Why Has Friends Lasted in a Way Other 90s Shows Haven't?
by Muylin Loh
When Friends first premiered 25 years ago, their central plotline was made clear from the start. Crane and Kauffman, creators of Friends, originally pitched the idea to NBC as: “this show is about six people in their 20s who hang out at this coffee house.” A deceptively simple synopsis that appealed to millions of viewers and was the template for 20 years’ worth of subsequent pop culture (Sternbergh, 2019). The six characters were twenty-somethings living in that weird gap of prolonged adolescence when you’re too old to live with your own families but too young to have your own. It’s ultimately about a time in your life when your friends are your family.
After the premiere of Friends in 1994, many aspects of the show became widely iconic, such as ‘The Rachel” haircut and Joey’s infamous “How you doing?” line. Although I can’t personally speak to the show’s influence in the 90’s, I can say that twenty-five years later, the show has not only endured but exploded even beyond the creators’ expectations. It’s found a new audience in Gen-Z’ers around the world who are able to personally connect with these characters and situations they find themselves in, despite the fact that it was premiered long before we were even born. The creators of the show were surprised to see that this particular new audience not only doesn’t think that this is “old, tired TV” but are still able to find the same strong connection to the show and its characters the same way that the generation before them has (Sternbergh, 2019). After all, viewer demand is so prevalent that Netflix paid 100 million for the rights to continue streaming the show through to the end of 2019, which is quite an increase from the 30 million that they had paid previously. The spike in the value of the show could be attributed to their solidification as a staple in today’s popular culture. What’s even more interesting is how this particular show was able to last in a way that other 90’s shows weren’t.
So why exactly did Friends explode the way that it did? Numerous factors come into play to contribute to the show’s huge success. Firstly, it is so easy to binge-watch. It’s one of those shows that you don’t have to devote a ton of mental energy to watching in order to understand what’s going on. It’s the perfect show to watch after a stressful day or if you’re feeling something light-hearted. On the other hand, a 90’s show such as Seinfeld doesn’t appear to be binge-watched the same way as Friends. The nature of the two shows is very different. Seinfeld is centered around a comedian and has been popularly dubbed a “show about nothing”. On the other hand, Friends features a group of people with more ‘typical’ jobs, such as chef, masseuse, actor, waitress and whatever Chandler does, who put the signature sitcom spin on the real world. The humor in Seinfeld is not only slightly more edgy than in Friends, it is also older as it ran from 1989 to 1998, compared to Friends’ 1994 to 2004 run (Gibian, 2018). It could be that Seinfeld might be a bit too old for the current audience to achieve the same relatability.
The characters are all in their mid-20s, live in New York City, and hang out in a coffeehouse. In the more socially-isolated social media age, to some fans out there, watching this show could represent inviting a bunch of friends over (Dawn, 2016). To others, Friends teaches real-life lessons that they’re able to apply to their own life. As soon as Friends began to trend on social media platforms, Buzzfeed caught wind of it and started generating endless articles and quizzes articles such as “72 Truths Friends Taught You About Your Life In Your Twenties” and “Are You More Like Monica or Rachel From Friends?”. These articles are general enough to be relatable — and that’s exactly how the show is. It means an array of things to different people and each person identifies with it differently. For instance, I rode the rollercoaster that was Rachel and Ross’s relationship and experienced Rachel’s heartbreak as though it was mine. For others, it may be the uncertain job prospects and seeing how Joey landed a great role after some undesirable roles is inspiring. Other 90’s shows, such as Full House and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air were major hits when they premiered, but two decades later don’t have the same type of viewership as Friends. What they have in common is a family comedy theme, which might not resonate as well with this particular audience because we’re not seeking to start a family anytime soon.
It is also important to acknowledge that there are aspects of the show that are unfortunately problematic. Some viewers are repulsed by this fact, while others press that we take into account the context of when the show was made, at a time when society wasn’t less accepting than it is now. It may be surprising that Friends has endured despite changing social attitudes, but millennials may be interested partially because it represents a point in time with a different set of social structures than their own.
Friends has essentially transformed the sitcom landscape by introducing the modern hangout comedy — a subgenre of sitcoms. Its success has inspired an influx of new shows that are centered around hanging out with friends, like the quirky New Girl, or shows like How I Met Your Mother that replace the coffee shop with a bar. Producers are trying to recreate the simplistic nature of enjoying quality time with your friends when no one’s really got life figured out yet. Meeting the same success might be a far-reaching goal as the magic of Friends was that it was made in time without smartphones and the constant flow of notifications dominating our attention, time and relationships.
Dawn, R. (2016, March 29). 'Friends' ended 12 years ago, but it's still one of TV's most popular shows. Retrieved from https://www.today.com/popculture/friends-ended-12-years-ago-it-s-still-one-tv-t83021.
Gibian, R. (2019, April 6). Why "Friends" Is More Pervasive in Culture Today Than "Seinfeld". Retrieved from https://www.insidehook.com/article/television/why-friends-is-more-pervasive-in-culture-today-than-seinfeld.
Sternbergh, A. (2019, September 17). Is Friends Still the Most Popular Show on TV? Retrieved from https://www.vulture.com/2016/03/20-somethings-streaming-friends-c-v-r.html.