IN the first season of Friends, there was a brief but very funny scene that partly explained why friends become, well, close friends.
At the start of one of the early episodes, this barkada is in their favorite watering hole, the fictional yet now iconic café called Central Perk. Each friend is busy doing his or her own thing, reading or catching up with work. The place is quiet, but then, from out of nowhere, one of them starts humming the music theme from the movie The Odd Couple which, in the early 1970s, became a TV sitcom. The other friends start humming along, and it turns into a spontaneous concert of humming. When the performance is finished, it’s back to work, and the opening credits follow.
Sans any dialogue or action, those moments show the kind of camaraderie that makes friends stick together and get along. It’s about familiarity. The sitcom version of The Odd Couple was a show they grew up with. No explanations needed; they all get it, and they know the music. After all, they’re all in their 20s, and they grew up on the same things that were culturally popular during their childhood and teens.
Friends was launched in 1994, so obviously the friends belong to the so-called Generation X. I’m supposed to be part of that “lost” generation, but I don’t believe in stereotyping or being categorized. Admittedly, however, there may be at least one common trait, and it’s probably an inability to move on from one’s favorite childhood pastimes. It may include humming the songs or music from the TV shows, particularly Sesame Street, or in the case of the protagonists in Friends, The Odd Couple.
That scene with The Odd Couple struck a chord with me, because I was familiar with that sitcom, though it wasn’t popular here in the Philippines. A short explanation to my own friends was required when they asked about the significance of the music they hummed. That old ’70s show may have resonated with two of the main male friends, Joey (Matt LeBlanc) and Chandler (Matthew Perry). It was Chandler who instigated the spontaneous concerto at Central Perk.
The Odd Couple was about two grumpy middle-aged men who shared an apartment. Joey and Chandler happen to share an apartment too, though they’re much younger. And they’re only in crisis mode when they can’t score with a hot girl they had bumped into.
Chandler and Joey lived across the apartment of Monica Geller (Courteney Cox), whose roommates throughout the show’s 10-year run have included Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow). Monica’s brother Ross (David Schwimmer) often dropped by because he was interested in Rachel, whom he finally married in the final season.
This cast had great chemistry and expert comic timing. They seemed to have a wonderful time playing their roles
This ensemble cast had great chemistry and expert comic timing. They seemed to have a wonderful time playing their respective roles, which were all smartly written. From the word go, they fit their parts perfectly.
Somehow, the producers and writers succeeded in showcasing the entire ensemble cast within a 20-minute episode. None of the characters was allowed to dominate an episode. Each actor was made to display the qualities of his character in every situation they find themselves in. They got equal exposure all the way.
Adding to the appeal were the famous guest stars. Older viewers got the kick out of watching Hollywood luminaries like Elliot Gould, Brenda Vaccaro, and Morgan Fairchild play their parents. And so hip was Friends, it attracted A-List stars like Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, and Aniston’s future ex-husband Brad Pitt. Even Elizabeth Taylor paid them a visit, though she was actively plugging her new line of perfume in various other sitcoms. Still, despite the star wattage, the ensemble cast remained the central focus.
The show didn’t strive to make a serious statement about the 20somethings of the ’90s
The show didn’t strive to make a serious statement about the 20somethings of the ’90s. First and foremost, it was a sitcom, and it was meant to be an escapist show. The entire cast was beautiful and sexy. It was all about them trying to get a date on New Year’s Eve or on Valentine’s Day. It was also about platonic friends who got romantically involved.
The scripts were provocative, as most of the characters indulged in casual sex. The norms were rapidly changing during the ’90s, and Friends showed how it was evolving by making light of it in such hilarious situations. During the first season, Ross’ wife divorced him when she realized she was a lesbian. That “L” word was repeated as a punchline throughout the season. And through his own art, David Schwimmer always made that punchline so funny and harmless.
It briefly covered an issue among the six friends. The difference in class structure was emphasized in an episode where half of the group realized they couldn’t keep up with the richer lifestyle of the other half. It was nice of the writers to explore that wedge, though in reality, a struggling actor of low intellect like Joey, or a ditzy and clueless masseuse like Phoebe, seldom get to have friends in high places.
Friends wasn’t the only sitcom set in New York at that time. Spin City and Seinfeld both gave clearer pictures of how the younger set toiled in the Big Apple. And there was Central Park West and Beverly Hills 90210, sexy soap operas about wealthy, misguided youth.
But Friends easily outlasted all of them because it didn’t offer much angst, which was a byword in the ’90s. Because of its rose-colored view of life in New York in the ’90s, Friends became a spectacular success. It lasted 10 years, and made its cast the highest paid actors on television.
Of course, the big come-on for Friends was the six stars, all of whom became matinee idols. The guys were tall and gym-fit, while the ladies were always sexy. It should never have been hard for them to get a date for a special ocasion. Yet the show seemed to emphasize that during those barbaric times, when Tinder didn’t exist yet, even beautiful people couldn’t find a date.
The show’s formula for success may pose a problem for today’s woke audiences. Diversity wasn’t much of an issue then
Having gotten reacquainted with the sitcom in the past few days made me wonder how the show might fare today. It’s still being aired on cable, and it’s also being streamed. It still feels as fresh as it was 25 year ago, but it suffers from laugh-track overkill. Its volume is on full blast, even during the less-than-funny moments.
The show’s formula for success may pose a problem for today’s woke audiences. Diversity wasn’t much of an issue back then. The famous six were all Caucasian and movie-star gorgeous. The guys went after women who looked even more unattainable. Ditto with the girls, who chased after hunky, rich men. Not one of the six suffered from weight problems. The roles of older, imperfect people with different sexual preferences were given the guest actors. In fact, Chandler dumped a less-than-pretty girlfriend three times!
But Friends is a product of its own time. Almost every other show in the ’90s had that flaw. Like, did you ever see a plump person frolic on the beach in Baywatch?
Nevertheless, viewers who watched the reunion special may revel in the fact that the cast has aged like the rest us. The show may have been too good to be true, but we learned that the members of the cast have remained good friends. They did play the same parts for 10 years. Not one actor was replaced, and none of them quit midway. Their loyalty to the show that made them famous has remained tremendous. This does prove that sometimes, real life plays out better than art.