Why do people still love Friends so much?

To be clear, I love Friends. I’ve seen every episode of Friends multiple times. It was a good show, and often a great one. It was such a massive juggernaut hit at the time that it’s inevitable that it would have some staying power – I can’t imagine a world where Friends was forgotten, consigned to the ash heap of history. Anything that big hangs around for a while. Culture doesn’t have a reset button, you just turn it at right angles and draw over what’s already there.

But Friends isn’t just hanging around in the background. It’s still hugely, actively popular. BuzzFeed’s clickbait pop culture listicle/quiz department pumps out posts about Friends on at least a biweekly basis. People get engaged on the Central Perk couch on tours of the Warner Brothers lot. The whole series was recently added to Netflix in Ireland and the UK, and – even though the show finished fourteen years ago, even though it’s been in reruns constantly, unavoidably since then – it was treated as a legitimately big deal.

And that’s weird. It is so far outside of the norm of televisual afterlife that “it’s a good show” doesn’t go a tenth of the way to explaining it.

Most TV doesn’t stick around. Films do: pretty much everybody has seen some films that came out before they were born, maybe hundreds of them. TV has the comparative handicap of how much more of it there is – watching an entire run of a TV show is a big commitment. Even in this era of binge-watching and on-demand, the culture around TV still has an incredible recency bias. Multi-camera sitcoms are treated as an inherently hacky form, despite the decades of TV history that prove otherwise. We act like The Sopranos invented narratives that go beyond the boundaries of a single episode, as if soap operas never existed. Most of us got our sense of what TV was like in the past from reruns, not deliberately seeking it out.

Reruns are an important part of the Friends story. The question isn’t “why would people be so excited to watch Friends when everyone on the face of the planet has seen every episode of Friends?” because I already know the answer to that: it’s the comforting feeling of the thoroughly known and thoroughly loved, a warmth of familiarity without quite enough distance to be nostalgia. If I’m flicking through the stations and a Friends rerun comes on, I’ll linger. Reruns meant a whole generation that grew up with Friends, even if they didn’t grow up alongside them.

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But most shows… fade away. I mean, sure, GOLD will show every British sitcom made before 1990 until the sun explodes, and 80% of the Horror Channel’s slate is Star Trek reruns, but those shows hold a unique appeal for a particular niche and, even then, nobody’s publishing articles about how people are freaking out that some channel is airing Fawlty Towers again. I recently caught a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air rerun, and I was bowled over by the unexpected feeling that I was stumbling across an ancient cultural artefact. It’s not the right aspect ratio for widescreen television, and they used blurred pillarboxing to make it fit, mobile-phone-footage-on-the-evening-news style, instead of good wholesome black bars. It kind of made my skin crawl.

Eventually a show’s reruns peter out. The rights are sold to less and less prestigious stations, until nobody wants to buy them at all. Some of the most popular shows in history don’t make it to air anymore.

This probably seems like a weird case to make in an era when loads of random shows from the 1990s are being brought back to air for no reason at all – from The X-Files to Will and Grace – but all of those shows had faded, and their revivals have been met mostly with shrugs. Seinfeld is still popular, but it’s talked about now almost as a cult show, when it was literally the most popular show in America.

It’s easy to get trapped into thinking that Friends is uniquely popular because it was always uniquely popular. But that’s not true. Friends was the top-rated show in a television season in America exactly once, in 2001-2002. It made the top ten every year, but so did loads of shows that have retained exactly zero cultural cache, like Caroline in the City or Suddenly Susan or Veronica’s Closet or – if you want a show without a woman’s name in it – Mad About You, which hasn’t even gotten a contact high from Friends despite taking place in the same universe (in which, for the record, The Dick Van Dyke Show also takes place). Friends was more popular than those shows, of course, just not uniquely popular. But its current status in the zeitgeist is unique: a show that isn’t just better remembered than Caroline in the City but a show that has no need to be remembered at all. A show that still exists, lives and breathes, over a decade after ending.

“It is, of course, slightly strange that a 20-year-old sitcom still retains such a magnetic appeal,” Adam Sternbergh writes, “For example, Warner Bros. also produced ER, which ran for 15 seasons, but there’s no opportunity, nor likely much demand, to have your photo taken on that show’s authentic gurney, let alone get engaged on it.”

I’m sure that somebody somewhere could conduct an in-depth sociological survey into why we, at a macro-level, still love Friends. I’m sure as hell not going to. But I have a theory.

Lots of people have theories, but few of them consider Friends in the context of television itself. Sternbergh thinks it might be because they don’t have smart phones in Friends, and smart phones stress people out, but that would hold true for any show made before the smart phone era. Ditto general 1990s nostalgia. Michelle Davies thinks it’s because Friends was the first sitcom to really be about a group of friends hanging out, rather than a family, and so it represents striking out on your own with a mix of independence and uncertainty. But Seinfeld and Cheers were both about friends hanging out, and were both arguably more popular than Friends, with series finale ratings outpacing Friends’s finale by tens of millions. Plus, you know, people still have families, and still watch TV about them: The Big Bang Theory is the most-watched sitcom in America, but the next eleven highest-rated all centre on families: Modern Family, The Goldbergs, Black-ish, Kevin Can Wait, Speechless, The Simpsons, American Housewife, The Middle, Family Guy, Life in Pieces and Mom.

Friends, more than anything, represents a very particular moment in television history. It’s the last TV show – certainly the last sitcom – to really be part of the zeitgeist.

Because there isn’t really a zeitgeist to be part of, anymore. Television audiences have been fracturing into hundreds of niches. There’s more stuff – film, TV, video, articles, blog posts – than ever, and that means there’s more choice, and, you’d hope, more chance some weirder, riskier things to sneak through. Maybe so. But what is lost is the experience of a shared culture.

A friend has never heard of the TV show you’re watching; you’ve watched hers but you can’t talk about it because you’re on different seasons. Someone recommends you a film, but you don’t get around to seeing it for two years, because there’s so much other stuff to watch. You can’t possibly understand why anyone would vote for that political candidate when all the articles on your personally curated newsfeed are about the bad things they’ve done.

Culture is fracturing into mutually unintelligible segments, and that means a fracturing of societies, too. I know that those things were never coherent wholes, I know that most grand narratives are built on painting over the ugly parts and that what is meant to be universal is usually white, male and middle-class. Friends is a great example: a show that is constructed to be easily liked, to appeal to everyone, but really has an incredibly narrow field of vision. Maybe the fracturing is more honest, a culture that reflects society.

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But it’s terribly lonely. Televisions mean everyone in the room looks the same way and has the same experience; phones and tablets and laptops mean everybody has a separate, individual experience. There’s something nice in collective experiences, even ones where you’re really alone. There’s something nice in watching a film broadcast on television instead of on Netflix or whatever, and there’s something even nicer in watching a film in a cinema, surrounded by strangers. But those are the kinds of experiences we’re not supposed to want or need anymore.

I think you kind of need a zeitgeist. Imperfect, fractured, inevitably righteously overturned, but recognisable. There’s a scene in American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson where the jury are trying to decide what they want to watch on TV. The black jurors want to watch Martin; the white jurors, Seinfeld. There is no singular cultural whole: it is imperfect and fractured. But every single person in the room has seen both Martin and Seinfeld. They have opinions on the other show: both choices of programme mean something to everyone in that room. A similar scene today could have every person arguing for a different show, and it wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else, like shouting into a void.

When I talk about a zeitgeist, I don’t mean a monoculture, with everybody necessarily watching the same shows. I mean there being a mutual intelligibility, the ability for TV to not just cater to niches but to reveal them to the broader society. Culture is part of how we talk to and about each other, allowing us to describe things that aren’t easily verbalised. Pain can only be described through metaphor; faith, too. In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard gets stuck on a planet where people speak only in metaphors. To communicate, Picard has to reverse-engineer the stories, to grasp the metaphors and create some of his own. Here we are, with culture splitting into a series of parallel tracks, and I don’t know how many of us have Picard’s patience for decoding.

If we believe that art has the power to make you see the world differently – and I do – then that power is diminished when the people most in need of seeing the world differently just don’t watch it. It’s true that Queen Sugar, Ava DuVernay’s TV show, exists in large part because of the TV boom and audience fracturing, with OWN giving it a place where it may never have found one. But isn’t it a tragedy for Queen Sugar to not be able to be a part of the culture-at-large in the way Norman Lear’s social problem sitcoms were? Is progress really progress if no-one’s there to witness it – or if the group that does the witnessing is self-contained, with no spillage over into the collective consciousness?

I think you need some semblance of a zeitgeist, and if you can’t form one, you just kind of hang onto the one that’s already there. You can’t cross-hatch over it, so you scribble in the corners, leaving the big picture intact. Friends remains because nothing’s come to dethrone it.

Dan O’Brien, formerly of Cracked, once did a great Twitter thread that I think about a lot. He traces the evolution of the American sitcom as a series of reactions to the previous generation: “The first sitcoms explicitly told stories while implicitly saying ‘This is what the normal American family is like.’ ‘Here is what we’ve decided a normal American life looks like.’ Story-wise, that baseline created an avenue for Norman Lear and Roseanne to show up & say ‘Uh no, Beaver, you’re wrong.’” All in the Family was a narrative reaction to the idealised American family, Soap and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show were creative reactions against the form of the American sitcom. The Simpsons was an explicit reaction against the family sitcoms of the 1980s. Seinfeld, with its “no hugging, no learning” mantra, was a reaction against the entire sitcom genre. But this evolution breaks down with the creation of the Internet, and a generation of comedy writers that grew up on shows that exist in what O’Brien calls the Eye of the Hurricane, Friends and Frasier and The Drew Carey Show, but aren’t reacting against them, aren’t writing the next step in the sitcom evolution: “Because of explosion of the internet & total access for all, we never got a big chunk of content that existed as a reaction to or rejection of shows made from 1994-2004. Writers who’d grown up on Drew Carey Show weren’t thinking about reacting to it in their writing because they were too busy consuming EVERY PIECE OF ART THAT HAS EVER BEEN MADE, THANKS TO THE INTERNET.”

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O’Brien mostly focuses on the shows that have been forgotten, their traditions abandoned out of disinterest more than rejection. Frasier and The Drew Carey Show, and the “clockwork theatricality” that went with them. But Friends is in an even more bizarre space. There’s never really been a full-scale reaction against Friends in the mainstream – or, at least, in the kind of mainstream that Friends occupied, where it was a show meant for everybody, where any show was meant for everybody – and so Friends just… remains standing.

That evolutionary development will never return. The next generation won’t have any televisual touchstones, to revere or react against. I remember once beginning to say something to a friend of mine about My Wife and Kids, the early-2000s Damon Wayans show, and then stopping myself to ask if he remembered it, because nobody has ever talked about My Wife and Kids in the last decade. He said that of course he did. It makes me sad, that the death of casual watching means the death of having all this random crap you all grew up with together. The death of a common frame of reference.

“Television was splitting into an infinite array of microtastes,” Saul Austerlitz writes in Sitcom: a History, “and Friends was one of the very last series to hold the splintering masses together – or to want to.”

There will never be another moment like “I take thee, Rachel”. There have been moments that are as satisfying narratively, I’m sure, and cliffhangers as cliffhang-y, but nothing will ever reverberate like that again. You can’t go into work and talk at the watercooler about the new episode of Legion, because everybody at work is watching some other constellation of shows, and besides, they haven’t had a chance to catch up yet – and oh, wait, it just got cancelled, so there’s no point in catching up at all.

For the first time in its history, television, especially narrative television, isn’t really communal anymore. It’s positively private. There are gains there, in television that wouldn’t have gotten made at any other time in history, in levels of access and availability, but I think we feel the loss even if we don’t recognise it. We turn to Friends, a show that everyone on the planet has seen every episode of, that feels intrinsically communal because of that, and has a studio audience to let you know you’re not alone. Friends was the last sitcom to enter the zeitgeist, and it might also be the last piece of the zeitgeist to survive.

2 thoughts on “The One Where Pop Culture Disintegrates

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