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Friends: The Reunion is here

Rayna Breuer
May 27, 2021

The US sitcom's popularity has endured despite ending in 2004. As fans celebrate the arrival of the "Reunion" special, Rayna Breuer looks back at what made the series tick.

Where the hell did Chandler go? The "Friends" in Monica's apartment.
Where the hell did Chandler go? The "Friends" in Monica's apartmentImage: Newscom/picture-alliance

When Monica, Rachel, Phoebe, Chandler, Ross and Joey first took their seats on that orange couch in one of the most famous fictional cafés, the Central Perk, on September 22, 1994, no one could have imagined the cult status the series about a group of young New Yorkers would gain. The sitcom quickly won fans the world over — and almost everyone in their mid-thirties today knows the ups and downs of these six characters. Some die-hard fans can even spout entire dialogues, own the box set of all 236 episodes, and rewatch all 10 seasons every year. What was so special about this series and why does it have such a large following? An avowed Friends fan attempts to present an objective analysis.  

Rachel and Ross had an on-off relationship. The biggest point of contention: were they "on a break"?
Rachel and Ross had an on-off relationship. The biggest point of contention: were they "on a break"? Image: United Archives/picture alliance

Trailblazer in the '90s

For the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with the series, here's a brief synopsis: six friends, in their mid-twenties with assorted backgrounds and interests, spend an inordinate amount of time at the Central Perk Café.

There's Monica (Courtney Cox), who was overweight before she turned 18, is a stickler for order and cleanliness, and who later in the series struggles with infertility issues. Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), is Monica's best friend. Hailing from a wealthy background, she trades a seemingly perfect life (and an almost-marriage) for hard work and independence. Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), the quirkiest of the lot, is Rachel’s polar opposite. Having lived as an orphan on the streets, the vegetarian eventually becomes a surrogate mother to her half-brother's triplets.

Ross (David Schwimmer), Monica's brother, is a doctor of paleontology, with one failed marriage behind him, and two more that accrue over the course of the show. His first wife, with whom he has a child, comes out as a lesbian and moves in with her partner. Chandler (Matthew Perry), Ross' best friend, has relationship issues owing to his parents’ divorce and his lonely childhood; he only reconnects with his father, a transsexual drag queen, later in life. He eventually falls in love with Monica, they marry and adopt twins. And finally, there's Joey (Matt LeBlanc), a mediocre aspiring actor with Italian roots, whose charm makes up for his dimness. Easygoing by nature, his main loves are women and food.

So what was the secret to its success when there were many other contenders on TV with similar settings and comparable storylines in the 1990s? What gave Friends an edge over Married…with Children, Full House, and The Nanny?

For one, the cult series was progressive and steered clear of the usual clichés popular in other sitcoms. Friends was more than just a sitcom – it was pop culture.

Several examples underscore this point. For instance, it was a given from the start that Ross' first wife was in a homosexual relationship. The women in the series have strong character traits – Monica starts her own catering business, and Phoebe has been independent since age 14 after her mother took her own life.

Rachel, who was initially a spoilt rich kid who lived off her parents, also learns to assert herself at work over the course of the series and steadily climbs the career ladder. This was a pretty progressive portrayal of women the 1990s, when feminism wasn't mainstream. As Chandler would say with his characteristic intonation, "Could it BE any more progressive?"

Friends addressed issues that weren't widely acknowledged by either society or the media: single mothers, gay women raising a child together, surrogacy and adoption, and men struggling with their masculinity. 

With Marcel, the little capuchin monkey that was Ross' exotic pet in Season 1.
With Marcel, the little capuchin monkey that was Ross' exotic pet in Season 1Image: Newscom/picture-alliance

Gen Z are not amused

But while fans euphorically celebrate the series for its progressiveness, others see it differently.

Above all, millennials and Generation Z aren't as tickled. Some find Joey's pick-up line "How you doin'?" sexist and misogynistic. The digs made about Monica while she was obese aren't sitting well with today's viewers either. The beauty ideal the series exemplified certainly stands to be criticized. "Body positivity" was not quite yet on the radar of the makers of Friends and today, some gags are instead frowned upon. Some viewers also find it unacceptable that all the main characters were white, although there were supporting characters, such as two of Ross' girlfriends, who were Asian and Black.

So although for some millennials the series doesn't go far enough, the question is, which series from the past would meet today's standards?

To extract a series out of its cultural era and context and measure it by today's politically correct standard is debatable.

Taking on the role of Rachel Green proved to be Jennifer Aniston's big breakthrough.
Taking on the role of Rachel Green proved to be Jennifer Aniston's big breakthroughImage: Chloe Bell/Geisler-Fotopress/picture alliance

What's next?

Although the series ended in 2004, its popularity endures. The successful concept of Friends has been copied many times since and is considered the basis for other well-known series such as How I Met Your Mother or The Big Bang Theory. On May 27, HBO Max (Sky in Germany) is releasing the long-awaited "Reunion" – a special in which the six real-life friends reunite and reminisce about the old days. 

And the actors seem excited. Aniston says that it feels like a family reunion. "I don't have sisters. That's what sisters are to me," the actress says referring to Cox and Kudrow. LeBlanc says, "It's funny when we get together and it feels like time never passed. We picked up where we left off."

In other words, the stars of Friends were never actually gone. They were just "on a break."

Adapted from German by Brenda Haas.