Seven Things About Friends (the sitcom)

 

So… maybe it’s just the people I interact with, but Friends is just one of those shows that people can’t ever seem to quite be done with. Every so often I’ll see or hear something about that sitcom… usually it’s something less-than-nice, like, you know, the toxic nature of Ross and Rachel’s relationship, the general creepiness of Ross, the casual homophobia and fatphobia, the extreme whiteness, the constant pointing out of how unrealistic it is for the friends to have such nice apartments in New York City… but sometimes you get people with fond memories of the show too.

Now, I’ve probably mentioned this too many times already, but when I draw I like to listen to something. Podcasts, audiobooks, radio dramas, YouTube videos… or TV shows or movies that I can sort of half-watch, catching the dialogue while working on a drawing. Lately, since the entire series of Friends is on HBO Max, I’ve sort of been going through the episodes. Turns out when people refer to Friends as “easy watching,” they’re not kidding… you’d think this show was specially tailored to someone like me who often binge shows by kind of paying attention while doing other things because I get antsy if I try just sitting and watching. 

Is it a funny show? Eh. It gets a few giggles out of me per season, but no huge laughs or anything. But having watched almost all the series, and in light of discussions of the shoe, I do have a few observations… six of them, to be precise. So here they are.

 

1: I don’t know how it’s possible, but that theme song just seems to get catchier every time I hear it.

Seriously. When I started viewing the show I tended to skip over the theme song, or sing along using the words to that one Animaniacs parody song… the one that goes “whatever made them think that this could be a show? Six trendies on a couch just drinking cups of joe…” but by the time I got to the seventh season I was playing that intro every single time, even being disappointed when they shortened it. I don’t know what it is, but that song is just catchier than any song has any right to be.

(Also, I re-watched that particular Animaniacs skit and… I love Animaniacs, but that skit is just BAD. It was from the last season on the show when the writing took a terrible downturn and it’s never a good sign when a parody is less funny, with lazier writing, than the thing it’s trying to parody. It also managed to be even more fatphobic than the actual show, which took some doing.) 

 

2: The show is VERY MUCH a product of its time… but it does seem to TRY to be better.

Yeah, pretty much everything they say about the show is true. It’s kind of the typical “1990s/early 2000s” type of progressive, which means it will mercilessly mock of anyone and anything that even diverts slightly from the “acceptable” norm, using “gay” as an insult, treating overweight people as walking fat jokes, quietly ignoring most people who aren’t white… and at the same time patting itself on the back for being so tolerant and accepting because it adds a half-hearted “not that there’s anything wrong with that” at the end.  It also has some of the most BLATANT GENDER STEROTYPING I have seen.  “Men are like this, women are like this.” Okay, it does occasionally try to make the point that it’s okay to not be totally mainstream, but these points tend to be undermined by the rest of the show. It doesn’t really help that an episode ends with Ross learning that it’s okay for a man to have a traditionally feminine job like a nanny…. when the entire episode has been nothing but jokes about how weird it is for a man to have a traditionally feminine job like a nanny. And to add insult to injury, the episode spends far less time defend the male nanny than it does attacking Ross for not being more of a “man.” It’s kind of like they’re using that half-heared “not like there’s anything wrong with that” as an excuse for pouring on with the sexist jokes.

I will say, though, that on occasion the show does seem to try. While Ross’s ex turning out to be a lesbian is milked for all the “ha ha, look how pathetic Ross is for marrying a lesbian” jokes it can, at least the lesbian couple is not treated badly and it’s never called into question whether they should be allowed to be married or be allowed to raise a child. This was before gay marriage was even made legal in most US states, so good on them for that. Also, while there are romantic entanglements a-plenty, there’s never any “men and women can’t be friends” moments… 

….then again, Friends was the show that came up with “the friendzone” concept, so…

 

3: Yep, Ross is horrible… but not irredeemably so.

Make no mistake: Ross Geller is an awful person. While none of the friends would win any awards for being selfless or self-sacrificing, Ross is by far the worst. He’s every self-entitled “nice guy” you run away from when you meet; selfish. self-entitled and whiny, never taking responsibility for any of his actions and throwing tantrums when something dares not to be about him. He’s super controlling, dishonest, obsessive and demanding, and let’s not even get INTO what an absolute NIGHTMARE it would be to be romantically involved with him. And oh FUCK, I don’t think I’ve seen any person more disturbingly homophobic or gender essentialist outside TERF cycles… 

…but there are hints of a genuinely decent guy underneath all the self-centered whining. When he manages to stop obsessing over himself and his constant need to be in the right or be rewarded for what really should just be common decency (not to mention his terrible attitude towards women and romance) he can be pretty sweet. With a few years of sensitivity training he could be that decent guy all the time rather than just occasionally.

 

4: Let’s face it, none of the Friends are particularly good people… but they’re not as terrible as people say either.

It’s not just Ross. Pretty much all the members of the friend group are horribly mean and insensitive; the moment one of them shows the slightest bit of vulnerability the others immediately go for the throat… but NONE of them can ever take being even the slightest bit of wrongdoing against themselves. Again, Ross is the biggest example, but none of them are innocent.

Rachel is pretty much a toned-down version of Ross; less extreme but similar “I’m owed it all and your needs don’t matter” attitude.  Phoebe is a hypocrite and comes across as a borderline sociopath with her sometimes disturbing lack of empathy. Chandler’s a rampant homophobe and transphobe, and almost as bad as Ross when it comes to reinforcing toxic masculine stereotypes. Monica is overly competitive and obsessed with winning; if she can’t outright boss people into doing what she wants she’ll manipulate them into it. And Joey is utterly selfish and sometimes callous, with his ideas on women and sex being… antiquated, even for the time period. 

Now, I’ve seen the argument that “it’s a comedy, you’re not supposed to endorse this behaviour, you’re supposed to taught at these people for how wrong and stupid they are.” Sure, but this message isn’t consequent. It’s not like in the majority of British sitcoms, or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or even Seinfeld, where the horrible people are so CLEARLY AND UNAMBIGUOUSLY set up as being horrible people that you can’t really mistake them for anything else. In Friends, the horribleness is sometimes called out, sure, but just as often it’s just glossed over and occasionally even presented as justified and morally right. 

The thing is, all the Friends do have their redeeming qualities. Rachel owns up to her mistakes and works on becoming a better person, and of all the Friends she gets by far the most character development. Phoebe has some spectacular moments of kindness, and is probably the least judgmental of the gang. Chandler is supportive and generous to an almost ridiculous degree, and like Rachel he works on overcoming his flaws.  Monica is hospitable and caring, always ready to welcome people into her home, and is probably the best at compromising and letting go.  And Joey… actually, Joey should get a section to himself here. 

 

5:  The Casanova who sees women as sex objects is SOMEHOW the most morally upright person in this group.

Joey is probably the second-most complained about character in the show. There’s been a lot of comments about how his womanizing and pervy comments reach creepy levels, and… yeah, some of those interactions he has with women would NOT fly in a post-#MeToo world. He hits on girls at the most inopportune moments, he makes sleazy comments and suggestions. Occasionally he lies to make himself more desirable, and if some of the jokes the other people tell about him are true he goes further…  though I don’t know if that’s just his friends being mean like they always are of if he actually does all those things. He’s also extremely self-centered and tends to think of himself first and other people second.

And yet… of the three male Friends, Joey is the LEAST creepy one in my eyes. Sure, he definitely needs to grow up quite a bit, but even with his womanizing he has a big advantage over Ross or (to a lesser extent) Chandler: He’s always honest about his intentions. Joey never tries to pretend he isn’t interested or hide behind any sort of “nice guy” routine so he can get closer to a girl, nor does he try to feign interest in order to manipulate her… Sure, his views on women is sleazy and his record of ghosting the women he’s slept with is awful, but it does say something that when he himself got ghosted in one episode and found out how much it sucked, he phoned up all the women he’d ghosted in the past to apologize. There’s just an emotional honesty to him that I don’t get from the other two. Plus, some of the jokes aside, of the three guys he’s by far the best at grasping that no means no. If a woman doesn’t consent, or if she makes it clear she’s not interested, Joey respects that and backs off. He doesn’t whine about it or passive-aggressively try to push her to change her mind. 

Joey is really the only one of the Friends who comes across as genuinely sweet. Sure, he’s self-centered, thoughtless.  and a total perv, but there’s no malice to his actions and of all of them Joey is by far the most likely to feel bad and make amends if he’s crossed the line.  It’s also interesting how of the group he seems the most inclined to just do the right thing without prompting. Among more normal people he’d definitely come across as a bit of a sleazebag, but compared to the people he regularly hands out with Joey actually manages to be the most moral one. It probably doesn’t hurt that Matt LeBlanc is so dam charismatic, mind…

 

6: It’s not just Joey; all the characters are extremely horny.

Seriously, these people fuck a LOT. Chandler’s probably the least horny of them, but, well, this is like Joey with the morals: in any OTHER friend group Chandler would probably stand out as the horndog. He only has sex with like nine or ten different women over the course of the series.  Ross. Rachel and Monica each have 14-15 different partners, while Phoebe more than doubles the amount by having sex with more than 30 different people over the course of the series. And of course, Joey beats them all out with 50-plus partners, so…

Granted, Joey and Phoebe are the only ones who never hook up with someone else inside the friend group… I know Lisa Kudrow and Matt LeBlanc wanted to play Phoebe and Joey as being casual fuckbuddies, but the producers wouldn’t let them. You can definitely see a lot of flirting going on between the two in the series, though, so… clearly the actors are trying to hint that something’s going on between them.

 

7:  David Schwimmer is totally channeling Jerry Seinfeld.

I mean it. Look at Ross at his whiniest, and then look at Jerry Seinfeld at his whinest. Tell me you don’t see the similarity.

 

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