Clicking and Streaming: 'Friends' is part Gen-X shit-bag time capsule, part sci-fi New York where 9/11 didn't happen

A proposition: Here are the only three ways to watch "Friends," the NBC sitcom about six white buddies living in Manhattan, which aired from 1994-2004 (streaming on Netflix in its 10-season-long entirety right now!) and none of them entail actually enjoying the show because that cannot be done.

1. "Friends" as a Gen-X shit-bag time capsule

The worst tendencies of the carefree Clinton '90s ooze out of The Friends. Chandler (Matthew Perry), Joey (Matt LeBlanc), Monica (Courtney Cox), Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), and Ross (David Schwimmer) are in-the-pocket representations of straight-down-the-line Gen-X shit-headedness: self-absorbed, politically moderate, open-minded in theory, and devoid of anything interesting to say about anything. Exactly what kind of people are The Friends? Other than hanging out in a coffee shop, they don't seem to be proto-hipsters, and they all have bougie, douchey jobs, and there's an episode where three of them go to see Hootie & The Blowfish, for fuck's sake. Even the show's nods to changing family dynamics, feminism, and homosexuality are—in addition to being undercut by casual misogyny, gay jokes, and misogynist-dystopia cold-nips shots (more on those later)—hindered by the show's tendency to make it so clear that it's totally cool with these cultural changes. If it was obviously totally fine with these changes, it wouldn't feel compelled to congratulate itself for "going there," as it were. It is the back-patting attitude that "Broad City," that daughters-of-"Seinfeld" masterpiece, consistently skewers with its intersectionality-obsessed "open-minded" characters, Abbie and Ilana. ("Sometimes, you're so anti-racist that you're actually really racist," Abbie tells Ilana at one point.)

Contrast "Friends" with fellow must-see-TV-on-NBC shows of the same era, like "Seinfeld" or even the also-fairly-shitty-though-artfully-written "Frasier," both of which focus on fundamentally unlikable main characters, and the irony-free world of "Friends" is revealed to be a throwback. We're supposed to like and relate to these low-key hatemongers. Then again, Phoebe, a flighty folkie in the Lilith Fair mold, is portrayed as an airhead and an idiot, her space-cadet characterization as out of touch with its time as, say, "Dragnet" was when it dealt with hippies. Meanwhile, Rachel, the most sympathetic because she is also the most flawed, keeps the show interesting because her poor decisions accumulate and bounce off  one another, and they end up painting a picture of a complicated young woman. Of course, she is also the object of the most lust on the show (proposed to by two of the three Friends) and the one most frequently clowned for being vapid (because she is interested in fashion), so fuck everything if your name ain't Chandler, Joey, or Ross as far as this show's concerned, which might as well put this show in the 1950s.

Part of the problem with "Friends" is that it is a crowd-pleasing sitcom and the sitcom is a dark Sisyphean format. See, for a sitcom to work for years and years, like all serialization, it must give the illusion of progress while maintaining equilibrium. The characters cannot change because the comedy comes from the flaws of the characters, and so most sitcoms are about the character(s) failing to change for the better, even in the long run. The plots and jokes are driven by characters' lack of insight over an extended period of time. And "Friends" gets more compelling the less funny it is. As it slowly derails itself to focus on Ross and Rachel and the ultimate coupling of selfish douchenozzles, Chandler and Monica, the jokes get worse but the basic-ass melodrama has you hooked. The successful hustle of "Friends" is that it is either a comedy or a drama depending on the scene (often, jokes shift the show back into comedy and diffuse the intense drama when something is actually at stake), and so you can easily allow yourself to be intensely involved with its characters' problems even when the jokes suck, which is most of the time.

"Friends" is easily one of the most soporific and unfunny sitcoms that lasted as long as it did—oh boy is this show rough, dear readers. Though there are occasionally funny bits ("pivot . . . pivot") and memorable one-liners ("We love Schhteve! Schhteve was schhexy"), the show casting Courtney Cox as a Jew named Monica Gellar is by far the show's longest-running gag; it just didn't know it.

Fun game, though: Stare through one of these episodes and look into the eyes of these actors, save for LeBlanc, a dullard on screen and IRL, and appreciate their ability to commit to so many bad jokes and misdirected melodrama. I mean, Courtney Cox and David Schwimmer seem like reasonable people; Jennifer Aniston is, occasionally, a very good actor and totally makes the show and seems to generally "get it"; Lisa Kudrow has quietly remained an eccentric comedic force post-"Friends"; and, well, Matthew Perry's pill addictions throughout the years are evidence that he no doubt knows what it's like to stare into the void. What I am saying is these are not vapid actors, just smart ones running out the clock on unfunny, quirky garbage (236 episodes worth!) that paid them very, very well.

2. "Friends" as weedhead-appealing "What If . . . " science fiction

Did you know that "Friends" never acknowledged that the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center happened? Sure, the first episode of season eight, which aired on Sept. 27, 2001, was dedicated to "the people of New York City," but the characters never endure that tragic day and it was never referenced in later episodes (though in "The One Where Chandler Takes a Bath," which aired on Jan. 17, 2002, Joey wears an FDNY shirt featuring the name of a fireman who lost his life that day).

This means the show is pretty much science fiction in the alternate history mode of, say, Philip K. Dick's "The Man In The High Castle," in that it imagines a New York City in a United States of America in which 9/11 never happened. So, you know, one way to watch the show is to toke up (of course, using your bong which you have no doubt named "Chandler Bong" and scrawled on the side of it in white-out pen, "Could I BE any HIGHER?") and consider "Friends" episodic, comedic speculative fiction. That even something as culture-shifting as 9/11 had to be ignored, even though the show so easily could've drummed up some cute and not-even-all-that-condescending episode in which all of The Friends feared for each other's lives and all met up back at the apartment happy that they were at least safe and, OMG, friends, is illustrative of the show's pathological escapism.

More often than not, the darkness of "Friends" comes through not by way of what it omits but the casual way it encourages closed-minded attitudes. Often, "Friends" is deeply homophobic (and, in season seven's "The One with Chandler's Dad" about Chandler's transgender father, transphobic, making it well ahead of its time on the transphobia tip) and the male characters, all framed as nice guys (save for Joey, a loveable lunk-headed poonhound, who in the pilot compares women to different ice cream flavors, for chrissakes) are consistently deceptive, obsessive, and cruel to women. In the same episode where they go see Hootie & The Blowfish, Ross calls Chandler "pure evil" because of a contrived plan to meet a woman by lying to her about his identity. Chandler says he'd prefer to be evil than horny and alone. Hilarious!

And well, pardon me for sounding like a creep-o here myself, but there is a bizarre number of episodes in which either Courtney Cox or Jennifer Aniston's nipples are prominently shown protruding through their lightly colored, tight T-shirts—a grotesque and no doubt self-conscious decision on the part of the show to aggressively, subtly objectify two of its female leads. By the way, I am not the first one to notice this, as a quick search of "Friends" and "nipples" reveals a staggering number of beat-off sites housing screencaps from the show.

This is why they hate us. For more on the topic of "Friends" and Sept. 11, read "Representing Terrorism: Reanimating Post-9/11 New York City" from volume three, number three of International Journal of Zizek Studies by Luke John Howie. No really, that's a whole academic paper about "Friends" and 9/11.

3. "Friends" as an aid for trippin' balls

If you can't or just don't wanna devote hours and hours to the show (despite everything I've said here, I still recommend OD-ing on the show), then screw Netflix and head on over to YouTube and load up "We Used To Be Friends," a 22-minute video that overlays the video and audio of every single episode of season one of "Friends" on top of each other into a smeary, fractal-y, acid-y clusterfuck.

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