The other day, following the Internets wherever they would lead me, I came across this link offered as an elaboration on some joke or other. It appeared to be a very clever parody of a script of an episode of Friends. A brief excerpt (the entire first scene):
CENTRAL PERK (ALL PRESENT EXCEPT JOEY)
MONICA: Alright. Phoebe?
PHOEBE: Okay, okay. If I were omnipotent for a day, I would want, um, world peace, no more hunger, good things for the rain-forest… And bigger boobs!
ROSS: Yeah, see.. you took mine. Chandler, what about you?
CHANDLER: Uh, if I were omnipotent for a day, I’d.. make myself omnipotent forever.
RACHEL: See, there’s always one guy. (MOCKING) “If I had a wish, I’d wish for three more wishes.”
ALL: Hey Joey. Hi. Hey, buddy.
MONICA: Hey, Joey, what would you do if you were omnipotent?
JOEY: Probably kill myself!
MONICA: ..Excuse me?
JOEY: Hey, if Little Joey’s dead, then I got no reason to live!
ROSS: Joey, uh- OMnipotent.
JOEY: You are? Ross, I’m sorry..
Brilliant, right? All the Friends chatting at Central Perk, the dialogue sounding just like exaggerated versions of the already grotesquely caricatured characters, their chatter even more inane, the jokes even more mild and unfunny than in the actual show.
Except, of course, that as I read further — it only dawned on me about halfway through the script — I realized that this was a transcription of a real Friends episode. I later confirmed with a couple of devotees of the show that there had in fact been an episode that included the Friends girls getting George Stephanopoulos’ pizza delivery by mistake (mushroom, green pepper, and onion).
I considered whether this episode seemed parodic because it happened to be particularly representative of the series, an ur-Friends. But thinking back on other episodes I realized that probably nearly every episode was just as representative, just as perfect an embodiment of that particular Friends vapidity.
I was never a Friends fan. I started watching it in the late ’90s, in reruns only, because it was on between The Simpsons and Seinfeld, right around the time I was sitting down in front of the TV with dinner. By this time it seemed that everyone in the country but me knew all the details about Rachel and Ross, how Phoebe came to be carrying her brother’s babies, and the backstories of each character that were laughably irrelevant to the character’s actions and manner.
(For example: Never in a million years, without viewing the handful of episodes in which this is mentioned, would I have thought that Ross was a paleontologist, of all things. Nothing about him suggests intellectual curiosity, intelligence, or the kind of dedication it takes to get through grad school. Except when his job provides color for some plot incident or joke, he seems as devoid of an actual career and educational history as any of the rest of the Friends — with the exception of Joey, who is convincingly integrated with his vocation as a bad, semi-employed actor. We can assume that Matt LeBlanc and the show’s writers drew deeply on their own experiences to attain such realism.)
As I unraveled the show’s bland and comforting mythology, I gradually began to seen how important a program it was, why it was so incredibly popular — a true “television event.” Friends was nothing less than a set of instructions for people my age about how to traverse their 20s. It’s a show about major Life Transitions: getting a job, starting and ending relationships, getting divorced, getting married, having children. The mild irony that is applied to everything else in the show is held in abeyance when the characters are in the midst of a Life Transition: Rachel gets a job other than waitressing, Ross gets engaged to the English girl and then flubs the wedding, Monica and Chandler fall in love, have a perfect wedding, and have a baby.
At the top of the hierarchy of Life Transitions are those connected with forming a heterosexual nuclear family. Finding the One is essential; Getting Married, in a lavishly expensive ceremony, must follow; having Offspring is then the payoff, the final transition away from the paradise represented by the oversized apartments and the endless hours of banter at Central Perk. Anything in the show can be mocked (Friends was contemporary with Seinfeld), but Monica’s need to have a perfect wedding cannot be mocked — it is in fact bedrock.
In a television show from my childhood, The Greatest American Hero, the protagonist, schoolteacher Ralph Hinkley (William Katt) finds a superhero suit of extraterrestrial origin. But it’s not self-evident how to use the suit’s powers. It came with an instruction manual of sorts, but the main comedy of the show is due to the protagonist’s having misplaced the manual for the suit and having to figure out how to use it on his own.
It turns out there was an audio-visual instruction manual for my generation, beginning with Fast Times at Ridgmont High and continuing through the John Hughes movies. I didn’t see most of these movies as a teenager, and when I discovered them in my early 20s I immediately recognized them as the missing manual for my adolescence. If only I’d seen The Breakfast Club, I would have known how to behave in high school. Friends was the next volume, showing kids my age how to quit their adolescent hijinks and get on with the complicated process of establishing an adult life as a worker, a lover, a consumer.