The One That Lied: How Friends Ruined a Generation

I was born in September of 1976. There, I’ve said it. I don’t admit it often. I don’t list my birth date on Facebook, I don’t plan elaborate birthday fêtes for myself, and when asked how old I am I often joke that I’m twenty-five so that the query disappears into a tangential conversation based in disbelief. Not that I’m ashamed of my age. I’ve done stuff. If I got hit by a speeding Peterbilt tomorrow, I’d have no regrets. I’ve seen five continents. I’ve been in all of the oceans, and a good many of the seas. I’ve lost the love of beautiful, intelligent women. I’ve seen Neil Young seven times. I’d leave behind two books, a supportive and loving family, and a good many friends. Trust me, I’d be just fine. And it’s not like I could hide my age. I’ve been graying since I was nineteen, and could just as easily claim I was forty-five, though that would further highlight my many, many failures. No, I don’t advertise nor readily admit my age because of my generation, a generation that labels me, a generation that was ruined by Friends.

Friends debuted without much fanfare in the fall of 1994, as I entered my final year of high school. The show was about six twenty-something friends living in New York, and the wonderful adventures their lives took them on. It did not take long for the sitcom to become a cultural phenomenon. It provided a glimpse of an unachievable life; beautiful people in beautiful apartments with beautiful friends leading beautiful lives. In retrospect, it was horrid, but there we were every Thursday night tuning in to live vicariously through Ross (David Schwimmer), Chandler (Matthew Perry), Joey (Matt LeBlanc), Monica (Courtney Cox), Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow). Pretty soon the characters started to affect those around me. First was the hair. My buddies had their shoulder length dos styled to match the close cropped and heavily gelled Ross, and girlfriends sported the ‘Rachel’ en masse. Phrases like “oh, you’re so Monica” became part of the cultural lexicon. Suddenly, we all hung out in coffee shops that previously had not existed, and we hated coffee. And everybody wanted a pet monkey. At least I did. I like monkeys.

As we graduated from high school the show had reached an iconic status, and the characters’ lives were those we aspired to. We wanted grand apartments that seemingly came rent free. We wanted good paying jobs that only required occasional attendance. We wanted to be surrounded by beautiful people, and we wanted to be beautiful ourselves. We wanted to fall in and out of love with little heartbreak or consequence. We wanted our summer’s off. We wanted a group of like-minded friends to love us unconditionally.  And we wanted it all to be easy.

But it wasn’t easy. It was indescribably difficult, and as we entered our twenties we collectively couldn’t understand why we couldn’t have what the Friends had. Working for a living was intolerable. Apartments were small, overpriced, and cockroach infested. Hair cuts were expensive. Most people were far from beautiful. Friends came and went, group dynamics altered almost weekly, and love, when and if it could be found, cut deeply when it inevitably ended. As we charged through our early twenties with reckless despair, those on the show lived a seemingly endless decade of adventure and bliss. Oh, sure, there were moments of challenge, but always with a clean resolution. And though our lives failed to match up to theirs, we continued to tune in every Thursday to be teased by the promise of impossibility.

Chuck Klosterman had a similar theory about how John Cusack ruined his generation in an essay entitled “This is Emo” from Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. More specifically Cusack’s Say Anything character Lloyd Dobler. Though Klosterman is only four years older than I am, we are of different generations, but I can certainly identify with his argument of how he was unfairly challenged by the aura of Dobler:

“It appears that countless women born between the years of 1965 and 1978 are in love with John Cusack. I cannot fathom how he isn’t the number-one-box-office-star in America, because every straight girl I know would sell her soul to share a milkshake with that motherfucker. For upwardly mobile women in their twenties and thirties, John Cusack is the neo-Elvis. But here’s what none of these upwardly mobile women seem to realize: They don’t love John Cusack. They love Lloyd Dobler. When they see Mr. Cusack, they are still seeing the optimistic, charmingly loquacious teenager he played in Say Anything, a movie that came out more than a decade ago. […] This is why… the kind of woman I tend to find attractive will never be satisfied by me. We will both measure our relationship against the prospect of fake love.”

But, while Klosterman argues a generation’s capacity and expectations for love were ruined by a Peter Gabriel song playing on a boombox by an aspiring kickboxer in a trench coat, my generation was ruined on so many more levels by the beloved NBC sitcom. Besides the unattainable lifestyles, the characters themselves contributed to the downfall of an expansive cross-section of my peers. Consider the sextet of lies:

Ross – David Schwimmer’s dorkish paleontologist provided the archetype for what would lead to a generation all to comfortable in its geekdom. Before Ross, dude’s with slicked forward coifs who dug dinosaurs did not date beautiful women like Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel. (The Ross/Rachel affair will be addressed below.) They would instead be living in their mother’s basement playing Dungeons & Dragons and patching their black trench coats. They would be legally prohibited from owning pet monkeys. But in the world of Friends, Ross was somehow so uncool that he was cool. He may have been one of the first hipsters, and provided a generation with an unquantifiable false hope.

Chandler – This is the character whose existence affected mine the most. Matthew Perry’s neurotic and wit-drenched portrayal of Chandler led me to believe that you could have a personality based entirely on irony, sarcasm, and self-deprecation. Makes for a nice book of poetry, but not much else. I was pretty much intolerable for most of my mid-twenties, and I can only blame myself and Perry. (Could you BE any more intolerable?) But Chandler was comforted by five people who found his shtick endearing. I had to move to Central America and take up the solitary occupation of writing.

Joey – Ok, Matt LeBlanc is certainly the Ringo of this band, but what he did provide was the false notion that you could be a failed actor and your friends would inevitably take care of you financially and emotionally. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, failed actors are assistant general managers at Boston Pizza. Joey also provided the catchphrase/pick-up line “How you doin’?” which best I can tell has never worked outside of the Friends universe. At least, it has never worked for me.

Monica – Courtney Cox’s character angers me to no end for two reasons. One, Monica was a chef who had an amazing home. I was a chef for the better part of a decade, and the best apartment I ever had was shared with two unemployed house DJ’s, one of whom lost most of his teeth in a bar fight and would ask me to falsify documents so he could collect EI in perpetuity, a woman with six dogs and a cat who lived in our garage, and a downstairs neighbour with three personalities who would complain not about the volume of our music, but rather its artistic integrity based on who he/she thought it was on any given day. (This, I agreed with actually. I can’t stand any variation of house music.) And two, she fell for the sarcastic/neurotic dude and lived happily ever after. This, I can assure you, never happens. Ever.

Rachel – Perhaps the most flawed and misleading of the characters, Aniston’s rich-daddy’s-girl-turned-waitress affected a generation led to believe one could easily change the course of their life with nothing but gusto and the support of good friends. First, the ‘Rachel’ was a horrible haircut. Dangerous even. Second, she loved the geek, providing the aforementioned false hope to dinosaur enthusiasts in mama’s basement everywhere. Third, Rachel experienced an impossible character arc over the life of the series in which she shunned her family’s riches, started at the bottom, and built her way back up to the top with no formal training or education within her discipline. It’s like me walking into a hospital tomorrow and asking for work as a surgeon, basing my qualification on the fact that I’d try really really hard.

Phoebe – I can’t prove it, but I believe that Lisa Kudrow’s character gave birth to the exponential rise in the popularity of MFA programs across North America in the late 90s and early 00s. Phoebe was a flake, and yet always managed to get by. The portrayal gave a generation permission to be itself, no matter how eccentric or peculiar. Nobody should ever be themselves. It’s complete social suicide. I was myself from April of 1999 to November of 2001, and I’m only now recovering.

It’s possible that an educated and well-balanced generational peer could see through the thick haze of grandiose apartments and wonderful lives, and appreciate Friends for what it was: simply a TV show. But even removing my above arguments from the equation, one cannot ignore the social falsehood of the Friends universe: the near total absence of alcohol and its consequences. While drinking occasionally popped up during the sitcom’s run, it was certainly not rampant and when it did appear it was a vehicle for humour or a moral argument. At the same time, my generation went through the sitcom’s life fueled by alcohol, and sentenced to answer to its hangovers. Where were the episodes like “The One Where Ross Drinks a Bottle of Jack and Leaves Unforgivable Messages on Rachel’s Answering Machine,” or “The One Where Marcel the Monkey Drowns in Gin,” or “The One Where Chandler Gets Arrested for Being Naked in The Gap”?

And speaking of The Gap, perhaps no one entity benefited more from the cultural rise of Friends than the San Francisco-based clothier. The affordable, sterile stylings of the store that could be found in every mall in North America, were similar to the styles of the show’s characters, and during this period the company saw unprecedented success. And for those of us of that generation, it signaled the beginning of the end of Grunge, a style I still miss, and the celebration of the unwashed. Everywhere we looked khakis were replacing torn, soiled Levi’s with reckless abandon. Shirts transitioned from untucked, to tucked-in.  Somehow, and with no advance warning, swing came back into fashion. Swing. It was horrible.

I won’t spend too much time addressing the relationship between Ross and Rachel, which in and of itself became a cultural icon. The on-again/off-again, will-they/won’t-they narrative that ran through the life of the series was built on epic climactic peaks that crested in anthemic moments of drama that would inevitably find the couple together. Lloyd Dobler playing “In Your Eyes” moments. And therein lies the biggest fraud, one in which Friends provided a template, a narrative archetype that would be found in the romantic comedies of film and television for a generation and beyond. The notion that if one had enough faith, or devotion to love, then the gods would find a way for that love to flourish. And to be reminded of that weekly for ten years, and infinitely through syndication, was crushing to a generation brought up to believe in it, whether consciously or subconsciously. It was a constant, if false, reiteration of one’s failures, of an inability to live up to an impossible standard, and impossible future that would never arrive.

I know it was just a TV show, but this was in the era before Facebook, before Twitter, before blogging, where a show like Friends was appointment viewing on Thursday nights, and for a certain demographic it dictated the conversation, the style, and the hopes of a Friday morning.  It started the weekend, the social vehicle for trying to attain what the Friends had, and it started it with expectations that we could never reach, no matter the novelty or virtue of our efforts. The medium of the sitcom, and the art of television, has changed. The single camera comedy, reality shows, celebration of celebrity, and the endless carnival of the mundane and pedestrian, have created a new archetype for a new generation.  Today’s false hope does not lie in the promise of happiness, or inevitable nature of true love, but rather an overwhelming desire for celebrity and opulence.  And who needs Friends when you can have fame? Good luck, kids.