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My Only 'Friends,' The End

I’m struggling with the problem of giving Friends a proper send-off. I blame this on the fact that I haven’t watched the show regularly since Bob Dole was a serious presidential candidate.

That was back in 1996, and the primary reason I was watching Friends was there was this girl I was… well, not courting, exactly, but laying the elaborate groundwork for future courting, and she watched Friends so it gave us a common point of reference. (It has recently dawned upon me how many terrible movies and TV shows I have watched only because I thought it would give me an in with the ladies. The summer after I graduated from high school, I paid good money to see Ghost in a movie theater solely because a girl asked me if I wanted to see it, and I thought if I could endure two hours of misery, it would exponentially increase my make-out chances. It did not. So for all the young people out there, let me just give you some advice: do not watch terrible movies and TV shows just because you think it will obligate them to kiss you afterwards. It won’t, and all you’ll wind up with is bitter memories of having sat through Ghost and Mystic Pizza and whatever tedium Merchant and/or Ivory have cooked up for you this year. Make them watch your terrible movies and TV shows. Then, if they still talk to you, you know they’re hooked.)

Where was I? Oh, right… Friends.

I forget where I hopped on the Friends express — I think it was just before Ross and Rachel hooked up for the first time — and where I disembarked — sometime after Ross and Rachel broke up for the first time. And while I’d be hard-pressed to remember a single joke, plotline or Matthew Perry facial expression from the season-and-a-half of Friends I watched, I remember the show as being fairly funny, competently written and well-acted. It was certainly better than two-thirds of the laughless network shows identifying themselves as comedies back then and probably remains so today.

So why’d I stop watching? Because the show was about as relevant to my life then as a 19th century costume drama.

I am within the age range depicted on Friends, give or take a birthday or two, so it would be reasonable to assume that I could identify with the characters, that their on-screen adventures would speak to me as it had to countless others of my generation. Friends, as you know, is about six impossibly beautiful and thin people who have fabulously spacious apartments in New York City and wonderful jobs that still don’t prevent them from spending nearly every waking moment with one another or from pairing up in increasingly complex and borderline incestuous romantic couplings.

So let’s see how I measure up: I was not then nor am I now impossibly beautiful or thin. At the time I watched Friends, I lived in a craptacular desert town where the only bookstores within the city limits all had the word “Bible” in their name. I had a terrible job at a rotten newspaper where I worked long hours and was paid far below market value. My apartment was cramped and mildewey, with an upstairs neighbor who played the same Credence Clearwater Revival record night after night and had particularly noisy and therefore emotionally scarring sex at two in the morning. My closest friends lived more than an hour away, seriously cutting into the time we could spend firing off bon mots at the local coffee house. Romantic couplings — complex or otherwise — remained largely theoretical.

I realize that verisimilitude and generation-wide relevance aren’t exactly top criteria for picking what sitcoms to watch, but when compared to my life back then, Friends may as well have been set on Mars. So, when I found other ways to spend my time on Thursday nights that didn’t involve the words “Must See,” it’s not that surprising that the absence of Friends left that much of a void in my life.

Which is why Friends tributes like the one penned by Joshua Levs over at CNN leave me baffled. Levs looks at the beautiful, emaciated characters and sees “friends of mine from college, friends of mine from high school, peers from just being a middle-class, white American entering the post-college world. It was a rare Hollywood product that seemed close to home, with its finger on the pulse of — at least a slice of — our culture.”

Well, Joshua Levs’ culture, maybe. Not mine. But hey, it’s his ridiculous commentary, so he can say make whatever sweeping claims he wants. One of the more nonsensical claims, however, merits some rebuttal:

It’s always struck me that most successful sitcoms say great things about America. … Yes, “Friends” isn’t actual reality, has taken pains to avoid anything remotely controversial — no real talk about politics or religion — and has had a notable paucity of racial diversity. It’s not a complete picture of anything in the real world, and it’s not supposed to be. But it has successfully captured a slice of life. And if, decades from now, people look back on this show — among other things, of course — to get some insight into the pop culture zeitgeist of 1994-2004, that’s fine by me.

Oh, I don’t know about that, Josh. Admittedly, I don’t set my watch to the fluctuations in the Ross-Rachel tide, but I’m not sure Friends has had much to say in the past decade, about America or anything else. It would be unfair to slap the show with the vacuous label, but the show doesn’t exactly offer up biting or incisive social commentary, either. You tune into Friends not for the piercing insights into the mindset of Generation X but because there’s a good chance you’re going to be rewarded with a laugh or three. That’s what’s allowed the show to remain at the top of the ratings pile for the better part of a decade. It didn’t have much to say, but it sure did say it humorously enough.

Then again, it’s unfair to pick on Levs for writing rhetorical checks that Friends simply can’t cash. A lot of pundits have fallen all over themselves in recent weeks to lend Friends the weight of historical perspective while only succeeding in underscoring just how lightweight the show actually is. Time’s James Poniewozik more or less concedes that Friends never claimed to have any higher purpose other than to be an affable sitcom, and then goes on to contradict himself several paragraphs later by assigning Friends a higher purpose — “The message of Friends… is that there is no normal anymore and that Americans… accept that.” But Poniewozik’s argument is a model of logical consistency compared to Carina Chocano, who offers up six theories on the ultimate significance and cultural import of Friends, each more convoluted and tortured than the last. And I think the difficulty critics are having in properly eulogizing the show just underscores how futile it is to assign cultural-touchstone status to a program that never claimed to be anything other than a pleasant diversion for a half-hour each week. That, or that Carina Chocano is a shitty writer. Either conclusion is acceptable.

If Friends must be assigned a legacy, I lean toward the one hinted at in The Christian Science Monitor — that the show’s success, while doubtlessly profitable for NBC and enjoyable for its massive fanbase, helped usher in the rotten era of sitcoms we’re currently being forced to endure. Executives at NBC and other networks saw the huge ratings tallied by Friends and its rather minimalist premise — beautiful twentysomethings face the challenges of the world with laughter and togetherness while saying clever things! — and falsely concluded that, and not stellar writing or a winning, cohesive cast was responsible for the show’s success. So for the past decade, we’ve been flooded by a stream of Friends imitators and knockoffs, with the returns diminishing with each new pale imitation. Still, it’s kind of unfair to blame the show’s creators for that, with the exception of the crummy sitcoms they created themselves to coast in Friends’ wake.

And that leaves us right back where we started — with Friends leaving the airwaves and us fumbling to say a few kind words for a show popular enough to remain on-the-air and in the public consciousness for a decade but not substantial enough to earn the forced platitudes TV critics are laboring to toss in its direction. Friends lacked the social impact of a M*A*S*H* or an All In the Family. It never challenged the conventions of a sitcom the way Seinfeld did. All it offered was a mastery of its craft — which sounds like a nice thing to engrave on a gold watch but not the sort of epitaph befitting such a universally beloved show.

Well, sorry — I can’t come up with anything better. I wish I could. But it’s hard to get that excited about the end of a show that, upon close examination, really isn’t that remarkable. Think about it — over the years, hairstyles have changed, weights have fluctuated, babies and Mrs. Ross Gellers have come and gone. But the characters have, with a few exceptions, remained the same. And that, perhaps, just underscores the show’s complete lack of relevance that I first felt eight years ago. I like to think that I’m a different person from who I was in 1994; you probably do, too. It’s a shame that Chandler and Joey and Rachel and the rest can’t really say the same.


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