Friends is gone for good. Could we BE any sadder?

The creator of Friends, that cultural juggernaut we all love to love, has confirmed there won't be a reunion any time soon. Will anything ever live up to it?

 

Something huge happened this week. We shared a collective human moment, in which we finally laid to rest a huge cultural icon which had cast a long, inescapable shadow. Everything that came after it was forever marked by it, directly or indirectly, for good or for ill. It was finally confirmed, chums: that Friends reunion you were secretly hoping against hope for, desperately willing into existence? It’s not happening. It will never happen. Marta Kauffman has said so, and she should know, seeing as she is one of the creators of what became a cultural juggernaut. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. In my best approximation of Chandler Bing, could I BE any sadder? (No. I could not.) 

Of course, we knew it could never happen. Are you crazy? Remember Adam and Joe’s marvellously silly low-budget but high-entertainment Channel 4 show, called, er, The Adam and Joe Show? They did an excellent spoof of Friends, called FURENDS in which the glossy Hollywood cast was played by stuffed furry creatures. Here’s a clip: 

In case you missed it, the refrain goes: “we’ll be here for you, for a hundred grand a show”. 

It would take all the money in the Emirates to bring new Friends to any screen – big or small – near you. And anyway, everyone’s moved on. Jennifer’s keeping a cottage industry of tabloids going by remaining unwed, female and attractive, Matthew’s working on Go On (and guest starring on The Good Wife from time to time, one hopes), Courtney made quirky comedy Cougar Town, David wears a beard and directs and Lisa (for my money the best actor on the show) continues to do interesting film and TV work from time to time. Friends is over. They were there for us, for ten years, and now they are no longer there, except via DVD and Comedy Central. In a world where Matt Le Blanc – reborn as an older, more silver and even wildly more attractive version of his 90s self – is in turn playing a version of himself/Joey Tribbiani on the very enjoyable Episodes, the message is clear. We rocked your TV worlds and changed your TV lives, we get it. But you need to let us go. In any case, “a hundred grand a show” was laughably modest. If nothing else, they must be too busy counting their money (pre-recession interest rates, no less) to consider a reunion. 

I’ve thought about this a lot (too much?), and concluded that Friends is probably my favourite show of all time. I was awed by State of Play, flabbergasted by The Shadow Line, charmed by Frasier, warmed by The Cosby Show, excited by Misfits and moved by The Wire. But I loved Friends. I’ve watched every episode, from beginning to end, over and over. It’s comfort food, familiar and requiring little to no effort from me at this point, which I appreciate as I get older and the boxsets accumulate. It is often betrayed by its scene furniture: the music references (oh, Hootie and the Blowfish), its now-dated cultural icons (Jean-Claude van Damme and Noah Wyle and George Clooney, at the height of their ER fame, playing doctors etc.) and its awful, awful fashion. But the gags display a calibre that was often hard to beat. Yes, they were self-absorbed, privileged twenty-somethings living in one of the most expensive cities in the world, but they were funny and real and human. After a lifetime of watching television in unhealthy quantities, Friends provides the biggest chunk of the references I have stored away in the intricate pop culture Rolodex in my mind. Sometimes, I still whisper "seven" when giving out a number. And when the person gets it, I give them a mental – or sometimes physical – high five. 

It is not perfect, of course. At the New Statesman Centenary debate earlier this month, I bemoaned the lack of diversity in Friends, from a curiously monochrome New York to the recycling of a storyline for two black female guest stars over the course of the show. And the fat-suit-clad young Monica (a standard TV trope of the "ugly duckling made good") always struck a weird note, even if it tried to pinpoint a solid and satisfying back-story for the character. The central relationship of Ross and Rachel was finely observed, their initial breakup actually harrowing for a sitcom. It had great recurring guest stars with proper arcs – Paul Rudd, Aisha Tyler, Lauren Tom, Tom Selleck, Jane Sibbett – as well as the type to draw a whoop from the studio audience – Bruce Willis, Jeff Goldblum, Kathleen Turner, Christina Applegate and Reese Witherspoon aka the Green sisters. It’s a hard trick to pull off stunt casting without you know, looking like stunt casting, but when Friends was the biggest show in the world, it managed just that. It had its doldrums seasons too: 9 and 10 were often watchable, but showcased a show that was a former shadow of itself. As for the Emily debacle of Season 4/5, the less said the better, even though it did give us a corker of a season finale and also this marvellous quiz. When one considers a ten-year run which contained an unbroken string of sparkling seasons, it would be churlish not to forgive and forget those indiscretions. 

The legacy of Friends is best seen in the television its absence has bequeathed us. From New Girl to Happy Endings, nothing quite lives up to it and perhaps nothing ever will. And we need to be okay about that and just let it die, already.

 

 

Oh, look how ridiculous good-looking and clean-cut they were.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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