Just Drop By

How Friends became palatable after the ironies of Seinfeld.

Who'll be there for you?
Who’ll be there for you?

When Friends was announced, back in 1994, it was enough to make you squirm. With its obvious pandering to the lowest common denominator among target viewers—yes, we all had friends—the show could not have flown more rudely in the face of Seinfeld’s indie-spirited iconoclasm, which those of us in the generation-formerly-known-as-X had been weaned on. And yet over the course of 10 seasons and nearly 250 episodes we came to understand that Friends was our show. It’s not simply that our lives have paralleled the characters’: twentysomething and single when the show started; thirtysomething and, in some cases, married and/or with children as it ends. What the show brilliantly identified, in its palatable, mainstream way, is that we are—perhaps more than any before us—a generation that defines itself by its friends.

For those of us born around 1965 or ‘70 it is almost impossible to imagine an earlier era when friends were the people who went by the wayside when you grew up and found a spouse—or when friends were subordinate not just to the nuclear family but to the extended family. A combination of forces and trends—the poor job environment of the early ‘90s, the delay of marriage, the new indispensability of graduate education for long-term employment—conspired to create for Gen Xers, when we arrived in it, a friend-centric “real world.” The pals-before-gals tension that drove a movie like Diner is all but unknown in today’s prevailing mores. Now, it’s one big co-ed hangout session as far as the eye can see; the new hierarchy of romance and friendship dictates that a typical wedding night end not with the newly married couple’s skipping town in a festooned car or swiftly adjourning to a hotel suite for a grand night of consummation but, rather, in meeting their friends at a predetermined bar (because, as most couples in the throes of wedding-planning now comment, “We just want our friends to have a good time”).

In contrast to the doggedly preprofessional grads of the 1980s who couldn’t wait to put on a tie (male and female alike) and enter the hyperadult world of investment banks and law firms, our business-casual class has circled happily in a post-collegiate holding pattern long past graduation day, whether by installing Fooz-ball tables in the workplace or by glorifying immaturity in branding (“Yahoo!,” “Fat Bastard Chardonnay”). And so has Friends.

In the ‘80s, the thirtysomething crowd was, well, thirtysomething. In that prime-time drama, two navel-gazing married couples dealt with self-consciously adult issues like infidelity and on-the-job power struggles while the couples’ unmarried friends were portrayed as vaguely subversive and wacky. On Friends, it’s just the opposite: Even when the Friends marry or have children, they still (until Thursday, anyway) live like students. Rachel and Ross’ hang-out time with the rest of the gang has barely been affected by the birth of their daughter, Emma; the main upshot of Monica and Chandler’s wedding has been to further confuse sometime viewers as to who is living in which apartment.

Therein, of course, lies the appeal. It’s not just the tight writing and fetching cast that make the quotidian, not terribly ambitious lives of Rachel, Joey, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe, and Ross so compelling week after week, but the cumulative representation of what is perhaps our generation’s most repressed, most fundamental fantasy—a return, in adult life, not to the womb but to that similarly cozy, overheated paradise of containment: the college dorm. Much has been made of the unrealistically large apartments the Friends inhabit, considering their various incomes as caterer, personal shopper, out-of-work actor. But the real fiction (and true appeal) of Friends is not the size of the apartment or the sex appeal of the stars so much as the much-missed, oft-lamented characteristic of dormlife: People drop by. I suspect that I am not alone in finding that the pleasure with which I’ve watched Friends in the past couple of years—after putting baby to bed, before husband comes home from work—is not without a touch of wistfulness. But watch it I do. Even the increasingly hard-to-ignore aging of its stars—Lisa Kudrow, born in 1963, has started to look particularly absurd as an overgrown slacker—has barely tickled my suspension of disbelief. If anything the cast’s somewhat lined faces have stood like a kind of testament to the dream of the show: No matter how old you get, your life can still revolve around hanging out with your friends.

But this doesn’t mean that I want the show to continue. It’s likely that at the very least, the network will probably try to stage a Friends reunion show a few years hence. But do we really need to see Monica as Super-Mom, Phoebe as Hippie-Quirky-Mom, Joey as Swinging Dad on His Third Wife, and Rachel and Ross Geller (I’m guessing here) enjoying wedded bliss with a brood of First-Season-Jennifer-Aniston Haircuts in Miniature? No. For my part I’d much rather see the Friends 40 years hence, with walkers and sciatica, hitting Boca in Friends: The Assisted-Living Reunion. The boomers can do what they please to live forever. The current thinking among my friends is that communities like these won’t be so bad, because at least we’ll all get to live together again. As it happens, the title wasn’t so bad.