Twenty years ago last month, a new sitcom debuted on American television. Provisionally titled Insomnia Cafe, it was supposed to catch some of the heat that Seinfeld had generated – some of that post-Woody Allen, New York-y neurotic humour about relationships and everyday life. But the original pitch that was sent to NBC revealed it to be a very different kind of show:
"This show is about six people in their twenties who hang out at this coffee house. An after hours insomnia café. It's about sex, love, relationship, careers… a time in your life when everything is possible, which is really exciting and really scary. It's about searching for love and commitment and security… and a fear of love and commitment and security. And it's about friendship, because when you're young and single and in the city, your friends are your family."
Unlike Seinfeld and just about every other sitcom before it, with their misfit ensembles of slob dads, nagging mums, drunk priests, stoner sons and pervert neighbours, Friends was to be the first aspirational sitcom. A comedy where the primary cast were young, good-looking metropolitans without drinking problems or STDs. On The Buses it was not.
Playing on our desires to be just like those kinds of people, it was a resounding success. In the resulting years, Friends became an international phenomenon. The characters' New York dating language entered the 90s pop-lexicon in a way that Bart Simpson's "eat my shorts" never could. In fact, could the strange syntax of Chandler's jokes BE any more subtly woven into the natural speech patterns of almost every Westerner aged 20 to 40? Elsewhere, everyone knew about "the Rachel" and Matt LeBlanc was in a really great movie about a baseball-playing monkey. It's ridiculous how much influence this decade-long romantic comedy had.
Now, don't get it twisted – Friends is a decent show. It's engaging, comforting and totally watchable. It doesn't seem believable that the final episode of it aired a decade ago this month. But in its seemingly inescapable and interminable second life of re-runs, Friends has also had a negative impact on our generation. It has turned us into wankers, basically – here's why:
The Characters Are So Middle Aged
Alright, so sitcoms have never been about "cool" people (unless you count Barley). Yes, George Costanza's clothes might have inadvertently paved the way for the Wavey Garms generation, but Seinfeld was about Larry David, and Larry David has never exactly been Iggy Pop. The characters in Seinfeld were much the same as any other sitcom character, ever – people who worry too much and don't really see the point of staying up late.
The difference here is that the people in Seinfeld are meant to be dysfunctional and weird, but in Friends they're supposed to be sexy, young urbanites. And yet there's an episode where they all lose their shit about going to see Hootie & the Blowfish. It's indicative of the fact that the writers of Friends had no interest in reflecting the times. Instead, they gave the characters a cosy, middle-aged take on modern culture that just doesn't gel. The characters live in New York in the mid-90s, the time of The Tunnel, the Club Kids and the Wu-Tang Clan. Yet these 20-somethings who work in fashion, TV and trendy restaurants are culturally confined to radio rock, Die Hard and a few gags about Chandler being into musicals. I've never met anyone my age with so little involvement in the world around them.
They almost never go to clubs, they never talk about Tarantino movies, or rap, or Björk. Even our parents did that. Although Phoebe does get very excited about meeting Sting. Why? It's hard to say if it's bad writing or some kind of conscious effort to make the characters as middle of the road as possible.
All that in mind, would you say it was Kurt Cobain's death, Thatcher's criminal justice bill and/or the internet that killed mass alternative youth culture dead in the 90s? Or was it Friends?
The Ridiculous Housing Situations
Besides Chandler and Ross, the other friends couldn't have earned more than £10,000 a year between them. Joey was an out-of-work actor, Monica a part-time chef, Rachel a coffee shop barista/aspiring fashionista and Phoebe a part-time masseuse – which is 100 percent the least profitable career I can imagine. The fact that any of them had panoramic Manhattan skyline views with shabby chic furnishings and La-Z-Boy sofas is totally ridiculous.
The story goes that Monica inherited her apartment, which doesn't really explain why none of the money went to her brother, Ross. If we're really digging out the backstory, I guess Joey could possibly have been on benefits. Either way, how did they afford it? Because it's aspirational bullshit with no grounding in the modern world.
The carefree, 15th-floor lifestyle they stood for – which came to define so many people's aspirations in the late 90s and early 00s – never came true for the rest of us. How could it? The whole thing had been conceived and executed 2,800 miles away from Manhattan at the Warner Bros studios in California, where a lifestyle is something that stagehands can move around on wheels.
Men Are Pathetic; Women Are Bitches
Friends didn't paint its characters' sex lives in a very appealing light. Ross and Chandler were frustrated and unwilling semi-celibates, while Joey seemed to believe that game-playing was the only way of getting women into bed. On the other hand, Rachel, Monica and Phoebe's relentless umming and ah-ing over the respective merits of this guy's 'ceps and that guy's chat-up lines seemed to compound that idea that dating was far from a natural process. Why so neurotic? Friends was the show that turned fucking into bureaucracy.
For some reason, Match.com and all the other dating sites now feel it necessary to discuss first-date etiquette on public transport ads. (Apart from uniformdating.com, which I still don't really understand – shouts to you for retaining the mysteries of love with your weird USP, guys.) Too many young, city-dwelling women spend their lives drinking wine endlessly and bitching about inadequate shows of "romance" from guys who – heaven forbid – take them on dates to Nando's. Far too many young, city-dwelling men seem to have become cynical to the very idea of love, morphing into an army of Joeys who lack the charm that comes from being a TV character with a redemptive script and Matt LeBlanc's idiotic smile.
Friends, in its innocent desire to bump up viewing figures, sold us a reductive idea of gender identity that has somehow stuck with us until the present day.
Joey Tribbiani Was the World's First Pick-Up Artist
On that subject, have any of you ladies ever been hit on by a bloke in a tight T-shirt and a funny hat at the supermarket, or the gym, or a coffee shop, or anywhere at all? You've got Joey Tribbiani to blame. Joey might have been a great TV character – and maybe the most "real" of the bunch – but something about his hyper-confident public chirpsing routines was so believable that it inspired a generation of home-grown lotharios to test the limits of harassment law themselves. Still, I guess it's better than what Chandler was put through. Can you imagine the hell that man would be giving Laurie Penny if he were "alive" today?
It Birthed the Coffee Shop Wankers
Jokes about people drinking types of coffee with funny names are now even more dull than the people they're aimed at, and Friends is responsible for both of these social problems. Fair enough – when it was first shown, coffee shops must have seemed kind of sophisticated and glamorous. Unlike pubs or greasy spoons, they are a place for both work and fun, somewhere you could talk to your mates without old Irish blokes shouting at TV screens. Now that you can get a decent espresso at the Welcome Break in Newport Pagnell, they've lost some of that exoticism.
However, the coffee shop wankers remain. Staying longer and longer than before due to the advent of Wi-Fi and the widening of the market. Still dramatically sighing at kids who make noise, still talking about job interviews, still reading the same books and still failing to finish the same terrible, terrible screenplays.
Everyone Knows a Tedious "Ross and Rachel" Now
This is truly Friends's gravest legacy.
Once upon a time, humans lived quite happily within the simple classifications of "single", "together", "married" or "divorced". Unless you were a savage, or French. That was until Ross and Rachel came along with their "we were on a break" chat, giving people free reign to participate in all kinds of romantic ambiguity.
Cue a generation endlessly texting back and forth about "where things are going", shagging each other's best friends on the grounds that they were "just seeing each other" and generally being as noncommittal and hurtful as possible. I'm not saying we should all be married with kids by the time we're 25 – and yeah, to a certain extent romantic ambiguity can be fun – but perhaps if we'd stuck to the idea that a boyfriend is a boyfriend and a girlfriend is a girlfriend, we could have saved ourselves a whole lot of heartbreak and phone credit.
Friends's attitude towards relationships wasn't bohemian or liberated, it was just annoying. There were no grand theories at play on what a relationship should actually mean; the happenings were just symptomatic of selfishness and self-obsession. "On a break" never really meant anything, besides the fact that one person wanted to break up and didn't have the heart to admit it to the other. The Ross and Rachel saga legitimised something that should have been disregarded as dumb from the very start, birthing a generation of kids talking all kinds of pseudo-psychological relationship garble at each other for over a decade.