It was always on Channel 4 at 7pm. That was the hour that Nickelodeon finished and the darkly humorous musings of adult cartoons occupied the usually squeaky clean channel by day. That’s when I’d flick over to Friends, a sitcom that I’d grown up with, had eaten in front of and had frequently used as background noise. Looking back, it’s as if I’d always known the characters intimately, as if I’d never had to actually learn or make myself accustomed with their unique traits. Just like the Central Perk couch, Friends was simply part of the furniture.
Netflix had announced through its social channels with one telling tweet that it had acquired the rights and would be streaming all ten seasons. The cryptic tweet simply read: ‘The One with the Show Everyone’s Been Asking Us to Add.’ I distinctly remember feeling excited, I couldn’t pinpoint why exactly, given its ubiquitous nature on numerous channels, but there seemed to be an inherent challenge in watching a ten season show chronologically. This challenge was augmented by Netflix’s carefully executed marketing strategy which communicated the notion that Friends was somehow of greater relevance now than it had ever been previously. Arguably it was the inherent, perennial relevance of Friends’ storylines, its pitch perfect comedy formula and Netflix’s refined marketing approach which has cemented its status as a firm comedy favourite.
How to Make a 90’s Hit Successful 101
Despite its rigid conformity to the staple US sitcom format of its time, there is still a distinct electricity evident which has ensured that Friends has not gone stale now that it is confronted with the contemptuous 21st century mindset. Many have belittled the show since its reemergence on the streaming platform, proclaiming that its views are outdated and the word of the century, ‘offensive.’ There’s undoubtedly an element of this, such as the digs aimed at Monica for once having been overweight. Apart from this and other minor niggles, any plot line that can be misconstrued as offensive can equally be seen as progressive as it aptly deploys humour to make sense of issues that hadn’t necessarily entered mainstream culture yet.
My mind is drawn to Ross’s first major plot point: the dissolution of his marriage due to the revelation of his wife’s admittance to being a lesbian. This transforms into a running joke that transcends season boundaries. Instead of merely harping on about the presence of a same-sex couple which a less sophisticated sitcom would have gladly utilised as cheap ammunition, the digs are aimed at Ross’s unfortunate romantic life. The unfortunate revelation that his wife would rather be with someone of the opposite sex than Ross himself, is not a degradation of lesbians, but a deep-seated and far reaching characterisation which will propel Ross into the various ill-advised romantic situations he finds himself in throughout the shows’ run. In my opinion, that’s where Friends made its name: they tangled their characters in real life webs and used this as a pun trajectory which would serve as a concrete, humorous reference point for the length of the series. Friends’ subtle nods to stories on the margins of society has illuminated a serendipitous leapfrogging dynamic: being ahead of the curve then means that they’ve landed on the normalities of the present.
The female characters are highly developed and arguably bring more nuanced societal issues to the forefront than the male characters. Monica, Rachel and Phoebe spearhead a number of storylines which brought 90’s and early 2000’s abnormalities into the discussion. Interestingly, all three women had what would have been regarded as unconventional pregnancies. Phoebe acted as a surrogate for her brother and his wife (‘Which one of you is the father?’ ‘Oh, no the father is my brother.’), Monica went down the route of adoption and Rachel decided to raise the baby on her own, with or without Ross’s input. Rachel’s character arc in particular is highlighted at this point as it’s a far cry from the young lady who, when she first came to the city exclaimed to the group, ‘So, you all have jobs?’ In fact, Rachel truly has rid herself of her spoilt status by this point and it feels natural to see her react in such a manner, rather than her decision being at odds with her character.
Pitch Perfect Comedy Formula
‘Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious’ – Peter Ustinov
In the pilot, Rachel arrives into Central Perk in a tizzy, wearing a damp wedding dress. Moments prior, Ross, still reeling from his divorce to Carol had serendipitously muttered, ‘I just want to be married.’ Having witnessed Rachel’s arrival, Chandler chimes in desperately and, announcing in the direction of the double doors utters, ‘And I… just want a million dollars!’ Brazen statements and searing, cynical jabs constitute the vast majority of Chandlers inimitable humour. These moments varied from astute observations (On Rachel walking in to the apartment in a fluorescent, puffy pink dress: ‘I’m sorry. We don’t have your sheep.’), to his acute, upended delivery of turns of phrases (‘Ok, rock. Hard place.’ Shifts his head forward, ‘Me.’). Chandlers’ unique offhanded quips serve as the cynical narrative for the friends’ situations. The absence of such a brash narrator would be disastrous: no storyline of note has been serious enough to not warrant a quippy one liner from his comedic narrative, a technique which ensures characters and viewers are quickly brought back onto level ground.
Marketing the Friends Humour
Chandlers quips, and indeed the varied humour spread amongst the friends act as pinnacles of internet comedy. Their one liners and iconic character ticks serve as the perfect vault of lines for an innumerable amount of internet references. These have propelled the show and its characters further into the modern mainstream. Netflix took note and pummelled its socials with one liners such as Ross’s famous ‘pivot’ scene. They famously used the ‘We Were on a Break!’ line to answer their own rhetorical question, ‘what does your partner say when you find out they watched ahead?’
There’s something comforting about watching a television series from beginning to end. It’s genuinely surprising how much a chronological approach can alter your opinion and enhance your admiration for such a show. With Netflix’s refined social media marketing approach, they’ve truly succeeded in embedding the Friends dynasty into 21st century culture. Netflix is regularly heralded as the world’s’ epicentre of content creation, but their acquisition titles are perhaps just as valuable to their model. That’s blindingly obvious with their handling of Friends. They’ve taken a show who’s exposure had reached saturation and rejuvenated it with a fresh, relevant approach. It’s a particularly admirable feat to have shepherded its outdated status into a new realm – the streaming world. That’s why there’s been a Friends Renaissance happening: Friends no longer acts as background noise, but is a deliberate watch for millions of eyes viewing it through a modern lens.