The moral fabric of America is falling apart, say the social conservatives. They have said it forever and are known for overdoing it, but by nearly any standard of morality, they have been right.
Illegitimate births have been rebranded “out of wedlock” and have been steadily increasing for decades. Marriage is increasingly treated as a trite display of affection. Wanting to have a family is seen as old-fashioned because it’s not conducive to living in a high-tech city with trendy restaurants and cramped high-rise apartments. Few Americans are engaged in civil society, and fewer Americans can name more than one close friend. The ideal American life is more often depicted as one of individualism, independence, and money than it is of family, faith, and community. Alongside these trends, drug addiction and suicide have skyrocketed. Correlation may not be causation, but it is something.
Rather than “speak truth to power” by commenting on this decline, our pop culture cheers it on. One of the best examples of this is the TV show Friends, which is airing its reunion show with the original cast on HBO Max tonight.
Author David Hopkins has written that the original 1994–2004 series “triggered the downfall of Western civilization.” This is purposeful overstatement, and his purpose is good. The show is pernicious, cynical, and contemptible.
Whittaker Chambers wrote a scathing review of Atlas Shrugged containing these words: “Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.” For Friends, only one word needs to be changed. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its sympathy is without appeal.
I don’t sympathize with a single character in the show. But, boy, the writers sure want me to. I’m supposed to feel bad for Joey, an absolute moron clinging to a hopeless, childish acting dream. I’m supposed to feel bad for Chandler, who apparently does nothing with his life except be sarcastic. I’m supposed to feel bad for Ross, a pathetic, whiny crybaby of a man. I’m supposed to feel bad for Monica, a control freak with nothing to show for it. And I’m supposed to feel bad for Rachel, who has no redeeming qualities I can find except being extremely physically attractive — the type of person for whom no one ever feels bad.
I’m supposed to sympathize with these losers. The writers are whispering in my ear, “Put yourself in their shoes, compare these people to your own friends.” That would be an insult to my friends.
These characters are put together and called “friends,” which I can’t understand. They certainly wouldn’t be friends for long in real life. The constant tone of derision in all their conversations would split them apart faster than a maul splits a log. The permeation of the acts of procreation throughout the group would never withstand the harsh light of reality.
One scene in particular is the epitome of this dynamic. Ross finds out that his sister, Monica, and his best friend, Chandler, began a sexual relationship on a trip to London and have been engaging in it behind his back for quite some time. Upon finding out, he is justly outraged. But when Chandler and Monica say they love each other, Ross instantly flips to being sentimental and joyous. The moral of this story, I guess, is: “‘I love you’ makes everything turn out okay because, hey, that’s what friends do.”
This is how love is treated in the show. It’s little more than the primal, animalistic urge for sex. The only person who really seems to aim higher is Ross, who is promptly punished by the writers for doing so with two farcical marriages. By depicting relationships this way, the writers implicitly embrace the idea that American society is declining, but instead of mocking the errors, they pile on.
They drive it home with the prevailing ethic of laziness that characterizes the show. Marx envisioned a society where no one would work and everyone could hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and talk about literature in the evening, but he never could have imagined that a modernized version of that pipe dream would be exactly what millions of Americans would perceive through their TV screens in primetime. The characters of Friends live an insanely expensive and carefree lifestyle and hardly have to work to achieve it.
As with Ross’s love life, the writers punish the only character who consistently tries to work, Joey, by making employment a Sisyphean task. If only the unbearably dull character is trying to work, then why should anyone? That’s what Americans need to hear: “Work is for stupid people. The smart, sexy people don’t work.” Maybe I’m just a grumpy old fart who needs to understand it’s just TV. But really, there is no reason for Friends to be as depraved and hollow as it is.
For example, Seinfeld is hilarious and generally harmless. The characters of that show are better friends than the “friends” of Friends. George Costanza is a complete loser, but you aren’t expected to feel bad for him. He’s a loser, and that’s the joke. He is employed everywhere, Elaine always works, and Jerry Seinfeld is playing a fictionalized version of himself trying to make it big as a comedian in New York City. Though it rarely amounts to anything, there’s aspiration and work. The attitude toward love is cynical, but it isn’t central to the show, and love isn’t mocked from on high as in Friends.
Finally, the tone of Seinfeld makes it clear that while parts of it are social commentary, you are never supposed to take it too seriously. You aren’t expected to put yourself in Jerry’s shoes. Just watch and be entertained; it’s TV, after all.
The final paragraph to Chambers’s aforementioned review of Atlas Shrugged begins with these words:
We struggle to be just. For we cannot help feel at least a sympathetic pain before the sheer labor, discipline, and patient craftsmanship that went to making this mountain of words. But the words keep shouting us down. In the end that tone dominates. But it should be its own antidote, warning us that anything it shouts is best taken with the usual reservations with which we might sip a patent medicine. Some may like the flavor. In any case, the brew is probably without lasting ill effects. But it is not a cure for anything.
I, too, struggle to be just. Friends was a huge hit and has remained popular enough to warrant a reboot. I want to find it funny; I want to laugh with my fellow Americans. But the show keeps shouting me down.
The moral fabric of America has been falling apart for quite some time, and — Hopkins’s line notwithstanding — Western civilization will not fall because of a sitcom. But Friends is not a cure for anything. American pop culture basks in contemptible depravity and cynical shallowness, but, like the proverbial foolish teenager, we never think it can come back to hurt us. If you feel like you’re always stuck in second gear, maybe it would be wise to remember the eye is the lamp of the body.