Nobody Told Me That I Was Gonna Hate This Show (Clap, Clap, Clap, Clap
The One About My Problem With Friends
I know that I probably isolated a lot of people with my long retroactive disgust with the much beloved The Office a few months ago, and I’m probably not going to win a lot more with this column either. Indeed, I could have cheerfully gone the rest of my career without ever mentioning it. But with the reunion special finally airing on HBO Max earlier this month and the fascination with it never really going away more than seventeen years after it ended, I feel compelled to weigh in. Maybe I’ll find some common ground.
So here it is. I never liked Friends. And unlike The Office, this is not simply a case of coming to late to the party. I watched the show constantly when it was first on the air from halfway through the first season until roughly the early part of the sixth season. (I think Ross and Rachel’s Vegas wedding and subsequent escapades drove me over the edge.) Now at that time, I was still a teenager not entirely wise in the TV I found was good. My favorite series back then were Frasier, The X-Files and Homicide but I was also known to watch Caroline in the City and Melrose Place. (I’m not proud.) But even back then, I think I may have watching Friends because it was the popular thing to do. I’m not sure I ever laughed that much at it when it was on the air, and in syndication it never seemed to work very well.
There were many problems I had with the series when it was on the air, and not all of them were ones that were, even at the time, immediately obvious. The fact that there were next to no characters of color has been mentioned so often I won’t dwell on it. A bigger problems was the utter lack of dimension to far too many of the side characters. A good series, like Frasier or Scrubs, can often get a lot of mileage around the characters hanging around the background. With few exceptions — Tom Selleck and Paul Rudd being the most obvious — there was very little dimension to any of the other characters. A lot of this relied on the strength of the other actors, and it was good that so many great character actors were around — Elliot Gould, Christina Pickles, Ron Liebman and Giovanni Ribisi were excellent at making do with less.
But I think my biggest problem with Friends was that there was so little emotional or character growth from the Pilot almost to the end. Every one of the characters found a lane and stayed with the entire series: Joey was the out-of-work and mostly clueless actor, Rachel was the pretty one, Phoebe was the spacey one, Chandler was the sarcastic one, and Ross (let’s be honest) was a schmuck. Only Monica experienced any real character growth throughout the series and that, unfortunately, was more due to her relationships with Ross and later Chandler. Again, we’ll leave aside the fact that she only seemed to have any growth from the fact that she was enormous as a teenager. (When we first saw how big she was in an old video tape, it got a huge laugh. Apparently, body shaming wasn’t a thing in 1995.)
Of course, there’s also a larger problem with Friends: it really wasn’t that funny. Yes, I know thirty million viewers a week can’t be wrong. I’m asking you to tell me one really good line that resonates the same way anything from Seinfeld or Arrested Development or Roseanne or hell, just, about any of the truly great comedies that were on during Friends ten-year run. I think part of the problem was, most of the jokes were really nasty ones. I remember a lot of nasty humor was done about the recurring character Janice, Chandler’s off-again, on-again hookup for the first four seasons. Her only real crime seemed to be she had an unpleasant laugh, and for that, the rest of the group (Joey in particular) loathed her. (Chandler went to Yemen to get away from her, and I’m still trying to figure out why that was supposed to be funny.). Come to think of it, a rather large number of the jokes I saw on Friends were insult humor, almost always at people who weren’t in the group.
And frankly, a lot of that weren’t insults never made much sense. I remember an entire episode revolved around Phoebe finding a lost cat and deciding, even though it was someone else’s, that it was her mother reincarnated and she should keep it. When Ross tried really hard to argue she was wrong, everyone sided with Phoebe. Of course, that was one of the few sane things she did during the show’s run.
But the biggest problem with the series was the central dynamic never worked at all: Ross and Rachel. They clearly couldn’t work together, but when they were apart, they sabotaged each other constantly. Rachel going to Ross’ London wedding to Emily may have been the most horrible thing the series ever did: her trip there despite agreeing not to, her chickening out at the last minute, and Ross saying Rachel’s name in his wedding vows. Emily was completely justified in her actions immediately afterward, but because of how the show worked, she was the villain. Ross was never a truly effective character for the remainder series, he just became a blundering idiot (not that the series ever tried that hard to make him pleasant to begin with).
I take that back. I did laugh one time when I watched Friends. Rachel is on the flight to London, and she feels it necessary to pour her entire life story next to the poor soul sitting next to her. We don’t know how long he has to listen to her, but finally he lets it rip. He tells her full out that she is completely wrong about everything she’s done, that she is being completely selfish to Ross, and finishes it off by saying: “And by the way, you were on a break.”
Now part of the reason I laughed so hard was because it was delivered perfectly by a then unknown (to American audiences anyway) Hugh Laurie, still quite a few years removed for stunning American audiences as Gregory House. But mostly it was because this total stranger in just a few hours, understood what Rachel never seemed to get basically for eight years. Ross and Rachel were on a break. Did Ross completely overreact? Yes. Is that any worse then something millions of couples have gone through before and since? No. But rather than have Ross and Rachel try to work through it, they broke the couple up just to extend the tension. I realize network television was in a different place than it would be years later, but to have Rachel and Ross breakup so they could keep ruining each others lives before they finally got back together in the series finale, plays to the worst aspects of TV relationships. I actually find a little more offensive than the Mulder-Scully will they or won’t they tension and how it was resolved. Here it was resolved in Season 2, and the writers best idea was to break them up a season later. I’m kind of astonished that tens of millions of viewers stayed with show that long just to see how it would turn out.
So given all these flaws, why did millions of people not only watch Friends in the 1990s but want a reunion for all that time? To quote Chandler, could it be any more obvious? All of the actors are brilliant and charming personalities. And I get it — because I loved all of their post (and in a few cases, pre) Friends work. Lisa Kudrow was wonderful on Mad About You, exceptional in The Comeback and underwatched in Web Therapy. Jennifer Anniston has always had gifted comic timing, and I’ve loved quite a few of her independent films (I urge you to watch The Good Girl and Cake). Matthew Perry was always better in his dramatic work than comedy; he was superb in quite a few guest stints as Joe Quincy on The West Wing (which got him a couple of deserved Emmy nods0 and as the sleazy Mike Kristeva on The Good Wife (which should have as well) Matt LeBlanc greatest role was not Joey but rather…Matt LeBlanc. (Find Episodes and you’ll quickly see why he won a Golden Globe) David Schwimmer has actually been better suited to drama than comedy; he had a memorable stint in the first season of NYPD Blue and he was exceptional as Robert Kardashian on The People V. O.J. Simpson. And I’ve always loved Courtney Cox; she was great on Family Ties, she was great on Scrubs, she was glorious on Cougar Town. (Dirt was a disaster, but nobody’s perfect.) These six actors were so much more than the title characters, and it’s a crime that everybody seemed to prefer them as that.
And I understand the love of nostalgia. I just don’t get why so many people over the past fifteen years would flock to Friends rather than better, funnier shows. There is more great comic acting, writing and timing in a single episode of Frasier than in an entire season of Friends. There’s a reason that Frasier won so many more Emmys than Friends. (But no, I don’t particularly want to see that series come back either.) I get that it takes it back to a ‘simpler’ time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean funnier, more entertaining or more romantic. A lot of the comedies that come out these days are more complicated, I get it, but they’re also more entertaining, more intellectual, and yes, more diverse.
I’ve been waiting nearly two years for the next seasons of Barry and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I can’t wait for the next season of Ted Lasso in a couple of months. God knows how long it’ll be until the next season of Atlanta comes along. These are the shows were looking forward too. Not a reunion of six mostly self-centered people who were pretty in New York, kept falling in love with each other at the expense of everybody else. Because that’s basically Friends. And I hope the cast moves on to better projects, now that this is done.