There are few TV shows that acquire cult status, and even fewer that have an enduring influence on an entire generation… and beyond.
Friends was one such show. It managed to capture the zeitgeist in the 90s with its unique relatability that seemed to traverse borders.
It has been broadcast in over 60 countries and more recently, streaming has given it a new lease of life amongst new millennial and Gen Z audiences, and long-time fans alike (it was the most streamed show in the UK in 2019, and since it came to Netflix, it’s become its second most watched series).
You didn’t need to be a New Yorker to be able to laugh along to Chandler’s witty one-liners, nod along in agreement when a stray cushion in the living room keeps Monica awake at night (no? Just me?), or groan in frustration when Ross and Rachel’s chequered love story falls victim to yet another instance of mismatched timings.
It spawned a hairstyle that is still popular (remember asking for ‘the Rachel’ at the hair salon?), launched colloquialisms into mainstream vocabulary and introduced the concept of #friendslikefamily well before it became a hashtag.
It’s true, the show hasn’t dated that well – rewatching it leads to some cringe moments, and some of the plot lines have serious underlinings of homophobia and misogyny that would just… well, not see the light of day in the more woke world we live in today. Let’s face it – the show was a product of its time, and to give credit where it’s due, it did manage to tackle some pretty curly issues couched within comedy.
What has truly stood the test of time is its laugh-a-minute humour – a perfect storm of smart writing and flawless performances by the perfectly-cast ensemble.
And we owe a lot of that laughter to Chandler Bing, the beloved character played by Matthew Perry. Apparently as funny and kind in real life as his character, Matthew – whose unexpected passing the world is mourning – used his humour as a shield to hide his battles with addiction.
(Tragically, he had seemed to be doing really well, and had apparently come back from a session of pickleball, a sport he had embraced as a way of maintaining his sobriety, just hours before he was found dead.)
In fact, Chandler’s character was perhaps one of the earliest versions of a sensitive, gentle man who, underneath his sarcastic humour, is a feminist at heart. The way he is unconditionally supportive of Monica’s career; his respectful approach towards his girlfriends (however quirky – we’re looking at you, Janice) and women in general, even if borne out of diffidence (remember that blackout episode in the ATM vestibule?); and his eventual acceptance of his transgender father… they demonstrate an evolution of a young man into a mature, loyal and loving husband and father that feels very real.
In comparison, Ross does not look good at all with his jealous and insecure attitude towards Rachel’s burgeoning career, and neither does Joey, with his philandering ways.
But evolve they all did – from ad hoc part-time jobs and unemployment insecurity into flourishing careers; from strings of failed relationships into ‘happily ever after’; from living with flatmates to putting down roots in the suburbs (well, for some of them at least) – pretty much like it happens in real life.
Is that the reason the show resonated so much? Because it traces the coming of age of a group of lovable but flawed 20-somethings in the cultural milieu that was the ‘90s – navigating broken homes and parental dramas, job losses, heartbreak, marriage, divorce (OK, that one’s just Ross), body image issues, pregnancy… with the one constant through it all being the unshakeable bond of their friendship?
We’ve all done the ‘which Friends character are you’ quiz some time, haven’t we? Or at least thought about who we are (I’m a Monica by the way, if you hadn’t worked that out already, although I would like very much to be a Rachel).
The show tackles themes that are universal, timeless and yes, fairly on the straight and narrow – and it does it with heart. That is perhaps the key to its unparalleled and enduring popularity.
What made it all the more endearing is the genuine friendships the cast shared – Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, David Schwimmer, Matt Le Blanc, Matthew Perry, and Lisa Kudrow have remained close friends with each other well after the show ended (Jennifer and Courteney are real-life BFFs), their warm chemistry palpable in the reunion special that aired in 2021. Especially in the context of the on-set bitchiness of other popular TV shows of the time like Sex and the City, their affection and unity only helped cement the show and its stars’ ‘lovable’ status.
Several other shows have attempted to recreate the same magic. Shows like How I met your mother and Big Bang Theory for example – while brilliant in their own right – had varying degrees of success, but none have influenced a generation’s choices the way Friends has.