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Why Do British People Love 'Friends' So Much?

Twelve years after it initially went off the air, the sitcom is still beloved in the UK. But what does this say about the British social—and political—climate?

by Larry Fitzmaurice
Jul 19 2016, 8:50pm

In the US, Friends is categorized under the "sitcom" genre—but to Matteo Pini, it's more of a "White People in a Drink Shop" show. "My friend once called the [Friends'] genre that," the 17-year-old Londoner notes when attempting to classify the iconic 90s US TV show, which he considers "The yardstick by which all PG-13 sitcoms are measured."

Pini first saw Friends at a cousin's house when he was seven years old; after regular rerun-binging sessions with his brother after school, he eventually caved and bought the series box set. "Most of my friends hold it as a touchstone—comfort food," he tells me over email. "Whenever we're sad or bored, Friends is our go-to show."

Friends ended its decade-long initial run in 2004—when Pini was around three or four years old—but its cultural presence has been persistent ever since. Regularly airing reruns and Netflix's recent streaming acquisition of the entire series guaranteed that Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, and even Gunther would always be there for new fans and old heads alike. The show has proved especially and peculiarly popular in the UK, where average viewership ratings for reruns rose by a whopping 11% between 2014 and 2015; as of last year, Friends reruns aired up to 12 times a day on Comedy Central UK, which holds the show's British re-broadcast rights until 2019.

Last year, the network capitalized on Friends' British boom by staging FriendsFest, a five-day exhibition in East London's Brick Lane that included recreations of the show's famous set pieces for superfans and their, er, friends, to nerd out over. The first batch of tickets sold out in 13 minutes; during one of the FriendsFest evenings, a man proposed to his girlfriend. (One can only hope that he got her name right during the ceremony.)

"I went into it wanting to hate it, but I found it kind of endearing," VICE UK Staff Writer Joe Bish, 23, admitted in an email while relaying his experience of attending last year's FriendsFest. "It's easy to be cynical from a distance, but [harder] when you're surrounded by people getting psyched over a sofa."

This year's FriendsFest will be a whopping six weeks long and staged in as many different cities around the UK. If you're just finding about the festivities now and are looking to attend, you're about as out of luck as Joey trying to find his hand twin in Las Vegasthe first batch of tickets are already sold out. The website promises more tickets will be released to the public at a later date. (Representatives for Comedy Central UK were not able to respond to comment for this article by press time.)

It's understandable that American TV fans might be surprised at the across-the-pond adoration for Friends. Many British comedic TV exports—the soused vulgarity of Absolutely Fabulous, Monty Python's whip-smart absurdism, the witty, cerebral bonhomie of The IT Crowd, and cringe-inducing character studies like The Office and Saxondale—have been cultishly cherished by non-UK audiences looking for alternatives to the homogenous humor that American TV comedies had, until the last decade or so, come to define. Americans may occasionally look abroad for salvation from the cavalcade of milquetoast TV sitcoms that still thrive in Friends' wake—but the UK can't stop getting enough of the real thing.

All photos courtesy of the Friends official Facebook page

And neither can America—but there's an unmistakable continental divide when it comes to the reasons for Friends' enduring popularity. In its "home country," Friends initially presented a sanitized, glitzy, and strongly Caucasian reflection of New York City—a cuddlier alternative, perhaps, to fellow NBC juggernaut Seinfeld's acerbic (and similarly Caucasian) perspective on Manhattan's hustle-and-bustle.

For US millennials who've discovered the show over the last decade, Friends provides the impossible class-based fantasy of, say, holding down a spacious Manhattan apartment as a struggling actor (not to mention an alternate universe in which we actually talk to our neighbors). American Friends fans are, essentially, dreaming of better times in their country's recent past—whereas, for British viewers, there's the potential to revel in societal elements that have historically eluded their culture.

"The British—rightly or wrongly—have a strong fascination with America," claims 61-year-old Chris Rojek, Professor of Sociology at City University London; he's also published several books on pop cultural theory, including 2011's Pop Music, Pop Culture and the following year's Fame Attack: the Inflation of Celebrity and Its Consequences.

Rojek believes that the UK's fascination with Friends has sustained growth because of nostalgic potency—specifically, for a time when everything surrounding British society sucked a little less—but also because of the warmth that its characters emanate. "The show radiates emotional candor," he states. "Unlike British culture, it's not about having reserved opinions or getting to know someone...the perception is that Americans are much more outward-going and friendly."

"Here's a bunch of beautiful, young, witty people who cared about each other," adds 42-year-old British TV critic Ben Dowell, who regards Friends as "Witty, sophisticated, and likable." For all its relative tameness, too, Friends represented the quietly subversive notion that the institution of family didn't actually have to include your family members—that home, in other words, is what you make it, a way of life that Dowell describes as "very appealing to young people."

For the younger UK-based viewers who were largely discovering Friends' 236 episodes through reruns, the show often functions as a portal through which they can view parts of America under a refracted cultural lens—which can make engaging with the real thing a disorienting experience.

Robin Smith, a 23-year-old from Leeds, claims that his view of NYC was so magnificently warped by Friends that when he actually visited the Big Apple, the hustle and bustle "Scared the shit out of me...[Friends] seems to present New York as really spacious and quirky—but it's busy, and there's too much [going on]. You can get so absorbed into a sitcom that it doesn't feel like it's informing your view of a different place or country—but it totally is."

Indeed, Rojek is quick to point out that Friends was—like so much television—a largely sanitized and apolitical version of the day and age it was situated in, as well as a far cry from the realities of American life. "Are there any black people in Friends?," he genuinely asks me during our conversation. (The answer: barely, although Aisha Tyler portrayed Ross'—and later, Joey's—girlfriend Charlie Wheeler in the show's final two seasons.) "Friends shows us a very privileged view of American life—it's all about getting along, helping each other out, and essentially being in the same boat...Some British people still believe that is America, when it's a complete myth."

After the calamitous fallout post-Brexit, many have floated the possibility that the UK's current cultural state is not dissimilar to the considerable societal upheaval that American society has seen during the 2016 election. So if the UK's fate becomes more closely intertwined with America's, does entertainment like Friends lose its escapist appeal for Brits? Or do cross-cultural occurrences like the sure-to-be-successful second installment of FriendsFest signify a greater, collective desire to continue retreating to a time, place, and state of mind in which it was easier to ignore the regularly occurring injustices that continue to plague society.

While no one I spoke to believes that the UK's love of Friends stands to greatly decline or increase post-Brexit, the question of escapist entertainment from abroad certainly resonated. Pini believes that, if anything, there's been an increase in the presence of British cultural artifacts: "The referendum's brought out varying flavours of British pride, from depressing (and ironic) racism to a renewed demand for the gallows humour we're so good at."

Regardless, Friends' enduring popularity is undoubtedly tied to a desire to return to a time and place when British life (and the world at large) wasn't undergoing such total upheaval—pre-Brexit, yes, but pre-everything in the last 15 years that led to Brexit, too. "Britain wasn't exactly booming—but it was stable and economically viable," Rojek explains while addressing the Friends-era British social climate. "There was a feeling that everything was moving in the right direction...It [was] at a time when there were levels of contentment and growth in British society which have not been reproduced in the 21st century."

While Rojek states that Friends will continue to draw mass-appeal power from "[how] it illustrates connections between how the British and Americans look at the world," Smith offers a sobering rebuttal: in the face of so much social and international uncertainty, sometimes the drug of nostalgia just doesn't work like it used to. "I actually watched some Friends this weekend," he writes in an email shortly after the UK voted to exit the European Union, "And even with mindless shit in front of me—from a different country, a couple decades ago, it's hard to get rid of the knot in my stomach...I can't think of escapism right now."

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