“Friends” was easy TV at an elite level. So many jokes, so much body comedy, so many surprises and ‘awwws’, and squeals of live-studio audience excitement. Hairdressers were doing — and not infrequently botching — the Rachel. Coffee shops became people’s second homes. Tens of millions of Americans watched all of that writing and directing and acting, all of that seemingly effortless effort, for all 10 of its years. That work and a country’s devotion to it feels like proof of a golden age of something. friends turned 25… Let’s look at the best era.
Familiarity is the magnet of every decent American sitcom. The “com” can’t compete alone and neither can the “sit,” even though, together, they’re obviously quite the sandwich. But the many nights I’ve spent recumbent on my sofa laughing at, say, Ross and Phoebe debating evolution, or Phoebe, Joey and Ross impersonating Chandler, or Chandler blanching at Monica’s desperate new cornrows or Rachel taking forever to tell somebody who the father of her baby is — those nights have never really been about the situation comedy of “Friends.” They’ve only ever been about us — me and these six people — and my apparently enduring need to know what they’re up to and how they are, even though I’ve known for 25 years.
“Friends” debuted on NBC in the fall of 1994, ran for an entire decade, typically had around 25 to 30 million viewers a week (sometimes many more) and now airs in Nickelodeon’s Nick @ Nite block, which my cable conglomerate has stationed near the top of the channel pyramid. That means if you’re a chronologist like me, the five-channel trip from NY1 — past the local news, TNT and “The Simpsons” — always terminates at Chandler, Joey, Monica, Phoebe, Rachel and Ross. Laziness is a factor. (Do you use the number keys on your remote? I’ll bet you don’t even have a remote at this point.)
But, really, it’s simplicity. “Friends” actually is enormously easy to watch. “The genius of “Seinfeld” (and “The Simpsons,” too) has everything to do with the “com” arising from the “sit.” What trouble will Jerry and the gang instigate? Whether you’re watching an episode for the first time or the 27th, the inciting premise is a major element of the pleasure. The premise of “Friends” is the friends.
Of course, the friends started out with a touch of the Jerrys. They, too, were a white cohort living in New York City (the West Village rather than Seinfeld’s Upper West Side). And many an early episode involved defending social etiquette (“Those are not the rules!” Ross barks at a foe in a laundromat) and trying out twisted dating schemes (Monica and Joey try to bust up a couple in order to have the newly single partners for themselves). But on “Seinfeld,” the city and the characters’ righteous belief in their own norms spurred them on to increasingly lunatic misanthropy. They were anti-socialites.
Not so on “Friends.” Matters of behavior and economic inequality only seemed to bring them together. Take the show’s 29th episode. Everybody goes out for a nice dinner to celebrate Monica’s promotion. Phoebe, Joey and Rachel order the cheapest items on the menu, then balk at evenly dividing the bill. Income turns those three against the other three, until Monica loses her job. Joey valiantly offers to pay for her $4 coffee — with Chandler’s money. The theme song didn’t lie: They really were there for each other, punch lines and all. That thereness was the show’s intangible hook. The writers could engineer plots for the directors to orchestrate. But these six actors working together, on anything, on nothing — it was the highlight of many a person’s week. These were six people who could snipe at one another, who could fight and lie and practice what we’d now call radical honesty.
But halfway through Season 1, it was clear this boat had no captain, just a lot of oars. And the rowing Cox did has never received its due. She wasn’t as rubbery a funny person as Perry and Schwimmer or as radiant and tangy in her approach to comedy as Jennifer Aniston was as Rachel. She couldn’t physicalize sarcasm and shock with as much cursive and calculus as the other five. But athletic gumption launched Monica entirely beyond classification.