On September 22, Friends will celebrate its 20th anniversary. The show premiered in 1994 with a rather unimpressive pilot and an uneven first season that received mixed reviews and was repeatedly unfavorably compared to Seinfeld, another NBC staple in the ’90s. The show continued for nine seasons, sometimes getting better but mostly staying stuck in a repetitive rut of Ross/Rachel nonsense, the “struggles” of living in fancy apartments in a disgustingly expensive city, and the perils of drinking coffee. While I can sort of wrap my head around the mass appeal, it’s still worth mentioning that Friends was, to put it bluntly, not a very good show. So why is everyone still so nostalgic for it?
There is no point in describing what Friends was about, because everyone already knows, whether or not you’ve ever seen the show. I was familiar with practically every plot point prior to the first time I watched the entire series, during a depressing unemployed summer during which I also inexplicably watched all of Seinfeld. Though I was fully prepared for mediocrity, I was still surprised that this was the sitcom everyone still keeps talking about.
Friends inspires fierce nostalgia from its fans, as evidenced by the 20th anniversary tributes that have already popped up this week — just four months after the tenth anniversary tributes pegged to the show’s finale. Jimmy Kimmel recently hosted a mini-Friends reunion with the three women cast members; a pop-up Central Perk coffee shop will exist for a while in downtown Manhattan. It’s too much for a show with episodes that ranged unfathomably bad (remember when Ross wanted to have sex with his cousin? Or the flashback that revealed Ross made out with his sister at a party?) or just predictable and trite (nearly every single season finale had a cliffhanger related to Ross and Rachel).
There are so many problems with Friends: it was hardly representative of life in New York City unless you happened to have a ton of money or a sweet inherited apartment, the show ran out of ideas so quickly that it even tried to lazily throw Rachel and Joey together, its portrayal of overweight people was terrible, and its severe lack of diversity would receive just as much criticism as Girls did had Friends premiered in this decade. In fact, so much of Friends wouldn’t work today, from Monica’s fat-suit flashbacks down to the multi-camera format and studio-audience laughter that would stop many current TV fans from even viewing the pilot. Maybe all this nostalgia stems from the fact that Friends could only have existed in 1994.
If nothing else, Friends is representative of the television culture of the ’90s. It wasn’t anything special, but it lasted forever and had great ratings, largely because there wasn’t much competition. It was an easy show to find and a hard show to ignore (it is still, unfortunately, a hard show to ignore). It wasn’t groundbreaking or interesting or smart. It was just there, forever. The closest show we have to it today is either The Big Bang Theory or Modern Family, two crazy-popular shows that aren’t very good (and are also pretty whitewashed and seem to believe they’re much more original than they actually are).
The nostalgia for Friends is somewhat understandable but also strange. Why not latch on to something better than from the early ’90s, like My So-Called Life or Roseanne or NewsRadio? It’s Friends that gets the most attention even though its creative legacy is mostly limited to the god-awful Joey spinoff (which I also watched during that summer), “Which Friends Character Are You?” quizzes (I am either a waitress or nurse), and a ton of similar, quickly canceled “hanging out” sitcoms about a group of friends in a big city (too many to name). Nostalgia for the good parts of the 1990s can get irritating enough, but it’s even worse when attached to something from that decade that was never that good to begin with.