“What do you mean you haven’t finished watching FRIENDS?”
That was the response most people gave me a good two years ago when I posted on Instagram a FRIENDS T-shirt I bought from Primark in London back when travelling was a thing we could still do.
Whether or not you’ve watched the show or are a rabid fan, FRIENDS’ iconic references are unlikely to have eluded you. The Orange Sofa, the Central Perk Cafe, or Ross’ voice screaming “pivot” have somehow managed to creep their way into our house through conversations or random Shopee sprees.
Seventeen years on, the allure of FRIENDS endures, elevated to the throne of high pop culture, basking in its cult-like status. It sits together rather comfortably (or uncomfortably, for that matter) with another revered comedy-drama series from that era Sex and the City, both equally referenced, both equally problematic at parts, especially within the current landscape of social equity, and correctness.
The sitcom has gained such traction that a FRIENDS reference on-screen or in-person is as common as hearing the koel bird ku-ooing outside your window. And while some of us may despise their loud, rude signal that a new day is upon us, others find comfort in its ku-ooing.
The Enduring and Alluring Comfort in the Familiarity of FRIENDS
As annoying as our noisy feathered friends may be, their absence leaves us with a poignant absence. We can’t help but notice the lack of a sound that we have grown accustomed to.
The hustle and grind of daily work and school tends to drive us to crave a place that provides a sense of familiarity—be it in terms of the sounds we hear in person or places we visit. While going to old playgrounds and neighbourhoods is always an option, we now also have the convenience of revisiting the places that we’ve lived in vicariously through television.
“My favourite part of FRIENDS is the hangout spots like the cafe or their houses,” recounts Gayathrii, a 31-year-old educator.
“Most of my close friends, even the ones I made in secondary school before smartphones, are text-based friendships. Seeing these places reminds me of how I miss hanging out. I don’t really have friends whose houses I can go to and comfortably hang out at these days. Maybe one but we haven’t done so in years.”
For Sereen, FRIENDS is an iconic tv show that brings much joy to her life. Anytime she feels down, she knows a specific episode to switch on that can make her laugh almost immediately.
“Watching them grow and being part of their development from Season 1 to Season 10 is also incredible,” adds the 23-year-old English Major. “I see how they have matured individually and in their own relationships. Like Chandler being stuck in a job he hates, to breaking out into a completely new field like Advertising and starting from the bottom.”
As characters, they experience struggles or emotions that make it easy for the audience to relate to them so while watching them grow, it feels like we are maturing along with them.
“I think, for me, the show brings a strong sense of nostalgia in a few different ways,” shares 26-year-old Aash. “It brings to mind memories of watching the last season with my mum as it came out on Channel 5 or whatever it was we had back then. It brings to mind, too, memories of my two years in NS where we’d seek something mindless enough to pass the time but still entertaining enough to make us chuckle a little… and bonus points to this show for being easy to pause and put away when officers were looking.”
All this talk about nostalgia is unsurprising, given that nostalgia has proven to be a powerful and effective branding and marketing tool that has the ability to change minds and influence behaviour.
According to Nicole Long, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at University of Virginia, peoples’ memories are linked to each other. Her research leading the university’s Long-Term Memory Lab shows that people look forward to being transported back to an earlier time in their lives where most of the memories that they have from that time point probably skew positively.
“It makes them feel better because they’re entering a positive emotional state by virtue of this kind of linked memory that they have between their lives in general and what they were doing when they were first experiencing, for example, television shows,” she clarifies.
Perhaps in a time where we seem to be living in an episode of Black Mirror, the sentimental value and nostalgia that comes with FRIENDS become more poignant. Like a small coffee or a bubble tea boost to get us through a rough day, the show becomes equivalent to comfort food. We know it does nothing to change our hectic lives, but it makes it just a little more manageable.
Growing pains of youth
Beyond people and places, the show’s familiarity also comes in the shape of values and themes that transcend time.
Even though the last episode of FRIENDS aired on 6 May 2004, a good seventeen years ago, our Singaporean youths still find the show very much relatable today.
“I like their friend dynamics—how they gel together very well and support each other,” adds 23-year-old clinical research coordinator, Faizah. “They balance each other out despite each of their ‘annoying’ attributes.”
The bromance between the three male leads, especially Joey and Chandler’s friendship is what Fir enjoys about the show.
It seems that we see in FRIENDS what an ideal friend group looks like. The show may have aired around the time when most of its current audience was just born, yet how it portrays friendship still resonates with many today.
“The show also speaks to me a little more now as I start work, fresh out of school,” Aash reflects. “It encapsulates the dream of life moving forward but being able to keep your loved ones, your chosen family, your friends, close as it does. I feel like our twenties can be really scary, and the notion of being able to stick it through with the same shipmates who have already stuck together through so much is beautiful.”
Perhaps this kind of friendship is best captured through The Rembrandts singing “I’ll Be There For You” in a chorus of voices as the sitcom’s introduction. The theme song tells an age-old tale of friendship, that despite the bad circumstances, or what day, or week, or month, or year, your friends will be there. It seems that we all want friends like FRIENDS.
It’s great, but they’re not your Singaporean friends
Unfortunately, a group like theirs may just be a fantasized version of adult friendships.
“I loved the show when I was younger but it doesn’t correspond with the Singaporean adult life,” remarks 52-year-old Deen. “We don’t really move in with our friends in apartments here the way they do as adults. And we can’t all meet up at the same coffee house every day.”
A Vox article published earlier this year in light of the FRIENDS Reunion special discusses “FRIENDS” and the illusion of perfect adult friendships. In the article, Cate Young writes about how TV friendships are rarely depicted as surviving big life changes.
“Have you ever noticed how many TV shows about friendship end with everyone leaving a central, grounding location?” she states. “We don’t have great models for how friendships should endure when they exist outside the realm of convenient proximity, despite the fact that in the real world, people’s locations and jobs are constantly changing.”
I, too, am reminded how the last time I saw all my close friends in one place was in our shared spaces in school together. Adult friendships tend to be harder as everyone is navigating their respective stages of life. I know I have friends who are just starting university but I also have plenty of friends getting married or buying a BTO.
FRIENDS feels particularly comprehensive in teaching us about what it means to be an adult but the show also glosses over its challenges, like how we might sustain friendships through the very real strain of distance and time. How do we reconcile vastly different daily schedules and stages of life to ensure the richness of friendships like theirs? After all, making friends in your late 20s is already so damn hard.
The show may show us it is possible but somehow fails to show us exactly how to achieve that. As a result, the catchy lyrics of the theme song may sing a tune of friendship that withstands the test of time, but the show may have more difficulties doing so.
FRIENDS’ irony of timelessness
An Insider article addressing the show’s all-white cast discusses how the show has been criticised in retrospect for its lack of diversity, as well as for using LGBTQ characters and fat characters as punchlines since it first premiered.
“It’s easy to overlook but when I stop and think about how many people watch this show, I can’t help but think about how it’s sending the wrong message,” clarifies Thohirah, 22.
“It’s like that scene where Ross uses a British accent in his class, then later Monica uses an Irish accent and Rachel uses an Indian accent. That scene gets shared a lot because people think it’s funny but it really isn’t.”
“In the past, these jokes didn’t bother me. But I recently watched it again and I see all of it, consciously pointing it out,” 21-year-old Adri adds.
Kevin Bright, the executive producer and director of FRIENDS, told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of its reunion special that “there are different priorities today and so much has changed.”
Its audience, cast, and crew all recognise the shortcomings of the show.
But still, it continues to hold onto its popularity, with its reunion special racking up 5.3 million views in just the UK alone. The show’s viewership also jumped 13 spots in global ranking in Parrot Analytics in the 30 days leading up to the special.
“I know that the show hasn’t aged well,” Aash elaborated. “I also realise that there’s a bunch of issues with it, but I suppose it never was about the show itself or the characters themselves. It’s got more to do with my own process of growing up.”
The mounting pressures of current woke discourse keep the sitcom walking precariously on a tight rope with its only balance being its sentimental value to those who come of age alongside the show.
“I don’t have any regrets other than hindsight,” Bright told THR.
And, this hindsight may just be the most crucial bias we must acknowledge when reviewing the show. The criticisms made towards the show are valid. But these are criticisms that have only been brought to the attention of the public over the years.
Be it in either America or Singapore, it is important to remember that people weren’t always as open to discussing issues like racism, homophobia, or misogyny in the past as we are today. As frustrating as it sounds, it may be unfair to assume that a show made in the 90s could address all the issues we are only beginning to properly address today.
You can’t teach an old show new tricks
The show has become an artefact of the 90s, engraved by those born before and visited by those born later in the viewing galleries of streaming platforms.
Sure, it is problematic and I pity the viewer who has to set aside their principles and beliefs to watch this show. But unfortunately, it’s a show that has already run its course unlike a show like Brooklyn Nine-Nine which had the luxury of reshooting its final season to accommodate a changing social landscape.
Of course, we could always order a FRIENDS reboot with a more diverse cast or Netflix could flash a huge Trigger Warning at every socially problematic scene. But judging by current trends reboots sound like a bad idea, and those trigger warnings sound as bad as the laugh tracks that are already included in the show.
Maybe it’s easier to accept that shows like FRIENDS or Sex and the City are always going to be problematic when viewed through the lens of contemporaneity. It’s inevitable, but it’s also something we can’t change.
The sitcom’s problematic tendencies feel like those little bits of cardamom in biryani. Consuming it always leaves a wretched taste in my mouth, but I also love my biryani and I know those sneaky rice mines are a spice that makes the dish as delectable as it is.
Perhaps Fir puts it best: “It was a different era. The time may have passed but you can still enjoy the show without practicing its problematic tendencies.”
After all, we are more than just the shows we watch even though we may spend extended hours consuming them. In some ways, FRIENDS can be similar to our real friends too. We may not always agree with them, we may find some of their character traits infuriating, but we can still love them. And sometimes we can pick up innocuous little quirks from them too.