Back in September, “Friends” celebrated its 25th anniversary. While the age of social media makes it feel like there’s a milestone like this nearly every day, it was difficult to overlook of this one. After all, it was heavily promoted for several months. A Manhattan pop-up exhibit and a three-night, nationwide theatrical event that showcased some of the show’s most iconic episodes have been just two of the many stunts honoring this sitcom.
In other words, this specific milestone is more than just a Twitter hashtag. Or, as Chandler would say: Could this BE a bigger deal?
Even beyond its critically and commercially successful 10-year run on NBC, “Friends” has maintained a dominant presence in pop culture that few modern shows (or movies, books, anything) have ever matched. This continual popularity has been, in large part, due to “Friends” airing frequently in syndication and, after coming to Netflix in January 2015, becoming accessible to many who were too young to watch it in its first run.
This is why TVSquared analyzed “Friends” reruns to see if the series’ cultural dominance translated into driving performance for advertisers. Spoiler alert: it does. Even 15 years after it ended, “Friends” is delivering response rates that are 74% higher than other syndicated sitcoms.
But the question still remains: Why “Friends?” Social media maintains that the show’s 25th anniversary is no small thing, while our own data analysis proves that it remains a valuable investment for advertisers. But neither fully addresses what has made it so enduring.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I love and respect the sitcom genre. I make it a habit of examining the legacy of the most iconic sitcoms and how they explore real-world issues. So, it’s safe to say that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about (and watching) “Friends.”
Before identifying what makes it so popular for multiple generations, I have to also address what “Friends” is not.
“Friends” isn’t the sitcom that perfected how much a multi-cam show can really do (that’s “Cheers”), and it’s not the one with the most Emmy awards for Best Comedy Series (that’s a tie between “Frasier” and “Modern Family”). Arguably, it’s not even the one with the biggest mark on pop culture (in my opinion, that’s easily “The Simpsons”).
Also, when I analyze the series as objectively as possible – putting aside that I drink out of a “Friends” mug daily, proudly proclaim myself a “Monica-type” and always choose it as a go-to sitcom to have on in the background at home – it’s clear that it obviously, like any series, has its share of flaws, weird plot lines and awkward jokes.
What’s also clear is what makes “Friends” so captivating: it’s the characters and, by extension, the cast. The “Friends” secret sauce is right there in the title. Many of us watch “Friends” over and over again because Monica, Chandler, Rachel, Joey, Ross and Phoebe feel like people we know and could easily hang out with.
This isn’t to say that “Friends” is without deep, emotional storylines. Chandler pleading for Erica (guest star, Anna Faris) to choose him and Monica as her baby’s adopted parents immediately comes to mind as a prime example.
But, usually, that’s not why I frequently revisit “Friends.” It’s because Monica’s colorful, brightly lit NYC apartment is inviting, Central Perk beckons as an ideal hangout spot and even the theme song assures that these characters will always be there for anyone who is watching.
It’s pure, comforting escapism – and the talented cast makes it even better. There’s not a single weak link amongst the six, and even the duos we see interact less often (Ross/Phoebe and Chandler/Rachel are my favorites from this category) still radiate chemistry and are fun to watch.
This sense of escapism is also why I’ve never been a fan of the “Seinfeld” vs. “Friends” debate. Stemming from its infamous “no hugging, no learning” mantra, “Seinfeld” knows its characters are wry observers of every-day, relatable annoyances, but they’re also inherently selfish people who will never really grow or change. This is a stark contrast with “Friends.” Those characters are selfish too, but (in many cases) we witness them learn and grow: Rachel learns how to build a successful career, Chandler overcomes his commitment issues and more.
Yes; the “Seinfeld” characters are entertaining, funny and insightful, but comforting? I’m a fan of both shows, but while it would be interesting to vent about a dreaded “close talker” with Jerry and George, it would probably be more fun to hang out with Joey and Chandler. Honestly, does it even matter which one is “better” if they’re watched for completely different reasons?
Similarly, does it matter if every joke doesn’t hold up or if other shows have been more revolutionary? At the end of the day, sometimes you just want to spend time with your “Friends.”