I had my first small, inward chuckle of 2018 this morning when, while scanning the BBC website, I was met with the following headline.
FRIENDS HITS UK SCREENS WITH NETFLIX
Friends – you know, that little-known cult comedy classic that hitherto was only available in America or on obscure, illegal streaming websites? Well, it’s finally available! It’s hitting UK screens!
The truth is, obviously, that ever since Friends debuted in September 1994, it has never left UK screens. Simply put, it could do no wrong. It changed the way we spoke, cut our hair and thought about Tom Selleck. Now, with Netflix’s acquisition of the much-loved series, you can watch the whole thing, start to finish, in one nostalgia-fuelled blur. You can look at the velvet mini dresses and say, fondly, “Ah, it’s a product of its time!” – but, dually, you could look at its relationship with race, size, and queerness and mumble, “Oh, God, it really is a product of its time.”
Don’t get me wrong, Friends has some of the strongest joke-writing in TV history, at least for the first six or seven seasons. It also has some of the most fun girls-hanging-out-together scenes in TV – between “Let’s make dollhouses” to “Let’s hang out in rented wedding dresses”, there are hundreds of hours of the vivid half-child, half-woman experience of living with mates in your mid-twenties. On top of that, you have some legitimately brilliant, bizarre, “How the hell did they think of that?” moments: Ross’s monkey! The chick and the duck! The season where Chandler and Joey just had a canoe and some porch furniture!
But there’s also plenty – and I mean plenty – of material in Friends that rubs you up the wrong way. Until Charlie (Aisha Tyler) in season nine, the show basically never had a plot line for anyone who wasn’t white. And even then, she was so blandly virtuous that her whole story felt more like “Hey! Black people are OK, too, I guess!” than “Let’s create a show everyone can see themselves in”. There’s also the profound gay panic that litters the series, from “Doesn’t Chandler seem gay?” to “Let’s hiss at Carol and Susan until they go back to lesbian town, where they belong”.
You can look at the velvet mini dresses and say, fondly, "Ah, it’s a product of its time!" – but, dually, you could look at its relationship with race, size, and queerness and mumble, "Oh, God, it really is a product of its time"
Even then, the homophobia and racial blindsightedness feels mild compared with the show’s visceral hatred of a character we rarely even get to meet: Fat Monica, the chubby teenager Monica Geller once was, and has apparently developed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in an attempt to subdue. We are encouraged to sneer at Fat Monica, the happy nerd who made macaroni cheese for a young Chandler (tell me: is there anything more perfectly, heartbreakingly teenage than a boy you like off-handedly saying, “You should be a chef,” and you giddily responding with “OK!” and then actually doing it?) and we’re encouraged to celebrate Monica, the thin, desperately sad woman who cooks food she clearly never eats.
I could go on – for every brilliant, hilariously funny thing Friends brought to us, I could give you a counterweight of something brutal and offensive and strange. We could play the Friends see-saw game all day and still miss the point.
The point, I think, is this: just because the 1990s feels recent doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a fucked-up time. This is probably an easy thing for people in their late thirties, forties and older to realise, but if you count yourself as a “millennial”, it comes as a new thought. I was a child in the 1990s. My reckoning of the era is inexorably tied to nostalgia – it is bound up in dial-up internet, Friends on a Friday night, Tamagotchis and not knowing that bread is bad for you. And because the internet and I grew up side by side, I can probably load up BuzzFeed right now and find something that confirms the gentle memories of the era: POGs, Frasier and Meg Ryan’s You’ve Got Mail wardrobe is never more than a click away. The internet loves to remember the 1990s as fondly as I do – after all, we were both children then.
Once again, though, that doesn’t change the fact that the 1990s had just as many problems as any era in the 20th century. The vocal obsession with Chandler’s questionable sexuality was born in the era of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”. The show’s overwhelming whiteness was born in the aftermath of the Rodney King riots, when race relations in the US were among the most openly fractious they’ve ever been. That’s not to imply that the writers of Friends took one look at the news and said, “Let’s be terrible to gay people and avoid POC entirely, but otherwise write a great show” – it just means that all of this stuff was in the air, deep in the grassroots of culture. In the same way that you can’t watch a 1940s movie without referencing the Second World War, you can’t binge-watch Friends on Netflix without wrinkling your brow and saying, “Well, that was the time.”
You can tell yourself things are different now and enjoy the show regardless. But what you have to keep asking yourself, always, is this: are they different enough?