In Defense of “Friends”

In the last year, I have come to watch, in its entirety, the decade-defining sitcom known as “Friends.” It is not cool, in comedy circles, to be a fan of “Friends.” It is a common, popular show – not as loathed as “Two And A Half Men,” to be sure, but more along the lines of “The Big Bang Theory”: seen as broad and mildly funny, entertainment for the masses more than anything of legitimate quality.

And herein, I beg to differ.

“Friends” has some problems, certainly, not the least of which is what has been called its “unbearable whiteness” (although re-watching “Buffy,” it seems like this is not an uncommon problem amongst high-quality turn-of-the-millennium television). It also went on about two seasons too long, although this is more the fault of NBC execs than anyone on the creative team. The Ross-and-Rachel back-and-forth did get dragged out implausibly, but it doesn’t bother me terribly as a viewer – although it may have been introduced as one of the series’ central narrative elements, it played out between the show’s two least interesting (to me, at least) characters.

And besides – whatever went wrong with Ross and Rachel went right with Monica and Chandler.

Monica and Chandler break most all of the conventions of romantic comedies. There is no meet-cute, or any indication in the first two seasons that they have any interest in one another beyond friendship. Their relationship makes sense because of the characters we have come to know, not because of any contrived circumstance; moreover, their relationship is allowed to progress according to a realistic timeline, from moving in together through marriage and children – in contrast to Ross and Rachel, they move naturally through their lives together, and not like characters in a sitcom. Additionally, they remain integrated into the story even after their marriage, versus characters like Jim and Pam on “The Office,” slowly disappearing from the central narrative after pairing off.

Even Ross and Rachel, though, grow and develop throughout the series. Contrast this with a show beloved by comedy snobs: “30 Rock,” or even “Seinfeld.” Both of those are fine sitcoms, with rarer perspectives than “Friends,” to be sure. But they both operate by keeping their characters static – although Liz Lemon once showed interest in adopting a child, for example, that plot point has been ignored for several seasons now, because allowing that level of character development would complicate the show’s world too much (similarly, the much-loathed finale of “Seinfeld” was an hour-long operation in pointing out how little each character had grown). The dramatic and the comedic cannot coexist on either “30 Rock” or “Seinfeld,” but the best episodes of “Friends” pair them easily.

“Friends” also accomplishes a difficult structural task with grace: juggling a six-lead show. Very few shows have this many central characters; more often than not the show will revolve around only one or two, and if another member of the primary cast is allowed to drive the narrative, it feels like a “special” episode. On “Friends,” however, the space of the story is allocated equally – although the Ross and Rachel storyline could sometimes feel like it dominated every other element of the show during its initial run, upon re-watching, Joey’s career struggles take up just as much screen time, even if they generated far less media attention. Moreover, the manner in which the show juggled these multiple storylines is distinct – disparate but overlapping adventures, often brought together or resolved in a simple tag. It is not an avant-garde structure, but it is a remarkably well-crafted show. (Robert Carlock, co-executive producer of another exceedingly well-crafted show – “30 Rock” – cut his teeth as a story editor on “Friends.”)

The pacing of jokes can be slower than on current sitcoms, although much of that may be due to the multi-camera format – a logistical constraint abandoned by nearly every well-regarded sitcom today.  A multi-camera sitcom is a different beast altogether, owing more to live theater or sketch comedy than to film, and the cinematic stories told by the likes of “Community” are flatly impossible within the format.  "30 Rock" became a radically different show when it attempted a live episode, the pacing loosened to allow for audience response, and within these boundaries “Friends” operates in a manner both familiar and distinct.  "Friends" is not the best show, or even the best sitcom, in television history, but it is unique in being both widely accessible and extremely high-quality, a memorable and multi-layered success.

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