“Six adults with perfect hair who hang out in a coffeehouse in the middle of the day? Who’s paying for those giant lattes?”
In 2015, while working on her memoir, Kelsey Miller came home each night from Starbucks and unwound with a group of familiar, over-caffeinated pals at Central Perk. This, ironically, inspired her second book. In unpacking the cultural impact of Friends, Miller explores the lore the show developed over its ten-year run, plus ruminates on why viewers still turn to the re-runs for “a chance to live vicariously in the sweet spot.”
I’ll Be There For You: The One about Friends. By Kelsey Miller. Hanover Square Press. 2018. Hardcover.
How did I get the book?
I first purchased and read this book in 2019 when writing a paper for my MSt at Oxford about creating a successful ensemble cast, but I picked it back up because my latest stage of quarantine—my pandemic wall, if you will—has involved binge-watching the 90s classic. Early on in the book, Miller writes, “So, turns out I’m emotionally dependent on a sitcom! How’ve you been?” My unabashed horniness for Chandler Bing’s sweater vests can relate.
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What did I think?
At the heart of Friends are the friends themselves, who Miller discovers are quite similar to their characters (and not just Schwimmer, who the writers had in mind when creating Ross). Matt LeBlanc had a Joey-esque audition, showing up hungover with a bloody lip after a night of bad decisions. Cox is a less extreme Monica: “sharply focused, no nonsense, and even puritanical.” And Matthew Perry’s strained relationship with his father mirrored Chandler’s. “Chandler was a mix of silliness and bone-dry sarcasm, a mask over his insecurity, which slipped just often enough to let you see the genuine, sweet guy beneath (in desperate need of therapy),” Miller writes. “Yeah, Perry thought, that sounded familiar.” The connections with their characters allowed the actors to build upon them throughout the series as their identities formed, from Perry’s embroiling his own strange vocal cadence into Chandler to Cox dialing up Monica’s neuroses when necessary. Just as the characters bonded on-screen, so did the actors off. “These actors weren't just perfect for their parts, but for each other,” Miller writes. “There was a palpable energy between them,” something journalists compared to observing band members rather than co-stars as the cast gathered the first season at Cox’s to watch Friends Thursday nights. The cast also became a forceful group for negotiating contracts or deciding the show’s future, something unheard of in television. “If they wanted Friends to be...successful...they had to become a unit...,” Miller writes. “There was no titular star here...they had to carry this thing together.” Moreover, “the Friends did appear to genuinely like one another…they seemed to recognize how much they needed each other. They had to function as a group or else things could go sour fast.”
Ten years in this mindset sort of explains why the cast has continued to be identified by these roles seventeen years after the show’s finale, though it doesn’t account for the longevity or the cultural impact. Friends was originally created to appeal to Gen X, a group that “relied on ‘ersatz social arrangements’” rather than family. However, it also “elicited nostalgia in Baby Boomers, and even reached the not-yet-named Millennials, who couldn't wait to grow up, move to the city, and get an apartment.” Many of its themes were broadly about that time everyone experiences in their life when the future is a big question mark, when everything is possible and also terrifying. “On the surface, Friends appeared so specific and of-the-moment,” Miller writes, “[but] the thing that mattered most about Friends was right there in that simple, one-word, unambiguous title.” Because of this universality, Friends blew up globally, influencing not only fashion and haircuts but also the rise of coffee-bar chains around the world and helped many to learn English. “I assumed I was a Friends fan the way everyone kind of was,” Miller writes. “It became this thing that people watched, seemingly just for entertainment—not seeing anything deeper into it...But when something becomes as big as that show did, that changes.”
Almost as many young people are watching Friends now as in its heyday. “Today's city-dwelling twentysomethings have even less in common with the ones on Friends, and yet they are the show's biggest fan base.” This is partly surprising because the more time that passes, the less Friends comes off like “a Norman Rockwell painting—wholesome and American and immediately familiar” that can get away with asking viewers to overlook plot absurdities—and the more its glaring insensitivities shine. Ross’s first-season arc is essentially one long lesbian joke culminating in his ex-wife’s wedding without a kiss (“Friends allowed for all manner of gay jokes, but in its brief glimpses of actual gay people, they played it as straight as possible”). Fat Monica is an undermined representation as she is played by a thin woman in a padded suit, and Jewish Monica is inconsistent and confusing. Chandler’s transgender father is a constant comedy target, bringing about a rambling mess of pronoun confusion; plus, she’s played by a cis woman. And don’t even get critics started on how absurd it was traffic nor people of color existed in this groups’ downtown Manhattan. At the time, Friends was able to pull off this blurred fantasy/reality because it was seen to be better than nothing. “To have the most popular TV comedy take this risk and not just survive but succeed tremendously revealed that, yes, things really were changing,” Miller explains. “The general consensus was that TV in that time was not a sophisticated or inclusive landscape, and in some ways Friends was better than its peers.” But TV has changed now, a lot, and Friends can’t. “This series has come to represent everything beloved from the good old days—all kinds of good old days,” Miller writes. “We like to think of the past as simple, but simple isn't always better.”
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The most fun part of this book is the myriad of behind-the-scene facts, like how poker became a mainstay on the set after James Burrows took the cast to Vegas once they were hired and even inspired the episode where everyone becomes obsessed with gambling, and that Kudrow’s older sister, Helene, often played her stand-in during Phoebe’s scenes with her twin sister, Ursula. Did you know the opening credits were filmed in the wee hours of the morning and largely improvised? It’s also fun now to ask people if they can guess who the cast said was the worst guest star (Marcel the Monkey) or who was paid the lowest Season One salaries (Kudrow and LeBlanc) or which characters showed up in an instructional video for Windows 95 (Rachel and Chandler). The insights into the romantic pairings were also fascinating. The writers originally intended for Joey and Monica to be together as “they just seemed like the most sexual of the characters,” but laid breadcrumbs for the possibility of Mandler, hence all the awkward scenes sharing chairs or snuggling on that Central Perk couch. Also, statistically speaking, Rachel and Ross are only together for about 10% of the show’s run—is that really enough to convince us they are each other’s lobsters?
What troubles the book, though, is its investment in dragging Friends into a more current cultural landscape, one where #MeToo has recently become a mainstream term. It works when it’s a subtle nod toward the future (such as The Apprentice taking over the sitcom’s timeslot), but struggles when exploring bigger topics such as Lyle v. Warner Bros., a landmark case concerning freedom of speech and sexual harassment law brought about by Amaani Lyle, a writers’ assistant on Friends in 1999, who experienced a toxic writers room. Lyle ultimately lost the case, and there’s no doubt that the precedent it set for creative expression superceding workplace respect is dangerous. However, concluding the book here after spending majority of it understanding Friends ability to act as a mental salve feels chafing. The point of Friends was never to be meaningful social commentary: it was always escapism. That’s how Miller, myself, and every other fan in the world have viewed the show, and the reason that re-runs continue to air even after we’ve seen every episode ten times. Sometimes it’s hard to admit that a relationship has reached its peak, that you’re living more in nostalgia than present (arguably a problem the show experienced itself within seasons), but when everything else around you is equally complicated, it’s often just easier to sit back with the people who are always there for you. And that’s okay.
Beyond the book.
Miller’s memoir, Big Girl, is a raw, honest exploration of her struggle with body image and the decisions she made to try to finally find peace. Her work as a journalist is also in this important vein, with pieces about how she handled her body changes during pregnancy and the culture of buying plus-sized wedding dresses. Plus, she recently had a birthday, so happy belated!
See you again soon!