owlmoose: (coffee)
KJ ([personal profile] owlmoose) wrote2019-01-28 06:19 pm
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Some thoughts on the occasion of a Friends rewatch

Back at the beginning of December, I was out of town for work, and T texted me to ask what I thought were the two or three best episodes of Friends. He had heard that the series would be taken off Netflix at the end of the year, and he wanted to revisit the show a little while he still could. Off the top of my head, I recommended TOW The Embryos and TOW Chandler in a Box... and then I felt the urge to start over from the beginning myself, just in case I never had the opportunity again. As it turns out, either T was wrong about Netflix losing the rights or something changed, because it's still there -- and good thing, because I just finished on Saturday morning. I skipped a handful of episodes entirely, and fast-forwarded through parts of many others, but overall I found it a satisfying and close-enough-to-complete rewatch -- while reminding me why I don't often watch it anymore.

Though I had fun watching my favorite moments over again, revisiting my favorite story arcs and jokes and guest appearances, I quickly came to the realization that Friends in its existing form would never fly today. It is, to put it mildly, problematic in so many ways. People often talk about the whiteness of Friends, a criticism that is more than fair, especially for a sitcom set in New York City. (One thing I did notice: the guys have love interests of color, two of whom appear over multi-episode arcs (Julie and Charlie), but of the women, only Monica ever dates a man of color, and he's a one-and-done (Julio, from TOW All the Jealousy).) And then we have the treatment of gender and sexuality. There is so much casual sexism, heterosexism, and homo- and transphobia, to the point that I found it super jarring. And it actually got worse as the show went along, to the point that I rolled my eyes at something in nearly every episode. Male characters are mocked for showing the barest hint of stereotypically feminine traits, gender essentialism runs rampant, and the "ha ha Chandler seems gay" jokes become more frequent and more offensive. There are only two LGBTQ characters who recur over more than one season: Ross's ex-wife Carol and her partner (later wife) Susan. They mostly serve as props to complicate Ross's life, and they all but disappear in later seasons -- Carol makes her last appearance in Season 7, and Susan last appears in main continuity during Season 4 (she also shows up briefly in the S6 AU, TOW That Could Have Been). And I don't even know where to start with Chandler's father, going down to even the basic issue of pronoun choice (the show uses "he" consistently, but it's unclear whether that's the character's preference, or misgendering by Chandler and his mother). But these big bold issues actually bother me much less than the lower level sexism, homophobia, and transphobia that feel like a constant undercurrent.

The other main problem I have with the show, again especially in its later years, is just how badly the characters became parodies of themselves. Traits that were always present -- Chandler's social awkwardness, Rachel's materialism, Joey's womanizing, Ross's neuroticism, Phoebe's quirkiness, Monica's control issues -- are exaggerated beyond all reason. It happens to all of them (though Phoebe and Rachel are usually spared the worst of it), but in my opinion, the character who fares the worst in this department is Joey. Though he's always the least intellectual and knowledgeable of the group, by season 6 or so, he seems barely able to function as an adult in society. All of their characterizations strain my credibility from time to time, but Joey's stretches the furtherest and breaks most often for me, which is too bad because otherwise I'm quite fond of him.

Finally, let's talk about how bothered I am by the finale, starting with the birth plot. Surprise twins in 2004? I suppose I can let that go, especially in a sitcom. Erica not realizing that she’s carrying twins pushes believability quite a bit further, but even setting that aside, I refuse to believe that Monica was not reading every word of her baby-to-be’s medical file or asking to see every single ultrasound picture. The show pushes the character stereotypes to the breaking point... except when necessary to create a plot twist or set up a laugh. I didn't buy it for a second, and as a result I was rolling my eyes when I should have been carried away in an exciting moment.

But that's not even the main issue. It's time to talk about Ross and Rachel.

I want to preface this by saying I don't hate Ross as much as some folks do, although I don't blame anyone for disliking him. I also don't hate that this was the endgame relationship for both of them -- in the big picture, it's the only narrative choice that makes sense for a 1990s/early 2000s sitcom. I was expecting it to happen eventually from the moment we learn that Emma was conceived. But the way the show got them there doesn't work for me at all. Consider the infamous "break" of the third season. I actually agree with Ross that they were, as far as he knew, broken up at that point, and while it was inadvisable for him to immediately run out and sleep with someone else, he didn't actually cheat on her. But if we take a step back to the reason for that break, I'm with Rachel all the way. Ross never supported Rachel in her career, and his out-of-control jealousy (of both Mark and the time she spent at her job) led him to treat her poorly. It never seemed like Ross truly respected Rachel as a whole person with a life outside of being his girlfriend. Those are serious issues, worth ending a relationship over, and it always bothered me that the breakup was so often framed as Rachel overreacting to Ross's supposed infidelity.

So when Ross declared his love for her and assumed that she'll turn down the career opportunity of a lifetime to be with him, it didn't sit well with me. At all. And what really makes me mad is how easy the fix would be. Ross could've shown genuine character growth by telling her to still go to Paris and asking to make a long distance relationship work. This would have shown that he trusts her now along with respect for her career. You could even still have the emotional conversation at the airport, and the reunion at his apartment where she comes back to agree to give long distance a try, and she could have been in the final scene -- and after the gang gets their one last coffee, Ross takes Rachel to the airport.

Instead, we get... this, where we come full circle. Rachel's most important role is as Ross's girlfriend, and it doesn't matter what else she might do. It was disappointing, and my disappointment in its ending colors my view of the entire relationship.

I recall a contract negotiation in which the six core cast members were asking for more money. This happened during Season 6, and when that season finale was filmed, no one knew if there would be a Season 7. That episode ended with Chandler and Monica's engagement, and sometimes I think that might have been the perfect place to draw a line under the series. Some good episodes and arcs came out of Chandler and Monica's marriage, Phoebe's relationship with Mike, Rachel's pregnancy and the birth of Emma, and Joey developing feelings for Rachel (I actually liked that relationship a lot better this time through). But I don't know if it was worth all the lazy writing, growing homophobia, and other problems that got worse as the show went along. I actually considered quitting my rewatch at that point, and if I ever revisit the show again, that's what I'll probably do. But more likely, I expect I'll watch a favorite single episode or arc from time to time, if I need some comfort food television, and for the most part leave the show where it belongs, as a fond memory of another time.
skytintedwater: (Stephanie)

[personal profile] skytintedwater 2019-01-29 03:30 am (UTC)(link)
I remember the exact moment when I stopped liking Friends. In TOW Chandler takes a bath, Monica spends time encouraging him to take a bath, something considered 'feminine' (because bathing and smelling good are gendered, apparently?). Anyway, as soon as he does, she calls him a 'girl in a tub'.
Using 'girl' as an insult is bad, but it's worse when it comes from a woman, and worse again when it's from the woman who was telling you that having a bath is a relaxing thing.
Having said that, the only thing that kept me watching through the last few seasons was Monica and Chandler's relationship. It was refreshing to me to see a couple that didn't low-key hate each other all the time.
hibiscustea: (Default)

[personal profile] hibiscustea 2019-01-29 07:37 am (UTC)(link)
Oh thank you for this. Friends never clicked with me while it was airing (that laugh track), and then after it aired I tried watching some bits and pieces of it, but never got what the fuss was about, and never really grew to care for the characters because they always seemed more like caricatures to me, Rachel and Phoebe excepted, just assumed it was the way I'd been watching the series, and never mustered up the energy to power through and "get it". I don't think I watched enough to pick up on some of the bigger isms that you talk about pervading the show, but I saw enough to know you are spot-on with the pervasive subtextual sexism/homophobia. And I do remember Monica being the punchline of a lot of fat jokes. That hurt a lot; being a fat kid, then a fat teen, then a fat adult - I couldn't stomach it.

Anyway, thank you for your thoughts on this.
hibiscustea: (Default)

[personal profile] hibiscustea 2019-02-02 10:05 pm (UTC)(link)
Ugh, the fat suit episodes. The entire running joke was just shitty and terrible. Anyway, I feel increasingly comfortable with my decision to ignore the series.