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22 January 2018updated 03 Aug 2021 2:15pm

So what if some jokes in Friends are as outdated as the fashions?

Watching the 1990s sitcom reminds me that nostalgia is built on bullshit.

By Helen Lewis

How much did I love Friends? Put it this way: I have a vivid memory of literally hugging the television (not hard, it was only 12 inches cubed) one Friday night at 6pm, as my mother suggested that we change the channel. It was the late 1990s, and Friends represented everything I wanted in life: sarcasm, coffee shops and people who really understood me.

Inevitably, all this made me nervous when Friends appeared on Netflix earlier this month. There’s a strong argument, which I heartily subscribe to, that some art has a “best before” date: if you don’t read The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, you’ll never fully appreciate it. (Conversely, I’m assured that there’s no point reading Proust until my forties, which is a huge relief all round.) I haven’t dared rewatch the Rik Mayall/Adrian Edmondson sitcom Bottom because I remember only too well how gross, silly and childish it was. I needed that at 13; now it would be like reading back my old diaries. Or that tortured poem where I heroically tried to rhyme something with “pizza face”.

Does Friends belong in the same category, its wreck best left undisturbed on the seabed? When the series came to Netflix, there was a slew of tweets, followed by a slew of articles rehashing the tweets because online journalism is infinitely depressing, suggesting that millennials were shocked to rewatch it and find it riddled with homophobia, transphobia and fatphobia. Chandler and Joey worry endlessly that people might think they’re gay because they live together; Monica’s teenage obesity is frequently referred to, until the episode where they actually put Courteney Cox in a fat suit and use her weight as a punchline. Chandler’s mother faces off with his drag queen dad at their son’s wedding with the exchange: “Aren’t you a little old to be wearing a dress like that?”/ “Don’t you have a little too much penis to be wearing a dress like that?”

And so I bravely undertook the hardest column research of all time: rewatching the first series. This was Friends at its purest; before it became a ratings monster truck and had all its edges sanded off to appeal to the broadest possible audience. And I mean broadest: the series ten finale was watched by more than 50 million people in the US.

And honestly, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. The first available defence is that depicting something doesn’t mean endorsing it. Sitcoms pick at their characters’ insecurities, and although we’re supposed to understand Chandler and Joey’s fears, the joke is on them.

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The sheer anxiety of contemporary masculinity is the punchline: in an early episode, the newly separated Ross reveals that the reason he’s so hung up on the first time he had sex with his wife Carol (who left him for a woman) is because it was the first time he ever had sex, full stop. His male friends can’t help him deal with the vulnerability he displays with this revelation: Chandler manages a pat on the arm, but Joey’s only answer is that they should have gone out on the pull instead of going to see a hockey game.

Contrast this with my new favourite TV programme, Channel 4’s SAS: Who Dares Wins, where it feels like all the squats, drills and running up mountains are a bit of a distraction from letting burly men hug and talk about their emotions. We’ve come a long way, baby.

Then again, if you pick out ten examples from hours and hours of television, you can indict Friends on pretty much any charge you want. But that’s not how it was supposed to be experienced, and it’s a shabby way to treat any piece of art. The show comes from a time when we had to wait a week for the next episode, rather than Netflix cutting off the credits and offering us just one more wafer-thin instalment in the next ten seconds. Some of the recent “woke criticism” also sought to deny the fact that comedy needs an undercurrent of tragedy: the best sitcoms, like the best Abba songs, have a ribbon of sadness woven through them. It would be difficult to deal with your wife leaving you for a woman; it would be hard to see your dad in a dress for the first time; it would be hard to see someone you fancied laughing about your weight. It just would. The performative end of progressive politics revels in being ostentatiously Cool With That Kind of Thing; which is always easier to do when it’s not happening to you. In any case, the lesson of Friends is that all these things are conquerable, that they have to be conquerable, because the only thing that matters in life is human relationships.

Watching Friends also reminds me that nostalgia is built on bullshit. Only when you fake the past, sieve it through your memory, can you make it snug and comforting. The 1990s didn’t feel warm and fuzzy to me at the time: I was a ball of anxious aspiration, who took comfort in seeing TV characters who didn’t know where their lives were going, either. Added to that, part of the reason why Chandler and Joey are so anxious about their relationship is that in the 1990s, this would have been a lot more anxiety-inducing. Gay-bashing was much more common, as were cruel jokes and casual denigration, and the law itself said that same-sex love was somehow worth less than a straight couple’s passion. The first shock of watching Friends is that there was a time when it was considered acceptable to wear a tie with a denim shirt. So, then, why wouldn’t you expect a sitcom’s social attitudes to feel just as dated as its fashion?

I’m older now than any of the Friends characters were when the show began in 1994. My life has a good amount of sarcasm and coffee shops – and people who really, really understand me. But I get to enjoy these things in a world which is far more progressive than the one Rachel & Co inhabited. Spending time in the 1990s is the best cure for nostalgia. 

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history