Why “Friends” is still so popular

They’re still here for us.
They’re still here for us.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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The hugely popular sitcom Friends ran for 236 episodes from September 1994 to May 2004. I have watched five episodes in my life.

When it premiered in 1994, the show was everywhere. The theme song was everywhere, “The Rachel” haircut was everywhere. I was in middle school then and thought I was very punk rock. Battle lines were drawn. In the US, some kids were into Friends and Gap cargo pants, and some of us were into Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and wearing all black and writing unfortunate poetry. It was the ‘90s. Things were weird.

Twenty five years later, the show hasn’t just endured, it’s exploded, reportedly earning $1 billion in syndication revenue for Warner Bros a year. Along with The Office and Grey’s Anatomy, it’s one of the most watched shows on Netflix, with viewers around the world spending 54.3 million hours (the equivalent of 62,000 years) watching it in 2018. With numbers like that, it’s not hard to see why the streaming service reportedly paid $80 million to keep it throughout 2019. Last month, WarnerMedia announced the show will be moving to HBO Max, its upcoming streaming service, next year.

The show’s enduring popularity isn’t just down to a devoted fan base of nostalgic 30 and 40-somethings. It’s also due to a new crop of binge-watching Gen Z-ers around the world who see themselves in its characters and situations, even though Friends premiered before some of them were even born.

Twenty-six-year-old Kristobel Ochuba of Nigeria is a Friends superfan who says she has streamed the entire series maybe ten times—as a teenager, a college student, and now as a married person. She says she’s found something relatable about the show at each point. “All the characters are unique and pretty layered. Depending on the situation, you’ll find yourself relating with all the different characters at different points,” Ochuba says. “In the end, you connect with the entire cast.”

Given how dated the show has become by contemporary standards, its enduring appeal can be a little surprising. But for new viewers, however, Friends harkens back to a simpler time—before apps, social media, and smartphones dominated our attention, time, and friendships. For some, that’s enough to forgive its flaws.

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Image: Reuters

“How you doin’?” pre-smartphone

To its fans, Friends is an easy, hopeful show, one in which life is significantly more carefree than it is now or was then. It takes place in a universe completely insulated from the horrors of the dark outside world, a rarity for a TV show these days.

Joey, Rachel, Phoebe, Chandler, Monica, and Ross didn’t have to live through 9/11 (the show only hinted at the terrorist attack taking place) and the Iraq War then anymore than they have to live through Trump or bi-weekly mass shootings now. They could afford big apartments in New York City on barista money, and they had plenty of time to just hang. Their lives and looks also weren’t overproduced, another hallmark of modern day TV.

American viewer Claire Morey says Friends feels “pure and funny, while nowadays many sitcoms are frankly fake and annoying.” The 14-year-old says “the idea of living in a big city surrounded by friends is my idea of a great post-college life.”

“Having time for coffee and living at each other’s apartments all the time, it’s not a realistic dynamic between friendship circles nowadays,” says Jessica Teixeira, 21, from South Africa. Still, “it is something we probably all aspire for.”

Simply hanging out with friends was a thing Gen X-ers really did, though it was probably less a factor of having the time to do it, than that being at home at the time was extremely boring. The Friends gang is also not so perfect individually as to cause eye rolls and anxiety. It’s an escapist fantasy, but realistic enough that it doesn’t feel entirely out of reach.

That has always been an element of the show’s appeal. In one 2006 paper on Friends devotees (pdf), an interviewee described the attraction of the show’s bubble-like setting:

Sarah…described their lifestyle as “an ideal, something I’d like to have.” Sarah believed the show paved the way to suggest that even in her 30s, she can have an adventurous life and a good time, something everyone wants. Sarah thought Friends “was the funniest show … (and) loved their sense of independence and yet connectedness to each other.” For her, the freedom in the show was appealing and desirable.

Forgiving the flaws

Although Friends was certainly criticized at the time for its portrayal of a New York City full of white people, it took a little longer for some of the other aspects of the show — like “Fat Monica” and transphobic jokes about Chandler’s father—to be considered problematic.

While the show won a GLAAD Media Award for depicting Ross’s ex-wife Carol as being in a lesbian couple (sadly, this was a pretty big deal in 1995) its approach to the LGBTQ+ community, and lack of characters of color, can feel cringeworthy to some fans of a more woke generation now.

“I don’t think that consistently using Carol as the butt of jokes at Ross’ expense and poking fun at the friendship between Chandler and Joey would go over as well if written in a contemporary show,” says 22-year-old Dana Seech from the US. “I think this attitude is outdated in the setting of New York City in particular.” Still, Seech says loves the show for the way “the characters build a family unit that can resonate with audiences,” plus “the New York City culture and fashion of the 90s and early 2000s.”

Twenty-one-year-old Sabrina Hutton of Tampa, Florida, says she’s been obsessed with Friends since she first watched it with her grandmother as a child. The show “fell a little short when it came to different races and ethnicities,”  Hutton says, noting that “in all 10 seasons there has been one major character who was black.”

Yet Hutton feels that in many ways the show did the best it could with the culture it was situated in at the time. She admires the cast and crew for taking a “risk” with some story lines, such as Carol’s marriage to a woman in 1996, five years before gay marriage became legal in New York.

Viewers seem able to forgive the show’s more anachronistic tendencies, perhaps in exchange for its message of the potential of a good friendship. As Michael Schulman writes for the New Yorker, Friends “was pioneering in defining people’s twenties, often aimless and uncertain, as a distinct phase of adulthood, in which platonic friendships can provide a kind of structure lacking in romances or careers.”

Ultimately, it’s the connection between the characters that got viewers hooked then, and keeps them coming back, particularly in an age dominated by the loneliness of city-living and smartphones. “I think the show gives young people hope that despite their past or current circumstances, there are people out there for everyone that will be able to make our lives a little brighter,” says Justine Teixeira, 19, of South Africa.

“Young people—whether from the 1950s, 1990s, 2000s or now—want to feel as if they fit in with people that respect them for their differences,” Teixeira says. “It gives us a look into ‘adult’ lives that are flawed and real but that are filled with love and laughter.”