New York magazine recently published a story about Friends and its impact on pop culture. While working on the piece, writer Adam Sternbergh picked my brain about why I love the show so much, and why I keep coming back to it after all these years. The short answer is, not surprisingly, the nostalgia factor: I re-watch Friends over and over because it takes me back to the '90s. The longer answer involves growing up, feeling comforted, and experiencing a deep sense of belonging. I fell in love with Friends in 1998. I was 10 years old and in the fifth grade. If you were watching the show live, it was the beginning of season 5; Ross had just said “Rachel” instead of “Emily,” and Monica and Chandler were well on their way to becoming more than friends. I was oblivious to all of this, however, because I watched in syndication on my local WB affiliate. I saw episodes out of order and pieced together the histories and relationships and dynamics over time. It’s not unlike the way we watch TV now: We start after a few seasons have already aired, based on a recommendation from a friend. Even though I was late to the Friends game, I found in the show a new set of, well, friends. I have a deep connection with Friends — one that can only be achieved from serious repetition. I watched the show in syndication and eventually live, starting somewhere that fall with the fifth season. The moment owning seasons of TV shows on DVD became a thing, I owned all 10, and I watched them over and over. Having Friends on in the background became second nature. It was my go-to source of entertainment and laughter in high school, college, and beyond. It cheered me up after bad days and helped me through bad breakups. Without fail, every episode took me back to the first time I watched it, and filled me with a sense of calm. It still does.
Even though Phoebe didn’t meet Mike through Tinder, that doesn’t render an entire generation clueless about their relationship.
If you’re a Friends fan, there’s a natural tendency to quote the show in everyday conversation, regardless of your age or when you started watching it. I quote it to such a degree that it almost borders on banal; it’s like having inside jokes with myself. A few weeks ago, I met a friend of a friend named Laura, and my first instinct was to point at her and simply shout Laura! in a commanding voice (Joey, season 10, episode 7: “The One with the Home Study”). I would have looked like a crazy person. There’s a certain satisfaction that comes with selecting and reciting the perfect Friends quote for any given situation; it’s the original reaction GIF. Fans adopted phrases like “Oh. My. God!” and “It’s Pors-cha!” long before Tumblr was around, and we quoted them of our own volition. The writing on Friends speaks for itself, and never relied on the internet to surface its best moments; that simply wasn’t an option.
But that’s not everyone’s experience with Friends. In Sternbergh’s article, he talks about younger generations who stumble upon the show on Netflix, or find it because of something they read on the internet. And like generations before them, they too fall in love with the sitcom. But why? What makes the twentysomethings of today care about the twentysomethings of 20 years ago (who are now fortysomethings)? I think it’s the perception that life was easier back then. The differences between twentysomethings in the '90s and twentysomethings today are obvious. You couldn’t land a date just by swiping right. You couldn’t make plans on the fly like we do now. And there is still a general sense that things were simpler. To my generation — one that remembers life before cell phones and the internet — it’s fun to look back on that time. To a younger generation — one that’s now discovering Friends for the first time — it’s a fascinating peek at what life was like not all that long ago, and a testament to how much has changed. I think people love Friends because it’s real, but also because it’s not too real. No matter what, it always remains lighthearted and funny; even the darkest of major life events are punctuated with a laugh. That’s what a sitcom is supposed to be: a slightly exaggerated version of everyday life that reflects a little part of yourself back to you. In Sternbergh’s article, I’m quoted saying that it wouldn’t be possible to make an authentic version of Friends starring twentysomethings of today. And I stand by it. At the heart of the show is a group of people who meet up to sit around and talk — a behavior that’s since evolved, because today’s twentysomethings connect through their phones. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just the truth. You could certainly make a show about six friends, but to have them all constantly return to one central meeting point like a coffee shop or someone’s apartment just wouldn’t happen. Because on their way, they’d discover something shinier and prettier to do instead. That’s not to say I don’t think a formal Friends reunion of some sort would work — because I do, and I would cry tears of joy for days if that were to happen — but even with the same six actors, a reboot would look drastically different.
Time period aside, Friends is still a relatable show. Even if you missed the era of being set up on blind dates by friends, you still know what the awkwardness of a first date is like. Even though Phoebe didn’t meet Mike through Tinder, that doesn’t render an entire generation clueless about their relationship. The Friends story lines of the mid-'90s are slightly different, but still timeless enough that today’s twentysomethings can understand and enjoy them. Younger viewers even connect with the nostalgic piece of it all. No, they aren’t reminiscing about being young in that specific era, but the show still reminds them of being younger versions of themselves. Nostalgia inspires nostalgia. The media has popularized the idea that because Netflix acquired the rights to stream Friends, the show is now somehow “back,” along with tattoo choker necklaces and miniature denim backpacks. But make no mistake: Friends never went anywhere. Yes, Netflix put the show in front of a younger audience who might not have watched it before, but any night of the week, you can also find it playing on TBS, Nick at Nite, and other local broadcast affiliates. Friends coming to Netflix was a big thing for new audiences, but to diehard fans, it’s just another way to get our fix. And even then, it’s still not the preferred way, because Netflix has trimmed the episodes down here and there. I’ll still be using my DVDs with extended scenes, thankyouverymuch. To this day, I still feel pangs of loneliness and an extreme sense of culmination when I watch “The Last One.” It fills me with the same sadness you feel on the last day of summer camp. To that same end, I also feel a rush of excitement and newness when I immediately follow it with “The Pilot.” It resets me, and I’m comforted to know that there are, once again, so many episodes and adventures ahead. You can tell me that Friends seems outdated because of its laugh track (it does), or that it would never have run for 10 seasons in today’s world (it wouldn’t have). You’re right, but I’m simply not interested in your assertion that those things make Friends a bad '90s sitcom. At its core, Friends is a show about relationships — platonic, caring, romantic — and that’s the singular concept that transcends generations and pulls in new audiences. The thing that people love so much about the show is right there in the theme song: “I’ll be there for you, ‘cause you’re there for me too.”