Perhaps no TV show has been able to transcend so many cultures like ‘Friends’ while maintaining all of its archetypal American qualities at the same time. It became increasingly popular across the world with each progressing season and continues to be popular even five years after the final episode was aired in 2004.
Perhaps the first reason that draws viewers back to ‘Friends’ for the umpteenth re-run is the fact that deep down in our hearts we would like to be like the characters in the show. We would at the same time like to have friends like Joey and Chandler and all the rest of them. Incidentally, no emotion is ever generalized on ‘Friends’. The personal rapport that each ‘friend’ shares with another in the group has its unique flavor and is distinct in its own right. Joey and Chandler represent the typical male bonding whereas Monica and Rachel epitomize female connection. Phoebe and Ross have a healthy antagonism that is sometimes momentarily resolved whereas Ross and Rachel have always been the special couple. This is of course in addition to the bond that they all share together.
This brings us to the second factor. While nurturing a wish to be like the friends, there is also a lot of identification that immediately relates the viewers to the characters in the ‘Friends’. And identification with characters has always been the real test for any successful presentation. I suppose the main credit for this should be going to the scriptwriters who never miss out on even the most minute of nuances. In spite of the make-believe space that the friends live in, the emotions that they go through are palpably real. The actors have adapted to the individual roles so well that it almost seems that they are actually like that in real life.
The single most important factor responsible for the enduring appeal of ‘Friends’ is its absolutely brilliant scriptwriting, supported by equally brilliant dialogues. Primarily conceived as a comic ‘sitcom’ there is no single emotion that the storyline has not dealt with at some point or the other. We feel like talking Rachel into staying every time she is about to leave Ross, we are able to feel every bit of Joey’s insecurity when Chandler gets married to Monica and settles down. Friendship is not a very novel concept for sitcoms and there have been many in the genre exploring its unending possibilities. ‘Seinfeld’, ‘Everybody loves Raymond’, ‘Kate and Allie’…..the list goes on. Apart from the ones that typically explore ‘friendship’, almost all the soaps and serials utilize this angle quite generously. When you consider this, you will realize that few serials have shown the characters evolve with the same conviction that ‘Friends’ portray. ‘Wonder years’ has its own appeal, true, but that again IS the story of Kevin Arnold growing up.
If it were ever necessary to draw up a list of the possible brands of humor, all the examples may be cited from ‘Friends’ alone. Simply funny, situational, slapstick, crooked, witty, silly…the list will run out. Perhaps the most memorable moments in ‘Friends’ have been those when the humor has played with pathos and fringed on the vicinity of suffering. A nerdy Ross missing out Rachel’s prom dance, Phoebe accepting the difficulties of her early life as but natural, Monica desperate to be liked, Joey’s childlike innocence – each situation has its own emotional capacity. This is all the more significant when we consider that each drama had just about twenty-five minutes to reach the denouement.