Sixteen years after its final episode, Friends is coming back. Kind of. The possibility of a Friends reunion/reboot/re-something or other has been rumoured ever since that final image of those six keys lying on the kitchen bench of what had been Monica’s apartment.
In the space of those sixteen years, the television landscape has changed considerably; we now watch the majority of our shows on streaming services, and streaming rights for older shows are worth millions upon millions of dollars, while outside of certain HBO and BBC shows, the communal experience of a large number of people watching an episode of a show at the same time has all but disappeared…unless you’re Game of Thrones or Line of Duty.
Premiering on NBC on the 6th of May 2004, the end of Friends was an end of an era event and that was reflected in the ratings when 52.5 million sat down to watch it, making the fifth highest rated finale broadcast in US television history. In the UK, Friends was a mainstay of Channel 4, airing all ten of its seasons on its comedy driven Friday night schedule, and drawing in an audience of 8.9 million, a large number at the time for Channel 4, with the entire series itself being reshown pretty much every day on its digital channel E4 and on the T4 strand of Channel 4 itself.
The by-product of Friends has frequently felt like a classic show that you never actually needed to own on any home entertainment format because despite ending, it never actually left television screens or schedules; the show has been re-shown in endless loops, while the purchasing of the streaming rights by Netflix meant that the show was literally at audience’s fingertips.
With HBO Max (at least in the US) now gaining those rights, a reunion is finally happening, at least in the form of an unscripted special that will be placed alongside the show itself on Warner Bros. new streaming service.
‘The Last One’ is far from being a spectacular ending, but it is, for lack of a better term, a nice ending that wrapped the show in a sweet bow and which has helped the series considerably as comfort viewing for those wishing to enjoy the nostalgia of rewatching the series (as I did in the lead up to Christmas last year), or for the next generation of viewers discovering the series for the first time.
American comedy series, particularly those with a more comfy nature shall we say, have that ability to remain forever popular especially if they come with a happy ending, something that is guaranteed more with the sitcom or comedy genre than with dramas where controversy and debate are more likely to be found (hello Lost, nice to see you Game of Thrones). A similar level of affection and generational crossover success can be found with The Office, and will probably be true of Parks and Recreation and The Good Place, although sometimes the sitcom genre can deliver an ending every bit as controversial as the ones offered up by bigger budgeted juggernauts like those created by George RR Martin or JJ Abrams.
The vitriol that greeted the ending of How I Met Your Mother has probably tainted that show in a way when it should have been on a home run journey to becoming a streaming classic in the manner of the Central Perk gang or the employees of Dunder Mifflin, and yet ending its entire story with the reveal that its lead character was essentially not telling his kids how he met their dead mother but asking for permission to shag the woman he’d been in love with all his life was, to put mildly, one that left a sour taste in the mouth.
There was no such controversy with Friends; it was a comfy, feel good ending and there was nothing wrong with that. The season built itself up to a birth and two characters finally reconciling their feelings to each other, and we all ate it up like the hungry fans we were. Like the best romantic comedy movies, we cheered our core characters on through thick and thin, we laughed and cried, and then cried some more as the characters said goodbye to themselves and to us.
The final scene of the series saw an empty apartment where once there was much in the way of life; parties, dinners, embarrassing conversations, slapstick and moments that had us punching the air in happiness or cringing in a way that the best comedies can.
Nobody died and two of the characters, plus their new babies, were only moving to the suburbs so it wasn’t like they were never going to see each other again, but the rawness of the performances for that briefest of moments made it feel as if we were not watching Monica, Rachel, Phoebe, Chandler, Ross and Joey, but were in fact watching the six actors that had played them for the last ten years realising that this was the end of this point in their lives and they would never get it back again; the passing of youth into responsibility, or in this case, fingers crossed, movie careers, or at the very least a hit spin-off series like the one Frasier Crane did.
The legacy of Friends post- ‘The Last One’ has been the most fascinating of all classic shows. Many television shows (and movies) are very much products of their time and Friends was no exception. Think of the 90s, and you think of those six sitting at that table and couch in Central Perk, as well as Seinfeld, ER (which premiered on NBC the same week), The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Frasier and the golden era of The Simpsons. Friends was very much one of the biggest series of the decade, and very much capable of being a wonderful piece of comfort food whenever one is feeling down, ill or just wanting to remember what it was like growing up in an era of a Bill Clinton presidency, New Labour, The Good Friday Agreement and when mobile phones weren’t smart and the only thing they were used for was actually making phone calls.
What Friends has also done, and you can tell from how many think pieces have emerged over the last few years about it, is remind us of a time when society wasn’t as woke and defined by observing matters of diversity and gender equality. It remains a wonderful happy place show, but it is one of those shows that reminds you of a period of jokey homophobia, sexist humour and derogatory terms. In some respects, it’s a show that sums up the 90s in a nutshell, how the world was still looked at by many and how, unfortunately, we all conversed, or at the very least how white people conversed.
If you look at shows that were impacted by the success of Friends and shares much of its twenty something group of friends DNA (New Girl and Happy Endings in particular), diversity and more openness to casting actors and actresses of colour are clear to see. Yes, Aisha Tyler and Gabrielle Union show up in guest starring roles, but usually in storylines that pitted Ross and Joey against each other for their affections (as long as the white guy gets laid, right?).
The possibility of being gay or being referred to as gay is used a slur to cause offence or embarrass other characters and the show cast Kathleen Turner as Chandler’s transgender father, after years and years of jokes made at that character’s expense, while gay panic was used at various points, frequently in relation to Chandler himself.
Yes, some of it can leave a sour taste and every other week a think piece is published somewhere that talks about the shocking notion that Friends is not a woke show, but then again neither was the 90s itself. Name any classic show, and you’ll find something representative of an issue of the 90s and social attitudes; it can’t be escaped, and nor can it be changed. You can point it out, but all you can do is move on make sure our shows get better in that regard in future.
As for Friends itself, despite the controversy that keeps erupting over its legacy, it remains as popular as it ever has. Millennials still feel nostalgic over it, and Generation Z are happy to stream it. It’s never ending, constant success during its ten year run means that it was never in danger of cancellation and thus it’s a show with a beginning, middle and end, with twists, turns, much comedy and in the core cast one of the most gifted comedic ensembles ever put together for television.
Seinfeld might be held up in a higher regard, as is Frasier, but Friends was an era defining moment that could be said to be the biggest series of its time, and with HBO Max paying an large amount of money to get those streaming rights and doing the impossible of assembling the cast back together, albeit for an unscripted special, it’s a series that is showing no signs of ever going away.