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?