Picture, if you will, a typical episode of Friends. It probably contains several scenes during which the gang gathers at Central Perk. They sling zings, banter back and forth, and just hang out with one another on the comfy couch and chairs that eagle-eyed viewers would later notice were actually always reserved for them. It took a little suspension of disbelief to think that six ostensibly employed young adults could constantly make time to chill in a coffee shop; however, given the time period, it seemed plausible that they’d want to meet up for actual face time.
Friends aired from 1994 to 2004. When it premiered, the idea of everyone owning a cell phone was almost laughable (remember Zack Morris’ monstrosity in Saved by the Bell — picture toting that thing around all day). Even email was but a glimmer in the most tech-savvy member of a group’s eye. It was a time before being busy became something to brag and complain about. It was also a time before the word “millennial” had the meaning it does today and before members of my generation would kill hangout sitcoms like Friends.
These days, Friends seems like a period piece. Watching six people hang out without constantly looking at their phone for texts from friends they aren't currently with (and thinking they might be missing out on some cooler hang sesh); scrolling through social media; checking their email; or just interacting with glowing screens in general, is a relic of a bygone era. Friends epitomised the hangout sitcom genre. Examples of other pals-meeting-up-to-gab shows of this ilk include Cheers (1982-1993), Seinfeld (1989-1998), How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014), Girlfriends (2000-2008), The Big Bang Theory (2007-present), Happy Endings (2011-2013...miss you the most), and New Girl (2011-present).
These sitcoms all share several commonalities. They’re mostly multi-camera shot and usually filmed in front of a live studio audience, making them more like theatrical productions that could pause for audience reactions (that were later sweetened). This presentation format is also more inviting to viewers, making them feel more like they're part of the gang, sitting on the other side of the coffee table at Central Perk or the booth at MacLaren’s or Monk's.
Although predated by Cheers and Seinfeld, Friends is considered the bellwether of the hangout sitcom. Never before had a primetime comedy let viewers witness twenty-somethings just chill in their natural habitat, which in the ‘90s was a coffee shop. Other networks watched the ratings juggernaut, and they wanted in. Unfortunately, the times, they were a-changing.
Technology has played a major role in killing this type of sitcom in more ways than one. First, there’s the obvious reason hangout sitcoms that premiered in the past few years — like Friends With Better Lives (CBS, 1 season, 12 episodes, 2014), Mulaney (Fox, 1 season, 13 episodes, 2014-2015), and Weird Loners (Fox, 1 season, 6 episodes, 2015) — never took off: too much competition.
Viewers’ attention is sliced more thinly than ever due to the increasing number of platforms on which to view content, which is itself always expanding and changing. I grew up in the ‘90s without cable. So, if I didn’t like the eight new shows the networks premiered each fall — and yes, new shows only debuted in the fall; none of this midseason/summer/anytime they damn well feel like it because it's Netflix nonsense — it was tough crackers. This meant that viewers tuned into the same shows week after week for like clockwork.
Now, network executives would perform pagan rituals if it meant they would see anything close to Friends ratings for a show. The least-watched episode of Friends, “The One With the Vows,” aired on 3rd May 2001, and attracted 15.6 million viewers. The series’ most-watched episode peaked at 52.9 million (“The One After the Super Bowl,” 28th January 1996), and viewership usually averaged around 23.6 million. By comparison, Scandal, one of the most popular shows of the 2014-2015 season on Twitter, averaged 9.19 million viewers per episode last season. Consistently top-rated The Big Bang Theory averaged 16.14 million.
Networks are competing with divided attention spans and more solid programming than ever. People are deviating from linear TV and turning to streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu for original programs. They’re recording shows on their DVRs and forgetting to watch them. According to a recent New York Times article, millennials aren’t even the it-generation anymore for marketers and advertisers. Generation Z is coming up quickly, and it’s comprised of digital-native upstarts who care more about what’s happening on Tumblr and social justice movements than last night’s episode of The Mindy Project. Watching TV may soon be a pastime of older generations, like listening to the radio and knowing how to use a fax machine.
In addition to what’s happening behind the scenes, there’s also a problem with what’s happening in hangout sitcoms on screen. Television is a visual medium. A scene needs interesting dialogue and action to keep a viewer’s attention. That’s why on Law & Order: SVU, when Stabler and Benson interview the bar owner who last saw the suspect, the bar owner is always moving crates or polishing glasses while they talk. Your eye needs something to do while you listen to the long exposition that the writers need you to hear. See also: Game of Thrones’ sexposition scenes.
In hangout sitcoms, writers build up trust in viewers over time. There’s an unspoken agreement between the creator and audience that the former will write snappy enough dialogue during these low-key scenes that not a lot of visuals are needed, and viewers will continue tuning in because they now feel like a part of the gang. With the advent of smartphones, that agreement has been violated — and it’s by no fault of the writers.
It’s that cursed Apple, their smartphones, and millennials’ love of technology and its beautiful, wonderful convenience. I’m including myself in this, by the way. I’ve had a lifetime fear of using the phone, so thank god texting came along in my teens. Throw in Instagram and Twitter, and I never need to leave my apartment again.
Unfortunately for the creators of hangout sitcoms, it’s no longer believable that a group of friends would sit around and talk without simultaneously looking at their smartphones, only half-engaged in their current surroundings and conversations. Is my cynicism for my peers showing? Probably, but I’ve too often seen the best minds of my generation spend half of brunch Instagramming their food while it gets cold.
And, don’t even get me started on how hard it is to coordinate said hangout or brunch. Everyone is so busy. Getting all of your friends in one place is a Herculean effort that’s a sitcom plot in and of itself. An interesting one? Probably not. Ever notice how you rarely see all of the girls on Girls in the same place? It’s not realistic, and Lena Dunham knows that. Millennials’ lives are increasingly solitary pursuits, yet we feel connected to our friends through virtual and digital tethers.
The trust that hangout sitcom writers establish with viewers only extends so far. We’ll watch them talk and banter, but we don’t want to watch them text and tweet. What a thrilling Central Perk conversation that would be on Friends, circa 2015.
Chandler: Hey Joey, could it BE any colder out there right now? My weather app says “Just go home.”
Rachel: How come no one liked that picture of Emma I posed on Instagram?
Monica: I’m finding new organic kids’ dinner recipes on Pinterest. Did you know rutabaga skin can have BPA?
Phoebe: Can someone help me upload this video Mike made of me singing “Smelly Cat” to YouTube? Friskies is sponsoring it, and the deliverables are due by noon
Ross: I think Ben knows how; he’s good at that stuff. I’ll text him.
And that, dear friends, is how millennials killed the hangout sitcom: with their texting and their ‘gramming and their Netflix and their Hulu. I’m as guilty as the rest of them. Best of luck to the only two shows in the genre attempting to succeed in the near future: Truth Be Told (NBC, October 16) and Cooper Barrett’s Guide to Surviving Life (Fox, 2016). Spoiler alert: The future involves an unlimited data plan and never trying to get all of your friends in one place unless there’s free booze involved. Oh, and fully accepting that you'll only have half of anyone's attention at a given time as you converse with the top of their head, their face aglow in the illumination from the screen of their smartphone.