Saturday, July 30, 2016

Friends - The One That Was A Fast-food Sitcom

Statistically though, I am one of the very
few people who thoroughly despised Friends.

I genuinely never saw the appeal and repeatedly tried to watch the episodes, because the mass hysteria around the series convinced me I must be missing out. It is remarkably peculiar that a 20-year-old sitcom still holds such an alluring appeal. After all, why do so many 20-somethings want to stream a 20-year-old sitcom about a bunch of 20-somethings sitting around in a coffee shop? The level of mass marketing required to keep Friends on air for so long is rather concerning though.

Friends experienced resurgence when Netflix decided to offer all the episodes through its service on 1st January, 2015. This ushered in a new breed of younger fans, leading to a situation of manufactured nostalgia. Indeed, it is strange to see people experience a manufactured nostalgia for cultural products even before their time of birth. All culture always goes back and feeds off the past, it can't help it, but there are two ways of doing it. One is to go back and get inspiration from the past and create something genuinely new, which is the whole history of all sorts of things – not just art and music. The other is to create a distorted parallel universe with tenuous connections to the real world.

Somewhere along the line in the world of television, soap opera, drama and comedy seamlessly merged into one another. It's fairer to call shows like Law & Order and CSI ‘sitdramas’ than it is to call Friends a sitcom. Law & Order's commercial success hinges on how each episode is neatly packaged. One can shuffle them all together and deal them out in any order, and viewers won't even notice. But if one shuffled episodes from Friends' 10 seasons and aired them in random order, the viewer wouldn't have the slightest bit of continuity from show to show.

The sanitised, airbrushed version of New
York life led by the perfectly coiffed sextet
Rather than wrapping up plots in 30 minutes, as sitcoms do, Friends stretches them over several episodes, or even several seasons (or in the case of Ross and Rachel, all 10). A conventional sitcom plot, such as Chandler kicking Joey out of his apartment, gets a three-show treatment on Friends. Most sitcoms would feel obliged to slap "To Be Continued …" on any plot that lasts longer than half an hour. But the ‘soapcom’ only very rarely begins even with a "Previously on Friends …" summation for the uninitiated. Friends is structurally most similar to a show like The X-Files: Episodes are occasionally self-contained, but most expand upon series-long story arcs that grows more convoluted and harder for non-devotees to follow with each passing season.

What do you recall most about Friends? Was it the story lines, the social commentary, the quirky personalities portrayed, or other analytic construct? Friends is rarely recalled for all those attributes written about it when it survived purely because it had a cast of attractive people. The fanatics fans make no claims about the quality or critical reception of Friends, only its popularity. It very quickly came to rely on soap appeal- regular viewers' need to know what's happening to the characters they've emotionally invested in over the years for its popularity, rather than actual competent writing and acting.

The show's enduring popularity had more to do with how so many people seem to like trite, predictable, safe, shallow entertainment completely free of real consequences or any challenge to their delicate sensibilities. It is absolutely non-threatening and uses comfortable cultural references most viewers understand. Any conflict is resolved by the episode ending and magically resolved by the next one.
What is funny about all these and similar infantile attempts to get people to laugh? Is it perhaps the Emperor's new clothes syndrome? To see like everybody else what you suspect is not there?

We all spent 10 years watching Monica, Chandler, Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, and Joey, and we know that they
don't have any other friends. They have people they date and each other.
That's it. So who are all these random people they trot out during party scenes?
Allowing that the occasional episode provided a few laughs, what can explain the success of a one-joke sitcom, where the joke was always just this: Middle-aged adults speaking and acting like seven-year-olds? Because that is basically what Friends boils down to: silly, strangely ignorant, self-unaware people blurting out childish remarks and behaving with infantile motivations. All it shows to me is a bunch of rather stupid, narcissistic and immature people clutching to each other for succour.

The premise and the plot do not hold up. Every three or four episodes you wonder why any of them are friends with each other, they just serve to antagonise and undermine each other all the time. There’s the clueless, amiable imbecile Joey; Monica with her predictably one-dimensional obsession driven behaviour; Chandler—well, not acted at all; Phoebe belonging in a mental hospital; the gratingly obnoxious whining Ross Geller; Jennifer Aniston alone showing some intermittent signs of a character. Most of the actors inhabited their roles so well that it is difficult to imagine them being any different in real life.

The series impeccably captured the quintessence
of the aspirational travel brochure lifestyle that
people were enticed into- lots of time for coffee, 

gossip and peccadilloes. Nothing heavy or ugly or
weird or disturbing was ever discussed.
It offered a parallel Universe in which the viewers could vicariously enjoy a world surrounded by these ever so cute, sparky twenty somethings who were somehow always lovingly quirky friends. One could move to the big city but, rather than be alone in a rickety bed with no money living on cup noodles, as would be the reality, be surrounded by reassuring mates and live in a great flat and still have enough money to shop at The Gap every week and spend a fortune on haircuts despite working as a waitress. It was very far-fetched 20 years ago, but would seem woefully out of touch with reality if it was made today and it reinforced the fantasy for an entire generation (and seemingly the next generation too) it seems; who though single life in the big city would be just like Friends.

In hindsight, the real legacy of Friends is all these people who start their orders in coffee shops with the words "Can I get a coffee?” I still blame Friends mainly for the start of conversations using puerile derision as a standard mode of communication and for that daft way of narrating just a statement but making it sound like a question called... upspeak? Also, I'm absolutely certain the usage of “Oh... my... God” (said as cringingly as possible) spiked due to the series.

And yet it's because of Friends every other high street shop around the globe is now a coffee shop. The spawning of them happened around the same time as Friends hit and it's hard not to see a correlation. Now every superficial-boisterous yuppie spends their time quaffing tepid and sub-par brew in Costabucks.

Is Friends the worst offender? Not at all, but most American sitcoms seem to be written by either a committee or a software application- no big words, thick guy line followed by ditsy girl line followed by straight male lead line, etc.; textbook definition of mechanical humour. The dialogue was consciously minimalist to appeal to the largest number of young adult viewers: "Hey you guys, why don't we… just… like… hang out?”

Here comes the joke. Can you see it? It’s coming. Get ready. Almost there.
Here we go. Bam. Music. Next 30 second scene. Repeat.
There should be some award for the laugh-track technician. Without their dedication to the craft, all the flat jokes would have been flatter. The laugh track pushes the narrative, in such a combination we are used to, and in doing so it does not allow room for any introspection or pause.

Laugh tracks feed directly into emotion – certainly strongly enough to set the tone of otherwise ambiguous material, but perhaps strongly enough to override emotionally non-ambiguous material as well. Smoke, mirrors and CGI create optical illusions; laugh tracks create emotional illusions.

Sure, Friends was a stereotypical bubble-gum soap-opera/sitcom with one-dimensional characters that become caricatures of themselves and never develop. It's a very commercially successful template for a sitcom which lacks creativity. Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother and Two and a Half Men are similar.

The population like happy programmes, nothing wrong with that. There is no problem with fluffy light comedy. Fluff doesn't have to mean bad or brain rotting. It can be enjoyable light things that you want to read when you've only got 3 minutes, or you're fatigued and can't read an 8,000 word treatise on Russian literature. Friends is the ultimate equivalent of junk food.

Let’s demand a bit more reality, and present a more honest version of pop culture in response. We might find that there is no need to aspire and emulate a life that reaches us only through a heavily sterilised script. Will Friends ever die? I doubt it. But when I die and instead of seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, I start hearing the Friends theme, I'll know I'm on the fast track to hell.

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