NBC’s ‘Friends’ pathetically infantile

As cultural phenomena go, the show “Friends” is as big as it gets. TV’s premiere 20-something sitcom has it all: attractive stars, a hit theme song, a suitably quirky sense of humor, a choice time slot on NBC’s power-packed Thursday night lineup and ratings that consistently place it among the top-10 shows in the country. Everywhere you turn, people are sporting “Friends” hair styles, wearing “Friends” fashions and telling (and retelling) “Friends” jokes. There’s already an unofficial “Friends” scrap book to go along with the show’s unofficial cookbook. I’ve even read reports of “Friends” theme weddings. Clearly, the program has struck a cord with the public. I must confess that this disturbs me to no end. You see, I’m one of the few people I know who genuinely despises the show.
The premise of “Friends” is straightforward enough. Set in New York City, the show chronicles the lives, loves, witty banter and petty problems of a tightly knit circle of six friends in their mid-20s. Each is endowed with what passes on TV as a healthy dose of “personality.” At the center of the group are roommates Monica, an anal-retentive part-time caterer, and Rachel, a waitress at Central Perk — the coffee shop where the gang spends much of its time. Then there’s Monica’s whiny, lovelorn brother Ross, a paleontologist with an ex-wife who is a lesbian. The perpetually bemused Chandler lives across the hall from Monica and Rachel and is always ready with a wisecrack. His roommate Joey is a not-so-bright, womanizing actor. And Phoebe, an airhead masseuse and aspiring folk singer, rounds out the ensemble.
Every episode revolves around one or several of the main characters going out on dates, sleeping with someone, breaking up with someone, getting back together with someone, or (less commonly) dealing with some family crisis. But even more than the romance-obsessed plots, what drives the series are the hallmark scenes of the “Friends” sextet hanging-out, engaging in warm and whimsical conversations in their apartments or on the couch at Central Perk. It’s a rudimentary formula, but it works well enough that a sizable portion of the nation’s adult population tune in every Thursday night to laugh and sigh along with Monica, Rachel and their pals.
Now, I admit to feeling a certain gut-level revulsion for “Friends” from the first moment I watched it. The fashion-model good looks of the principals irritated me. I found the dialogue inane. And the song — that damn “I’ll be there for you” song — still grates on my nerves. But the problems with the series go much deeper than this.
For a sitcom supposedly set in New York City, the diegesis of the “Friends” is strangely constricted, insular and sanitized. Although they live in the town that never sleeps, the “Friends” crowd rarely sets foot outside its apartments (which are huge by New York standards and would be well beyond the means of most stockbrokers, much less a group of financially strapped young slackers). When they do venture out of the house, it’s usually to Central Perk, a coffee shop so mysteriously tidy (and so completely lacking in character) that it seems like it was transplanted into Manhattan from a suburban strip mall.
Like its frighteningly neat rendition of a New York coffee shop, the show’s version of the metropolis lacks the color and chaos of the real thing. New York is the most ethnically and racially diverse city on the face of the planet, but people of color rarely appear on the show, not even in the background. Nor, for that matter, do you see any white people who aren’t dressed like they hail from the upper-middle class. As pictured in the series, the sidewalks of the city aren’t swarming with pedestrians or blocked by guys selling trinkets from blankets. There’s no falafel or knish stands. There’s no music, no noise. No one is ever approached by panhandlers, street crazies or drug peddlers. In essence, “Friends” presents us with the up-scale, wannabe yuppie flip-side to TV’s standard dystopic view of urban life: a vision of the city as a hip, safe playground for wealthy young white people.
The insularity of the “Friends” world wouldn’t be such a problem if it weren’t for the fact that the program’s characters and their relationships are sickeningly infantile. With their constant need for each other’s companionship and approval, their fear of being left out, their inside jokes and their reluctance to accept strangers into their group, they resemble a grade-school clique. They certainly lapse into kiddie talk often enough, incessantly calling each other “honey,” “sweetie” and other terms of endearment.
But facial expressions speak louder than words, and the expressions worn by the main characters are unmistakably childish. Phoebe giggles and grins like a goofy little girl. Rachel and Chandler pout. At least once an episode Ross produces a moping, sad-sack face that is the cartoonish picture of the needy child. Their interests are equally immature: They never discuss politics, art, literature, religion, money troubles or similarly adult concerns. Rather, like children, their favorite topics of conversation are themselves, food and television shows (notably “Baywatch”).
Then, of course, there’s their behavior, which is nearly always regressive. For example, in one episode, Chandler accidentally sees Rachel topless and she spends the rest of the show trying to even the score by getting a peek at what is referred to as his “wee-wee.” But the best indicator the group has an average emotional age of about 5 years old is the frequency with which they act out Oedipal fantasies. Monica spent last season sleeping with her childhood dentist, who just happens to be a pal of her father’s. In one of the earlier episodes, Ross gets it on with Chandler’s mother. And Phoebe has been searching for her long-lost birth father since the show began. (I shudder to think of the incestuous possibilities that will be opened up if she ever finds him.)
Despite my aversion, I think I understand the source of the show’s mass appeal. As I see it, the reason a sitcom about a self-absorbed, pathetically infantile and endlessly chatty circle of friends has caught on so quickly with so many is because friendship itself is rapidly becoming extinct.
Just as the past few decades have seen a gradual withering away of civic activity, they have also witnessed the deterioration of the art and practice of friendship. Americans have always been a lonely people; and a host of contemporary social trends are conspiring to make us even lonelier. We’ve become so geographically mobile that we don’t stay put long enough to form lasting personal attachments. Thanks to the collapse of the nuclear family, more and more of us live alone. Those of us lucky enough to work often put in such long hours that there just isn’t time left over for lounging around coffee shops having heart-to-hearts. And our collective TV habit — currently averaging around six and a half hours a day — swallows up whatever extra leisure time we manage to carve out of our busy schedules.
“Friends” offers its fans a compensatory experience suited to this situation: Since they can’t find the time and energy to maintain their own friendships, they can experience the joys of emotional bonding vicariously by immersing themselves once a week in a fictional world where people make personal relations the very focus of their existence. Perhaps the fact that the show’s characters are so psychologically retarded actually serves to facilitate the viewer’s identification with them. After all, childhood was the last time many in our society actually had close friends. In any case, every point of market-share the series captures can plausibly be interpreted as a distorted cry for intimacy, compassion, solidarity and human contact in the socially atomized wilderness of late 20th-century capitalist America. And it is this — more than everything else that is distasteful about the show — that truly bums me out.
Steve Macek’s column appears every Tuesday in the Daily.