Friends: The Reunion opens like a memorial: white text on a black screen, with the show’s air dates, solemnly informing us that the gang of six have only been in the same room once since the series finale. We cut to the final episode in question, the cast milling around Monica and Chandler’s empty apartment, Phoebe intoning “this is it,” before they all head out to Central Perk one last time. Cue sentimental music and an older, more lined David Schwimmer steps back onto the Burbank soundstage for the first time in 17 years. “Wow,” he says, shaking his head; his demeanour hovering between that of a man back in town for a high school reunion and that of an ex-paratrooper returning to Vietnam a few decades after the Tet Offensive.
As he’s joined by Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox, Jennifer Aniston, Matt LeBlanc and Matthew Perry, the surrealness ramps up. They fiddle with props, marvel at the size of the set. When it’s time to face the fans, herded by a boisterous James Corden onto a replica of the Central Perk couch in front of the fountain from the opening credits, all six actors are blinky and a little stilted. The rest of Friends: The Reunion tells us little new about the show itself (Perry struggled with his mental health during filming, the cast had great chemistry together, they all got super famous), but it strikes on a peculiar emotional register: mourning the loss of a cultural moment. We’re not so much celebrating Friends as we are reflecting on the end of the long 1990s.
The long 1990s are the halcyon days of the centrist dad. The big ideological conflicts had been euthanised: as Francis Fukuyama famously asserted in The End of History and The Last Man, the fall of the Soviet Union had permanently established Western liberal democracy as the ultimate destination for global politics. Gen X-ers, floating around in the amniotic fluid of the neoliberal consensus, hitched their fates to dot-com and property booms, with cyclical busts rather optimistically dismissed as a thing of the past.
In fact, the long 1990s are more a vibe than a literal historical decade. As Jeremy Gilbert put it, they are “characterised by the sense that technology is changing a lot, [but] at the level of politics, at the level of culture, nothing much is changing very substantially”.
“Nothing much changing very substantially” was the also defining feature of 90s sitcoms, Friends included. As Gwen Ihnat points out, another NBC comedy about nothing in particular – Seinfeld – lived by the mantra of “No hugging, no learning”. Friends was undeniably a more sentimental show, occasionally dipping a toe into outright schmaltz, but it too orbited around a yakkety-yak ensemble held hostage by their own neuroses. Most of Ross’s problems emerged from his beta-male anxiety; Joey, the loveable lummox, ran into his own idiocy again and again. Personalities didn’t change – and, as the show became aware of its own status as a cultural juggernaut, the humour became increasingly self-referential (“WE WERE ON A BREAK!” bellowed at least once a season).
Similarly, the gang’s daily habits revolved around nothing much changing. Sure, the idea that six struggling twenty-somethings could afford airy Manhattan apartments and to sit around in a coffee shop all day pushed the boundaries of plausibility even in the 1990s, but it was idleness that made the show work. Caffeine, snark, exasperation: these became the defining social tics of the end of history.
But Friends, for all the freshness and quippiness in its writing, was stunningly traditional in most respects. Season 4 came out at the same time as You’ve Got Mail, and yet computers are conspicuously absent from the series: perhaps, were communication made too frictionless through cell phones or emails, the mistakes and misunderstandings that drive the plots of old-school sitcoms would be obliterated? Indeed, technology, in the rare times it featured, served as a vehicle for screw-ups (Chandler opens an email and accidentally deletes Ross’s keynote speech; Rachel and Phoebe find a mobile phone at Central Perk and assume it belongs to a Young Hot Man™).
Though it had the distinct feel of the ‘90s, Friends relied on norms of sitcom writing which hadn’t changed for decades. Cheers had its thumbprints all over the series, from the magnetic force exerted by the gang’s chosen watering-hole, to the will-they-won’t-they relationship of Sam and Diane. Though Friends distinguished itself from the glut of family-oriented sitcoms that dominated the networks in 1994, it wasn’t the only youth-led ensemble in town. Indeed, the show was inspired by Living Single, a Fox comedy that first aired the year before Friends, centred around a close-knit cadre of African-American twenty-somethings across two households in one New York building.
Friends, then, didn’t reinvent the sitcom so much as it repackaged preexisting norms of the genre (would there have been Janice without The Nanny’s Fran Drescher?). In a typically postmodern fashion, so much emerged from reworking the familiar – a bar became a coffee shop, Sam and Diane were resuscitated as Ross and Rachel, and six Black people living in Brooklyn morphed into half a dozen Caucasians in Greenwich Village. It’s not surprising that Friends has since become so emblematic of the long 1990s. From the outset, it was culture coming up with something new by folding back on itself; playing on established themes.
Unfortunately for Fukuyama, his farewell to history was somewhat premature. The War on Terror, the financial crisis, Brexit, Trump, the rise of China and Russia under Putin… all put paid to the idea that the end of the Soviet Union was also the end of ideological conflict (for a decent précis of what happened to Fukuyama’s thesis, this covers the broad points pretty well). It wasn’t simply that events continued to happen, but that the belief in Western liberal democracy as the final stage of all nation-states was broken on the altar of what happened next.
And so it was that Friends had difficulty reconciling its soundstage fantasy of New York with 9/11: the fictional world of the show never acknowledged the event explicitly, but dedicated a wedding episode to “The People of New York City”.
The depoliticised and racially homogenous New York inhabited by the gang of six was always the product of screenwriting and set design, but those borders would be difficult to maintain today. Would Phoebe have to be an anti-vaxxer? Does Rachel support Black Lives Matter? Would Ross turn out to be an aggro-centrist, à la Will & Grace’s Debra Messing? The magic of Friends is that it operated unperturbed by history: that fiction could not be maintained now. In Friends: The Reunion, we bid goodbye to the long 1990s. RIP to a decade has been a long time dying.
Photograph courtesy of Warner Media