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The show was more progressive than the Internet remembers.
The words “profound” or “cutting edge” rarely come up when people discuss the television show Friends. It does not make lists of the “50 most shocking TV moments” or “10 sexual controversies that changed TV.” Despite its impressive 10 season run and its obvious popularity, it never seems to show up on lists of the “10 most groundbreaking television shows” or “Notable firsts in television.”
Instead, when people think of Friends, they think of a wholesome, cheerful show that became a worldwide hit by meshing together feel-good love-stories and slapstick comedy. The perfect “junk food” television show for the masses: silly, safe, and popular.
Michelle Davies, in her passionate defense of the show, “Friends for ever: Why we’re still loving the hit TV show 20 years on,” even admits: “In an era where a raw, unflinching and explicit show such as Girls is lauded for its honest portrayal of 20-somethings, Friends must seem old-fashioned—twee, even… There’s no nudity, no swearing, no sexting. It lends Friends an innocence, refreshing for today’s generation of viewers for whom the pressure of social media and online porn is an inescapable part of life.”
I think the whitebread reputation of Friends is completely unfair. In fact, the show can boast several television “firsts” that always go unacknowledged. So now, as we approach the television show’s much-hyped 20th anniversary later this month, I would like to give some credit to the under-appreciated edginess of one of the most popular sitcoms of all time.
Top three ground-breaking moments in Friends
1) Friends was the first television show where a main character has a mother who writes pornographic novels and a father who stars in an all-male burlesque drag show in Las Vegas. Of course, this wasn’t the first time a television show featured a gay character, or even a drag queen. It probably isn’t even the first time a television show featured a character who wrote dirty novels. However, we can be certain that this particular combination has never occurred in television before.
2) Friends was the first television show to have a main character who had a pimp spit in her mouth while she was growing up on the street as a child and a porn star for a twin sister. Now, we admit that earlier shows have featured children growing up under difficult circumstances… but Phoebe’s childhood must represent some kind of television “first.”
3) Friends was the first television show where a main character gives birth to her half-brother’s triplets. Naturally, it wasn’t the first program to address surrogacy. Nor was it the first time we had seen fertility issues addressed on television. But it was the first time we got to laugh when Phoebe’s over-excited half-brother jumps up, arms in the air, with a big grin on his face, and yells: “Yes!! My sister’s gonna have my baby!”
A wealth of social issues
Maybe my list is a bit tongue-in-cheek. But there is a serious point to be made: Friends addressed a large number of very current and complicated social issues in its time, even if it never ended up winning the award of being the first show to “break the boundary.”
Ross’s wife, Carol, was openly lesbian before Ellen Degeneres came out on her show, but Friends doesn’t get credit for this “first” because Ross’s wife wasn’t a “main” character. When Carol marries her partner Susan, it is one of the first same-sex weddings to appear on a major television series, but alas! The wedding between Leon and Scott aired on Roseanne a mere five weeks earlier. Bad luck.
Friends was not the first sitcom to show out-of-wedlock pregnancy and motherhood, although it might hold the record for the largest number of out-of-wedlock births shown on screen over the course of the series: Over its 10 season run, we get to experience birthing episodes for Carol, Phoebe, and Rachel, none of whom are married at the time they give birth.
In fact, there is an enormous amount of non-marital intercourse going on this supposedly “wholesome” television show. According to an analysis by Mike D’Avria, who has even created a chart, the six main characters of Friends had sex with 85 different people over the course of 10 seasons, and those are only the sexual partners that appeared on the show.
The amazing thing was that Friends pulled off plotlines about sex, sexuality, masturbation, and STIs all in the 8pm timeslot on network television, with almost no backlash. When the episode with the lesbian wedding aired, executive producer Marta Kauffman said that “NBC expected thousands and thousands of phone calls and hate mail” in response, but actually received only four complaints by telephone.
Between lesbian weddings, Chandler’s father being gay, Rachel fooling around with a girl when she was in college, and constant gay-positive jokes and story-lines, it’s almost difficult to believe that this show was on the air four years before Will and Grace appeared on the scene. Yet is was all done with no complaint, and no uproar.
Friends was even praised for educating teens about sex. One of the big gags during the episode where Rachel tells Ross that she is pregnant is that none of the male characters on the show realize that condoms are only effective 97 percent of the time. The network received mail from parents and teachers alike, thanking them for addressing that issue in a way that made it funny, but that also made people more aware. There was even an academic study of teen sexual behavior that demonstrated that that particular episode of Friends had a positive impact on condom use in teenagers.
The fact that Friends addressed so many complicated issues involving sex and sexuality while still maintaining its aura of innocence is testament to the quality of the writing and acting on the show. It has proven that you can address real, current social issues without being shocking. You don’t have to show the “gritty underbelly of society” like Breaking Bad or Orange is the New Black. You don’t have to have steamy sex scenes or people getting the crap beaten out of them on screen. You can be fun, playful, and even appealing to the masses, and still talk about real social issues.
What about now?
Twenty years later, we are all accustomed to forthright conversations of casual sex and sexuality. Does it matter that the issues that Friends addressed in the 1990’s are considered passe or even old-fashioned today? Does that mean we can’t enjoy it, or that we can only enjoy it as “nostalgia?”
Lynn Spangler, author of Television Women from Lucy to Friends: Fifty Years of Sitcoms and Feminism, has written that we should always be able to enjoy well-written stories where characters push their own boundaries within the context of their universe.
“Should we hate I Love Lucy because it prescribes the role of housewife for women, or should we love it because Lucy continuously resists that narrow definition of who she should be? The answer could be both or neither. What is important is that we explore these characters and their stories, and reflect on their impact on our lives.”
The same also applies to all of the characters of Friends. These were bold characters exploring themselves, their relationships, and their sexuality in the 1990’s in a way that was absolutely true to the social issues of the time, but that also kept us laughing the entire time.
Photo via Jen Klaver/Wikimedia Commons
Greg Stevens is a data scientist with over 20 years of hands-on experience with machine learning, predictive analytics, and related statistical methods. His research-driven essays tackle issues in pop culture, politics, and science. He also hosts a YouTube channel.