Step into the Salon: The legacy of 'Friends'

NBC

By Jacob Axelrad, Senior Arts Editor
and Kayla Upadhyaya, Senior Arts Editor
Published February 15, 2012

It may have run for 10 seasons. It may have featured such unforgettable gags as Ross dressed as the Holiday Armadillo, Joey dressed in every piece of apparel Chandler owns and, of course, “The one with Chandler in a box.” We reminisce about these episodes when we get together with friends, striking common ground with quips such as “I like Phoebe but my all-time favorite character has got to be Ross.” Yes, those six famous Manhattan-ites have filled many a conversation lull, even after the series finished in 2004.

But I’m sorry to say that we are all quietly deceiving ourselves. “Friends,” my friends, consists of little more than a string of sex jokes, pointless melodrama and sloppy writing that leaves us desiring little.

Consider Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow). She’s an orphan who was supposedly raised on the streets. Okay, maybe. But we’re supposed to buy that she can speak French fluently and also believes in Santa Claus? Something doesn’t compute. Though her absurd, wacky nature has the potential to be endearing, after a few seasons, the charm begins to wane. In fact, Phoebe, who belts out that oh-so-obnoxious one-hit wonder “Smelly Cat” whenever the writers need a quick laugh, only has one redeeming quality: the guest stars that she brings in, such as Hank Azaria (as the uber-suave David) and Paul Rudd (as Mike — so, basically himself). Her two potential romantic interests are not caricatures, nor do they get caught up in needless plot points used solely as cheap avenues for tension. They are, despite their limited number of episode appearances, more mature than basically anyone else on the show.

What makes side characters such as Rudd and Azaria so appealing is that their humor doesn’t rely on the easy, recurring one-liners that make up about 90-percent of each script. Joey is lovable and sleeps with a lot of girls, but we love him anyway; Chandler may or may not be gay; Monica used to be fat, and now she’s a neat freak. It’s like, we get it already. TV Guide may have ranked “Friends” as number 21 on its list of the 50 greatest TV shows of all time. But there should be more to these characters than a list of about 12 jokes that the studio audience can surely see coming a mile away.

So next time you sit in your own version of Central Perk and discuss whether you’re a Monica, a Rachel, a Chandler or a Joey, remember that these are formulaic characters, conceived as stereotypes precisely to fill those painful silences. But dig a little deeper and, unfortunately, there’s not much to find.

—JACOB AXELRAD

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When Monica, Joey, Chandler, Phoebe, Ross and Rachel shared their first cup of coffee at Central Perk, I was still a toddler. It wasn’t until 5th grade, when my best friend introduced me to her family’s DVD collection, that I saw my first episode of “Friends.” It was an episode from the 5th season, the one in which Rachel buys an obscenely expensive and ugly cat, Phoebe breaks up with Gary, and Ross and Joey invent a new game … called catch.

“Friends” certainly wasn’t without its flaws, and even some of the most diehard fans are quick to admit its slumps: particularly, its final season, when the show felt more like a slightly funny soap opera than a slightly soapy sitcom. And nowadays, when a show premieres, set in a big city and featuring a group of beautiful hipster pals who are all single, penniless yet somehow still able to afford spacious, high-ceilinged apartments, we roll our eyes. “Oh, it’s just another ‘Friends’ wannabe.”

“Friends” became the standard for the friends-in-the-big-city sitcom, not because they did it first (“Seinfeld” beat it by about four years), but because the show did it best. And the six main reasons it succeeded were its six main characters. The writers didn’t simply rely on established sitcom gags; most of the jokes and setups were character-based and character-specific, employing truly deft comedy writing that played to the quirks of each character.

And the cast members, though equally talented, each had their own strengths that allowed them to play off of each other and form a charismatic, polished ensemble: Jennifer Aniston played Rachel with a charming softness; David Schwimmer made Ross a lovable, heavy-hearted dork; Courteney Cox brought moments of sincerity and severity to Monica; Matthew Perry never failed to nail his delivery of Chandler’s sardonicisms (honestly, could Chandler be any more hilarious?); Matt LeBlanc similarly brought show-stealing delivery to dim-witted Joey’s exchanges; Lisa Kudrow managed to make Phoebe more than just a caricature despite her over-the-top eccentricities.

But the characters weren’t the only reason “Friends” has achieved legendary status amongst TV critics and viewers alike. “Friends” was inherently a ’90s show, with its lip-liner-adorned ladies, bright colors and denim, but outside of the outdated pop-culture references and taboo fashion choices, the show and its themes — sex, love, careers and, of course, friendship — are timeless.

There’s a reason why our generation still laughs hysterically at the gang’s shenanigans, whether it’s when Ross likens choosing between sex and dinosaurs to “Sophie’s Choice” or anytime Phoebe picks up her guitar (everyone knows “Smelly Cat,” but let’s not forget classics like “Dumb, Drunken Bitch” and “Goats are Parading”). “Friends” is a snapshot of a generation, but it transcends its time. Just like I haven’t forgotten the night of the admittedly underwhelming series finale, when my mom, grandma and I gathered in our family room to tune in with over 50 million other viewers, “Friends” has left its mark on television and will likely not be forgotten.

—KAYLA UPADHYAYA