Theme in Friends
It’s fair to say the internet erupted with news of a Friends reunion, recently. I’ve written about Friends a fair amount this year on this blog, so thought I would return to the show, with reference to theme.
Theme refers to ‘an idea that recurs in or pervades a work of art or literature.’ Friends is about a bunch of young friends, all getting through life and love, dealing with whatever it throws at them. Being a sitcom, it’s about dysfunctional family too. Le duh.
However, with theme we make our OWN meaning too. How each individual audience member sees the story and characters working may be different. This may in turn be influenced by the groups and communities they are part of. This is where lines blur and crossover too, from craft to opinion and back again. More, next.
Can Friends BE Any More ‘Problematic’?
In the age of Twitter, it is very fashionable to say Friends is ‘problematic’. Hell, even the actual makers have chimed in, with one Friends producer saying the show would have to change if it were made today.
Cast members like Kathleen Turner have got in on the act too, saying she would ‘turn down’ playing Chandler’s Dad in 2019.
I even saw a thread that decried multiple ‘plotholes’ in Friends … One was ‘Hey, how come they all love DIE HARD, yet don’t recognise Bruce Willis is Elizabeth’s Dad??’ OH. MY. GAWD.
The targets and claims are obvious. There are some jokes that have aged HORRIBLY over the past twenty-five years, especially by modern standards. That said, just as I believe Joker director Todd Phillips is wrong when he posits woke culture has killed comedy, I think Friends actually stands up pretty well considering. These are the facts …
- Friends remains beloved fifteen years on, with a hugely diverse audience, some of whom were not even born when it finished. This means it has to be still relevant on a theme level. It’s also why it is still a property worth billions
- All stories are subject to the perceived ideals and values of the time they are written (including our ‘woke’ times, which will date too).
- Friends has dated, but so has every other story we love, whether we choose to see it or not. NO story is immune to this
- Some of the issue-laden elements are a matter of perception, like all storytelling
- Craft-wise, dated jokes aside, Friends remains the gold standard craft-wise in terms of sitcom character and plotting. Here’s Exhibit A – a case study on the pilot, which STILL remains rock-solid. Here’s a second case study, Exhibit B … This time on Friends characterisation and how it uses archetype.
Next, I will make the case for why I believe Friends stands up pretty well on theme, overall … even if some of its jokes would never get written today.
Diversity In Friends
Friends often comes under fire online for not being ‘diverse enough’. Obviously it’s not, but then it also seems unfair to judge an old show by modern standards. We also don’t know what happened behind the scenes twenty five years ago.
In addition, I think some of those ‘pervasive, recurring ideas’ re: theme have been missed out of the conversation. Ready? Here we go …
i) Female Sexuality
Female sexuality is played front and centre in Friends. Remember Phoebe unapologetically playing the field … Or Monica teaching the basic erogenous zones When Harry Met Sally style (‘SEVEN!’) … Or a pregnant Rachel getting so horny she goes store to store and sits on multiple Santas’ laps. They are not shamed or made to apologise for this, either. The women have big sexual appetites because WHY NOT.
There’s no frumpy Moms either … Even secondary characters like Janice, considered annoying as hell, is still sexy and desirable, even after she’s had a baby. This may not seem that unusual in 2019, but back then was a big deal. Friends was instrumental in solidifying the ‘yummy mummy’ trope.
ii) Ross’ girlfriends
Yes, there were no BAME friends, but it’s important to note at least two important women of colour created waves in that iconic Ross/Rachel ‘Will they, won’t they?’ storyline. Julie was the first to make a splash, coming between Ross and Rachel right at the beginning, with Charlie doing similar towards the end of the series.
Now, neither girlfriend stuck around as long as Emily, but then Helen Baxendale was at the height of her Cold Feet fame back then. (You may recall the media calling it ‘The British Friends’). So perhaps her casting was less about her being white, but a star? (Unfortunately stars are more likely to be white, especially in the 90s).
iii) Cultural Appropriation
Long before ‘cultural appropriation’ was a phrase used online, Friends appeared to draw attention to the icky notion of white people highjacking stuff. Ross and Monica in particular have a long history of being tone-deaf when it comes to race. Consider
- Ross’ asking the tanning guy place what ‘number’ he is at the salon, to which the other guy replies: ‘Puerto Rican’
- Or Monica’s unbelievably cringey corn rows, when she comes back from Barbados. (Not only does no one like them, they look to Charlie for her reaction … She tries out the stereotypical ‘You go girl’, only to admit she has never used that phrase in her life. After all, why should she?)
- Or Ross’ repeated pronunciation of ‘karate’ as ‘KaraTAY’ … Or the entire episode dedicated to his belief in ‘Unagi’, where he is set up again and again as the punchline. It is his behaviour that is ridiculous from the offset, not the concept of martial arts, mental agility, or even sushi, which both Phoebe and Rachel say they want to eat.
iv) Suicide and Mental illness
Phoebe’s back story is epic dark, but it shines a light on the impacts of suicide. Because her mother killed herself, Phoebe ended up on the street. She lead a hugely different life to the rest of the friends as a result, but refuses to censor herself about it … It is quite literally part of who she is. Her desire to save the toner guy and how she cares when his co-workers don’t is very powerful, imho.
Similarly, Ross’ rage and subsequent breakdown when he goes sabbatical reminds us adverse life events like divorce have serious mental health implications. Whilst other depictions of mental illness in the show don’t fare quite so well over the passage of time, Friends was still talking about them at a time most shows were not.
v) Two Moms
The notion of Gay Moms is nothing new today, but again was revolutionary back in the 90s. What’s more, Carol and Susan are always presented as a loving and committed couple. Even when Ross worries about Susan spending ‘too much time’ with Emily, Carol is not worried.
What’s more, their parenting is never under scrutiny. Any issues between Susan and Ross are always played as a result of his resentment towards her … First for blowing up his life (understandable), then because he feels foolish that Carol has her ‘true’ love (less understandable).
Being married to a lesbian is always presented as Ross’ problem from the offset (‘How can you not know?‘). Even so, it’s Ross who gives Susan away at her wedding to Susan when the idea of a gay wedding was outside the realm of most people’s experience or expectations.
What’s more Carol’s own sexual appetite, just like Phoebe’s, Monica’s and Rachel’s is played front and centre. We see her openly admiring other women a couple of times. My favourite moment however is when it is her anniversary with Susan, which Ross accidentally interrupts. It’s not only obvious he has interrupted them having sex, if you pay attention Carol literally picks a hair out of her teeth! SUPER LOL.
vi) Race, part 1 – Peripheral Characters
As I mention in my Diverse Characters book, a peripheral character is essentially a walk-on part in the narrative. It’s important to note that peripheral characters are NOT random, they have to have a ‘point’ … This point is usually connected to the advance of the plot and/or the main character’s actions within it.
I watched all ten series, back to back, non-stop for this B2W case study over a couple of weeks. During this marathon watch-a-thon, I noticed something interesting. A huge proportion of the peripheral characters in Friends are BAME. These include (but are not limited to) store clerks, museum guides, cooks, receptionists, waiters and waitresses, neighbours, doctors, nurses and university professors. In other words, from ‘all’ jobs and walks of life.
It could also be they were working within the constraints of the studio and the times they were writing in. Given most creatives try to do the best work they can, I would hope this is the case and diversity was on the table as much as possible.
So it would be very interesting indeed if the casting and writing of peripheral characters like this was deliberate thematically … A kind of ‘push back’ to the white-centric norms of the time (and let’s face it, today). As writers we should try to consider these things, at least at theme level and gather realistic evidence to support our assumptions and analysis of stories.
vii) Race, part 2 – privilege/ status
As you would expect, most of the peripheral characters create a problem for the Friends group (drama is conflict, after all). However, what’s interesting is that NONE of said peripheral characters are belligerent or make an issue for the sake of it. In fact, many of the peripherals shine a light on how unreasonable our main characters are being.
This is most obvious when the women are dealing with receptionists. In ‘The One Where Rachel Has A Baby’, Rachel is denied the private room she wants to give birth. Now, the receptionist could have been painted as an ogre who doesn’t care someone is scared and about to give birth. Instead, it is RACHEL’S behaviour that is framed being that of an entitled, spoiled princess. This fits absolutely with her character bio and makes sense, because people do regress in times of stress.
Occasionally, peripheral characters create solutions for the group in Friends. When Ross goes couch-shopping, he eventually returns the sofa to the store, cut in half. This is clearly totally unreasonable, but the store clerk does not create a scene or laugh in his face. Instead she offers him store credit of four dollars, which he takes.