Friends is difficult to watch in 2021

David Bowlin

Many studios have had issues trying to get new content released since COVID brought productions to a lull. With 80s and 90s nostalgia in full swing, they’re in luck. Many streaming services are leaning on revivals and continuations of existing properties to bring new eyes to their drop of water in a sea of content.

Friends is getting a revival special on May 27th to take advantage of this nostalgia craze. I recently began to re-watch the show as background noise, and I was left with a single conclusion; Friends has aged like a gallon of milk in the sun and I’m not sure the revival will do anything to fix that.

I will say that there are parts of it that hold up and are funny and dramatic. It was popular for a reason, and there’s a reason several cast members are still household names. In its day, Friends was a massive and highly influential series, which caused many imitators to come out of the woodwork. The one-two punch of Friends and Seinfeld took the concept of the concept and moved it out of the suburbs into the big city. Out went the nuclear family and in came the single twenty-somethings trying to make it. 

To talk up the show’s positives for a moment, the cast did a great job and most were rightfully nominated for Emmys for their performances. And the show was progressive for its time. It was sex positive in a way that many shows at the time were not. It also showed what it was like in the world for an age bracket that wasn’t given focus in comedies. It depicted gay people in a more positive light than many shows at the time did, with a recurring character being a lesbian raising a child. Though the fact that it was often used as a punchline undermines a lot of credit the show gained from it. 

One failed attempt at being progressive (or edgy depending on your mood) was to reveal that Chandler’s father, known as both Charles Bing and Helena Handbasket, was a trans woman played by Kathleen Turner. Helena was often at the center of many transphobic jokes before she had made her debut during the series, which makes some pivotal episodes hard to watch. Series co-creator Marta Kaufman stated in an interview that she regrets how the character was portrayed, stating that the show is a “period piece”. Turner has recently made it clear that she would not take the role in modern times. In the same interview Kaufman also expressed regret for a storyline about a rumor that Rachel was a “hermaphrodite”.

Likewise, for a show set in New York City, Friends had a distinct problem with racial diversity. In a show that constantly emphasizes it’s Manhattan setting, the fact that the main characters are all white can feel off considering New York’s incredibly diverse population. One joke that really hasn’t aged well was Ross joking that he should call immigration to deal with Rachel’s immigrant boyfriend. 

Let’s say that you can get past all of that and call it an artifact of another point in time. Comedy is quick to age, and often ages very poorly. That still leaves you with the fact that the main characters are all, awful, broken people. Joey is treated as a womanizer, Monica’s a control freak, Chandler doesn’t know how to stop making mean jokes at people’s misfortune, Phoebe is mean and will often use her own tragic backstory for personal gain, and the show’s main will-they-won’t-they couple are insufferable to watch.

On its face, that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker as comedy is often based around people doing mean or bad things. Many sitcoms like Community, How I Met Your Mother, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Orange is the New Black, or Friends’ own contemporary Seinfeld have casts that you wouldn’t want to have lunch with. Likewise, there have been dramas like Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Doom Patrol where the characters are either bad or have some damage they’re trying to work through.

The main difference is that there’s always a sense of comeuppance or character growth throughout a drama series. You aren’t meant to root for the characters in Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Friends, you’re meant to laugh at how awful they are. 

I remember scrolling through Twitter and seeing the account for the Irish and English branch of Netflix celebrate anniversary of the finale’s supposed romantic ending. I also remember many people pointing out that she gave up an amazing job for a manipulative and possessive man that had already cheated on her and lied about their marriage.

Ross may have been intended as the put-upon underdog nice guy, but he resembles the modern version of the phrase “nice guy” – in the sense that his anger and jealousy are the cause of most of his problems but he refuses to admit it.

An important scene in the show depicted Ross finding out that Monica and Chandler had gotten together. Instead of recognizing that his sister was almost 30 and could make her own life choices, he proceeds to drop everything and run to their apartment. The scene of him angrily beating on the door is played like a joke, but Chandler and Monica react like they are afraid. Chandler seems scared for his safety because he had the audacity to sleep with Ross’s sister. And given that Ross is one of the main characters, it makes it difficult for me to sit down and enjoy the show in any meaningful capacity.

There’s a lot to like about the show, especially if you like 90s sitcoms. It’s a good time capsule for that era, but it’s a time capsule that I’m not interested in looking through any further.

All ten seasons of Friends are currently streaming on HBO Max, with the original creators and cast returning for the reunion special on May 27.