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"Friends" Hasn't Aged Well

Friends' 25th anniversary is in September, but here's the thing — this show has always been awful.

Posted on August 29, 2019, at 10:59 a.m. ET

Warner Bros/Netflix / Via screenshot

The cast of Friends.

I’m starting to realize that in internet years, I’m very old. But instead of feeling irrelevant because of my ignorance of current memes or the fact that, increasingly, all my tweets are about how much I hate air travel, I feel compelled to share my hard-earned wisdom. The further away I get from my youth, the more I want to warn the younger generation, those Gen Z’ers in their puka shell necklaces and scrunchies and Vans that what they love is actually unmitigated garbage. I never knew I’d be repeating the sentences my Gen X brother used to say to me — “When you’re older, you’ll understand that I’m right” — and yet here I am, telling my niece that no, I will not be watching Friends with her. Friends, my darling, is terrible.

This September will mark the 25th anniversary of the premiere of Friends, and like most significant pop culture anniversaries, it’s set off an outpouring of collective nostalgia. Pop-up events, public screenings, and merchandise are all materializing for die-hard fans, because everyone could use a bracelet with a catcall written on it. People are debating whether Friends or Seinfeld is better (not to spoil my own article, but it’s Seinfeld and this should be obvious).

Marine biologists who probably spent years in school and hundreds of thousands of dollars on their education are out here informing us that, actually, lobsters don’t mate for life, contrary to what Phoebe, a fictional character in a bad television show whose entire personality trait is being flighty, said at some point in the late ’90s. We have also recently learned that the monkey actor who played Ross’s pet (an actual plotline from a show about people living in New York, where half the landlords won’t even let you have a well-behaved dog) is still working — which is, I guess, good for the monkey. The content never ends, and yet, somehow, people never seem to lose their appetite for more. It was recently reported that Robert De Niro is suing a former employee for, in part, watching 55 episodes of Friends in four days.

I don’t want to be dramatic, but if I read one more headline that says “Could we BE any more excited?” about some Friends-related news, I will throw myself into the nearest active volcano.

No one, least of all me, should be judgmental about other people’s taste in television programming. Currently, my favorite show is YouTube clips of a British series called Just Tattoo of Us, where “friends” or “partners” design deeply humiliating tattoos that will be permanently applied to each other’s bodies without their prior approval over design or placement. Me and my tastes are trash and I deserve nothing other than a painful death. But as someone who lived through the first round of Friends’ cultural reign, who was conscious for at least half of it, and who participated in it in real time, I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you all of the truth: Friends, a show about white people being thin and having the pointiest nipples in the continental Americas — and a show that I, at one time, watched and enjoyed — is absolute garbage.

Friends premiered in 1994, when I was 3 years old. The finale was a decade later. My most formative years were spent watching Friends. My classmates and I acted out scenes at school. I wanted to be a Rachel, but I’d settle for a Monica, though I’d tell other people I was a Phoebe, when in reality I was a Ross. My brother, who was ahead of the curve in knowing this show was unwatchable, used to fight with me when I insisted on watching reruns I had just seen the week before. (I hope he never reads this; I will never live it down.) In 2004, when my parents banned me from watching television (after I was smart enough to prank-call a teacher but dumb enough to leave my number on his voicemail), I wrote a letter begging them to let me watch the finale. Rachel got off the plane!!! I was glad, but I was also a virgin and didn’t understand that surely Rachel could find some other dick somewhere in Paris.

There’s been some ongoing online discussion about the strange dissonance between Friends nostalgia and the reality of the show’s poor quality. But still, overwhelmingly, audiences seem fine pretending that Friends was any good at all. Likely contributing to this wrong conclusion is how easy it is to access the show’s back catalog, which is readily available to stream and which the teens love binging en masse. It just seems odd that the show that the most marketable generation is, for some reason, watching is also the least relevant show still on the market. (Here is where I freely admit that BuzzFeed has provided a nonstop stream of Friends content to impressionable youths, which might have something to do with it.)

Plenty of shows age badly but are still handy for a rewatch now and then. But unlike other shows of its ilk that inspire nostalgic streaming marathons — Seinfeld, The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, or CheersFriends doesn’t have the benefit of actually being good. Steve Carell is right: The Office should never be rebooted, because it’s a program about an abusive boss who harasses his employees, all of whom develop a kind of Stockholm syndrome so they can continue working at a paper company. (Do teens remember paper?) But it is, still, pretty funny and full of pathos and redemption.

Frasier is still an enjoyable show about the only two men alive still drinking sherry. All in the Family showed us how someone you love can also be a racist asshole (how prescient, Christ), and Seinfeld forever changed what a half-hour comedy would be. Even now, I would rather watch the same episode of Will & Grace where Grace’s mom shows up than even attempt to give Chernobyl a chance. Bingeing shows that are comfortable and familiar is soothing, like calling your mom when you’re upset, or smoking a clove cigarette in the parking lot of your high school — which, of course, I never did, and if my older brother is reading this, don’t tell mom, you fucking cop.

But loving Friends in 2019 requires a level of mental gymnastics that should force the show to remain a forgotten blip in the past. List any of your “favorite” episodes and there’s likely something grotesque buried in the plot. Chandler’s father is inexplicably and unnecessarily a drag queen, played by the cis actor Kathleen Turner, and is the source of many an anti-trans punchline. As a teenager, Monica was fat and that’s it, that’s the joke, here, watch her dance in a fat suit. Ross’s ex-wife is a lesbian and isn’t it funny that his son has two mommies? Save for a few token characters of color that popped up every now and then, the show was so white that Phoebe, as the only blonde, could be considered a minority.

Warner Bros/Netflix / Via Screenshot

Kathleen Turner as Chandler's dad in Friends.

Multiple Friends guest stars have, two and a half decades later, reported less-than-stellar experiences being on set. And then of course there’s the infamous 2004 lawsuit that Amaani Lyle, an assistant in the writers room, filed against the show for being forced to listen to the writers joke about Joey raping Rachel, and watch them pantomime masturbating, and mock “black ghetto talk.” (The judge ruled that the writers’ behavior was necessary for a creative environment, laying the problematic groundwork for a “creative necessity” defense to be deployed elsewhere.)

Beyond making it harder to sue for workplace harassment, what lasting cultural relevance has Friends given us, exactly? A haircut? Justin Theroux?? Matthew Perry looking stressed out on The Graham Norton Show when septuagenarian actor Miriam Margolyes talks about “starting to cream in [her] knickers”??? (That last one is pretty good, actually.) At least we have Hot Jughead now. Can’t wait for 2020 babies of the future to try to argue that Riverdale is actually a masterpiece.

But, of course, none of this matters. By the rules of the internet, I am but an old woman, a millennial aging out of importance. It is the VSCO girls and TikTok stars who will inherit the earth — its follies, its failures, its successes. And they too will one day grow up and realize the truth about Friends, that it was just a show about beautiful twigs wearing sweater T-shirts with a behemoth network’s marketing machine behind it. This will be their rite of passage, and the good news is they’ll likely come to terms with the disappointment of returning to something they loved; the show they enjoyed at 14, though it ended before they were born, is indeed not so good. Vindication for me will have to wait. Could I BE any more excited for the moment when it finally comes? ●

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