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I Watched All of Friends So You Don’t Have To. Was It Worth It?

Ross. Rachel. Monica. Chandler. Joey. Phoebe. At one point in recent history, they were household names. Now, in the age of streaming services, newer sitcoms, and modernised humour, what is the place of Friends today?

Friends Opening Credits/YouTube
Friends still / Trill Mag

People over a certain age swear by the hit sitcom. I grew up with my parents putting it on in the background. But in recent years, the show has been the subject of much contention, with some requesting to view it as a product of its time, and others critiquing the often stale humour, lack of diversity, and internalised misogyny. Here are my top takeaways from watching all of Friends, all in order.

Note: Spoilers ahead, obviously.

Is Friends actually funny?

Friends still / Trill Mag

We can only appreciate comedy if moments of gravitas are interspersed within. A show cannot be all funny, all the time, or it loses narrative tension. I spent about two months watching the show in its entirety with my mum. My main takeaway is that for a sitcom, the show relies heavily on the use of laugh tracks, sometimes inappropriately.

A key example of this was in Season 3, where Ross and Rachel have their infamous ‘We were on a break’ argument. The episode’s humor utilizes physical comedy, miscommunication, and dramatic irony to prompt some laughs. Yet, at the point of no return for their relationship, the laugh track is placed after a tacky and otherwise irrelevant joke, severely undermining the brevity of the situation.

Also, Friends does what many shows tend to do when the show is nearing its end. It boils down each character to one or two specific humorous traits. This eliminates a lot of the character development and nuance that earlier seasons spent time cultivating.

Monica’s relationship with her parents, culinary ambitions, and desire to start her own family made her one of the show’s most compelling characters. However, she is reduced to a hyperactive woman with implied OCD and fertility issues. No matter how poignantly they handle the latter, all the intricacies that went into crafting her character were lost in favour of cheap comedic relief. Joey and Phoebe receive the same treatment. One-time, well-rounded characters become parodies of themselves.

Nonetheless, there are genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Iconic scenes and sequences, holiday and special episodes, and quotable dialogue render the show humorous at times. So, it would be unfair to dismiss the show as unfunny in its entirety.

What’s up with the women?

Friends opening credits still / Trill Mag

On the one hand, we see each of the three main characters grow up from unsure young women in nascent careers to successful, fulfilled individuals. Rachel starts the show escaping her own wedding with no understanding of how to take care of herself or how the real world works. By Season 10, she has risen up the ranks of a department store, scored her dream job at Ralph Lauren, and gotten an offer from Gucci, all while raising a child.

Meanwhile, Monica ends the show as a successful chef with the children she desperately wanted. Phoebe, who had a troubled childhood, ends the show married to Mike (Paul Rudd). Now, one could argue that this range shows the variety of feminine fulfillment, ranging from starting families to having high-powered careers. But watching the show, I could not help but feel that the three female protagonists tended to centre men in the conversation.

All three women make questionable financial decisions in the show, compared to only one-third of the male protagonists. They make frivolous purchases and prioritise a big fat wedding over other things (Phoebe literally takes money away from a children’s charity!). Rachel admits to stealing the boys Monica had crushes on in their childhood. If these characters are representative of young women in the 90’s, what are the writers saying about women?

I will mediate this by reminding you of the sweet moments of friendship between the three. Rachel, Monica, and Phoebe, at the end of it all, truly loved, supported, and took care of each other. If nothing else, the bond between those three was strong.

While I hate the phrase, maybe Friends does need to be seen as a product of its time. The outdated sexist humour directed at them, cattiness, and stereotypical personality traits can be partially overlooked or tempered by the fact that these three women in their mid-20s didn’t have it figured out. They grow up, and we grow with them.

What sets Friends apart?

Friends set / Trill Mag

One argument against the show in recent years has been the lack of diversity. For a show set in New York City, there is a distinct lack of what makes the city so eclectic. There are maybe two named people of colour, and gay people usually exist as the butt of a joke rather than an actual character.

But Friends is a great example of a show that utilises the disappearing third space. Not at home or at work, the show largely takes place at their coffee house haunt ‘Central Perk.’ Today’s loneliness epidemic is largely due to this lack of third space. We tend to spend most of our time either at work or at home. In the fantasy land of Friends, where they barely go to work and still keep their jobs, it’s a nice way of holding onto that cultural artefact.

However, we cannot deny that for a lot of modern sitcoms, Friends is the blueprint. The show took their characters and – for better or worse – made archetypes. Lots of newer sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother, Brooklyn 99, and New Girl pay homage to Friends.

In shows about young people navigating the big city, Friends archetypes became a sitcom staple. The womaniser, the sensitive male protagonist who just wants to find true love, the quirky friend, the outdoor wedding. Chances are, if there’s something you like in a sitcom, Friends did it first.

So, should you watch it?

Friends reunion / Trill Mag

In short, probably! Is it the best sitcom ever? Probably not. Will your parents laugh much louder than you at it? Almost certainly. But it is ultimately a low-effort, feel-good comedy about six compelling characters and one of the most dynamic cities in the world. Watching it all in order once is great, but it’s one of those shows that can be watched out of context, sporadically, in the background, or with your own friends.

Especially now, as I edge closer to the ages of the titular characters in Season 1, it might make me feel better to see characters as lost as I am and know that it still turns out ok.

Ritika is studying English in London and is thrilled to have the opportunity to try her hand at writing. Her interests are books (duh!), arts and culture, cinema, and things to do in London.

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