In spite of being an era considered a “long nightmare of peace and prosperity,” being alive in the 1990s was not always so great: Forrest Gump was considered a good enough movie to win an Oscar, we had to pretend Bill Clinton was black because he played the sax, and something called nü-metal was allowed to happen. But worst of all was the dreaded question you’d get any time you attended a party or introduced yourself to someone on the quad to try to be nice:
“Which ‘Friend’ are you? Monica!?! Pheebs!?!?! RACHEL!?!?!?!”
I never had an answer, because I’m not a reduced-price vanilla bean scented candle at Kohl’s. But news that the talking Pottery Barn catalog we call the show Friends was renewed for streaming on Netflix for a whopping $100 million has re-triggered me. Worse, everyone now acts like it’s a good show that should never go away.
When did Friends become cool?
Back in my day, you were either a Seinfeld person or a Friends person. In its original slot, Friends aired after Mad About You and before Seinfeld, and I’m sorry to say Seinfeld won. Someone liking Friends in the mid-’90s was a surefire sign that you would not be friends, because they would be the fun equivalent of oatmeal.
Still, I’m aware that the kids today are obsessed with Friends and may largely drive its longevity. When writer Andy Greenwald, then in his late 30s, visited his Philly high school in 2016, the teens told him it was their favorite show. I guess you can kinda see why, given the self-obsessive narcissism of millennial culture. Friends is a show about six haircuts living rent-free in a loft apartment, people who refuse to grow up and won’t shut up about their feelings. Maybe that tracks for most people born after 1995, or for anyone who can tolerate Instagram for longer than an hour.
I know it’s one of the most successful TV shows of all time, so I asked Gen X friends who hated the show to explain why — in case I was the only hater. They agreed it was stiff, forced and bad. “Gen Z is always stuck in second gear,” one of them joked, riffing on the show’s terrible theme song, “I’ll Be There for You.”
“Listen, criticize the show if you must, but I think we can all agree that the two to three jokes per episode that were premised upon the assumption that to be a gay man is inherently shameful were just terrific, timeless comedy,” one man joked. “No chance I’m rooting for Ross and Rachel to get together when the whole ‘will he/won’t he’ angle is so forced and unbelievable,” another guy said. “But mostly it just wasn’t funny.”
“Sandra Bernhard used to have a line in her act that was, “I never did coke, and I never watched Friends,” another friend told me. “That’s a lot more than most of you can say.”
But those are mostly Gen-Xers. What’s striking about the millennial affection for Friends is that it’s proof of how vastly different the culture of consumption is now.
In 1994, when the show first aired, we had difficult choices about what to spend our free time watching in a different way. We talk a lot about the “Golden Age” of television now, but 1994 is one year critics consider one of the last great seasons of network TV.
In 1994, Friends debuted a crap show for Normie McNormals at a time when we still had Melrose Place and Beverly Hills, 90210, My So-Called Life, The Simpsons, Northern Exposure, NewsRadio and X-Files, to name a few. Cable had Space Ghost and MST3K for cripes’ sake. And let’s be clear, I’m not a snob: I watched and loved all those shows. But what’s the excuse of a 20-something watching TV today, when there’s a bazillion great things out there? The kids like it, presumably, for nostalgia, because people actually hang out with each other, and because it’s “optimistic.” Also they could not afford their apartments, either.
Media choices then were also far more about identity than they have to be anymore. Pre-streaming, we had far fewer choices, and cultivating taste took far more actual effort in real life, so it had better mean something. You had to drive to a record store to get new music. You had to subscribe to a movie mail service to watch art films if there wasn’t an art house in your town. Also, poptimism had not yet rendered the mainstream and the underground on equal turf. There was nothing like today’s criteria-blurring avalanche of media options. We can earnestly love True Detective while ironically watching Love Island, no questions asked.
Back then, you were not just a Seinfeld person or a Friends person, but a Nirvana person or a Pearl Jam person. If you found the jokes on Seinfeld great and not irritating — the absurdly surreal jokes reflecting the deeply existential unease of having everything you could want but still being miserable, then liking the well-lit, shallowly insipid concerns of Friends characters would’ve been the equivalent of a lobotomy.
Friends has faced criticism for being homophobic, racist and sexist, and that the people are generally terrible to each other and not in a fun way. Something else to consider: It was supposed to be aspirational, but it didn’t even get being young in New York right. Yes, it’s set in the ’90s, but it is not really of the actual ’90s.
In a piece on Quora (yes! Quora!) where Aamad Garg rants about why Friends has created a generation of self-obsessed idiots, he notes that the characters are supposed to be “sexy young urbanites” in the greatest city on earth, but they seem like middle-aged bores, for one:
The characters live in New York in the mid-’90s, the time of The Tunnel, the Club Kids, and the Wu-Tang Clan. Yet these 20-somethings who work in fashion, TV, and trendy restaurants are culturally confined to radio rock, Die Hard, and a few gags about Chandler being into musicals. I’ve never met anyone my age with so little involvement in the world around them.
They almost never go to clubs, they never talk about Tarantino movies, or rap, or Björk. Even our parents did that. Although Phoebe does get very excited about meeting Sting. Why? It’s hard to say if it’s bad writing or some kind of conscious effort to make the characters as middle of the road as possible.
Further proof Friends is for middle-aged boors, not the generation it purports to capture: It boasts an episode where the gang argues over their income disparities but agrees that it’s exciting to see a Hootie and the Blowfish concert.
“That’s not something any young urbanite in the mid-’90s would realistically give a shit about,” Alexandra Wright notes of this moment in the show.
That’s not just a mainstream network-TV problem, either: Consider that when the kids on Beverly Hills, 90210 go to a show — in the cultural wasteland that is Los Angeles — they see the Flaming Lips.
That’s a definitive argument settler for me, but like a 20-something who hustles to achieve her lifelong dream of living in New York City without any talent, skills or income, I’ll press on.
But what do I know? I barely watched the show. I could not fork over my hard-won college time doing bong hits to a show about a bunch of interchangeably beige people who made fat jokes, gay jokes and constantly betrayed each other, all in the name of Big City Goals.
I know that people thought a misogynistic mouth breather named Joey Tribbiani was supposed to be a cool guy with game, which is like saying you thought “the Fonz” from Happy Days was a sexy punk.
I know that people thought Rachel, played by Jennifer Aniston, was considered “hot” because you could see her nipples sometimes and she had a haircut that every woman clamored for in spite of the fact that it fundamentally misunderstood how and where hair should be parted on the human head:
Which also presumed that every woman would have the hair of a news anchor if only the universe would let us:
I could tell you that people act like the show is funny, but those are the same people who laugh at Dane Cook jokes.
Of course, a lot has changed, and we’re at peak ’90s nostalgia. Now there’s room for the high and the low with no apparent crisis of conscience. There is no identity angst in liking both Seinfeld and Friends, in being a 30-something woman who dresses on purpose like Mayim Bialik from Blossom.
Or a man wearing a boot-cut jean again.
How I Met Your Mother is today’s Friends, and it’s also as popular as it deeply uncool. Seemingly, this troubles no one. Every generation gets the self-obsessed portrayal of being alive and in their 20s it deserves. What none of us deserves is having to pretend that’s their Algonquin Round Table.
For what it’s worth, critics were not blown away originally by Friends. They didn’t despise it, but they called the female characters scatterbrained and the male characters macho and dumb. It is the TV equivalent of the popular kids, the dumb jock. Even 90210, with its grabby West Coast materialism, had more brains and more heart.
Friends was amusing, but it was not cool. That’s an understatement: Cool wouldn’t take a coffee shit in Central Perk even if there were no other publicly available bathroom in New York. It’s not uncool just because it was clearly made for adult women who dropped into a Claire’s for a velour choker after they picked up a Sarah McLachlan CD, or for guys who owned 14 thick-ribbed sweaters to go with their relaxed fit jeans — it’s that the show is about whiny, entitled narcissists with bad taste who aren’t funny.
Seinfeld, on the other hand, was a show about whiny, entitled narcissists with bad taste who are scathingly funny. The key difference is that no one ever said we were supposed to like the people on Seinfeld, much less want to be them. If we identified with those assholes, it was because we were staring into the heart of our own darkness. Friends, on the other hand, was supposed to be aspirational — the life we all allegedly wanted, the people we wished we knew and wished we were.
Speak for yourselves, regulars.
In order to be cool, something must have a distinct identity, whereas “popular” tends to project a blank slate so you can project yourself back onto it. In the end, Friends was just a try-hard. The Chicago Tribune probably administered the sickest first burn after the show debuted:
Friends wants to be about something — which I suppose is its attempt to be a deeper, more poignant show. It isn’t, not yet anyway.
It never was. At least now, that’s another generation’s coffee cup to bear.