In defense of ‘Friends’
“It’s a moo point. It’s like a cow’s opinion…. It just doesn’t matter. It’s moo.”
Joey (Matt LeBlanc) - Friends
If you’re ever in a discussion about the best TV sitcoms of all time – first of all, thanks for hanging out with me – but second of all, you’ll notice very few people who see themselves as a credible critic will ever mention ‘Friends’. You’ll get your Arrested Developments, your Seinfelds, your Cheers etc. but it could not be more chronically uncool to view Friends as worthy of mentioning in the same breath.
So here’s the case for the defense.
‘Friends’ is my favourite sitcom of all time. I have extremely high opinions of several other comedies including Frasier, The Office, Community, Modern Family, Scrubs, Arrested Development and so on (never liked Seinfeld – pop culture blind spot) but Friends wins in every single category of appreciation I can think of. I’ve watched it the most, I quote it the most, it has the sitcom character I identify with the most, etc., etc., etc. But that’s enough about why I appreciate it.
Why should you appreciate it?
First of all let’s start with the show’s primary and defining strength. ‘Friends’ has the best comedy cast on television. I know that can be argued with for forever and a day, but the chemistry this cast has with each other is simply incomparable. In every other show I’ve ever seen (including my absolute favourites) there has been a weak link. Jerry Seinfeld was never a good actor, Cheers never found a truly likable female lead, Arrested Development had a cast talented at individual moments but lacked a spark between the cast in general, etc.
But the six characters on Friends – and we all had our favourites – were so well defined and their actors so suited to the roles and to each other, that the weakest of episodes or jokes are lifted purely by the pleasure of hanging out with these people for twenty one minutes. You can’t single any of them out because they all had such incredible and different strengths. From Matthew Perry’s comic timing to Jennifer Aniston’s surprising physical comedy gifts, they were outstanding and consistent.
The writing was equally good – and I know, it dropped off around season six in consistency but they still produced some belters (see the season eight episode where the guys play ‘Bamboozled’) – and captured the mood and the feel of the time. As the Friends matured from their twenties to their thirties and the issues they dealt with matured with them – so did the way they spoke and the relationships they had. The themes of the writing were universal – as a Time critic put it “It was called Friends, but it was really about family” and the actors delivered the occasional dramatic moment as consistently as they did the rapid-fire dialogue.
What makes the show so endlessly rewatchable for me is how happy and positive it is at its core. It’s a sitcom, I know, but compared to Seinfeld, a show I always thought was enjoyed more by misanthropes than happy-go lucky folks (not that there’s anything wrong with that), or Arrested Development, in which everyone was incredibly hard to like, Friends managed to capture the great joy of hanging out with your mates in spades – and it was always fun to hang around with these particular mates.
Want romantic moments? How about Ross and Rachel’s Season Two reconciliation or Monica’s proposal to Chandler? Dramatic moments? How about Chandler’s incredibly moving speech in Season Ten about Monica’s quest for motherhood? All time classic episodes? I give you season four’s ‘The one with all the embryos” where the Friends compete in a quiz over how well they know each other – an episode that ranks easily among the greatest.
I’m not saying by any stretch of the imagination Friends is definitively the greatest sitcom of all time. Of course it isn’t. The writing dropped dramatically midway through season six, the cast coasted, they did those unbelievably arrogant clip shows, there are continuity mistakes, the show relied too heavily on guest stars in its later seasons and so on.* Also, it doesn’t have all that much to say – not many sitcoms do, but there still isn’t much here to challenge us intellectually.
*One particular grievance I have is the show’s complete declawing of Chandler as time goes by, where the show becomes too self-aware of Chandler’s sense of humour. In the later seasons he becomes not only a figure of fun but the writing becomes lazy and tries to create humour in how unfunny he is. Perry does his best (well, maybe), but it takes, confusingly, incredibly funny writing to make unfunny funny.
Even though it may not be definitively the best sitcom of all time, all I’m asking is that we consider it. Friends doesn’t deserve to be dismissed by the intellectual elite as a lightweight, unworthy entry into the canon of great sitcoms. It deserves far more respect than that.
There’s a reason Friends was one of the most popular shows of all time – not because it is brainless, or easy – but because it is warm, well-written, fun, and most of all, incredibly funny. I want that from my TV. By the yardstick of sheer enjoyment and fun, Friends is my favourite – and just maybe the best – sitcom I’ve ever seen.