They had better clothes, better apartments and much better upper arms, but somehow they held up a mirror to a generation of Thatcher’s children. As Ross, Rachel and co bid a final farewell, Lucy Mangan raises a latte to the best friends she never met
Our parents had May 6, 1954, the day Roger Bannister ran the first four-minute mile and provided amateurism with its last hurrah. We will have May 6, 2004, another end to another glorious era. That’s the day when the last ever episode of Friends will air in the US, the day we will bid a fond farewell to a sitcom that spoke for a generation. My generation.
I spent my 20s growing up with the shiny sextet and their departure from my life is, in its own way, a small bereavement. As the show gears up for its own last hurrah, the stubborn streak of sentiment in me that has resisted erosion by the 10 years of rapier wit from the six master ironists demands a moment’s pause to reflect on what has gone before.
When Friends launched in April 1995, I was in my penultimate year of university and, like all those who were still then being labelled, in cruelly reductive but none the less tragically accurate fashion, Thatcher’s children, woefully ignorant of the wider world. We paid scant attention to the then fresh-faced leader of the opposition (Tony, was it?) who was intent on removing from his party’s constitution something called clause 4, whatever that might be.
Within weeks, Friends established itself as “appointment TV”, although I’m not sure the phrase had even been coined at the time. Friday pub visits were postponed until 9.30pm. Early parties would pause at 9pm for the half hour to enable us to catch up with Joey, Phoebe, Monica, Ross, Chandler and Rachel, characters who would soon become so famous that they would make Hawkeye, Radar, Murphy Brown and the gang at Cheers look like footnotes in television history.
When the series first began, the six friends were a little older than me and my friends. They had already made the transition from university to the working world, although the uninitiated might have had difficulty discerning any interruptions to the coffee-drinking and gossiping to earn a crust. It was a bright, colourful, charmed life — and we wanted it.
The odd thing was, we got it. We fell into step with the six and stayed with them for the next decade. It was the only programme around that really showed us ourselves. Ourselves with better wardrobes, better apartments and much, much better upper arms, of course, but being such a hip, young, media-savvy generation, we discounted these superficial differences for the televisual conventions they were and appreciated the show for what it was — a mirror up to nature. A cracked and distorted mirror, perhaps, but then we’re dealing with cracked and distorted times.
How we loved seeing ourselves reflected sixfold! Not just because in these benighted times you don’t exist until you’ve been identified by a phalanx of marketing mavens and immortalized on TV, but because, we’re only human and we all need narratives for our lives.
Here was a group of people who lived like my friends and I did — largely the products of fractured families, unshackled and uncomforted by religion, unconstrained by dependents, uninterested in politics and incapable of embracing an ideology, even if it came with a lifetime’s supply of free lattes. But for all that, not bad people. Not, at least, the selfish, amoral, Reaganite/Thatcherite soulless products of an atomized culture, as the newspapers had been painting us. We were just trying to have a laugh, hold down a job and, yes, “be there” for our friends.
The Simpsons and Roseanne had already redefined acceptable notions of what a close and loving family could look like now that the Waltons was a meaningless anachronism, but Friends took it a stage further and made the case for all of us who had peopled with select companions the void left by parents by gathering friends about us instead.
Writer Ethan Watters later identified this very modern phenomenon as the creation of “urban tribes”; friends who were taking the place of family for a generation that was no longer expected to settle down straight after graduation and that could no longer look to parents, church or politicians for guidance and support while they finished the increasingly lengthy business of growing up.
But the greatest part of the show’s appeal was its implicit acknowledgement that Monica, Ross, Chandler, Phoebe, Joey and Rachel were as adrift as we were, navigating the sewage-strewn seas of modern relationships without a compass, failing to centre their moral gyroscopes and generally flailing desperately towards the dry lands of social competence. In short, it was confirmation that everyone was making everything up as they went along.
We hadn’t been left off the circulation list for some Big Book of Modern Rules. There were none. Oh, sweet relief to see these six twenty-somethings looking at the glittering fragments of possibility and reacting not with intoxicated glee but with desperate twistings of the lens to try to bring them into some sort of comprehensible pattern. And failing. As a — naturally — complex and fascinating, multi-faceted viewer, you could see yourself reflected in each of the characters, according to your ever-fluctuating needs.
Rachel (at least before Jennifer Aniston and her increasingly implausible musculature drove an unignorable wedge between audience and character) was your quotidian self: nice girl, rubbish job, unthreatening levels of wit and intellect. Joey was the more primal version; he might prioritize sex and pizza more consistently than you, but you couldn’t pretend you didn’t understand where the man was coming from.
Monica was the successful, organized, capable side of you — albeit one constantly under threat of being suffused with neuroses.
Ross the paleontologist, with his lesbian wife, hapless air and string of failed dates, clearly represented our shared sense of being constantly buffeted and victimized by the forces of modernity beyond our control.
Eccentric Phoebe represented the possibility of escape — of being oblivious to the stresses and strains that habitually do for the fully sentient.
And Chandler. Ah, Chandler. I don’t know how he played in Peoria, but I would hazard a guess that he was the character with whom the British audience most readily identified. His decision to deal with the world solely through the medium of sarcasm, and to conduct all his relationships via wisecracks lest his carefully sealed emotional core be breached, I suspect resonated more deeply with viewers in the British septic isle than it did with less fundamentally misanthropic audiences.
We know what we like, and honest, open communication ain’t it. We understand that mordant irony is an inviolable constituent of the modern human condition, and we worshipped his facility with the form.
Like all good friends, Ross, Rachel et al have kept pace with us over the years. Initially, they were single and happily so, to the weeping gratitude of all those of us who gibbered in fear at the possibility that the saddening, maddening Bridget Jones and Ally McBeal were unavoidable destinations ahead.
Short, then longer-term relationships started to turn up for them and us. We survived them, and could fancy we did so with the same poise and panache as our fictional counterparts, even if we weren’t always able to recover in 27 minutes (not including the ad break).
I can’t be the only one who roused herself from a tear-sodden pillow with the words: “If Phoebe coped with David going to Minsk, I can cope with this.” If I am, then I will, of course, be slashing my wrists in shame as soon as I get home.
Unfortunately, nothing this good lasts for ever, and eventually the group had to start reflecting the sad truth that people change. The buggers grow up, couple up and sell up to start new lives as adults elsewhere. I suppose at the back of my mind I always knew that a decade of Friends-ship was the very most one could hope for, and I can’t complain about managing to maintain my own similarly self-indulgent lifestyle for just as long. The essentially temporary and fleeting nature of it has, after all, always been part of the charm.
Nevertheless, I watch with increasing awe and horror the avalanche of wedding invitations pouring on to my mat — or, at least, the place where my mat would be if I lived that kind of domestically ordered life.
I have felt for Joey as he, likewise, has watched his best friend marry his other best friend and stood by as the others pair off. As I have watched my friends embark on squeezing out squalling infants while I simply struggle to get myself safely into work, so Joey has had to watch Rachel and Ross produce their own enemy of promise, the promise that they would always be available for biscotti and ballgames for as long as he and we all needed.
It’s more than a little disconcerting to discover that at some point during the past decade my personal development arrested to such a degree that I now identify more with a man who once happily troughed through a trifle/shepherd’s pie combo without noticing anything amiss than with my original correlate, the well-meaning control freak Monica.
But there it is. The time has come for us all to shake hands and acknowledge that the good times, as we once knew them, are over. But it’s hard. To lose one friend may be a misfortune, but to lose six is wholesale abandonment. And the fact that I’m as powerless to stop it happening within my real-life tribe only aggravates the wound.
Although I know we all have to move on, and fully intend to once I have spliced my DNA with that of a genuine adult, with every engagement or pregnancy that is announced within my group, I feel the fissures widen, my delight become ever more heavily laced with fear and visions of a lonely, blackhearted future abound ever more plentifully.
But, just as I’m learning to forgive Rachel and the rest for their imminent desertion, I’m hoping that I’ll learn to forgive my friends too. We’ve all been through too much together over the years to let bitterness poison us now. So I raise a latte to you all. Goodbye then — and thanks for all the laughs. — Dawn-Guardian News Service