Watch It or Else
No one told you life was gonna be this way… trapped in a room for half an hour every week with six people you wouldn’t think twice about excising from your life if given the choice. Unfortunately, it’s been made abundantly clear to you that failure to comply will make things decidedly uncomfortable around the office, and you just can’t afford that. So you watch their antics, laugh at their little jokes, and furrow your brow at their tribulations as if they’re somehow real or interesting, because it’s something you’ve been told that you must do.
Who knew your very life would depend on a sitcom?
Friends, a show about six neurotic Manhattanites with fabulous apartments, is the flagship of NBC’s “Must-See TV” lineup of “water-cooler” shows, those programs that would strong-arm us into believing that if you don’t watch, you’ll have no idea what your co-workers are talking about on Friday morning, and so, you’ll find yourself ostracized, pilloried perhaps, condemned to sit alone and friendless at your desk, gazing longingly at the hip cognoscenti just a few feet away. This insulting attempt at social extortion alone is reason enough not to watch, but lord, there are so many more.
The Friends in question are Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), a spoiled Long Island brat with a track record of hamstringing her friends by elaborate deception in order to get what she wants; Monica (Courteney Cox Arquette), a shrill, anal-retentive control freak; Monica’s brother Ross (David Schwimmer), a paleontologist so eager for validation that he repeatedly barrels into disastrous relationships; Chandler (Matthew Perry), an unrelenting jokester with serious masculinity issues that are unlikely to resolve themselves while he’s engaged to Monica; Joey (Matt Le Blanc), a loveable out-of-work actor who thinks with his dick; and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), a former teenage runaway turned New Age space cadet, who is nonetheless the most together person in this crowd. Despite living in Manhattan, the six of them have managed to find unbelievably spacious apartments within sight of each other, and they spend their time hanging out in these or at Rachel’s former place of employment, a coffee shop named Central Perk (she works for Ralph Lauren now). The show’s hook is that these people are like the cool friends you always wished you had. I have friends like these. I avoid them.
As sitcoms go, Friends is actually above-average, for what that’s worth. The lines are fairly clever and the actors deliver them more or less humorously. The first few seasons were directed by James Burrows, an acknowledged master at handling ensemble casts (Taxi, Cheers), and under his tutelage this cast developed excellent timing and rapport. The comedic weaknesses of Aniston and Cox Arquette are ably countered by the precision of Perry and Kudrow (a veteran of improv groups). If it’s a choice between Friends or any of CBS’s achingly unfunny shows, line for line this bunch wins.
If only NBC were satisfied with funny. Seinfeld notwithstanding, the key to “Must-See TV” has never been comedy but continuity making sure that if the viewer misses even one episode he or she will be thoroughly lost. In order to maintain a berth in the hallowed lineup, an NBC show must provide story arcs, ongoing threads, and “very special” episodes. Niles must crash Daphne’s wedding and run away with her on a very special Frasier. Susan and Jack must realize their long-denied love on a very special Suddenly Susan (shudder). Finch marries the supermodel on a very special Just Shoot Me and loses the supermodel on another very special Just Shoot Me. On the Peacock network, sitcoms last if they’re more “sit” than “com.”
And no show slings more “sit” than Friends. If I’m counting right, the on-again/off-again romance between Ross and Rachel has entered its eighth season where, despite numerous outside relationships inevitably foiled by their raging codependence, the pair continues to wrestle with something the writers insist are “feelings” for each other. Monica and Chandler became engaged last season but only after old flame Tom Selleck was hauled out of secondary-character limbo to provide a gratuitous obstacle. Joey was offered another part on the soap opera that killed off his character years ago, as if the soap opera he’s in isn’t enough. The show is becoming more and more self-referential, cannibalizing ancient plotlines, confident that its viewers who remember history are eager to repeat it.
Evidently they’re right you can’t argue with Friends’ rampant success in the ratings but it’s a bit disturbing to think that so many people find nothing whiffy about this group dynamic. All six characters have enjoyed varying degrees of success in their chosen professions despite the fact that, save for Rachel’s carrying coffee mugs at Central Perk, none of them ever seems to work, yet none of them have forced to move, except to one or another of the same three apartments. They pair up but the couples never spend time alone. Even when they flat-out despise each other, they still hang out. Friends though they may be, these characters appear to be living in a more spacious version of Sartre’s No Exit, stuck with each other and nowhere else to go. In the end, Friends has become the epitome of “Must-See TV” not because it’s in our best interest to watch it, but because without us, these people have no reason to be together. We’re the only friends they’ve got.