By Rachit Raj
I am the first to acknowledge that Friends is more than just a show. It is an icon, a genre-defining, generation defining piece of work like none other. Yes, it began as a sitcom where a group of friends lived enviable lives in New York City, but it grew into something deeper. It was an entire generations’ introduction to a very white and vibrant United States of America.
It was and remains for many a way to get away from their despicable, dysfunctional, dire realities and just smile with these characters for the next twenty minutes. And yet, I have barely seen the show beyond its ‘Pilot’ episode (which I have watched multiple times, somehow). As a young teen I was never big on American sitcoms or comedies in general, and by the time I was in college I was already in the midst of people with a passionate, almost problematic obsession with the show that only made it tougher for me to watch it objectively.
As I saw my cousins and friends jump in excitement at the very mention of the show – quoting dialogues and the little idiosyncrasies of the characters – I admired the passion I saw in their eyes for the world of that show. I saw my sister dealing with a terrible period in her life by endlessly re-watching episodes of Friends, like her very own departure from the mess of reality. I smiled at her love for the show, but somehow never got around watching it.
The reasons were varied and often not very convincing. From the terrible background laughter sound to the production value that was decidedly 90’s, to a more obedient inclination to explore the darker themes of American cinema than a sitcom. I was happy in a life where Friends was not a part of my cultural vocabulary, but people around me were not quite impressed by my refusal to watch the show.
My friends complained that they could not give me references from the show, my cousins tagged me as someone who hated the show, hinting at my refusal to watch a show as a sign of my arrogance, almost. I was pushed, bullied, almost bulldozed into sitting one day with my laptop on, ready to watch the first episode of the show that aired back in 1994.
I watched the first episode and I could see how and why it has gained the status it has enjoyed for years. I especially liked Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), the innocent, lovable girl surrounded by adults who behaved like young teenagers with the financial independence that we all dreamt of achieving one day in our lives.
But there was something amiss. Every work of art speaks to us intimately. It is a dialogue that is isolated and special in its own way with every person who tries to engage with that work of art. Friends did not interact with me in its first couple of episodes the way it did with many. I gave up, respecting how it touched others while mindful that maybe this is not meant to be my comfort-watch.
I was at peace, but the people I was surrounded by were not. The noise around how flawless the show is gained momentum. The blames of me not getting a reference about Chandler (Matthew Perry), Monica (Courteney Cox) or Ross (David Schwimmer) was put on my head and not on friends who forced these references on me, as if forcing me to feel guilty about not watching a show.
Eventually I started enjoying the gasped response – “You have not seen Friends?! How!” – but I noticed these people – people who I was convinced loved me – almost begrudgingly looking at me as if I was somehow below their standard because I had not experienced the magnificence of the show they loved. They could not believe what comforted them was not my comfort-watch. It was a world of hostility. A land of conservatives masquerading as liberals.
Till today I face this ostracized gaze of Friends fans. In my sister’s bachelorette, I was the only one who had not seen Friends. I was the only one who did not get the joke behind a weirdly-sounding term “unagi”. I was okay with it. It is the gentle price you pay for not having watched such an iconic show. But yet, a few minutes and a couple of drinks down, the conversation was back. I think they thought I could be pushed into watching a show that was originally and essentially meant to be enjoyed, not watched under peer pressure.
But here I was, being forced into watching a show with the burden of enjoying it. If I saw it, I had to like it. If I did not, I would be called-out again, made to feel like an outsider by my pals and my cousins’ WhatsApp calls. I remember a friend once sat with me, forcing me to watch the first episode with her. I remember sitting there beside her, almost feeling guilty for every time the show cued a laugh and I did not find the moment funny. Sure, the episode was not bad at all. But surely the makers of the show did not write the episode keeping in mind that someone will make friend watch it beside them, making them more nervous about giving the desired response than actually enjoying it.
As I looked around, I realized that this was a growing concern. Friends was never a problem, it was the fandom that is had become so rigid and conservative in its love for the show that kept me away from the show for the longest of times. It is a common problem with fandoms, in general. We make fun of those who are dedicated fans of something we find unimpressive, almost laughing about their love for a film actor or a particular movie or book series. And yet, we become the same insecure, insensitive person when we get in the cyclonic grip of fandom ourselves.
This fascination, if left unchecked, leads to an already tough society become needlessly hostile over a trivial matter. The fans hail the series as the best, igniting the other side to pick on its flawed politics like the show was nothing but a slideshow of inappropriate, offensive moments stitched together for ten long seasons. Surely it can’t be that; but surely the show cannot be the epitome of perfection that people around me have convinced themselves of.
Eventually, Friends is simply a sitcom that was made to be enjoyed. That it has thrived till 2021 is a testimony of how powerful and impactful a work of art can be. It was, I’m sure, a show that was made with the honest intention of giving its viewers and good time and informing them of the happiness that you can find in the little moments of the show, and in extension life.
The show has remained true to that – the promise of giving its viewers a good time – but the fans have turned into a rowdy group of goons who will hear nothing about the show that is not a shinning celebration of everything that the show encapsulates. Nostalgia is an important part of life – an essential life-tool – and I respect the nostalgic blend of love people carry with Friends till today. But there is something else that I respect more and that is the freedom of choosing the show one wants to watch. Not everyone will watch Friends; not everyone will fall in love with Friends, and that is okay. Maybe someday the fans will accept that it is okay if someone’s comfort-watch is not Friends. It is not the end of the world.
[Read the author’s work on his blog here]