Thankful Thursday XVII – Friends…Part I

This Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for something my sweetie was thankful for on Thursdays in years gone by – Friends. That is of the TV variety. It occurred to me as we watched the much ballyhooed “reunion” a few nights back how much it, and similar shows, meant to so many people.

Friends was, of course in case you’ve lived under a rock for a few decades, the NBC sitcom about six twenty-something friends, making their way in life. It made Jennifer Aniston into one of the most familiar faces in the world and her character, briefly, the most famous haircut. It made the other five then-unknowns into famous stars as well, David Schwimmer, Lisa Kudrow, Courteney Cox (who at the time was mostly recognized for being a teen dancing with Bruce Springsteen in a video a decade prior), Matthew Perry and Matt Leblanc. All six have gone on to have moderately successful acting careers since, but all six are equally still universally best known as their characters from the sitcom.

The show ran from 1994-2004, 236 episodes in all. It was a time period when I was about the age of the characters in the show, and didn’t watch all that much TV outside of baseball games and perhaps The Simpsons... I was too busy working or hanging out with my own friends to a large degree. Or listening to music; it was a passion and radio was cheaper than cable TV! But I would watch Friends from time to time and quite enjoy it, and of course, needed to see it at times because it was all my co-workers would be talking about around the “water cooler” on Friday morning. What about Rachel’s new hairdo? Is Chandler ever gonna dump that Janis? Were they on a break!?

My sweetie, whom I didn’t know back then, watched it routinely and tells of how she’d tell her own friends and family not to call her Thursday evening between 7 and 7:30 (the Central time zone slot it ran in, strange to me coming from the East where 8PM kicks off primetime) because she was busy with those six “friends.” It was her only “must see” TV.

For many others too. It typically drew well over 25 million viewers week-in, week out, for its whole ten year run. By comparison, NCIS is the only show on TV anymore that averages even 15 million; a show that can draw four million with regularity is a hit these days. The finale of Friends was tuned in by over 52 million TVs in the States and perhaps 80 million people and is the most-watched scripted TV show of the 2000s. Although it was always a “top 10” hit, the only year it was the most-watched was 2001-02 – right after 9/11. Odd in that it is set only miles away from Ground Zero in that horrible event. But really, not so odd. The creators had a tough decision about what to do and made the decision to double down on entertaining. People were well aware enough of what had happened, why not give them a half hour reprieve and some laughter each week? It was a brilliant decision.

As was ending when it did. It doubtless could have gone on a few more years and continued to be watched, but they realized it was better to go out on a high. After the ten years, the struggling but somewhat carefree young ones had matured. They had kids. They were getting married. The beauty of the show was the friendship between the group of pals who did everything together, something many of us Gen X-ers could relate to, and in all likelihood most older watchers looked back on fondly. Having Monica and Chandler taking kids to school and living in a bungalow 30 miles from the others wouldn’t have worked. Anything Ross and Rachel did would be anti-climatic after ten years of seeing the tension between them and not knowing if they would eventually pair up. It went out on a high note, something many shows, and entertainers for that matter fail to know how to do.

Since it ended, I paired up and have spent many late nights chilling with my love, watching reruns of the show with her, laughing and recalling what it was like to be 25 and single. But I’m thankful for it for other reasons beyond that.

As the reunion pointed out, Friends was a global phenomenon. Some say it helped them learn English watching it. Others say Phoebe’s oddball behavior and artsy endeavors made them feel OK about being a bit different themselves. It celebrated friends, the people you could rely on even as “relationships” came and went or families caused more stress than they took away. It created characters we cared about (in direct contrast to the other runaway hit of the decade, Seinfeld) and could probably see a bit our ourselves in. They were a bit nerdy and awkward, unsure of just what they wanted from life. (They drank lots of coffee. Hey, Chandler even had a Blue Jays baseball cap on his desk at work in New York… could he BE more Canadian?)

Mostly though I’m thankful for how it was such a “universal.” It was perhaps the last TV show that everyone seemed to watch. Everyone knew who Rachel and Ross were. It gave us a common language, no matter how small. When I was growing up, there were three main networks and shows like MASH and Carol Burnett were seemingly watched by everyone. The population was smaller, but viewerships were bigger – it wasn’t uncommon to have shows watched by 30 million people a week in the ’70s. It gave us something in common, something to talk about. Now we have hundreds of channels, shows custom-tailored to every taste… but little common currency in our entertainment. I can’t help but think that maybe, just maybe we’d not be such a divided nation, so quick to judge others and rush to quick, negative assumptions of “them” if we had a few more shows like Friends that “they” watched just like us. And perhaps a few more “friends”…

How about you, dear readers? Any TV shows or movies you’re particularly thankful for?

May Hooray 2

Another silver lining of the pandemic, if there is such a possibility, is that it’s giving us extra time to watch old favorite TV shows, or perhaps find new favorites. Every evening not spent shopping could mean three or four episodes of a New Classic! Now while I don’t want to suggest everyone become couch potatoes and do want to remind you it IS OK to get outside and move around a bit, as long as we’re not in crowds, sometimes a bit of time with good “friends” on screen can be a boost.

For me, this spring I’ve discovered two new series that have appealed to me. Both reflect my love of romcom films like When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail.

The first is the familiarly-titled Four Weddings and a Funeral. The title itself was taken from a popular British 1994 movie starring Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell and follows them and their on-again, off-again trans-Atlantic love affair as they attend mutual friends’ weddings and funerals. The TV version was a 2019 remake of sorts from Mindy Kaling. The 10-episode miniseries delivered on Hulu borrows the name and the overall gist of the movie, but isn’t simply the same story with new characters, lest you wonder. This confused me a little at first, but once I accepted this was a new story and took it for what it was, it worked.

Like the movie, the show follows a romance between an American woman, Maya, and a British guy, Kash and how they interact through mutual friends in London. The film borrows readily and blatantly from famous scenes in romcom movies like Love, Actually and Notting Hill and while a little long-winded, a little heavy-handed in its handling of gay characters and overly PC at times, it still has its charms. By the end you’re cheering for the leads and their romance.

The other new show I’ve fallen for is a current network offering… and that’s not something that happens every year for me anymore. NBC’s Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is a romdram, if you will. Part romance, part drama and an exuberant return to Hollywood musicals of the past. Rather a new, grown-up version of Glee, in the early years of that show before it jumped the shark and took Jane Lynch with it, casting her essentially as Lucifer and forcing the writers to turn themselves inside out finding convoluted reasons to have the group of university types keep coming back from across the country to hang out at their old high school.

Zoey is a nerdy millennial gal who works in a trendy software company and has to deal with office rivalries, family stresses and isn’t sure which way to turn when confronted with two decent but flawed suitors. Oh, and through a freaky MRI incident, she’s blessed with the ability to at times hear what others around her are thinking… in song. So the story line gets driven by big musical numbers of songs ranging from “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” by REM to Billy Joel’s “Lullabye” to  The Beatles “Help,”  Tears for Fears “Mad World,” and a rather somber take on “American Pie.”

It’s an entirely odd concept but it works better than it should, thanks in large part to solid writing and the charisma of Jane Levy as Zoey. Season one wrapped us this past weekend and probably singly increased the demand for Kleenex by about 50%.

If you like romance stories or comedies with a bit of a dark underbelly, both shows might work for you. If it’s not your thing, that’s fine too… don’t be afraid to take a bit of the time this pandemic is keeping you from being out in groups from looking for new faves of your own… but don’t forget to take time to keep on top of the real romances in your own life be they at home or far away!

Everyone’s Friend Ellen Is Relatable…But Is She Still Funny?

So, I watched Ellen Degeneres’ new Netflix special, Relatable, a few nights back. Relatable is her highly-publicized return to her roots: the stage as a stand-up comedian. Ellen is such a huge part of our media and public consciousness, it may seem difficult to remember there ever was a time when she was an unknown face and voice struggling for both recognition and a career that would pay the bills.

But there indeed was such a time, and she revisits it rather touchingly in the special. The title itself stems from a question she was asked by a friend (and which makes up the basis of the start of her routine) when she told him she was going to do a stand-up show again. That being, “will people still find you relatable?” With her being a multi-millionaire, corporate spokesperson and internationally-recognized celebrity, could she still “relate” to ordinary peons? Could we still relate to her?

The answer, coming from the Netflix show recorded in Seattle, is yes. She is still relatable. However, that’s the good news. The bad : she’s not all that funny anymore. It doesn’t feel right to criticize Ellen. It’s like kicking a muppet or pouring a pail of water on a kitten. Nasty. Not right. Ellen Degeneres is nice. Everyone says so, and she seems to be one of the kindest-hearted people in the Hollywood establishment. But the fact is, that as comics go, Ellen may be nice but she’s not all that amusing these days.

Which isn’t to say the show was horrible. It had funny bits, and other parts were heart-warming or interesting… ((SPOILER!)) the part about her first girlfriends’ death and her move to a flea-infested apartment for example, are touching and tell us a good deal about her but don’t induce laughter. In general, think of it as being in the room with Ellen as she has a lengthy, meandering conversation on the phone with a good friend.

The problems with the show are well…numerous. The better bits run on too long. The opening bit, about the question of whether or not she is still “relatable”, for example could’ve been a truly funny, snappy little joke but gets dragged out to minutes of her beating the concept (she’s rich and lives in a big house now) into the ground. She says being gay isn’t anything much more important than the dry eyes Jennifer Aniston suffers from, and she might be right. But for a trait that’s not that important, she sure does go on at length about it.

Her observational humor is very relatable – everyone has a junk drawer that probably has some rubber bands and a random AA battery or two in it, for instance – but again, so what? It’s true but it’s kind of irrelevant. Nobody’s going to be falling off their chair, rolling around on the floor busting a gut from laughing “Oh my God, that’s so true…I have a dozen elastic bands in my kitchen drawer too, guffaw!” or “I never noticed there were a lot of side effects listed on medicine commercials before! What a hoot!”. And while for most of the show, she stays very clean and family-friendly, the few spots where she tries to be shocking or raunchy seem just inappropriate and forced. That’s not necessarily something lost on her, when after saying how she never really wanted to be typecast as a “dancer” and then having a lengthy skit of her dancing to a rap song with about half the lyrics being ones which would be censored by network TV, she shakes her head and says “I’m 60 and dancing to ‘Back that ass up.’” Someone thought that was a good idea; you don’t necessarily get the idea that Ellen herself was that person.

That said, she might not have had an enviable task going back to her roots. A quarter-century or so back she was unknown, now we feel like we know everything about her, so there’s less she can tell us that will take us by surprise. And while her first sitcom was being canceled because not everybody was ready for a lesbian on prime time, another comic was taking over the TV with his own, more cynical “observational humor” which produced a “show about nothing”- Seinfeld. Since then, we’ve had twenty years of comics talking about things like junk drawers and the frustration of getting out of the shower and having forgotten to have a towel ready. Last but not least, while people can be funny and nice too, it’s a challenge.

In this day and age, it seems it’s a lot easier to draw laughter, applause and fans by merely being loud, having expletives make up about half of your dialog and ranting about who you hate. And that goes for everything from the Twitterverse to Washington’s hallowed halls to the “Just For Laughs” floors. I applaud Ellen for trying to take the high road. Yet while she made me and my parents alike all laugh in the ’90s, now she had me looking at my watch to see if it had stopped 45 minutes in. Maybe I’ve changed. Maybe Ellen has. Maybe society has…well, no maybe about that one. Either way, I think I like those old days a little better.

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