Why do we love them so much?
I had never watched the Friends TV series before. When I told people this, they would usually respond with utter astonishment, “How have you never seen Friends?!” I didn’t get it. Later I found that even my friends from China had watched the entire series (which explains why so many Chinese girls have chosen the English name “Phoebe”).
So last year, I finally watched it—I was hooked. I can say now that I get it. Whereas before I only felt confusion at the much-repeated refrain of “Ross and Rachel!” I now just directly hop on the emotional roller coaster that is their relationship and rehash the frustration and delight every time I re-watch the series.
It is no exaggeration to say that “Friends” was and is well-loved around the world. It is the most popular show for helping people learn English [Kaplan International]. The TV airing in the US consistently had over 20 million viewers for all ten seasons (1994-2004). Netflix (for some inexplicable reason) doesn’t release viewing statistics, but considering they spent around $100 million to continue licensing the series in 2019 (up from $30 million the previous year, according to New York Times) viewership must be quite significant.
So, why is this show so well loved? Well, I’m sure there are lots of reasons, but what makes me love to watch is it the comfort and humour this close-knit quirky group brings into my life. I think we love them so much, because—in a way—they have what we deeply desire: true friendship.
As I was watching, I realized: I want to be friends with the friends on “Friends.” Wouldn’t it be a blast to shop with Rachel, sing “Smelly Cat” with Phoebe, or take on the boys for a game of Foosball with Monica? (On second thought, that could get scary.) Despite Ross’ annoying “shush” hand, Chandler’s timely sarcasm, and Joey taking a few seconds to “catch up”, I still want to be around these guys. Okay—I better wrap up the wishful thinking. But if you’re a fan, I think you know exactly what I’m talking about: I want to be part of those moments, I want to be one of the gang.
In his article about “Why so many 20-somethings want to stream a 20-year-old sitcom about a bunch of 20-somethings sitting around in a coffee shop,” Adam Sternbergh records this conversation with the cocreator of friends, Marta Kauffman:
“Part of the appeal is wish-fulfillment… And another part of it is because they’re on social media all the time, so I believe they crave human contact. They crave intimacy, and intimate relationships. They’re looking at screens all the time.” The world of Friends is recognizable, yet devoid of today’s most ardent anxieties.
Sternbergh also interviews a 20-something fan about the appeal of the show. She says, “[on friends] in their free time, they all get together in the coffee shop to chat and catch up… Where nowadays we’ll catch up really quickly, but everyone’s always on their phones. Back then, it’s more of a person-to-person relationship, instead of through technology.”
This is crazy. Can you imagine a remake of “Friends” in the age of social media socializing and smartphone addiction? So many of the things that happened on the show definitely wouldn’t have happened if the gang had been gripping smartphones.
Instead, we would have watched Rachel endlessly snapping selfies for her Instagram story, Chandler trolling Reddit, Monica pinning away all kinds of recipes and DIY home projects, Joey muttering “How you doin’?” as he swipes right, and Ross surfing Wikipedia and breaking the silence with an occasional “did you know…” (or perhaps crafting obnoxious political tweets). After a long stretch, Phoebe would jump up, scream like a banshee, then dangle someone’s phone over the balcony ledge (or maybe she would be busy promoting her essential oils side hustle, who knows).
I’m sure as you’re picturing them, you can see them all lounging in Monica’s living room or at the coffee shop. However, they would more likely all be in their own rooms. Alone. Maybe they wouldn’t really be friends at all (except, of course, on Facebook).
And so we watch Friends and long for that life. I want to live in the city in a cute apartment with my bestie. I want my other friends to live across the hall or across the road and just show up on my couch all the time. I want to have a Central Perk-esque gathering place where I walk in and my buddies are already on the couch in the middle of a spirited conversation. I want them to just be there. I want the proximity and presence of my people: I desire closeness.
Not just physical closeness though. Of course I want to have my friends here, with me, but that is not what makes them such great friends. I want friends who are always there for me, year after year. People who will come over for a lame-o evening of charades, pictionary, and perhaps some invasive questions. People who will chase me down when they know something’s not right, drag the truth out of me, and insist on helping out with my problem. People who are ruthlessly honest. People that love me no matter what. People that know me.
Does that resonate with you? Community and intimacy. To be known and loved—these are deep desires of every human heart. To mutually know and love—this is the crux of real friendship. The “friends” are just that. They are imperfect, surely (disclaimer below), but they know each other so well (as apparent by all the secrets that are revealed) and they really love each other.
I’m no expert, but despite an assumedly unanimous desire for these kinds of deep friendships, I don’t think that this is the common experience. Cigna’s survey of 20,000 Americans in late 2018 indicated that “young people are far more likely than senior citizens to report being lonely and in poor health.” Loneliness is pervasive in our generation and in our culture—it’s a growing epidemic. How should we respond?
We can’t all live just across the hall from our friends. Or kickback every night of the week with the gang. But we can move forward. We can choose to initiate and reach out and invite and not give up. We can choose to put down our smartphones and ask our friends to do the same. We can choose to dig in our heels and tough it out together. All easier said than done. Because, really, your friend has to be on the same page about this. Friendship isn’t about convenience, it’s about commitment.
I want this for myself, and I want it for others, too. I don’t want my generation to be branded “the Lonely Generation.” I want flourishing friendships—ones that are even better than the friends on Friends. How can I be someone who creates community? How can I be someone who invites intimacy? How can I better see and know and love the friends I already have? These are questions we need to ask ourselves.
I’m so grateful that in Christ, I can be confident that I am fully known and fully loved. That I am welcomed into relationship, community, and intimacy, with no conditions. That I am not there merely because someone “needs” me, but because someone desires to journey through life together.
Jesus is the first place I need to take those deep desires, and the only one who can perfectly satisfy them. (To be honest, I don’t always “feel” it—I get lonely. But I have hope.)
As the Church, Christians need to be the love of Christ to the world. We have something precious here. As to specifically “how,” I won’t jump into a lengthy discussion here, but you can find a great response on how we can do that for the world and each other (because Christians, even within the church, are surely not immune to loneliness) in this TGC article.
Disclaimer: the friends on Friends display a lot of dysfunctional behaviour such as: lying, manipulating, trickery, stealing, enabling, and codependency. In the show, it’s humourous and humanizing, but I don’t want to hold them up as stellar examples of perfect friends.
Disclaimer 2: these images are sourced from Google images, I do not own them.