David Schwimmer, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Courteney Cox Arquette, Jennifer Aniston, Matthew Perry friends
What’s So Special About ‘Friends’? And Why Would Netflix Spend a Fortune to Save It?
12.12.18

You don’t have to be a fan of Friends to know someone who got “the Rachel” in high school, or to have engaged in a debate about whether anyone actually has a Monica-sized apartment in New York, or to have picked up all the lyrics to “Smelly Cat” through some osmosis of the cultural ether. It’s been 14 years since the show was on the air, and a lot has changed since the world was introduced to Monica Geller, Chandler Bing, Joey Tribbiani, Rachel Green, Ross Geller and Phoebe Buffay back in 1994, but if ever we needed proof that nostalgia is the glue holding pop culture together, last week’s internet-wide spiral over Netflix’s announcement that Friends would no longer be available to stream in 2019 would be a good place to start.

The mostly Twitter-led outcry was so (surprisingly?) deafening that within 24 hours, Netflix responded by dropping $100 million bucks ($100,000,000!!!!!!) to reverse its decision and keep the show streaming through 2019, thus appeasing a wide swath of the internet commentariat. “That’s a significant jump from the $30 million a year that Netflix had paid previously to stream the show,” reports The New York Times. “But the new amount reflects the thirst for content in the streaming age.”

There’s no denying that Friends holds a special place in our collective cultural consciousness. But why? According to AV/TV Club writer Gwen Ihnat, the show bred familiarity by breaking from many typical TV formats, thus changing the sitcom landscape forever: “The show did not revolve around a family home or a workplace, but a makeshift clan that seemed familiar to Gen Xers who were forming their own similar connections.”

Before the ascent of Friends, with the exception of the 1989-premiering Seinfeld, familial-focused series like Family Matters, Full House and Fresh Prince dominated the airwaves. Friends shifted the focus from “family” as it was commonly understood (family as blood relatives) and broadened the definition to suggest that friends can be family, too.

Friends was [one of] the first [sitcoms] showing the idea of friends as your chosen family in urban life,” wrote Mona, 28. “Now this lifestyle is super familiar to every millennial.”

There’s no denying Friends reframed how people conceived of what it meant to thrive in young adulthood, but it’s worth pointing out that the show was preceded and inspired by the 1993 Black sitcom Living Single, which starred a young Queen Latifah. “That somebody would copycat Living Single seemed inevitable,” writes Brentin Mock for City Lab. “The show’s narrative was so attractive because it took a somewhat novel approach to capturing modern urban life on the tube.” Living Single never became as popular nor as heralded as its white-casted counterpart, but it was an important part of making Friends what it ultimately became (and it’s also worth a watch if you haven’t seen it).

“I loved [Friends] in high school, but re-watching it as an adult, I realized I didn’t really identify with anything in it,” DW McKinney, 33 said. “As a Black woman, I rarely saw myself represented. I was okay with it leaving Netflix, but I think there was a large outcry because the show is peak white young adulthood and represents what so many white people my age wish their lives were like.” This is an important reminder that while the show seems to have universal appeal, the same hegemonic forces that structure our lives likely have something to do with its success.

“One time I told a white guy that growing up I had a haircut like Monica,” my friend Contessa said when I ask her if she likes Friends, “and he said, ‘Oh, which season?’ We stared at each other confused for a smooth two minutes before I was like, ‘WTF are you talking about?’ to which he replied, ‘Monica — from Friends!’ I was finally like ‘Nah, bruh, I’m talking “Just One of Dem Days” Monica.’ And then I realized that culture was real.”

Regardless, the show enjoys a kind of omnipresence in the mainstream. My colleague Starling even took a college sociology course in which her professor allocated an entire unit to dissecting the show’s cultural impact. “While it was unsurprising to learn that the show unfortunately contributed to a discourse of sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, there was a long list of societal shifts credited to Friends that had never occurred to me,” she shares, before bringing up the concept of chosen family once again. “According to this class, the idea that you can live with the family you choose for yourself caused more men and women to begin living together platonically, and the average age of marriage drastically increased, which may have also been inspired by Friends. The show also contributed to the use of slang words, sarcasm, and popular English phrases,” she tells me. For example, the term “friend zone” was popularized by an episode of Friends.

It’s been a constant throughout most of my life.

Cultural impact aside, the show is also, simply, a comfort for many. Leandra told me that while recovering from a miscarriage, it was Friends she watched for 72 straight hours, finding contentment in the show’s feeling of infinitum. “Where you can actually get through the duration of a series like Sex and the City in the course of the weekend, Friends kind of does feel like a ‘friend’ in that its presence in your life seems bottomless, or everlasting,” she says. But more than comfort, it’s the sense of belonging, or community inspired by the show that she cites as standout. “Here are six fictional characters, friends by all accounts but also a chosen family to a degree, that actually make me feel like I’m part of something bigger than, or just different from myself,” she continues.

Leandra’s not the only one who feels this way. “To me, Friends is the visual content equivalent of wrapping myself in a cashmere blanket,” writes Victoria, 28. “It’s been a constant throughout most of my life. Whether I need to lock into a funny episode, tear up to an emotional one, or have it on in the background while I’m folding laundry — it actually is, and always has been, there for me.”

For Nicolas, 23, Friends makes everything feel okay — even when it’s clearly not. This is not about a feeling of relatability (“It’s not relatable,” he says), nor about it being good TV (“It’s not as good as Seinfeld or Frasier”) but about the fact that Friends unites people. “I may or may not have a roommate I despise but we can get through breakfast because we can talk about Friends,” he tells me. “That’s quite the challenge — this guy thinks Blink 182 is punk. So yeah, FRIENDS IS OUT HERE SAVING LIVES.”

And that’s what I like to call “full circle”: Friends is out here saving lives, the internet is out here saving Friends (via Netflix). It’s hard to say why exactly that is, but after this unofficial investigation (between the office, the Man Repeller Instagram audience, and my friends, I polled over 380 people), I feel uniquely qualified to offer a hypothesis: People cling to nostalgic comforts during times of chaos, and never has the media landscape served up so much chaos on a minute-by-minute basis than it does today. Friends is a reminder of a time before all this — not so long ago that we don’t remember, but far enough away, emotionally, that it feels like another lifetime.

So, what’s your take? If you’re still not sure, that’s okay. Friends will remain on Netflix for one more year, meaning you have plenty of time to theorize and then meet me in the comments to discuss.

Feature image via Everett Collection.

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