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A 'family' sitcom for Gen X - 'Friends' cast a new TV mold

By Christina McCarrollStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 6, 2004

Even for the closest of friends, it was exceptional: a decade of enduring popularity, harmonious living situations, constant laughter, marriages, and divorces that left little bitterness, but six babies.

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As NBC airs its two-hour finale of "Friends" Thursday night, after a 10-season run, a show that has garnered rabid fans, fierce critics, and 44 Emmy nominations joins the ranks of "M*A*S*H" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" as an American classic.

In an age when the average US household has 100 TV channels and some critics predict the demise of the sitcom, "Friends" stands as an icon of its age - a show that captured a generation's angst and ambition, fluid notions of family, and America's cult of youth.

The series struck a particular chord with Generation X, as a drifting, soul-searching ensemble "always stuck in second gear," as the theme song goes, struggled with changing jobs and goals and evolving notions of the ideal relationship. Where a more earnest baby boomer generation took on life-or-death topics - as epitomized on shows like the 1980s hit "Thirtysomething" - this group probed their own identities and the quandaries of single life in the '90s.

Indeed, the show's era may have been critical to its success, says David Bushman, television curator at New York's Museum of Television & Radio. "The Clinton years were pretty prosperous and safe. We were not at war, the economy was doing pretty well - and I think it was a time where a show like 'Friends' was sort of perfect."

One part of the formula, say experts, was the focus on a wildly idealized age, characters wrestling with the exhilaration and angst of their 20s. "There has always been a certain fascination with being young, on your own, in the big city, and having all this freedom," continues Mr. Bushman. "Back to the days of Thomas Wolfe [who wrote 'You Can't Go Home Again'], there's always something about starting out on your own in a city.... It wasn't a hard-hitting topical show, but that kind of suited its time."

If it wasn't topical, it did plumb contemporary topics: surrogate motherhood, adoption, infidelity, out-of-wedlock births, lesbian parenting, interracial dating, premarital sex, even impotence. Amid America's changing sense of family and talk of dysfunction and divorce, a drifting group of friends forged their own family, one of unflappable devotion and support with the theme-song mantra of "I'll be there for you."

Though not a family sitcom in the purest sense, the series paved the way for a new TV focus on friendship shorn of mean- spiritedness, a contrast to shows like "Seinfeld," in which "neurotic characters ... nourished each other's anxieties," says Bushman. It was a change, too, from shows centering on workplace buddies (think "Cheers" and "Mary Tyler Moore"), the quirks of coupledom, and the poignant circus of family life.

Yet many criticized the cast for forging a mini-union to demand $1 million per episode. Others blasted "Friends" as a "Seinfeld" knockoff and a shallow, contrived fantasy of 20-something life: adventures in a mythical Gotham of tree-lined streets, clean sidewalks, and a coffee shop where the cushiest couches were always available, the endless espresso seemed free, and a witty, articulate, beautiful sextet - all of whom were white - had infinite free time.