Television: Reconsidering Friends

The kids-in-the-city sitcom just wanted to be liked, not admired. But in spite of itself, it helped redefine the idea of normal family life

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In the Friends episode "The One Where No One Proposes"--in which Rachel Green has had Ross Geller's baby after a one-night stand--Ross's father gazes at the tiny girl in the hospital. "My first grandchild," he purrs. "What about Ben?" asks Ross, referring to his son by his lesbian ex-wife, born in the first season. "Well, of course Ben," Mr. Geller covers up. "I meant my first granddaughter."

Is it farfetched that a man would forget his own grandson? Sure. But the gag works, because many of us also forgot Ben existed, even though he figured heavily in the sitcom's first two seasons. Jokes on Friends often involve characters' reminding us of basic details about their lives (say, that Monica and Ross are brother and sister) or forgetting details about one another (in Season 7, Chandler gets glasses, and everyone, including his fiance Monica, believes he has always had them). Friends is like that: content to be funny and forgettable. Even the episode titles--"The One Where ..."--suggest that even if the titles were more grandiose, you wouldn't remember them.

Friends underestimates itself. But that's understandable, because we underestimate it too. The highly popular show, which signs off after 10 seasons on May 6, has not inspired the kind of cultural hand wringing about its existential meaning that Seinfeld did--despite NBC's hubristically plugging Friends as the "best comedy ever"--and its proud-to-be-shallow attitude may be the reason. Beginning in the Norman Lear 1970s, we decided that great sitcoms must not be simply funny; they must also be important. That is, they must court controversy (All in the Family). They must document social progress (Mary Tyler Moore). They must have a sense of satire (M*A*S*H) or mission (The Cosby Show). They must be about something. Even Seinfeld, the "show about nothing," was about being the show about nothing; its nihilism was so well advertised as to beg cultural critics to read deep meaning into it.

Friends, on the other hand, is simply about being a pleasant sitcom. The bland, it-is-what-it-is title, the innocuous theme song I'll Be There for You--everything about it screams that it would rather be liked than respected. Its comments about the outside world are kept to the background. (Literally. After 9/11 rocked New York City, the Magna Doodle board on Joey's apartment door had the initials "FDNY" written on it.) What do people talk about when they talk about Friends? Jennifer Aniston's hair. Jennifer Aniston's husband. The Ugly Naked Guy across the street. The Smelly Cat song. "We were on a break!"

But perhaps we need to redefine "important TV." When Aniston, Courteney Cox (later Cox Arquette), Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer arrived en masse, controversy was still a mark of great sitcoms (Roseanne); however, it also allowed mediocre ones (Ellen, Murphy Brown) to act important. Friends went out of its way to be lightweight. But it may have done more to show how American values and definitions of family have changed--and to ratify those changes--than its peers, precisely because it was so innocuous.

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