Kelsey Miller's I'll Be There for You, on the production and cultural legacy of Friends, is a must-read for fans and anyone interested in understanding TV culture over the past 20 years.
I'll Be There for You: The One About 'Friends'
Hanover Square Press
Though I was only a kid in the '90s, I grew up on David Crane and Marta Kauffman's Friends (1994-2004, NBC). My mom was a 20-something and we bonded as a family over the antics, love lives, and travails of Chandler, Joey, Monica, Phoebe, Rachel, and Ross. I don't remember any time in my life before I knew about the show. I saw the finalé while just in middle school and wept; I watched it in reruns daily throughout high school, then on DVDs; and since it appeared on Netflix I've seen the show from beginning to end at least three times (still not as many times as my rewatches of Gilmore Girls and Law & Order: SVU).
Indeed, Friends is a key feature of my history, and as Kelsey Miller's I'll Be There for You: The One About Friends, lovingly details, it's a part of millions of people's histories around the world. The quintessentially American'90s show's popularity hardly seems to have flagged 14 years after the final episode aired— instead, viewership grew. Clearly, something keeps drawing us back, and it's that aura of our investment as viewers that Miller's book explores, interweaving her own story and others' with a carefully documented history of Friends' production and cultural legacy.
In terms of popular TV journalism, Miller's book is a contender with the work of Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's Seinfeldia (Simon & Schuster, 2016) and Sex and the City (Simon & Schuster, 2018) and Chuck Klosterman, whose work appears largely in the form of essays on contemporary TV culture. Miller balances both the demand to think about how and why such a saccharine show became as powerfully pervasive as it did in the era of late-capitalist postmodern irony and an expanding TV mediascape that saw the birth of HBO and reality television, and the personal stories that made the show so much a part of our daily lives. Miller starts with the revival of the series's popularity in the mid-'10s when Friends hit Netflix. Via streaming, the show greeted old viewers who reconsidered it in light of the cultural changes over the previous decade (namely with regard to its treatment of women, people of color, and LGBT people) and new viewers who fell in love with the fantasies of Central Perk Cafe and Monica's apartment.
Miller uses the show's revitalized fanbase (which is sure to make her book a bestseller) to launch the project of how and why Friends came to be such a big hit in the first place, tracking the early careers of the show's creators Marta Kauffman, Kevin S. Bright, and David Crane, as well as the show's principal cast, and following the show from its pilot through its viewership explosion in season two, its subsequent overexposure, its steady rise to number one, and battles between producers, cast, studio, and network to prolong and finally end the show after ten seasons. Miller's chapters trace clear periods in the show's development (pre-production and season one, season two and three, the middle years of Monica and Chandler's romance, and the wind-down years of seasons eight through ten), and uses major plot and production points to pan out to the show's legacy.
Particularly interesting is Miller's attention to the ways in which the cast banded together to negotiate with the studio and network, almost as a mini-union, and how the show was intertextual with a variety of other NBC shows in the early '90s. Also noteworthy is Miller's discussion of the disastrously successful Diet Coke ads that aired in 1996, which brought too much attention to the show and led to a drop in ratings in season three. Many of these anecdotes and minutiae of Friends history will be new to even those who saw the show as adults—a testament to the careful work Miller has done.
But the greatest contribution of I'll Be There for You is how it approaches and complicates the Friends legacy. For example, in discussing the show's early press junkets and the cast's 1995 appearance on Oprah after season one, Miller uses Oprah's comments about the show lacking a "black friend" to discuss what was obvious all along: that Friends had a horrible diversity problem. Miller, whose previous book, Big Girl (Grand Central Publishing, 2016), about her experience as a big woman in size-obsessed America, emphasizes issues of identity and diversity throughout, looking, for example, at the history of lesbian representation on TV in the '90s and placing the relationship and eventual marriage of Susan and Carol into critical perspective. I'll Be There for You does not exist purely to point out problems with the show's diversity, however, and Miller is careful to include the voices of critics and fans who felt that even some of the cringy-est representations of difference (e.g., Fat Monica, the Holiday Armadillo) made a positive impact on their sense of self.
Miller also connects Friends to the #MeToo movement, putting Amaani Lyle's groundbreaking (but failed) lawsuit against Warner Bros. for sexual harassment in the writers' room at the center of her final chapter. In so doing, Miller depicts this contentious issue as evidence that this beloved show inspires multiple and often contradictory feelings in its viewers. Yes, some outright dislike or even hate the show, but many, even those who gag at the slew of gay jokes or at Ross literally saying "not all men" multiple times in the series, reconcile their frustration or anger with Friends to enjoy it nonetheless. In the end, Miller hasn't fully explained why we love the show so much, other than pointing to its "universal" appeal and lessons (though I disagree as a general rule with calling any cultural artifact "universal"), but she has charted the many emotions and investments viewers have poured into Friends for a quarter decade.
I'll be There for You is a meticulously well-research look at a show that millions of people love came to be, grew to global fame, and left its mark—apparently, not to disappear for a long time. As Miller notes, Friends has been on TV in constant reruns on multiple channels in over 100 countries since it ended in 2004. It might be that we'll never live in a world where someone hasn't seen Friends. If Miller's book is any indication, that's not such a bad thing.
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