Probably the most telling Gen-Z and Friends-related story comes from one of the show’s co-creators, Marta Kauffman. Ahead of a Friends 25th anniversary celebration and panel at the Tribeca TV Festival, Kauffman told ET that her 20-year-old daughter’s friend loves Friends — but had no idea her mother was the one responsible for it. "I have three kids and my youngest is 20, but when she was in high school and it first went on Netflix, her friends said to her, 'Did you see that new show called Friends?'" she said. "They thought it was a period piece about the '90s. Isn't that great?"
Friends first aired on primetime television 25 years ago in September 1994, when network TV hits had ratings in the multi-millions, and NBC’s Thursday night comedy lineup could call itself “Must-See TV” and be correct. (The series finale alone drew 52.46 million viewers.) Members of Gen-Z, which is generally defined as encompassing those born between 1995 and 2005, came along one year after Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston), Monica Geller (Courteney Cox), Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow), Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc), Ross Geller (David Schwimmer), and Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry) first graced TV screens. If they watched Friends at all while growing up, they most likely weren’t cognizant of what the show represented for members of Generation X (which the Friends themselves were), and millennials, who have since become the majority viewers of the show in streaming on Netflix. (The streaming service notoriously doesn’t release data, but it did spend $80 million to keep the show for 2019, and Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos did say it was quite popular, even internationally.)
Friends was already a period piece when millennials caught onto it, and even though they streamed it in droves, they quickly honed in on its more problematic elements. Here exists a New York City that is mostly white, heterosexual (with many jokes at the expense of queer characters), affordable, and problem-free (ah, to have a rent-controlled apartment like Monica’s). One member of Gen-Z told Refinery29 in a survey that while she loves the show, she is disappointed by what she referred to as the lack attention paid to the characters’ careers in order for them to have such easygoing lives. It’s easy to miss that Ross, a college professor, has a PhD, and Rachel, who arrives in New York City on her wedding day with no job history to speak of, climbs the ranks at Bloomingdale’s and then Ralph Lauren. The friends spend most of their time at Central Perk, a coffee house in Greenwich Village that is by no means easy to just drop into when a few of them presumably work in Midtown. The travel time alone would use up any hangout time before you had to get back to work.
Still, the show remains relatable. And it provides a connection to the past: The late ‘90s and early ‘00s were a simpler time. One with no smartphones, no push alerts about natural disasters, no death by metal straws. One 22-year-old told Refinery29 that watching Friends helps with her anxiety: “There is something about the show that is very comforting to me,” she wrote in an email. “It sounds weird, but if I’m anxious or scared about something, turning the show on can kind of ease my nerves. I think it’s because it’s light-hearted, positive, and predictable.
Friends is also aspirational to those still looking for their own quirky tribe. As one 16-year-old wrote, “The show remains so watchable because of how funny it is and how it makes you feel like you’re there with them going through their ups and downs. We connect with them despite the fact that they are older than us. It makes us want what they have and hope to have a group of friends like that when we’re older.”
It’s shocking to think that VSCO girls and woke teens planning to storm Area 51 would find a dated series about six twentysomethings (who frankly look nothing like twentysomethings today, for better or worse) so appealing to binge watch, and continuously relatable to their own experiences. Originally called Insomnia Cafe and set solely in a coffee shop, the show evolved from Kauffman and co-creator David Crane’s idea to make a show about a time in people’s lives when their friends are their family. “This was one of those things where the idea was very clear to us,” Crane told Dateline in 2004 after the show’s 10th anniversary. “And the writers still make fun of us because it's like, oh, when you're in your 20s, your friends are your family. But that's the show!”
While a lot has changed since 1994, from the way people communicate (landlines to Instagram DMs) to where people meet new friends (the comment section of YouTube versus cozy coffee shops), the idea that friendship is a vital ingredient in a healthy, happy life remains an inalienable truth. That strongly resonates with Gen-Z, who find that social media is a way to connect with others — and an easy way to continuously stream Friends on the go. (Fun fact: According to Marketplace.org, each of the six core friends receives $20 million a year in syndication income. By the end of the series, they were each making $1 million an episode.)
Among the dozen members of Gen-Z Refinery29 spoke to, all but one watches Friends on Netflix (the other watches it on Nick at Nite). None of them has ever seen the series via a DVD set. (They were not asked if they know what a DVD is.) Most of them first heard of the show thanks to their family, with many specifically mentioning their parents suggesting they watch. The thirtysomethings that first watched the show live in the mid-to-late ‘90s are now introducing it to their children ahead of their own quarter-life crises — a sweet, full-circle moment. “ I first watched Friends around age 14 when TBS aired daily reruns. For me, it was a secret window into what adulthood might be like,” a 22-year-old Friends fan told me via text. “I’d seen my parents watch it when I was small (I have a vivid memory of Joey in a Superman costume on the TV in their bedroom), so finally getting to watch it myself felt like a rite of passage. At 14, I was old enough to relate to them, but not so old I knew how unrealistic their lives actually were.”
She added: “As I’ve grown older I know better, but that aspirational quality never went away.” Spoken like a true Gen-Zer.