In 2004, I worked at a bar in Kansas City’s River Market district. One night, a woman handed me her credit card to pay her tab; I looked at it and said, “HAHA. Your name is Monica Ross!” She made a big, exasperated noise and dropped her forehead to the bartop. “It’s worse than that,” she said. And her friend said, “Her middle name is Rachel!”
So deep was the cultural pervasiveness of the NBC series Friends that I was able to make that observation even though I had never once watched an actual episode. And still hadn’t, ever, until last week. I dedicate these notes on that experience to Monica Rachel Ross of Kansas City.
HOW DID I MISS A DECADE-LONG SERIES?
It’s not because I’m snobby. I have nothing against Friends. I really, really like TV. When I’m not watching TV, I’m probably writing fawning love letters to my imaginary best friend, Dan Harmon, creator of TV’s Community. My favorite book ends with “Sit, Ubu, Sit. Good dog,” because that book is a TV show.
But unfortunately, I’m a workingman. I punch the clock every day and drive the vehicle of the workingman, a forklift. Sometimes, in lieu of offering health insurance, my shift supervisor lets me drive it home, in which case I use it to smash heavy objects in the alley behind my house. I missed all ten seasons of Friends probably because I was busy doing honest, sweaty labor, moving pallets around on the swing shift and then unwinding with Coors and tabs of Percocet. I don’t know. What’s your reason for missing out on some huge, culturally significant artifact of televised entertainment?
SEASON ONE OBSERVATIONS
I now know that if I hear “Shiny Happy People” playing at a party, I will leave that party. I know that the kinds of network executives in 1961 who sent script notes saying “A monkey would be hilarious here!” were still in the business in 1994. I have seen the genesis of the millennial generation’s desire for exposed brick and hardwood floors in communal living situations. I learned the origin of the phrase “friend zone.” Having watched the first season of Friends, I’m now able to connect identifiable personality traits to character names I’ve known for years:• Monica has OCD. But it’s cute OCD, without all the punishing anxiety and depression experienced by real people with that diagnosis.
• Chandler is what 1970s people and present-day Woody Allen would call “neurotic.”
• Joey is a big puppy.
• Phoebe is a charming pixie.
• Rachel is a naive rich girl.
• Ross is David Schwimmer, who, in Band of Brothers, portrayed Herbert Sobel, a tinpot captain so inept and abusive that the brave soldiers under his command risked the possibility of court-martial rather than follow him into battle; the fact that I will, for all time, hate the sight of David Schwimmer is actually probably the mark of a good actor. But for real, fuck that guy. Those men were heroes.
Friends is such a great cultural artifact of the 1990s that it should have been canceled at the crack of midnight on January 1, 2000. Yes, the depiction of New York is basically a huge Middle-earth fantasy, but if you ever need to explain to your children how enormous actual fin-de-siècle clothing was, just show them Friends. Simple T-shirt-and-jeans combos required billowing yards of cloth that drape over the actors like parachutes. Those gigantic coffee cups are just as stupid, but they do look proportional when held by someone wearing vast tracts of clothing that swell and heave with the tidal influence of the moon.
As a result of its age, a lot of scenes really punch you in the throat with dissonance. For instance, Chandler smokes a cigarette inside the coffee shop. That’s some Mad Men, Peggy-at-the-gynecologist craziness to a viewer in 2015.
And nobody on the show has a phone that they’re constantly looking at. Yet when Chandler gets stuck in an ATM vestibule with actress and model Jill Goodacre, he uses a cellphone to call Joey — like, a totally normal-sized cellphone. In 1994! Was it on loan from Brookhaven National Laboratory? I don’t think I ever saw a cellphone in real life until way later in the decade, but again, I was mostly sequestered in an auto parts warehouse moving pallets around. How much did a 1994 mobile plan cost? Chandler, a cubicle drone, couldn’t possibly have afforded it.
Also consider that in the episode in which an ad company uses Joey’s headshot for a series of free-clinic STD ads, the show’s producers in L.A. actually had to hire a second unit in New York to plaster posters all over recognizable city landmarks and film them for the montage sequence. These days, they’d farm out that work to a computer graphics shop staffed by orphans in Bangalore.
Regarding the vestibule episode, I never realized that the hateful term “friend zone” originated on Friends. It’s referenced and explained by Joey according to the current consensus definition: It's a man’s status when a woman isn’t reciprocally attracted to him. This, of course, encapsulates the entire Rachel/Ross storyline of which ignorance was an impossibility in the 1990s, but now, the term is used to imply that women are mean if they won’t sleep with the men who are attracted to them. Another significant cultural contribution of Friends!
The show is generally sitcommy, contrived, and as packed with overused setups and punchlines as any other show aimed right up the middle (“That’s too much information!” “Did I just say that out loud?”). But you have to expect that.
Despite that, Friends still has some smart writing, and though the season’s emotional peaks are the birth of Ross’s baby and Rachel’s growing attraction to Ross, my favorite moment happens after Rachel’s Italian boyfriend Paolo gropes Phoebe. The two women anxiously comfort and apologize to each other before reminding themselves that they’re the victims of Paolo's sexual aggression. Written by Adam Chase and Ira Ungerleider, it's a really insightful scene of misplaced self-blame that plays as emotionally genuine while still being comic.
Then, for some reason, Rachel takes platonic comfort in the arms of Captain Herbert Sobel, who once commanded his men to take a ten-mile march a second time because they drank water from their canteens against his orders.
JENNIFER ANISTON IS RADIANT
I can absolutely see with 100 percent clarity exactly why everyone on the planet loved Jennifer Aniston.
PHOEBE IS GREAT
She’s so bedazzlingly charming that when she pulls out her guitar and starts playing in the middle of a roomful of people, it isn’t an imposition. Unicorn status; I don’t know one single person who can do that in real life.
MARCEL: WHAT IS WITH THIS INEXCUSABLE BULLSHIT?
Imagine you’re watching an episode of, say, The Wire, and there’s a scene in which McNulty comes home and feeds the cute little monkey he lives with. The reason David Simon probably never included that scene is because NOBODY LIVES WITH A GODDAMNED MONKEY. All the people who tried have thousand-yard stares and facial prosthetics. If you keep a monkey in captivity, you get what you deserve.
I knew a lot about the show before I watched it, but I seriously never had any idea about the fucking monkey, which appears in an astonishing number of episodes. Like, probably way more than you remember. Was that written for babies, or by babies? I’m a grown-up, and I really hate Marcel.
OBVIOUS LIFESTYLE IMPROBABILITIES:• Cavernously huge New York apartments with floor-to-ceiling windows;
• The foosball table in Joey’s apartment: If you put a foosball table in an actual New York actor's apartment, you would have to climb over it to access the front door.
• Monica and Rachel have a FUCKING BALCONY. In MANHATTAN.
• Characters never wear the same gigantic clothes twice.
• Ross lives with a goddamn monkey.
A TRAGIC CODA
It’s been ten years since the broadcast of the show’s final episode, and its legacy is felt in the popularity of ensemble comedies and the decline of NBC after the network’s top-rated sitcom ended. The cast members, now quite wealthy, have starred in both successful and unsuccessful series, and we’re all pretty familiar with their current personal and professional activities. It seems worth pointing out that Matthew Perry was the single bright point in the dismal swamp of Sorkin self-indulgence that was Studio 60. Also, I pretty much expect to go for the rest of my life without ever watching Cougar Town.
But few people know of the tragic end of the real-life Captain Herbert Sobel, a man hated by many soldiers, yet widely credited with creating the best company in the 506th Parachute Infantry Division. Decorated in Korea, he was left blind by a botched suicide attempt, and lived out the last seventeen years of his life in a VA assisted-living facility, where he died of malnutrition. So his portrayal by David Schwimmer, controversial among TV-watching historians, can only be regarded as a pretty big slap in the face. Although Schwimmer really does resemble him.