Sunday, May 19, 2024

Reexamining ‘Friends’ 25 years later

As the 25th anniversary of the pilot episode of “Friends” came and went on Sept. 22, fans of the hit television show found themselves reminiscing about their favorite source of ‘90s nostalgia.

But can it be enjoyed to the same level it was in the ‘90s? Or are parts of it so cringey to watch now that you can simply not bear it? Kind of.

The show followed this group of friends through their mid-20s into their 30s. The show ran a total of 10 seasons on NBC. “Friends” became available to stream on Netflix Jan. 1, 2015, and since then has allowed millions of people to watch it whenever they want. It has allowed a younger generation that wasn’t alive for the initial run to binge it now.

The premise of the pilot episode which aired in 1994 was simple. Rachel Green, portrayed by Jennifer Aniston, is a runaway bride and walks in to the fictional Central Perk coffee shop to find her childhood friend, Monica Geller, portrayed by Courtney Cox. Rachel soon becomes Monica’s roommate and a part of her group of friends. This includes Phoebe Buffay, portrayed by Lisa Kudrow; Joey Tribbiani, portrayed by Matt Le Blanc; Chandler Bing, portrayed by Matthew Perry and Ross Geller, Monica’s brother, portrayed by David Schwimmer.

While the premise of six friends living in New York City is simple, their lives become extremely complicated as the show goes on from friendship disputes, marriages, divorces and eventual kids. But some of the gags and jokes that go along with those storylines are extremely cringey and uncomfortable.

First up, all those Fat Monica jokes.

Monica’s weight prior to the show is brought up a lot, particularly in flashback episodes. Her weight comes across as punchline for a lot of jokes and it’s eye-rolling at times. In the episode “The One With the Prom Video,” the audience is given the first glimpse of what Monica looked like in high school. When she appears on screen. Joey screams “some girl ate Monica!” When Monica quips back that the camera adds ten pounds, Chandler responds with “So how many cameras are actually on you?” It’s not funny. Body weight and appearance shouldn’t be used as a punchline and the constant jokes make it seem like the larger, younger Monica wouldn’t be as desirable as a character. It’s hard to sit through.

In second place, that awful episode where Ross and Rachel are looking for a nanny.

It’s unbearable to sit through. Ross makes rude comments about the assumed sexual orientation of the male nanny that Rachel really likes, and Rachel’s facial expressions make it clear that the words coming out of Ross’s mouth are awful. It makes anyone watching the episode want to throw something at their television.

Runner-up to that are the jokes about Chandler’s father.

Chandler’s parents divorced when he was young and it was due to an affair between Chandler’s father and another man. Chandler appears to hold a bitter disdain for both his parents, in particular his dad. There are mentions about an all-male burlesque show that his father has in Vegas and other comments that appear to mock his sexuality. It’s uncomfortable to say the least.

The most uncomfortable moment comes later in the show when Monica and Chandler are preparing to get married and audiences finally meet Chandler’s dad. He’s played by a woman, Kathleen Turner, who is known to have a husky voice. In an interview last year about Friends, Turner said that at the time the episode aired there were barely any drag or transgender actors on television. The portrayal hasn’t aged well.

The jokes around Ross’s divorce from Carol are also unbearable.

Ross and Carol were college sweethearts who eventually got married. Early in season one, Carol reveals to Ross that she has fallen in love with a woman, Susan, and identifies as a lesbian. This plot point becomes a running gag for most of the show’s run and at times the group of friends have no problem pointing out that Ross “married a lesbian” and use it as a way to make fun of him.

Ross himself comes across as being extremely uncomfortable with the relationship and eventual marriage between Carol and Susan. For a period of time, he refuses to acknowledge Susan as Carol’s lover and frequently buts heads with her when Carol is pregnant. It’s not comedy, it just feeds into early stereotypes about gay and lesbian couples.

It is important to keep in mind that “Friends” ran from 1994 to 2004 in a different cultural climate then we are in now. There was less visibility for minority characters and the storylines that worked then would likely not work now. LGBT relationships and individuals would not be written the same way and there would be more visibility for minority characters as the six main characters are all white. One could hope.

Friends remains a part of the cultural patchwork of the ‘90s along with shows like “Seinfeld,” “Will and Grace” and “Frasier.” When the landmark anniversaries come along, it’s important to reexamine these shows.

The landscape of television changes everyday. How can we grow, if we aren’t learning from what was done before?

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