I have a confession to make: I still watch “Friends” almost every night. It’s part of a routine after a long day at work: I sit down to eat a very late dinner, I turn on Netflix and cast “Friends” from my phone. It’s like it’s the 2000s all over again. Like any kid who grew up in the ‘90s, I remembered when it was a sitcom that aired on ABC-5 (and on the Japanese channel WOWOW as well) that continued the glory days of TV sitcoms on American TV; some would argue that it’s actually the summit of that mountain. It’s an iconic TV show — so iconic that it has become a point of reference for the 1990s. And the fact that in 2018 Netflix bought the exclusive streaming rights of “Friends” for over $100 million says something. It remains compulsively watchable for many, and to some, a relic that is better left in its era.
I can’t recall why my budding teen self identified with the characters in “Friends.” I grew up in a time when Pinoy TV sitcoms were at an all time high. There were “Home Along da Riles,” “Oki Doki Doc,” “Okay Ka, Fairy Ko!” and “Tropang Trumpo.” These shows were, in many ways, actual reflections of the world I lived in as a lower-middle class kid. I had a massive crush on Gio Alvarez, I wanted to be sassy like Faye of Engkantasya, and I thought I was a little bit goofy like Paolo Contis. On the other hand, “Friends” starred six white people who worried about getting laid and sat on a coffee store couch when they should be working. I know why I latched on to “Sex and the City” (I wanted Carrie Bradshaw’s life) or “Will and Grace” (I was both Will and Grace) or to “Six Feet Under” (I was a little bit goth, thanks to puberty). “Friends” didn’t exactly reflect my dreams of becoming a twentysomething in New York (clearly, “Sex and the City” did) so what is it about it that held me sway all those years? Me and my friends thought “Friends” was hilarious. We memorized jokes, quotes, and knew some of the storylines by heart. Decades have passed and I’ve since lost contact with those friends. What I have left: “Friends.”
Rewatching “Friends” now opens a can of worms. There are disturbing depictions of harassment, transphobia, homophobia, fatphobia, and sexism. After just a few episodes, you’ll realize how much of a sexist pig Ross is, who, like Joey and Chandler, think that there should be different rules for men. Remember how Chandler was repulsed at the idea of people’s first impression of him — that he was gay? Or how Joey’s “How you doin’?” is basically a catcall?
The women push back. Monica, Phoebe, and Rachel tease the boys (yes, not men, well maybe it was only Chandler who grew up) for being wimps, and hit them back for their sexist ideals (Rachel’s “No uterus! No opinion!” when men around her were talking over her about her pregnancy discomforts is a memorable one) — though they all still eventually end up with each other. And for all the sexist jokes, Monica called out Chandler on a joke he made up that got printed on Playboy: “The joke is not funny, and it’s offensive to women, and doctors, and monkeys!”
Rewatching “Friends” now opens a can of worms.
For all its flaws, “Friends” did have a few things that were progressive for its time. They had a lesbian couple (though side characters, and, occassionaly, were the butt of jokes) who raised a child — and there was a lesbian wedding! Surrogacy was a recurring topic. It showed that a single mother wasn’t a bad thing (though Rachel was white and privileged). It had a character who once lived a life of crime because of poverty. It talked about the perils of not having health insurance. It showed that billionaires and mass production are terrible. And it pushed many feminist ideals in all kinds of ways: being financially independent, putting friendship over men, a woman doing the proposing instead, and the aforementioned two queer moms raising a kid.
Surprisingly, the streaming era has also taken "Friends" to a younger generation. In an article for New York in 2016 (subtitled "Why 20-somethings want to stream a 20-year-old sitcom about a bunch of 20-somethings in a coffee shop."), writer Adam Sternbergh discovered how the show is a discovery for young people. He wrote: “I am, however, surprised that a whole new generation — all of whom are presumably much more tweet-, text-, Vine-, and Tinder-friendly than I am — is feeling the same way, and expressing it by embracing the very show my generation once embraced. After all, each generation has the right to bury the icons of its forebears, just as we in our Screaming Trees T-shirts once shat all over the Eagles. Instead, these kids are going to 'Friends' trivia nights at Asian-fusion tapas bars in midtown, and starting podcasts devoted to recapping and analyzing every single episode of the show.”
My boyfriend, who suffers through my “Friends” rewatch, rolls his eyes over all the problematic jokes but the nostalgia factor remains high (he did once buy us a Central Perk shirt and tote from the NBC store). The comedic timing is impeccable and the non-problematic jokes are still hilarious. The one-off episodes are particularly brilliant: "The One Where No One’s Ready," "The One with the Two Parties," "The One with All the Rumor." I love that the characters read. There’s always a magazine or newspaper at the coffee table (New York and New Yorker particularly). “Friends” remains to be comforting, perhaps that’s why I take it with food. It’s optimistic. It doesn’t fail to cheer me up because I know when the jokes would hit. And after a hell of a day in this blackhole of a country, maybe it’s nice to sit down to a 30-minute show that told you that all you’ll need is a little help from your, uh, friends.
There is something to be said though about my latching on to a show that has a dated moral core while there are other shows — even funnier — like “Derry Girls,” “Sex Education,” “On My Block,” or shows with character closer to my age like “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Kim’s Convenience.” It’s like junk food. You know it’s bad for you and since you’re in your 30s, you should avoid it because it’ll probably raise your blood pressure. But you still eat them anyway. Because you’re already familiar with the taste. It’s comforting and in this time of crisis, we’re all allowed to have our little rays of sunshine right? Despite that sunshine being slightly rotten in its core? No? Our generation lived and suffered through the '90s and the show is a looking glass into that past. It was a time when sitcoms actually resolved hardships in 30 minutes. Things were awful but it did have its moments. Kind of like family, like friends.
You can still watch “Friends” on Netflix Philippines.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the September 7, 2019 issue of The Philippine Star Supreme.