Dissecting the 'Friends' phenom

Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD -- As "Friends" -- peerless sitcommernaut of the '90s and beyond -- rolls out the last two installments in its 230-plus-episode, multibillion-dollar run, it's funny to remember what a hesitant, conflicted latecomer to the Gen X-ploitstation genre it was, way back in 1994.

But the show not only defied its own life expectancy, it outlived its original premise and the mostly media-manufactured "trend" that inspired it. Within a few short years of its debut, David Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox Arquette, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow and Matt LeBlanc would be canonized by Time Warner. Entire magazines would spring fully formed from the head of Bonnie Fuller to track their various haircuts, drug addictions, weight fluctuations, romantic involvements and sweatpants preferences. Canadian forests were felled in service to the subject of Aniston's hair.

In no time, the sextet of buddies in their early 20s (remember way back when?) frolicking in a storybook Manhattan (remember way back never?) became pop idols in ways few sitcom stars before them had. Other characters on other sitcoms had been popular, widely recognized, iconic, funny even. But fans of Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe and Joey wanted to copy their hair, wear their clothes, live in their town and mail them their underwear.

Love or hate it, the galactic influence of "Friends" has been undeniable. But was the show a cultural force? Or a pleasantly mesmerizing commercial delivery system? After 10 years, theories have proliferated like flattering People magazine covers. Here are some of mine:

-- The theory where everyone was more or less equally cute and funny

Sex symbol status has tended to elude sitcom stars, especially women, unless of course, they happened to be the sexy teen stars firmly ensconced in wholesome family comedies, like Lisa Bonet of "The Cosby Show." Until "Friends," either your name was Justine Bateman, or you were cute, funny or a guy. Even then, conventionally handsome comedic actors, like "Cheers'" Ted Danson, often played their handsomeness as an amusing trait -- preening, and vain or rakish.

On "Friends," the characters' stellar looks were never mentioned except to make fun of them -- Dudley Moore haircuts, ill-advised leather pants, previous lives as fat girls, girls with big noses, Flock of Seagulls and Lionel Richie costume-wearing dorks. Meanwhile, standard, plot-imposed "hot girls" were played by the likes of supermodel Elle Macpherson. This made the friends what people in Burbank like to call "relatable."

-- The theory where the characters formed a luxury apartment-dwelling urban tribe whose members were allowed to sleep around without getting stoned to death in a public square, or criticized by Tipper Gore

What began as a humble comedy about single kids looking for love in the absence of anything better to do quickly became that most venerated network institution: a beloved family comedy.

With "Friends," the family was surrogate and oddly prone to incest, but still.

Perhaps the most initially threatening thing about "Friends," though, was its tacit case for the indefinite postponement of marriage, an institution of which television -- and sitcoms in particular -- had been inordinately fond since way back when Ricky loved Lucy enough to wrangle her a studio audience.

"Friends" kicked off with Aniston's Rachel leaving her fiance at the altar with no particular plan in mind. Her new "Friends" provided her with a utopian version of post-adolescence. Although it was not the first Manhattan-based show to do so, "Friends" was the first to present the idea of the "urban tribe" as a desirable and attractive alternative to married family life. Of the show's six characters, only Ross, the most hapless of the bunch, pined for marriage -- and was punished for it by winding up thrice-divorced.

"Friends'" principal innovation, other than assembling a group of people who looked like they might hang out together and letting them do so unsupervised, seems to have been its willingness to let the characters be single and likable. "Seinfeld" viewers, by contrast, were constantly reminded of why Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine were single -- they were bad and deserved to be punished. On "Friends," especially during the early years of the swinging Clinton era, looking for love in all the wrong places was considered, if not a noble pursuit, then at least a fine way to kill time between congressional hearings.

"Friends" presented the idea of a never-changing but ever-evolving core of friends as a set of recombinant genes. (Remember when everybody thought Phoebe and Joey were the next, inevitable item?) Of course, in real life, friends fall out, get married, move away and drift off, making the urge to pair-bond before it's too late that much stronger. On "Friends," that urge turned inward.

-- The one where they all eventually bow down and conform

Reader, they all started marrying each other.

-- The one where everybody cannibalizes New York before New York is altogether dead

Before "Friends," certain parts of New York were like exciting, if roach-infested, refuges for young, alienated, creative types seeking some sort of bohemian cultural experience. After "Friends," then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani did what he could to make the city resemble a Warner Bros. back lot. Those parts of New York that had once been roach-infested refuges for young oddballs wound up yielding some exciting retail opportunities.

-- The weirdo theory about how the cast's supernova fame started to swap places with the characters' comparatively normal lives, turning the show into a fascinating formal exercise in hypnotism by celebrity

Before "Friends," Schwimmer, Perry, LeBlanc, Aniston and Kudrow were so unknown that newspaper reporters kept trying to justify the show's existence by insisting that Cox -- who had had a role on "Family Ties" and famously appeared in a Bruce Springsteen video -- was the star of the show, or any kind of star at all.

But "Friends" entered its baroque phase early.

Beginning with a stunt-heavy guest-star phase, it quickly turned itself into a self-conscious star parade that was consistently reinforcing its own status as a cultural phenomenon, and expanding on its own presence in the culture until it became a highly stylized, almost formal exercise in celebrity, star power and self-referentiality. The show started highlighting the weird intersection between its own sudden, overwhelming celebrity and the cast's much publicized real-life friendships.

When Brad Pitt, Aniston's real-life husband, came on as the founder of their high school's I Hate Rachel Green Club, it was as if more than 20 million people were in on the private joke. Julia Roberts -- the Brad Pitt of still bigger movie stars -- found that even a brief dalliance with Matthew Perry got her mandatory guest-starring duty.

The intersection between reality and fantasy felt at once personal and comfy and strangely discomfiting.

-- The theory that doesn't quite explain why, after all that effort, there aren't any more twentysomething comedies on TV

Arguably, no show was cloned as often as "Friends." Ultimately, the show that would launch a thousand failed sitcoms about urban tribes and cute single people prompted a backlash against its own kind. For years, NBC tried to replicate the show's success, only to produce steadily more disappointing results that ended, mortifyingly, in "Coupling." Nobody blames the network for backing off for a while, but nobody blames the twentysomethings for ending up on "Paradise Hotel," "The Bachelor" and "The Apprentice" and trying to get something out of the deal, either.

Whether Ross and Rachel get together once more for old times' sake is immaterial at this point. Unless the "Friends" end on some really surprising note, like moving together to Utah or throwing a big Moonie-style wedding in Yankee stadium, it appears that the nuclear family will out in the end. Now that TV has returned to the paternalistic values of the first Bush era, there's just no use fighting it.

It was time the kids parted company, anyway.

Still, no matter how formulaic "Friends" got, the formula was always oddly satisfying -- like a Big Mac, or a really sentimental wedding.

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