Like We’ve Been Here Before: The “Friends” Reunion.

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I’VE NEVER BEEN a big fan of reunions. All they seem to reaffirm is the wisdom of Heraclitus. Heraclitus? Yes, the ancient Greek philosopher who wrote: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Now, it’s an open questions as to whether Ross, Chandler, Joey, Phoebe, Monica and Rachel were ever great readers of Heraclitus (although, you know, Ross was a pretty academic kind of guy). What’s even more doubtful, of course, is whether the actors who played these most famous of friends ever dabbled in ancient Greek philosophy. That being the case, it was probably a bit hopeful to expect them to turn down the huge money involved in bringing all the characters back together for one, last “reunion” episode.

Mind you, they were a pretty remarkable ensemble, and they did manage to stamp a whole decade with their very own brand of cultural ink. So, you know, why not?

Why not! Seriously? Because the politico-cultural river has flowed on so far from that first episode of “Friends”, screened way back in 1994. In those days, it was still possible to gather together three white guys and three white girls from the suburbs of Middle America and drop them into a quirky “twenty-something” sitcom without being accused of unforgiveable cultural myopia and unconscious racism.

Not anymore.

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Judging from the intensity of the Twitterstorm which the “Friends” reunion has generated, there’s a whole generation out there which feels deeply embarrassed by the enjoyment their younger selves derived from following the trials and tribulations of Ross, Chandler, Joey, Phoebe, Monica and Rachel. Long before they made it to college and learned all about white male privilege, cis sexuality, and systemic racism, “Friends” represented something pretty close to the ideal of how they wanted to live. Sure, the series celebrated independence, discovery and adventure – but always within the context of the unconditional emotional support endlessly available from these all-too-human explorers of young adulthood.

As Chandler might have put it: “Could anyone have possibly BEEN more selfish?”

Well, no. Not really. But that selfishness was an absolutely crucial aspect of the 1990s zeitgeist. Most of the humour of “Friends” is derived from the ever-so-slightly fucked-up self-absorption of the principal characters. Just as most of the series’ dramatic power derives from the six friends’ constant collision with the core truth that, in spite of everything we’ve been told, we can’t actually make it on our own.

The other reason for “friends” extraordinary success was the way it taught a whole generation of white, well-educated, middle-class Americans how to negotiate the hazards of neoliberal society. Not an easy project, and one that would be rendered instantly impossible if any considerations other than those of how to be a member in good standing of the professional-managerial class had been introduced to the self-contained world of the Central Perk.

Seriously, what the hell would Ross, Chandler, Joey, Phoebe, Monica and Rachel have done if they had witnessed the murder of a black man by a dead-eyed cop? How would a hopeless methamphetamine addict have been received by Gunther? How would rape, domestic violence and gross economic exploitation have fitted into the comedic schema of “Friends”?  How long would the friends of “Friends” have remained friends if these sorts of issues had suddenly become the main topics of conversation over all those café lattés? There aren’t a lot of laughs in injustice. At least, not a lot of laughs for liberals.

And yet, and yet, it had something – didn’t it? “Friends” had a human warmth and a core of decency that, through all the jokes and ridiculous personal crises (We were on a break!”) served a consistently uplifting didactic purpose. Not the least important of these lessons was that it is actually okay to hang out with people of the same age, sexuality, ethnicity and social class. It’s what humans have done pretty much since there were humans. In a capitalist society, where the advertisers’ dollars pay for everything from Chandler’s shirts to Phoebe’s guitar, it’s simply not reasonable to expect intersectional purity on every page of the script.

At least, it didn’t used to be reasonable. Nowadays, with “colour-blind casting” (an Indian Nicholas Nickleby anyone?) and every cast carefully sifted through the sieves of gender, ethnicity, sexuality and class (does anyone actually watch “The Irregulars”?) one is moved to wonder whether profit is even the point anymore. The thing to remember, however, is that didacticism only works when you cease to be aware that you are being taught.

“Friends” taught us about the importance of companionship in the perilous straits of early adulthood. But, it did not achieve this entirely worthy objective by hitting us over the head with the sledgehammer of fashionable ideology. It did it by making us laugh and, on occasion, cry. The millions and millions of people who watched (and still watch) “Friends” did so, and do so, because they saw/see themselves in the characters. Even people who aren’t well-educated, white and middle-class are somehow able to do this. How? Because Ross, Chandler, Joey, Phoebe, Monica and Rachel are recognisably human types.

If the writers of “Friends”, David Crane and Marta Kauffman, had made Joey black, but not vain; and Monica a lesbian, but not neurotic; would we have laughed so loudly? Hell, would we have laughed at all?

I doubt it. That version of “Friends” would have been a very different river.

35 COMMENTS

  1. True Chris….irrespective of the ‘white guilt’ now all encompassing western, especially USA, society, the ones pushing it undoubtedly watched and enjoyed Friends in their younger days, but now have to berate it for no other reason than to admit to have been a fan would be the end of their moral identity politics woke crusade.
    The world has changed in the 10 yrs of 1994 to 2004 unfortunately now its all about cancelling the past and picking non existing racism in the present and who can ‘outwoke’ the rest.

  2. Times like this we need to get a little Hendrix about it all…

    Jimi Hendrix – Hear My Train A Comin’
    https://youtu.be/EX5phFmbrU8?t=5

    I get sick of modern crass woke notions,…I like to settle back to the blues, blues rock if needs be, when the class war meant something. My other blues hero was Howlin Wolf.

    A song about the union hall.

    Wang Dang Doodle – Howlin Wolf
    https://youtu.be/J0HfN6GvK08?t=2

    Both of ’em performed by black men, in Hendrix’s case, part Cherokee, part black. But both of them knew what racism was in the deepest sense of the word. And those folks led the way,… hell! lets throw in some Billy Holliday for good measure !

    God bless the child – Billie Holiday
    https://youtu.be/bKNtP1zOVHw?t=6

  3. Why seriously bitch about “Friends”, it was of its time. Hearing of the special show I admit the first thought I had for some reason, as an occasional 90s watcher, was jeez that was a white show…but I was not exercised about it, just pleased that the world is moving on.

    People like to see themselves–so perhaps exclusion was the main error committed by “Friends”. Not white, lower middle class, young, urban? nothing to see here, move along. Nowadays with the digital second coming of TV–watch when YOU want–every flavour and combination of humanity imaginable seems presented.

    • Friends made me puke. I watched a few shows then turned off. It was typical American low rate slapstick comedy pandering to the urbane what ever they were’s. What they were , I couldn’t give a tuss. But they sure weren’t me.

      Seinfeld I liked. As was Taxi and the highlight there for me was ‘Reverend Jim Ignatowski ‘(Christopher Lloyd) . Archie bunker and All in the Family was cool. Even Happy Days. But most american crap was just american crap.

      They in no way shape or form could even begin to compete with the decades of British comedy we had before that, whereby it wasn’t WHAT was said, – but HOW it was said. And they didn’t need cheap shitty crass slapstick to induce the audience to laugh. It was all much more subtle.

      The american thing on our tee vees came in around the Reaganism and Thatcherism era. It was from that point on that we were inundated with cheap , sloped forehead crap Americanized moralizing propaganda.

      And tee vee,… has gone downhill since then.

  4. Friends, I prefer to remember them how they were. I hope they don’t get up and apologise for being white..thatd be so sad

      • You’re still in bed at ten
        And work began at eight
        You’ve burned your breakfast
        So far, things are going great
        Your mother warned you there’d be days like these
        But she didn’t tell you white privelidge world has brought
        You down to your knees that

  5. For me it represents happier days, before New York began sliding back into the drug infested crap hole it was before Mayor Giuliani took over.

      • Yep sure numbskulls – it was very lightweight comedy for sure.

        But still it represents a better time – nobody is selling drugs outside their favourite café and there are no stray bullets whizzing through the front window as is the case too often now.

  6. I always wondered how they survived financially. One episode touched on that subject with Joey and Phoebe not able to afford to go the restaurants they were supposed to go to as a group. Money, or the lack of it, is rarely a core part of plots and it almost totally dictates people’s lives. That’s why Schitt’s Creek was refreshing in some ways

  7. Love Thy Neighbour (1972 TV series) ?
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_Thy_Neighbour_(1972_TV_series)
    “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet” ?
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auf_Wiedersehen,_Pet
    I’m not saying the above were better, but they were.
    ” Friends ” by comparison is a flat chested bleached anus and waxed perineum of a thing fresh out of a box of Cheetos.
    It was ( Still is? God forbid no. ) a snuff movie without the merciful snuffing. A series to placate the vacant lot that is the American mind with its aspirations to a picket fence lifestyle, which is barely living and completely without style.
    ” Friends” was a tee vee show where one leaned one’s fat arses back in the Big Softee chair and had prozac poured into the eyes and ears rendering the general populace compliant so as to be able to sell them death insurance with a free dental package. ” Friends” was a giggle fest of sugary gibberish and made me yearn for a flame thrower and the studio’s address.
    ( Writing of flame throwers? Have you seen ” Once upon a time in Hollywood”?
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Once_Upon_a_Time_in_Hollywood )
    The idiotic ‘Joey’ character tried to do UK’s Top Gear. I mean, WTF?
    Dear Chris Trotter, poor lamb? Have you bumped your head?
    P.S. Same man just older, same river just different water.

  8. Now, I’ve just had a chat with my 94 year old mother and told her to turn the heater on ( for my benefit , not hers ! )… turns out, and I don’t think she’d mind me passing this on…

    That her Auntie Millie Gibson was good friends with Michael Joseph Savage. Apparently they all used to knock about in those circles. Small world, and my mums family were poor Salvation Army folks. Mums a wealth of knowledge on how life used to be and much of it is absolutely hilarious !

    So maybe that’s where I get it from. I’m encouraging her to put it all down on tape along with her brother Uncle Ray ( both in their 90’s ) . I’m telling you right now,…the funny little things in my mums family would write a script far more ironic and funny than ‘ Friends’ ever was . 🙂

  9. “Friends” would not be able to be shown today as a contemporary tv series because it is too cis-normative and racist, and because it featured a bunch of middle class white people living reasonably confortably. Totally non-PC these days. Another lightweight comedy series from the same era “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” featuring a far more affluent Afro-American family would be completely fine. Can someone explain what the difference is?

    • Um,… dunno about all the descriptive terms, but to me,… they were just a pack of weirdo dorks. Nothing in common at all with them. But they seem to have been portrayed as a bunch of smartass shallow american townies trying to appear sophisticated.

      Boring. Ho hum . Zzzzzz material.

      Gimme Seinfeld any day.

    • Ben Waimata: “Can someone explain what the difference is?”

      It’s only wokeness that tries to manufacture difference where there is none at all.

    • Highest earner Chandler did OK in statistical analysis and data reconfiguration.. A job he loathes although it pays well. Middle class means you do not have to work for a living. Working class means you have to work. Chandler was the highest paid of fiends yet he wasn’t even middle class. Middle class has somehow come to mean whites that aren’t white trash, and work, but it doesn’t mean that

  10. It was just a show, folks. For the life of me, I don’t know why people get so exercised about TV and movies. They’re FICTION, you know? Friends was of its time: certainly not the worst I’ve seen in my longish life. And it was about white people: so what? At least it wasn’t woke.

    It wasn’t my demographic, but I saw some episodes because a younger family member liked it. And I saw some of that reunion programme last night: it made me laugh.

    In recent times, I saw Matt LeBlanc in the TV show “Episodes”. It was hilarious, as was LeBlanc. Not to be missed.

  11. I never liked “Friends” it was too contrived & phoney for my taste? The canned laughter & staged scenario’s was unrealistic & silly? Now, Seinfeid, Curb your Enthusiasm, those American Comedies I can appreciate for their wit & humour!

  12. I never liked that show from the little I ever saw of it. Always seemed to me like something that would appeal to trendy youth culture.

    To get an impression of what can happen to a show from that era that lasts to this day, consider the The Simpsons. Now employing black voice actors for black characters, gay voice actors for gay characters. It may be well intentioned but it ironically seems patronising at best or segregation at worst. Never mind the obvious issues with continuity. Diversity is all well and good, but if society was really mature, why not voice actors of different backgrounds voicing characters of various backgrounds? Otherwise it just feels awkward.

    The first ten years of that show were the best, considering the show’s enduring liberal perspective, are those first ten years now deemed deplorable?

    Frasier is another US comedy from that era I have a soft spot for. Funny watching characters from humble stock with their pretentious ways often end up making a fool of themselves. Also had some profound moments. It arguably had less diversity than Friends. Apparently there will be a new series, it will be interesting to see if or what influences modern sensibilities will have on it.

  13. If “Friends” had been made and aired to the public for the first time in 2021 it would have been met with a crescendo of outraged cries from people wanting to cancel it due to its overwhelming “whiteness” and its by default status of being therefore an upholder of “white supremacist power structures”.

    “Where are the people of colour?” They would cry. “Where are the LGBTQ etc community and other minorities?!” they would all shriek via their twitter accounts.

    “This show empowers and validates systemic racism against POC’s and the oppression of minorities by not giving them a voice. This show must be canceled now!” The shrill chorus of voices on twitter would demand.

    Next would come some grovelling apology from both the shows makers and the actors in it in the hope that they will be forgiven for their transgressions against everyone who isn’t white and straight, but mainly in the hope that their respective careers are not ended in the usual cancel culture shits storm.

    They will then all vow to undertake a course in Critical Race Theory and regularly confess to how evil they are because of their white privilege and pledge to do better to make the world more equitable to non whites.

    The problem with crucifying yourself is of course its hard to get the last nail in, but luckily for them there will be no shortage of willing volunteers ready to help with hammer in hand.

    But even then it will not be enough: this cancel culture crowd are seemingly impossible to appease. And they will move on to their next target (victim).

    I kid you not.

    Now, If I had posted such a comment about a TV show even just a few years ago I would have been laughed at and and called silly, but in 2021 this, sadly, is in fact our reality.

    We are sliding fast down a very slippery slope right now

    • Yup sadly this is right on the money and the world is literally going to shit right in front of our eyes (I have written this only after being given the green light by an albino one-legged Cook Island lesbian).

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