The title of Kelsey Miller's new book, I'll Be There For You: The One About Friends," practically wrote itself. Friends has been off the air for 14 years, and yet the episodes' title format is still immediately recognizable. We live in a post-Friends world. Yet, as Miller points out in her expertly written book, this cultural landscape of ours — one in which the Rachel Green haircut still makes headlines and people who were born before the sitcom's 1994 premiere now binge-watch it on Netflix (along with Gen-Zers who have since discovered its singular magic) —nearly didn't exist. "Today, it's impossible to envision a television landscape in which Friends did not succeed, so far-reaching was its influence. But so much had to happen to get that single, just-fine pilot on the air. So much had to go right," Miller writes, setting us up for a fascinating journey of discovering what cosmic alignment of events went right for Friends to become what it became.
In her book, Miller is interested in the alchemy of Friends. What factors led to a show about six people becoming a cultural monolith? How did it remain that cultural monolith, over a decade later? And how, in our more woke world, can we grapple with the show's glaring oversights and deficiencies? I'll Be There For You is a book for everyone, from Friends fanatics who want to rack up trivia to Friends skeptics who want to know what the fuss is about. We spoke to Miller, a former Refinery29 employee, about Friends' enduring power and why Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) is the best friend of them all.
Refinery29: What compelled you to write this book?
Kelsey Miller: “There’s been a lot of really good reporting behind the scenes of Friends, down to what they ate for lunch. But there's never been a book that’s not a fan companion book. A book that revisits the show and puts it in a broader cultural context. The thing is, even if you didn’t watch Friends, you had a relationship to it. It had an enormous effect. It impacted not just television and our haircuts, but things like coffee culture. Our speech patterns, too. That’s how steeped into our DNA this show is. I was excited by the opportunity not only to dive into Friends history, but also the Friends phenomenon.”
Has a show since captured the public attention the way Friends did, and do you think there ever will be another show like Friends?
“No to both. It’s not just that Friends really was an exceptional show. There are a lot of factors there — it was like lightning in a bottle. On top of that, television has changed so much. There is so much more of it now. But back in the ‘90s and early aughts, Must See TV Thursdays really was Must See TV Thursdays. Everybody was watching. There are other shows that were up against Friends that didn’t work because the entire audience gravitated in one direction. I don't think that it’s something that happens on narrative television anymore."
Which Friends character is your favorite?
“I really love Phoebe. She so often comes off as the whack-a-doo when in fact she’s the voice of reason. I love when she loses her temper with everybody, because there are so many problems on the show that are not real life problems. Phoebe has actually had a really hard life and will call bullshit on the others’ whininess. I love the episode where she’s super duper pregnant and losing it, and she’s screaming at Rachel and Monica the whole time. You know that they love each other, but she’s completely lost patience.”
What’s the most surprising thing that you learned during your research process?
“This isn’t a fun answer, but I didn't know anything about the Friends harassment case. It was something that I’d heard vaguely referenced during an HR training once. The harassment case is an example of the way Friends had an impact. It happened behind the scenes, but it had an impact on cultural conversations around harassment. The case determines what is not harassment. It’s a precedent setting case that has been referenced in other harassment suits and cited in HR trainings. That was absolutely a story that I wasn’t going to leave untold."
Throughout the book, and from many different angles, you grapple with the legacy of Friends and the ways in which it’s been criticized for its overwhelming whiteness and homophobia. What’s the value of revisiting old, beloved works and applying them to our standards? That constant grappling we’re always undertaking with our favorite art?
“There is a lot of value in it. With Friends, there’s been so much argument about it. And so much backlash to the argument, and so much backlash to the backlash. There’s a little bit of fatigue around the conversation. When I talk to people about this book, I get the sense that if they don’t like Friends, they think I’m some diehard crazy fan who will defend it to the bitter end. If there’s somebody who’s a diehard fan, they’re afraid I’m going to ruin it for them. It’s funny to me. I think it’s extremely possible to love something and recognize its flaws at the same time. Anybody who has a relationship or a family member probably recognizes that.
“There’s value in reflecting and reviewing from our current standpoint. You don’t have to excuse bigotry. You can look at the show and say, ‘God! It really sucks that they could get away with being on the air for 10 years and have only two Black people with speaking parts.’ You can compare Friends to the TV landscape now, use the show as a barometer. It’s such a huge reference point."
The cast of Friends was actually friends off-screen, which is every fandom's dream. Why do you think we yearn for castmates to be friends?
"We want the fantasy to be real. We want to imagine that they’re having as much fun as we are, and that they’re having as much fun as it looks like on screen. The element of their offscreen friendship — which they really nurtured and served them so well, creatively and certainly financially, of course — it was in many ways why the show survived and came together so well. That friendship shines through in their performance together. It adds this strong sense of aliveness in every scene. That’s what makes it so compelling to watch even still."
Something I've always wondered about: Why do all the episodes of Friends start with “the one?”
"Marta Kauffman and David Crane [Friends' creators] thought episode titles were pointless and silly. They thought, no one cares anyway, let’s stick with a formula. That’ll make it easier. Also, it was 1994. There was no IMDb for people to look up episodes.
Finally, the most important thing everyone wants to know: Do you think Ross and Rachel were destined to be together?
"I think Ross and Rachel are good complements to each other. They’ll be driving each other crazy for the rest of their lives in that way that couples often do. Their ending up together was mandatory for the show. I wish it had happened a little bit differently, though, with Ross not making Rachel give up her dream be to be with him. I wish there had been a discussion. What if Ross got off his ass and went to Paris?"