A quarter of a century has passed since Friends first burst onto our screens. But last year, 32.6 billion minutes of the show were watched on Netflix. It was the streaming service's second most popular show, and here in Britain it was the most streamed show across all available platforms. As Friends reaches its 25th anniversary, why are so many of us still watching?
Much has been said about how Friends has aged badly. Transphobia, fat shaming, and sexist jokes abound, and it is hardly diverse, especially considering its Manhattan setting. Much of its humour would not be accepted in a new show today, as growing awareness of social justice — especially from younger generations — is demanding more from the programmes we consume. However, ironically, it is actually Generation Z and millennials who are the key driving force behind the continuing popularity of Friends.
The answer to this conundrum may well be in that dizzying, cosy word to which millennials everywhere seem to be flocking: nostalgia. In fact, according to Adweek, 75 percent of Netflix minutes watched by the 18-34 bracket last year was not in its breadth of challenging and interesting originals but in older shows that we've probably already watched. And we watch them over and over again.
Just look at the film industry for proof of how desperate we are to return to a time of our youth. By far the most prominent force of this decade's film output has been the endless array of superhero movies, where we indulge ourselves in simple tales of good versus evil, of heroes from our childhood who we look up to in adulthood, and of adventures in and out of this world to which we can escape. And then, of course, is the evidence from Disney, which is treating us to constant reinventions of old classics: first Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, more recently The Lion King and Aladdin, and coming soon The Little Mermaid and Mulan. Are these films for a new generation of children, or are they secretly for us?
We all need a little bit of nostalgia in our lives right now.
We all need a little bit of nostalgia in our lives right now. The world is in an increasingly strange and insecure place. You can't turn on the news without endless horror stories of inhumane treatment of children, gun violence, and the destruction of women's and LGBTQ+ rights. Here in the UK, the shambles surrounding Brexit leave people just as divided, and our lack of a clear way forward leaves us in a national crisis bigger than anything we've seen in generations. Racism is rearing its ugly head in a way that we thought we were beginning to leave behind, and many of us are riddled with student debt. Is it any wonder that we are retreating back to the familiar, reassuring hug of friends from the past?
Are there better shows than Friends? Of course there are. Are there shows that are more deserving of our time? Probably. We all know people whose greatest passion in life is monologuing about how overrated and unfunny it all is. But let's face it: turning on Netflix and choosing to watch Friends for the 500th time is a very special form of comfort food, rather like eating an entire tub of Ben and Jerry's ice cream just because you can. We know the characters like the back of our hands: we laugh at Joey's appalling attempt to speak French, we sing along to Phoebe's "Smelly Cat," and, depending on our disposition, we cheer or boo at Rachel when she gets off the plane. We have our favourite episodes, we have our favourite jokes, and we can't carry a sofa up the stairs without yelling "pivot."
These characters are figuring out their way in the world, just like we are, and they are always there to have each other's back
The story of friendship — of people standing by each other no matter what happens, the relative absence of treachery and b*tchiness — is something we can get lost in. These characters are figuring out their way in the world, just like we are, and they are always there to have each other's back. It's literally in the title track: "I'll be there for you, 'cause you're there for me too." They're a family, and that's something we can aspire to. It is something pure and whole with unchallenging storylines and characters we can root for. We can decide which of our friendship group is the bossy perfectionist Monica and which is the ditsy but ultimately good-natured Phoebe.
One key asset of the show from today's viewpoint is that it is set in a decade where things just seemed a whole lot more straightforward. More than half of it was made before the events of 9/11. For millennials, the '90s is the home of our youth. To Generation Z, the decade must seem like a magical time. Questionable hair choices, VHS players, cassette tapes, no social media, and the very infancy of the internet: it was a different world, one many of us see through rose-coloured glasses.
We need to escape sometimes, and that's what Friends gives us
Of course, we can't bury ourselves in the nostalgia of Friends forever. There is an incredibly important place for pressing and relevant dramas such as The Handmaid's Tale and Euphoria. We need shows that force us to reflect upon our current reality and ask us to better ourselves. But we also need to escape sometimes, and that's what Friends gives us. We can forgive its occasional faux pas. We can overlook the scenes that would be left on the cutting room floor today. And we can let it envelop us in a wave of comfort, basking in the warmth of old friends welcoming us home once more.