This coming Monday (September 22nd) marks the 20th anniversary of the first airing of the first episode of the sitcom Friends. And while I could blather on about how that makes me feel “soooo old!” instead, Friends reminds me more of my friends and the bonds we formed over the show. But more than that, Friends was simply fine television. Yeah, it was (and still is) easy to make fun of its broadness and archetypical characters, or put down for being too fluffy and inconsequential, but Friends demonstrated a power that had only been captured by a handful of sitcoms before it. It was a show that was easy for everyone to watch. Whether you laughed with the cast or at it, you still laughed, and you still watched because there was just some about it that was so appealing.
I didn’t watch Friends from the start. In fact, even when I started watching the show, I didn’t think of it in any significant way until I started seeing girls in my classes with the infamous “Rachel” haircut. In September 1994, I was a college sophomore. I had just moved into a new dorm room with a dear friend and a brand new 13-inch(!) TV that I had received for my birthday. This meant we didn’t have to congregate in one of the common rooms with strangers around a television; we could watch whatever we wanted whenever we wanted! (Read: we could watch whatever channels we were lucky enough to receive through the college’s piddly cable contract. Thankfully that included the major networks, at least.)
The first episode I watched was “The One with the Blackout,” where Chandler gets stuck in an ATM vestibule (was it a vestibule?) with Jill Goodacre (she called it a “vestibule,” so there). I managed to get back to the dorm just in time to catch it. My roommate asked me if I had heard of this new show. I had, but its news didn’t come with any fanfare. After watching that episode, I was hooked. We both were. Some of the jokes and characterizations were a little dorky, but something about the show resonated with me, and I knew I had to keep watching.
And watch I did, every Thursday night that I could. When we went on winter break, I watched then too. When I got back to school, my roommate and I immediately launched into recounting everything that happened in the show, and we couldn’t wait to catch back up with Central Perk gang together. We were there to watch hijinks ensure with Ross’s monkey. We were there to find out what happened when Monica’s identity was stolen. And we were there to see the start of and seeming end to whatever was happening between Rachel and Ross.
When the second season started up in the fall of 1995, my roommate and I had moved into an apartment with two other friends, and the Friends madness only accelerated. Both new roommates were also fans of the show, and so Thursday nights at 8pm became “our time,” our time with Friends. For our two years in that apartment, those last two years of college, we almost never missed an episode. We even developed a ritual around the show. First, we had to have spaghetti. I’ve no recollection as to why, but Friends night became spaghetti night. For that half-hour, we turned off the phone’s ringer (no cell phones then, ha!) as no calls were allowed. No homework was allowed in front of the TV either, lest someone’s attention be diverted for even a split second. But wine coolers, particularly peach wine coolers, if we had them, were always welcome. And then, for thirty minutes, we sat and laughed and laughed till we cried (and sometimes just cried), as we watched a group of frenetic twenty-somethings attempt to navigate through life. We adopted the women of the show — Monica, Rachel, and Phoebe — as personalities of our own, and we related to their joys and sorrows. We laughed as the men of the show — Joey, Chandler, Ross — acted as the sweet dolts who had the best (and sometimes the worst without knowing it) intentions. We didn’t necessarily want to “be” the “Friends” or even live their lives, but we knew that their experiences were ahead of us. That we’d soon be those twenty-somethings trying hard to not stumble over ourselves in the real world.
After college, my friends and I continued to bond over Friends. Though we all moved away to different locations, our phone conversations and occasional meet-ups were fraught with discussions about the show (and honestly, mostly about Ross and Rachel). Before too long, I met my future husband, and we actually talked about Friends on our first date. That’s how important the show was to me. And even though I worked evenings then, I was blastedly determined to catch Friends re-runs, and I did without fail. And, to his dismay or delight, my significant other watched with me. We didn’t share interest over the show in quite the same way as me and my college friends, but Friends nonetheless became an important part of our together time. (To this day, Friends still haunts our vernacular with random references popping up in conversations on an all-too regular basis.)
I stuck with Friends regularly through the eighth season. By the start of the ninth season in 2002, we had moved far, far away together and I had started grad school. Life was topsy-turvy and I probably could have used Friends as a grounding agent, but my schedule and classwork kept me mostly away from the television. I watched the show any Thursday night that I happened to be home, which wasn’t very often. Once grad school was over, Friends was over too, having said goodbye to the world at the end of its tenth season in May 2004. At the time, my connection to Friends had weakened considerably, but it wasn’t completely severed. After settling again after another move, I turned frequently to reruns of the show, and especially did so during an extended period of unemployment. Watching Friends made me feel comfortable. Even if I could quote some of the episodes word-for-word, being able to rely on that familiarity was nothing less than a godsend. During an unfulfilled time, Friends was nothing short of fulfilling.
Up until a couple years ago, I was still watching Friends reruns on a regular basis. (I’ve managed to catch most but not all episodes from seasons nine and ten.) When we got rid of cable, watching regular showing of any reruns of any shows all but stopped. I don’t get all jittery anymore for a Friends fix, but I do miss the show. And I can’t help but compare current ensemble sitcoms to it. Even those shows that have proven themselves quite worthy and hilarious to boot, such as Parks and Recreation or The Big Bang Theory, remain a teensy bit criticized in my eye as not being quite as good as Friends. Friends was there for me, just as its annoying theme song said, and for that alone it’ll remain an important part of my life.