Friends – Looking back 20 years later

2014. It’s the year of big anniversaries. Wars, presidencies, the fall of Communism in Europe…And then there’s one anniversary that Comedy Central has really done a sterling job of beating us round the face with. Yes, at some point during the (too) long vacation, most of us have probably found ourselves grateful for the endless re-runs of Friends gracing our screens 24/7. It’s now been 20 years since we first met the beloved Central Perk gang – and 10 since we left them behind.

It was a difficult breakup. There are few TV-fads in history that the international viewing public has found it so difficult to get over. In our heart-of-hearts, we’ve still not really moved on yet. Friends got the sitcom formula beautifully, impeccably spot-on in a way that productions since have striven to replicate and missed the mark. I had a go at analysing what makes Friends tick even now, 10 years on. 

The Characters

It’s an incredibly cheesy moment in all of our lives, but everybody’s been there: the “Which Friends character are you?” conversation. The nice thing is that this conversation always ends in some form of disagreement. Nobody ends up being 100% Rachel or 0% Chandler. Why? Because the characters in the show are so incredibly multi-faceted that we manage to share something with all of them. You may hate Ross, but let’s not lie; there’s probably something about him that reminds you uncomfortably of yourself.

The actors and directors have done such a wonderful, thorough job of building these characters, each with such a careful balance of strengths and weaknesses that you cannot help but see them as equal. True, we can rank them in order of preference, but nobody can deny that there are consistently six main characters. Meaning that there’s always someone for everyone.

At the same time every character is a perfect individual; each has their own quirks and mannerisms. From Phoebe’s musical gifts to Joey’s aversion to sharing food…could they BE any quirkier? It’s difficult to get six equal characters and keep that uniqueness there. But Friends does it.

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Use of Comedy

Let’s start by making a few comparisons. In Two and a Half Men, the comedy is incredibly recycled. I’ve never sat down and watched a run of Two and a Half Men episodes, because there’s no point. Every episode is built from exactly the same material, and none of them ever seem to be going anywhere. You know precisely what you’re going to get for the full 21 minutes: Charlie hammering on about his sex life (character and actor are entirely synonymous, both equally unlikable), Alan being painfully awkward and enough misogyny to last a lifetime. Then there’s How I Met Your Mother, which I found myself watching for the first time the other day. It’s the kind of show a Friends lover should warm to, being effectively the same programme. But I think it’s trying too hard; the moment the writers find something funny, they milk it for as long as possible until it’s not funny anymore.

Friends treated comedy differently; they’d strike gold, let it go and then, when we were least expecting it, the joke would resurface later in a new, sometimes deeply ironic circumstance (unagi, anyone?). The sheer range of comedic material is huge and delightfully varied, in terms of both content and delivery. There are 236 episodes available to us, but each one has something uniquely special about it; they all manage to be different in some way. So, even though we’ve watched these episodes a million times, we never seem to get bored of them.

Setting

By definition, a “sitcom” means that you’re using same environment for every episode. However, how you use that setting is up to you. A lot of sitcoms overlook this, but there was something so warm and homely about how Friends “looked” onscreen. When we see a Friends soundstage, it doesn’t scream high budget (however high budget it was). Obviously, a great deal of money, time and meticulousness was invested in creating the perfect environment for the gang to inhabit, but it is done with such art that that’s not what you see when you look at the stage. You see the story, and the setting functions solely to compliment it. That’s how it should be. The setting is used to bring out the best in the characters; they make the setting. Monica’s apartment is, in its essence, a wonderful, colourful jumble of “stuff”; a space that truly seems lived in. This is what brings the show alive.

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Most Importantly: It Gets Life Spot On

One thing will never change, and that’s the basic fact that life sucks. Life has its funny way of throwing obstacles at us on a daily basis. Work, family, love…every element has its more difficult moments from time to time. Friends has a wonderful way of making these moments seem a) a little worse for the characters onscreen (making us feel a lot better) and most crucially, b) funny. Whether it’s Chandler’s espresso-fuelled break-up with Janice, Joey’s endless struggle to fulfil his career (who can forget “Ichiban – Lipstick for Men”?) or simply Ross’ epic tanning mishap, Friends has all life-struggles covered.

Even the most depressing scenarios are presented with an eventual touch of light-heartedness and are an effective medicine for many things in life. Hands up: how many of us have, at some point after a nasty breakup, found temporary solace in a Friends marathon? As Phoebe points out, the gang’s “collective dating record reads like a Who’s Who of human crap”; the show has a delightful way of making us feel like we’re not alone, and really, it’s not all that bad. And as long as life keeps on being a little rough around the edges, there will always be a place in our lives for Friends.