How is it that the television series Friends, released in the 90s, is still so successful almost twenty years later?
The release of the special episode of Friends which brings together the six actors of the iconic sitcom (in France on Salto since May 27 and on TF1 on June 24, 2021) aroused the excitement of fans while causing a cover of certain controversies that have surrounded the series since its arrival on the small US screen, controversies that have gained momentum in the years following its original broadcast.
Accused homophobia, transphobia, grossophobia, and misogyny, and criticized for its lack of ethnic and racial diversity, Friends, broadcast on the big American channel NBC between 1994 and 2004, now goes beyond the simple status of popular TV series to truly reach the level of cultural phenomenon, and this on a global scale.
How to explain the craze that this series maintains with its fans, its ability to attract new viewers among generations who did not necessarily follow the series when it first aired, as well as its lasting, even growing, popularity in a a cultural context where spectators are increasingly sensitive and demanding about the representation and inclusion of marginalized populations – women, people of color, LGTBQ + – in popular culture?
A sitcom available everywhere, all the time
The answers turn out to be multiple and complex and undoubtedly vary from one cultural and geographic context to another. Several commercial and industrial reasons are undoubtedly part of it: Friends is one of the rare comedy situation to enjoy such a dominant position on the screens thanks to its almost continuous broadcast on various channels since its discontinuation in 2004.
Also, the emergence of new forms of viewing and unlimited access to the entire series made possible by the rise of the Netflix streaming platform. Finally, and more generally, the growing ubiquity of screens (laptop, tablet, smartphone) in daily life which goes hand in hand with a process of cultural legitimation of the object “TV series”, still despised not so long ago (although the name of “quality TV” is still largely reserved for dramatic series such as The Sopranos, Mad Men, Where Game of Thrones).
But these answers are only partial. After all, following the commercial logic that governs the television industry, no channel or platform would pay are also colossal to acquire the rights to broadcast a series if it was not guaranteed to attract viewers.
If the spectators are continuously there for Friends This is again thanks to several complex and interconnected reasons: highly telegenic and charismatic young actors, a neat and sophisticated writing, narratological and generic innovations, effective humor and comedic timing, caricature, well-defined characters and endearing, a rich and reassuring fictional universe, memorable secondary characters, a strong emotional anchoring, to name but a few. All these elements have contributed and continue to contribute to the success of the series and this last episode puts with great effectiveness on the emotional aspect and the nostalgia which results from it.
Thus, the visit of the six actors to the film sets specially reconstituted for the event, the recall of the key episodes (“The one who wins the bets”), the re-readings by the six actors of original dialogues transposed on the original scenes, the bloopers , visits to guest stars much appreciated by fans, all its elements served the cause of nostalgia during this reunion-spectacle, for nearly two hours.
The search for consensus
But it may be that the real nostalgia around Friends, and one of the fundamental reasons for its phenomenal and persistent success despite its new status as a problematic series lies elsewhere, is, in fact, at the generic level. Friends, despite some dramatic story arcs, remains primarily a mainstream sitcom that was conceived and produced at the very end of the Networks era (1950s-1990s) in the United States. This moment, very different from the current television landscape, is characterized by a reduced content offer and a business model based on advertising funding. A large channel like NBC must ensure that its content will be “salable” to advertisers, that it meets the tastes of the greatest number of viewers. The sitcom, the most popular genre of this period, is thus the genre which, historically and thanks to its display of humor, systematically seeks cultural consensus.
Indeed, the American sitcom is a genre that constantly negotiates the societal tensions of its time and its country. It is a space within popular culture that presents and questions various points of view, sometimes diametrically opposed; which questions the societal norms of an era and which possibly proposes dissenting possibilities. We can find in a sitcom like Friends, whose narrative continues for years, all kinds of ideological messages, because this dialectical process, this fine and detailed exploration of social issues, never ends in the life of a successful sitcom. She is, in fact, a source of inspiration. Yes Friends So often seems to end this cultural work by validating or strengthening the hegemonies in force, this reflects above all the limits of its commercial and industrial framework: a sitcom that pushes too far the limits of consensus risks censorship, or worse yet, of never see the light of day.
It is therefore not surprising that in certain respects Friends a very badly aged. But this uncomfortable aging actually reflects the deep commitment and occupation of Friends vis-à-vis the rapid and profound societal changes that upset the United States at the end of the 20th centurye century (increased visibility and acceptance of LGTBQ + people, questioning of gender norms and family composition, need to better integrate people of color into popular culture). Always in search of cultural compromise Friends, like other mainstream sitcoms of its time, was able to offer content that cringe the teeth of contemporary viewers.
The reflection of a societal debate
We must therefore understand this problematic content as part of a process of discussion and negotiation that reflects the state of societal debate at the time, like civic engagement. A sitcom from this television era was not meant to be progressive (although Friends has been in many respects) but to seek the support of the greatest number of spectators by offering them a model, a universe acceptable to the majority, a cultural and societal compromise – in this the genre is eminently political. That the compromise that has found Friends two decades ago disappointing some people today shows that it is this same consensus – the terms of the compromise – that has evolved, not in spite of Friends but perhaps precisely, in part, thanks to the series and to the cultural work it has undertaken for a decade.
It is not trivial to note that the glorious years of a genre so invested in the amicable and humorous negotiation of societal tensions are followed by a genre whose modus operandi is, in a certain way, located at the opposite of the sitcom: reality TV. In no way anchored in reality, these shows of fierce competition and heightened individualism seem, on the contrary, to encourage conflict, dissent and acute polarization (we will not forget that one of the most divisive American presidents has sharpened his reputation thanks to his own reality TV show).
A refuge series
And Friends remains popular, if the public remains at the rendezvous, it is because there is indeed an effect of nostalgia at work. But this nostalgia extends far beyond the simple universe Friends, well beyond an affinity for the characters, for the actors or for a bygone historical moment. Nostalgia for Friends, and the reason why so many people continue to appreciate it despite being out of step with our current sensibilities and norms, is, in reality, a nostalgia for a cultural process that no longer predominates on the small screen: a search for consensus and compromise.
In this new fragmented television ecology, the sitcom as a cultural object can no longer occupy its place before, can no longer assume its role of cultural negotiator. Also, it would seem that the tastes of the public no longer necessarily tend towards consensus but rather towards confrontation, demand and individualism. Want to take refuge in an episode of Friends, doudou series (admittedly a little moldy and overused), is ultimately not so difficult to understand.
Source: Numerama by www.numerama.com.
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