I’VE NEVER BEEN a big fan of reunions. All they seem to reaffirm is the wisdom of Heraclitus. Heraclitus? Yes, the ancient Greek philosopher who wrote: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
Now, it’s an open questions as to whether Ross, Chandler, Joey, Phoebe, Monica and Rachel were ever great readers of Heraclitus (although, you know, Ross was a pretty academic kind of guy). What’s even more doubtful, of course, is whether the actors who played these most famous of friends ever dabbled in ancient Greek philosophy. That being the case, it was probably a bit hopeful to expect them to turn down the huge money involved in bringing all the characters back together for one, last “reunion” episode.
Mind you, they were a pretty remarkable ensemble, and they did manage to stamp a whole decade with their very own brand of cultural ink. So, you know, why not?
Why not! Seriously? Because the politico-cultural river has flowed on so far from that first episode of “Friends”, screened way back in 1994. In those days, it was still possible to gather together three white guys and three white girls from the suburbs of Middle America and drop them into a quirky “twenty-something” sitcom without being accused of unforgiveable cultural myopia and unconscious racism.
Judging from the intensity of the Twitterstorm which the “Friends” reunion has generated, there’s a whole generation out there which feels deeply embarrassed by the enjoyment their younger selves derived from following the trials and tribulations of Ross, Chandler, Joey, Phoebe, Monica and Rachel. Long before they made it to college and learned all about white male privilege, cis sexuality, and systemic racism, “Friends” represented something pretty close to the ideal of how they wanted to live. Sure, the series celebrated independence, discovery and adventure – but always within the context of the unconditional emotional support endlessly available from these all-too-human explorers of young adulthood.
As Chandler might have put it: “Could anyone have possibly BEEN more selfish?”
Well, no. Not really. But that selfishness was an absolutely crucial aspect of the 1990s zeitgeist. Most of the humour of “Friends” is derived from the ever-so-slightly fucked-up self-absorption of the principal characters. Just as most of the series’ dramatic power derives from the six friends’ constant collision with the core truth that, in spite of everything we’ve been told, we can’t actually make it on our own.
The other reason for “Friends” extraordinary success was the way it taught a whole generation of white, well-educated, middle-class Americans how to negotiate the hazards of neoliberal society. Not an easy project, and one that would be rendered instantly impossible if any considerations other than those of how to be a member in good standing of the professional-managerial class had been introduced to the self-contained world of the Central Perk.
Seriously, what the hell would Ross, Chandler, Joey, Phoebe, Monica and Rachel have done if they had witnessed the murder of a black man by a dead-eyed cop? How would a hopeless methamphetamine addict have been received by Gunther? How would rape, domestic violence and gross economic exploitation have fitted into the comedic schema of “Friends”? How long would the friends of “Friends” have remained friends if these sorts of issues had suddenly become the main topics of conversation over all those café lattés? There aren’t a lot of laughs in injustice. At least, not a lot of laughs for liberals.
And yet, and yet, it had something – didn’t it? “Friends” had a human warmth and a core of decency that, through all the jokes and ridiculous personal crises (We were on a break!”) served a consistently uplifting didactic purpose. Not the least important of these lessons was that it is actually okay to hang out with people of the same age, sexuality, ethnicity and social class. It’s what humans have done pretty much since there were humans. In a capitalist society, where the advertisers’ dollars pay for everything from Chandler’s shirts to Phoebe’s guitar, it’s simply not reasonable to expect intersectional purity on every page of the script.
At least, it didn’t used to be reasonable. Nowadays, with “colour-blind casting” (an Indian Nicholas Nickleby anyone?) and every cast carefully sifted through the sieves of gender, ethnicity, sexuality and class (does anyone actually watch “The Irregulars”?) one is moved to wonder whether profit is even the point anymore. The thing to remember, however, is that didacticism only works when you cease to be aware that you are being taught.
“Friends” taught us about the importance of companionship in the perilous straits of early adulthood. But, it did not achieve this entirely worthy objective by hitting us over the head with the sledgehammer of fashionable ideology. It did it by making us laugh and, on occasion, cry. The millions and millions of people who watched (and still watch) “Friends” did so, and do so, because they saw/see themselves in the characters. Even people who aren’t well-educated, white and middle-class are somehow able to do this. How? Because Ross, Chandler, Joey, Phoebe, Monica and Rachel are recognisably human types.
If the writers of “Friends”, David Crane and Marta Kauffman, had made Joey black, but not vain; and Monica a lesbian, but not neurotic; would we have laughed so loudly? Hell, would we have laughed at all?
I doubt it. That version of “Friends” would have been a very different river.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 28 May 2021.