I frequently find myself having those box set conversations – you know the ones where they tell you that Dexter is really worth watching, and you can’t believe that they’ve never seen The Sopranos (but have found the time to watch Dexter – hello!). Everyone is watching Game of Thrones (some people are a bit further behind, which makes everyone talk in rubbish code “Could you believe the one where [winks] pops that dude’s eyeballs out of his head?”). Some people are big on Scandi-crime, others on inexplicably un-funny American animation (Family Guy, The Simpsons). Some people are clearly trying to get their money’s worth out of Netflix or Amazon Prime and will spend an entire game of poker trying to convince you that [insert name of shit comedy] is way better than [insert name of good comedy].
Amidst all of this, I have been revisiting Friends. Back in the year 1994 no-one was watching box sets (unless you count Joey’s icky VHS porn collection), no-one was streaming Breaking Bad on to their phones in the middle of Ross’ (really poor quality) palaeontology classes. In the real world I had just moved away to uni, and Friends saw me right through my degree, my Masters, a year working in a dole office, and right through my PhD. People could be a bit snarky about Friends, even at the time – and in the middle of a box-set conversation here in 2014 they can be downright shocked by the uncoolness of my viewing choices.
You know what? It’s still pretty funny. I’ll admit that coming off the back of watching Seinfeld again, it takes a bit of getting used to the huggyness of it all, but the writing is good and holds up. A few things surprised me this time around, though, and here are my random musings about them:
As Janice would say: Oh. My. God! There’s an awful lot of porn going on. Setting aside my own views about porn, they just seem to talk about it ALL THE TIME. In the early seasons they don’t have the internet, but the guys have boxes of porn stashed away, porn (home-made or otherwise) on VHS seems to pop up fairly frequently. When Chandler buys a laptop (or whatever the hell that large beige box is) it is largely used for watching porn. An episode is dedicated to Chandler and Joey watching non-stop porn that has appeared for free on their TV. Monica is disturbed when she thinks Chandler is getting his rocks off to sharks, rather than porn. Phoebe’s sister is a porn actor for a while. Porn porn porn porn porn.
Perhaps it is because I only have, like, three friends myself – but porn NEVER comes up as a topic of conversation. I’m sure I know plenty of people who like porn (indeed I have a friend who blogs about porn and other films) but it seems to be largely a private activity these days. Is it because porn has moved from the TV to the private screen? I’m sure there’s an A-level Sociology essay in there somewhere.
Friends covers a huge technological shift in society. It begins when plots could centre around being unable to contact a character, moving into that period where someone rich (Jill Goodacre) might let you use their phone, right up to everyone having a phone and people rarely being out of contact. The internet doesn’t really feature hugely. Towards the end Ross and Chandler proto-frape each other on a Friends Reunited-style website, but that’s as far is goes really (apart from accessing porn). Restaurant and theatre reviews are still eagerly read from newspapers. The answer-machine is king (as it was in Seinfeld). Simpler times.
Modes of Masculinity
Urgh that’s such a wanky title – but I can’t think of a better way of phrasing it. Three men – one handsome, confident, stupid, and a big hit with the ladies (whom he treats terribly), another who is funny, devoid of sexual confidence, and (eventually) a loving partner. The third (and more about Ross shortly) is a deluded mummy’s boy who gets the girl in spite of his perceived strengths. Now I’m not making any big statements about any of this (remember these are just random musings) but the thing that hit me this time round was a sort of implicit homophobia that peppers the interactions between the male characters. I think it’s a sign of how far we’ve come as a society that episodes like the one where Ross fires a male nanny because it’s just ‘wrong’ for a man to care for children, stick out like a sore thumb to me now. Ross, Chandler and Joey hug, sometimes snuggle, and even kiss, but the punchline is almost always ‘ewwww DUDE!’. Chandler’s Gay Dad (or is he a Trans Dad or a Drag Dad – oh who cares it’s the 90s and we don’t really distinguish between any of that stuff – it’s all funny) played wonderfully by Kathleen Turner, is the butt of countless jokes and yet I can’t help wondering how much could have been gained if he/she (see, I don’t even know) was delivering the funny rather than being the funny.
I don’t want you to think that I’m being a humourless, pompous arse about all of this. It is, after all, a TV show that ended ten years ago. I am surprised, though, by the things that washed over me 10-20 years ago, and now seem sort of … odd to me now.
Rachel’s transformation from Long Island princess to career woman is constantly being scuppered by Ross. I’m not going to lie to you, I fucking hate Ross. I think I hated him back then, but I must have let it go. Watching Friends again re-ignited my hatred of him. I reckon it will take about four years to subside. Thankfully there is little chance of David Schwimmer popping up in anything and setting me off again.
Rachel gets her first big career break, and Ross ruins it because he is jealous of Mark, her colleague. His possessive behaviour almost gets her fired. Ross and Rachel break up because she’s working too much and he won’t give her any breathing space. When they split up I say ‘Huzzah’, then they get together again and I’m supposed to be pleased – all the studio audience coo and aww when they kiss. I say ‘Bollocks!’.
They were not on a break.
Ten series in, and things are starting to get wrapped up. Phoebe has Mike and a ‘quirky’ (but let’s face it, entirely conventional) life ahead of her. Monica and Chandler have babies and a house in the suburbs. Joey has, well, a short-lived spin-off sitcom* in his future. Ross gets tenure – despite being the most unconvincing academic I’ve ever heard. Rachel gets an amazing job offer – wow, the journey is complete…except it isn’t. Here’s Ross again – how can he manipulate things so that Rachel stays in New York? He tells her ‘I love you. Stay here’ and she does. That’s her happy ending. I had actually convinced myself, prior to watching the final episode again, that Ross moves to Paris with Rachel and their kid. I think my brain did what my mum used to do when I was a kid and she would edit books on the fly to make them less sexist (Julian always washed the dishes in the versions of The Famous Five that I heard at bedtime). I was so disappointed when Rachel decided to stay to be with Ross. Idiot!
* When posters for the new series ‘Joey’ started popping up around Leeds, someone wrote the words ‘Twat Rascal’ across Matt LeBlanc’s face. Possibly my favourite billboard vandalism of all time.
It’s kind of funny that fat Monica is probably thinner than about 50% of the American population now. I’ve seen a chap running a British Heart Foundation obesity awareness stall who was fatter than fat Monica.
So, now I’ve finished watching Friends I need a new box-set to watch – anyone got any recommendations? Anything worth a second viewing? Anything new to recommend?