How do you get 2018 off to a good start? Watch a TV show from 24 years ago. That’s Netflix’s approach, anyway, as it rings in the new year with the addition of Friends. Yes, Friends, the one with the six 20-somethings hanging out in a New York coffee house. It doesn’t sound like the most exciting of ideas, but the day-to-day lives of Chandler, Monica, Joey, Phoebe, Rachel and Ross have enthralled viewers for decades – and not just the decade that the show was originally on air.
Friends was perfect for its time, arriving just as the point when Generation X concerns could resonate with an audience – and delivered by a cast of new stars just right for the wise-cracking silliness and soap operatics (Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, Jennifer Aniston, David Schwimmer, Lisa Kudrow, and Matt LeBlanc, in case you didn’t know). Following in the footsteps of Seinfeld, it was less bitter and cynical, but was raunchy and modern enough to be cool.
But that doesn’t mean it should still work today: this is a series that existed before the age of social media, before smartphones, before young people were stuck living with their parents under bags of debt, before Tinder. (Read: The One Where We Imagine What Friends Would Be Like if It Took Place Now.) It’s also a show before the media had even considered the importance of diversity, with predominantly white, straight characters dominating the storylines. (Kathleen Turner as Chandler’s estranged father, Charles, is a notable exception to that, as Chandler learned to accept his dad as a drag queen, alongside Ross’ ex-wife, Carol, who is now with her new partner, Susan.)
Nonetheless, the show is still loved and treasured by Millennials and adults. In 2014, when the show hit 20 years old, a pop-up Central Park was set up in Manhattan, leading to mammoth queues to sit on the authentic Friends sofa. In 2018, with Netflix UK shelling out money for the rights to the show, we look back at why the programme continues to work for new audiences:
1. The characters are relatable
Ross. Rachel. Joey. It’s no coincidence that the six characters of Friends have such generic names: they all broadly fit into stereotypes, from Monica’s control freak and Phoebe’s hippy to the shallow, self-obsessed Rachel, the neurotic, nerdy Ross, the “funny one” Chandler, and the laidback womaniser, Joey. But over 10 years, the show turned those stock types into actual, relatable people, who changed and matured in reaction to the events that faced them: this wasn’t a sitcom that reset everything to zero at the end of each episode, but charted long-term arcs for each person, whether it’s Joey starting to find success, Rachel becoming less spoiled, Ross and Rachel getting together (or not getting together), or Chandler growing up from a manchild. It’s seeing that growth that makes them relatable and realistic, giving the whole show an engaging, emotional hook – you’ll be laughing for most of the time, but you’ll be welling up come the last ever episode.
2. There are actual jokes
It’s easy to forget just how funny Friends is, from various catchphrases to songs such as Smelly Cat. The jokes are laugh-out-loud good, partly because of co-creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane’s wit (these days, they’re working on Netflix’s Grace and Frankie), but also because the jokes are rooted in each character: the silly decisions, daft behaviour and amusing lines of dialogue can only come from one specific person in the ensemble, whether that’s Rachel cooking a trifle, Ross reacting to someone eating his sandwich, Monica taking football too seriously, Joey failing to say “soup” in an audition… the list goes on. Some of it even improves with age: Joey’s “How you doing?” chat-up line has become more laughably outdated and pathetic with every passing year.
3. It’s from a less stressful time
Friends, like all good TV comedies, manages to balance reality with just enough artificiality to make it comfortingly familiar. But in 2018, the show is even more so: it’s not just the TV sitcom version of your dream life, but the 90s TV sitcom version of your dream life. These days, we have series such as Catastrophe, Peep Show and Motherland that focus on the negative, gritty side of existence, but Friends sits in a sweet spot where things are complex and recognisably human, but are based in a far simpler time. It’s idealistic in the same way that The West Wing is, and not just because there’s no Donald Trump to worry about.
Just as people fetishise the 1980s, the 1990s have their own nostalgic pull: Friends is a window on to a time when people weren’t checking social media every 10 seconds, or worrying about never getting on the housing ladder. This is a reality where people have the time to spend time doing nothing with each other – a utopia for today’s busy-busy Millennials, who would love to live life like that, but, you know, not for longer than 30 minutes.
4. It’s ubiquitous
It’s easy to dismiss Friends or be tired of it: after all, it’s been around for almost quarter of a century, with E4 or Comedy Central repeating it so often that even since it stopped broadcasting, it’s still been on our screens somewhere. But that ubiquity is a strength as well as a weakness: it’s a show that everyone knows to some degree, and everyone can therefore relate to on some level. For fans, there’s a special kind of connection with the series that can only be built from watching and re-watching it over such a prolonged period of time. How fitting, then, that it should finally arrive on Netflix UK (it hit Netflix in the US a while ago), where it can sit in the background, always ready for binge-watching whenever we want it.
5. There’s a reference for every situation
Friends has a rare quality shared only by The Simpsons: there is a Friends reference for every situation. Over 10 seasons and 236 episodes, the show has stacked up jokes, comments and reactions to every conceivable scenario in life, whether that’s starting an unfulfilling job, losing a fulfilling one, breaking up, getting back together, marrying the wrong person, getting stung by a jellyfish, awkwardly noticing your neighbour across the road through their window, or finding your mates eating cheesecake on the hallway floor. Even its episode titles are ready-made for that purpose: The One Where Joey Loses His Insurance. The One Where Rachel Smokes. The One Where Chandler Doesn’t Like Dogs. The One Where No One’s Ready.
Friends is the TV equivalent of a Buzzfeed list, literally counting down the life lessons and situations that people can refer to and laugh with recognition at for years to come.
6. It gets the importance of friends in your 20s
“I’ll be there for you, ‘cos you’re there for me too…”
The one thing each episode has in common? The fact that the friends help each other through whatever bizarre situation has unfolded. And while there are lots of sitcoms that are based around groups of friends, Friends is also about something more than that: it’s about the importance of friendship specifically in your 20s, when family takes more of a backseat and your pals become your immediate support group. Once the circle of family life threatens to turn again in your 30s and 40s, that period of time passes, but Friends cutely immortalises it on-screen. These characters will always occupy the same rite-of-passage that everyone experiences in that decade. Just the thing for when you need something to watch with your mates who also know the whole thing line for line, or something to have in common with a new friend.
7. We’ve been on a break
At a time when there is so much TV and so little time, when we binge-watch box sets and stream things live on our phones, the chances are that you haven’t stopped to think about Friends for several years. You may not have watched it in an even longer time than that. But all the reasons above only become sweeter when you haven’t hung out with Ross, Rachael, Joey, Chandler, Phoebe and Monica for a while. Sometimes, it’s good to have been on a break.
Friends Season 1 to 10 are available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.