When Friends premiered in 1994, I wasn’t interested. There were lots of reasons why.I had just turned 17, and was in my first semester of CEGEP (Quebec’s post-high school, pre-university college system – imagine if everyone who wanted to go to university had to go to a community college first). My CEGEP was largely made up of the Montreal Anglophone elite, and I had no desire to watch slightly older versions of their ilk on TV. I was desperate to get through the next two years to be able to leave home and go to university, to start my life, as I understood it. Why would I want to spend my time watching the slick lifestyle of the New York not-so-rich?
So I missed most of the first season — including questionable, new-show choices like the entire Marcel the Monkey phase and the bizarre pregnancy storyline involving Ross’ lesbian ex-wife and her new partner. When I finally tuned in, I found something completely unexpected.
These were (admittedly young, white, conventionally beautiful) people who were not only surviving but thriving in a found family, living a life they had largely chosen for themselves. I had never seen anything like it on TV before.
Growing up, the sitcoms we had access to were either traditional family comedies or workplace comedies. I watched TGIF shows, The Cosby Show, The Wonder Years (was that even a comedy?), Home Improvement, Rosanne, Blossom, Murphy Brown, Cheers, and even The Golden Girls in afternoon syndication. The latter two came closest to chosen family sitcoms, but I was just a little too young (and the cast just a little too old) for me to really relate to that sensibility, to that possibility.
What if I didn’t have a happy family that was filled with low-stakes high jinx and unconditional love?And Seinfeld? Was this what my future held, snarking cynically with people who can barely stand me? That felt like high school in the 1990s to me, and really, I didn’t need to relieve that part of my life. Retiring with a group of your best friends together in Florida was a nice dream for later, but how the hell was I going to survive until then?
Friends was in a lot of ways, to me, like a path forward, a roadmap for survival. True, Ross and Monica and Rachel and Chandler grew up positively privileged, but the only one who stuck to the script that was handed to him was Ross, and he turned into THE ABSOLUTE WORST. Rachel broke free from her expected role of vapid housewife, while Monica overcame the (at best) gross indifference of her mother towards her to turn her love of food into a career as a chef, and Chandler managed in his own way to move on from a chaotic (admittedly problematically portrayed) childhood. And Phoebe, despite having nothing in common with the group of childhood and college friends with an even more potentially tragic backstory, managed to be her kooky self and still be loved and accepted by the group.
“I’ll Be There For You” sang the theme song, and they were there for each other in ways that their own families weren’t or couldn’t be. So while Monica’s father helped her when she lost her job, it was Chandler who stepped in to help Joey with his acting career, since Joey was from a working-class Italian family with any number of sisters, a world away from eventual soap-opera stardom. Monica (thanks to a rent-controlled apartment that had belonged to her grandmother) was able to step in and help Rachel when she fled the altar. I saw the privilege, but I also saw the generosity that they showed towards each other in how they used whatever wealth or privilege they had.
I also appreciated that the core group was both men and women, and the women were just as central to the plot and the storylines as the men were. Sure, there was the standard will-they/won’t-they trope between Ross and Rachel, but these were friendships between the characters that went beyond romantic entanglements or even friends-with-benefits. Growing up, I was repeatedly told that guys and girls couldn’t be friends (although most of my friend group was mixed), and this was a sort of vindication of our view that they could.
There was an intimacy that they all had with one another that transcended sex, that made them true family. Even after half the cast hooked up with each other, romance wasn’t the primary connection. I longed for that kind of shared intimacy, trust, openness, and love.
So yes, Living Single did it first and better (I wish I had access to it — in Montreal we didn’t get UPN), Ross is the WORST, the show’s handling of LGBTQ characters was awful, Fat Monica is fat shaming (I am probably currently the size of Fat Monica), it was white and privileged AF, and they could be just as cruel to outsiders and exclusionary as the Seinfeld group, but for me it represented hope — hope that I could make my own success, my own identity, my own family, and ultimately find happiness in that.
When I finally made it to university, we all watched Friends together on Thursday nights before we went out. We would pile into my comically small dorm room with its equally comically large TV to watch, piled on my bed, on the floor, and on the one lone chair, a group of guys and girls from different backgrounds from across the province, most of whom were Francophones, and laugh together before going to drink together. We were there for each other through much worse trials than the show ever portrayed, but we also laughed through inadvertently comedic and ridiculous scenarios of our own making.
For a period of time, five years, or half of Friends run, they were my chosen family, mes intimes as they say in French. Friends showed us, in a way, how we could be there for each other, and we were, and those are lessons that I still carry with me, as I now live in a different country, living with a chosen biological family of our own making, living the life I chose for myself. I re-watch Friends, and through the cringing, I still remember that longing I felt when I first started to appreciate the show, and the feeling I have now of accomplishing the dream that Friends told me I could have.
Lee Skallerup Bessette (aka @readywriting) would be remiss if she didn’t take this opportunity to plug her new podcast, All The Things ADHD (allthethingsadhd.com).