Entertainment Television

Sunday 8 December 2019

Friends forever on Netflix? Can you have too much nostalgia?

As the 90s hit arrives on Netflix, Tanya Sweeney asks if you can never have too much nostalgia, or if it's time for us all to make new friends

Framework for success: The fresh-faced Friends cast back in the 1990s
Framework for success: The fresh-faced Friends cast back in the 1990s

Could there be a better time than miserable, cold January for Friends to land on Netflix? Subscribers to the streaming service can, as of this week, see all 10 series of the much-loved sitcom. Netflix recently teased fans of the TV behemoth, tweeting in reference to the classic episode titles: "The One with the Show Everyone's Been Asking Us to Add."

In some ways, Netflix's decision to add Friends to its glittering roster of streamed shows appears unusual. It has become one of the most syndicated shows in history, at one point earning $4m per episode in cash license fees. And for viewers of Channel 4, RTE 2 and, more recently, Comedy Central, Friends has been… well, hard to avoid on ye olde-styley TV.

Yet according to Professor Diane Negra, head of Film Studies at the School of English, Drama and Film at UCD, there could well be a method to Netflix's madness.

"Given that Friends has demonstrated how well it holds up to repeat consumption, it's in keeping with Netflix's brand strategy," she observes. "Crucially, people will now be able to watch whichever episodes they want."

Old favourite: Will & Grace has had a modern reboot
Old favourite: Will & Grace has had a modern reboot

That Friends stands up to repeat viewings is a given by now, but exactly what is the appeal? And given the current televisual landscape, have younger audiences embraced Rachel, Chandler, Ross, Monica, Joey and Phoebe in the way that 90s audiences did?

On the surface, the perennial appeal of Friends, and its position as one of comedy's most highly-acclaimed series, seems obvious. The six highly proficient comedy actors that made the ensemble - Courteney Cox, David Schwimmer, Matt LeBlanc, Lisa Kudrow, Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry - created lightning in a bottle, a chemistry that was affable, enviable and highly watchable. Off-screen, too, they formed an organic cohesive bond, pledging to command equal fees throughout the show's 10-series run.

The cast was, many times over, more than the sum of its parts: their varying post-Friends fortunes (not to mention the speed at which its spin-off, Joey, hit the skids) is testament to that.

The writing, too, was skilful; a deft combination of zippy jokes, insider gags and catchphrases. Scripts were honed time and time again in front of ardent live audiences. The overall effect was to encourage viewers to crane their necks over the shoulders of the sextet and get involved.

The original character notes promised much, too: according to the series bible, Monica was "smart, cynical (and) had to work for everything she had". Rachel was "spoiled, adorable, courageous and terrified". Phoebe was a "New Age waif (who) sells barrettes on the street". Ross was "romantic, suddenly divorced and facing singlehood with phenomenal reluctance". Joey, meanwhile, was "handsome, macho, smug, wants to be Al Pacino". Chandler was "a wry observer of everyone's life and his own." Each were trying to 'figure it out' - an evergreen obsession for pretty much everyone under 50.

But as ever, it's the timing of Friends, first broadcast in 1994, that is everything.

"That year actually represented a golden age for US TV," recalls Negra. "It came along with medical dramas like ER, so people were very excited about quality TV."

The socio-economic backdrop also helped conjure up the perfect storm.

"Friends came onto TV at the end of a very significant recession in the US (1991 to 1994) and there was a delivery into the popular consciousness about the university graduate who couldn't find a decent job," says Negra.

"There was an idea that the slacker chose undemanding work, and there was something about these six people sitting around in a coffee shop. What's interesting is how Rachel and Ross succeeded in conventional terms, while the others plateaued at a period when people often launched themselves into the world. Friends has this investment in an economy that is tough on the young."

The current grá for 90s nostalgia has created a whole new audience of appreciative millennials and Gen Y-ers for the show.

"The series also played out in pre-9/11 New York, a time which seems easy and pleasant," notes Negra. "It certainly seems easier than our current moment. It just holds out of reach these social problems, fears and terrors. It's about how these friendships can keep people afloat in a society with so few social protections, and this holds true today. What also makes it interesting is to see friendships and connections in a world before social media."

The great 90s retread has seen the resurrection of old comedy favourites like Will & Grace, Full House and, coming later this year, Roseanne. Friends' fans have been chomping at the bit for a reunion, but their wait is likely to be in vain. Matt LeBlanc has flat out refused to get involved, for a start (a televised reunion special, aired in 2016, went ahead without him).

"I think the series enriched its actors so much that they're under much less financial pressure to resurrect the series, and besides, I suspect a re-gathering would be very tricky to pull off," notes Negra.

Salaries aside, there has been a newer golden era of TV since the broadcast of Friends' last episode, featuring shows that are splattered with sex, sheen and SFX. Comedy has changed, too, circling from brilliantly black and malevolent comedies like The Office and The Thick Of It, back round to much gentler fare like Mrs Brown's Boys, The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family.

The original magic of Full House and Will & Grace was sadly conspicuous by its absence in their modern-day reboots. It all begs the question; would Friends still be as well-received if it were to premiere today?

It's highly likely. Its incredibly upbeat, ebullient tone would likely become ambrosia for the masses. The urban family championed in Friends has become a much more relatable, ubiquitous phenomenon. The characters' abilities to keep encroaching social fears and terrors just out of reach would likely go down a storm with modern-day audience.

And of course, friendship - and the whole idea of 'figuring it out' alongside your nearest and dearest - never goes out of fashion.

Irish Independent

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