I probably won’t be watching Friends tonight when the long-awaited final episode plays. I say probably because I just might take a look if there’s nothing else going on in my life at that particular moment. I doubt that the show’s creators will mind. After all, being over 40 makes me entirely uninteresting to TV network executives, because the advertisers who support their programs have twigged to the fact that younger people part with their money much more readily than those in my advanced state of decrepitude.
Besides, plenty of other people will be watching, and my lackadaisical attitude is hardly something the makers of Friends can criticize, given the haphazard, meandering lives they bequeathed to the show’s main characters. The program began, of course, as a knockoff of Seinfeld for younger audiences. You had the group of young urbanites, younger initially than Jerry and his pals, and their intersecting stories discussed (endlessly, in the case of Friends) in a place of unnecessary consumption (the diner, Central Perk) and various Manhattan apartments and occasionally other, similar locations.
The big difference between the two shows, however, was not so much generational as attitudinal. The Seinfeld gang, a rather jaded bunch of New Yorkers hurtling toward middle age, were constantly seeking new experiences, especially pleasures, and these ventures resulted in the show’s madcap humor and witty repartee. The comedy was quite situational, rather surprisingly so for a program billed as a “show about nothing.” It was the crazy situations the characters got themselves into that were the driving force of the stories.
The controversial final episode of Seinfeld, in fact, made perfectly clear what audiences should have realized all along: These people were pathologically selfish and inane. The central characters often seemed to have very little affection, if any at all, even for one another. Their complete lack of concern for others was, in fact, the real basis for the humorous situations they fell into. If there was anything nihilistic about the show, ultimately the producers made it perfectly clear that they (the makers of the show) were aware of it. It was a show about people whose lives meant nothing, and as such it was quite meaningful. The producers’ own philosophic position, if we may use so grand a term when referring to the ideas of television comedy writers, was certainly much more wholesome than that of their characters.
Friends, on the other hand, was much more straightforward and, well, friendly. The strength of the show was in its quirky but basically likable and accessible characters. I say “basically likable” because, in reality, I certainly would not wish to be around them–they are far too squirrelly for me. I’d rather have to deal with the openly self-centered Seinfeld crowd. After all, you would know precisely what Jerry and the gang wanted from you–entertainment–and could give it or withhold it as you chose.
The characters in Friends, however, wanted affection, something that is both difficult to give and just as hard to withhold. If you don’t feel affection, after all, it’s hard to fake it; but if you don’t find a way to give it, it’s difficult to justify yourself in a world where being thought to be nice is such an important thing. In such a place, what excuse can I have for failing to “be there for you”? The fact that I find your endless prattle about your love life thoroughly annoying and in fact mind-bogglingly adolescent seems a perfect justification to me, but surely will not appear so to you. Hence, I am forced either to pretend to listen and to refrain from informing you that you are an idiot (which would be the truly loving and helpful thing to do), or I must withdraw. In the case of Friends, I quickly withdrew, unable to watch more than a few episodes during its long, popular run–and even then only as a scientist, with notepad close to hand and dissecting tools always at the ready.
The performers constituting the main cast were quite likable (despite their emotional immaturity), and the program was appealingly filmed and edited. Each episode provided a reasonable number of jokes and sometimes amusing situations–though often off-color. The real appeal of the program, however, seems always to have been the audiences’ affection for the characters. It was an intensely character-driven show.
Friends has always revolved around what the screenwriter-director Preston Sturges called “Topic A.” Consider, for example, the episodes available last night in my area. On TBS we had a 1998 episode titled “The One with All the Kissing,” in which, as the program description put it, “Rachel and Phoebe catch Monica and Chandler in a passionate kiss.” At 7:30 on my local Fox station, we had “The One with the Wedding Dresses,” also from 1998, in which, “Monica and Phoebe pick up Emily’s wedding gown[, and] snorer Joey enters a sleep clinic.” At 11:30 on that same station, “The One Where Ross Dates a Student,” from 2002: “Ross toys with dating one of his students; a curling iron starts a fire in Phoebe and Rachel’s apartment.”
So, what have we here, on an average night of Friends? A passionate kiss espied, preparation for a wedding, agonizing over a dating decision, the hazards of beauty tools, and a snoring problem (and there’s only one reason that could be a difficulty for a single man, wink wink). And lots of talk, talk, talk, and more talk. And all that chitchat is about one thing, mainly, a subject that is a huge concern for high schoolers, of great interest to young adults, and just a part of life for the rest of us. Topic A.
The great American screwball comedy films of the 1930s had Topic A at the center of things, too, but their deft and subtle handling of the subject was light-years away from the explicitness with which the Friends have gabbled about it. Those wonderful romantic comedies of the ’30s–starring extremely charismatic performers such as Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, William Powell, and Myrna Loy–nearly always incorporated some other story line besides the romance, and this work-oriented plot served as the ostensible center of the narrative. The characters used this subject as a proxy for talking about what was really on their minds: romance. That was a good part of the fun, and the situations the characters got themselves into were intrinsically comical.
Today, however, there are few strictures against talking about Topic A, either in real life or on television (alas!). So Friends went to the heart of the matter. Unlike the screwball comedies set against the Great Depression, Friends did not dwell much on the real-life problems involved in making a living, which most of us spend the bulk of our time dealing with. The problems were there, of course, but mostly as impediments to the characters’ search for affection, as in Ross’s worry over dating a student. Similarly, the show’s treatment of childrearing was fitful and eccentric (notably through the depiction of a lesbian couple, but also in Rachel’s pursuit of a love life while caring for an infant).
And what was the outcome of all this talk and the actions that ensued? Not many children, which is what Topic A is supposed to be about, and precious few lasting marriages. No, it was really all geared toward the pursuit of emotional gratification and personal fulfillment, which are very nice things but ultimately rather selfish concerns.
In this way, Friends was an escape for contemporary Americans just as the Depression-era screwball comedies were for their audiences. It was a retreat not into an economic fantasy world of glamour, riches, and independence, as the screwball comedies had provided; the average TV audience member has been quite comfortable economically during most of the show’s run. Instead, Friends provided an escape into an emotional dream realm where people are nice, and care about one another, and pursue sexual gratification from morning until night, however fallible and inept at helping they might be. It was the perfect entertainment for a society that enforced political correctness wherever possible, that instituted the idea that the height of civilization is in pretending to like people whose behavior you find entirely abhorrent, and that was in fact striving relentlessly to establish the rule of niceness.
Little wonder, then, that NBC has been unable to find suitable follow-up to the show. After the horrific events that took place just a little south of the fictional location of Friends in September 2001, niceness does not seem quite so important a matter nowadays. It is no coincidence, I think, that one of the biggest hit TV shows of the past few years is called Survivor.
As a result, perhaps, of this new truth, sitcoms are rapidly being replaced by “reality” television, with its powerful theme of competition between individuals. In addition, the reality television shows have, if anything, stronger, and more distinctive–and certainly more believable–characters than today’s sitcoms manage to provide.
That, of course, was the strength of Friends–characters and their relationships. Reality TV is now providing the same thing, however, at far lower cost. This year, the performers depicting the six main characters of Friends each earned $1 million per episode for the last 18 shows. Contrast that with reality television, where the pay is quite small and the big attraction for a performer is the opportunity to jump to much larger paydays by showing a distinctive personality like that of Omarosa in The Apprentice.
Audiences are still interested in whether Ross and Rachel will finally get together, but with their unimpressive track record–and those of the show’s other characters as a standard–it seems likely that their union will ultimately be of little import. It will surely be nice for them, but we have much more important things to worry about now.