"Plenty of sitcoms have lasted 10 seasons or more, enjoyed sky-high ratings and featured beloved and talented casts always associated with their roles. But no sitcom has endured in the pop-culture firmament the way Friends has," says Kelly Lawler, in marking Sunday's 25th anniversary of Friends' premiere episode. "Although many aspects of the series are clearly dated – from its frequent homophobic and transphobic jokes to its lily-white depiction of New York – Friends endures as a cultural touchstone for multiple generations. Seinfeld lives on in reruns, but nobody is asking Julia Louis-Dreyfus 10 times a day whether she'd do a revival. So what is it about Friends that prevents time (or even its own shortcomings) from erasing it from our collective consciousness?" Other sitcoms like Seinfeld, Cheers and M*A*S*H were simply better than Friends at being knee-slappingly hilarious and consistent, says Lawler. Designing Women and The Mary Tyler Show hold up just a little bit better on a modern-day rewatch, Lawler adds. "And even if you want to call Friends the greatest sitcom of all time, that doesn’t explain why it has no counterpart in drama that has endured as much," says Lawler. "What’s the greatest drama of all time, and why doesn’t it have a piece of furniture in front of the Eiffel Tower? Is it NYPD Blue? The Sopranos? ER? ER is celebrating its 25th anniversary this week, too, but you’d never know it. The advantage of Friends is that its greatness stems from a different place than its peers. It wasn’t so much the gang's antics that made the show great, although there were plenty of those, and they were often hilarious. It was the love fans have for the people who got into trouble. Friends was funny and familiar, but the familiarity was the real draw. It operated from a place of love and joy, rather than cynicism and sarcasm. Watching the series was, as the cliche goes, hanging out with some friends. And it's more comforting to settle into the couch with Phoebe and a rousing rendition of 'Smelly Cat' than hang out with Jerry Seinfeld.
Debating whether Friends was good or bad is healthy and important: "Forget the Rachel haircut; I think Friends’ ability to polarize is the show’s true legacy," says Kelsey Miller. "It has become a way for us to look at (and argue about) enormous societal issues — racism, misogyny, homophobia — through the lens of a sitcom."
Why isn't Friends discussed as a Gen X show?: "These days, when we talk about Friends — a show created by two baby boomers, Marta Kauffman and David Crane — we talk about it within the context of how younger generations, both millennials and Generation Z, still appreciate it 25 years later," says Jen Chaney. "Why is the sitcom so rarely discussed within the context of the age group that it portrayed? Friends is the most enduring, influential portrait of Generation X that American pop culture has ever produced. Yet that label, weirdly, never gets placed on it. Which feels very Generation X. Of course one of the biggest TV shows of all time, one that happens to be specifically about our age group, would never get credit for being a Generation X show. I mean, could that be any more Gen X?" Chaney says one reason is that Friends "differed in its sensibility from the commonly acknowledged Gen X cultural touchstones of the time, which tended to be anti-establishment and have something of a cynical streak. The year 1994 alone gave us several examples: the aforementioned Reality Bites (which, at the time, wasn’t seen as anti-establishment enough by some Xers); Kevin Smith’s Clerks; and Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, released just months after Kurt Cobain’s death, a defining moment for those weaned on the grunge movement. The TV comedies that Xers tended to gravitate toward back then — Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Beavis and Butt-Head — also possessed a cynicism that Friends did not. The jokes on Friends could be sarcastic and snarky, but the show’s heart was fundamentally warm. Whatever Gen X was supposed to be, Friends didn’t quite feel like that."
Friends bosses have different views on claims it hasn't aged well: Co-creator Marta Kauffman regrets "Fat Monica," saying: "I wish I had my 2019 glasses on when we did a lot of it, so there are things I look back on and go, ‘Yeah, if I had known better, I would have done things differently.' But I didn’t." Executive producer Kevin S. Bright, meanwhile, has no regrets: "No, because those are things about now and those weren’t the things about then. I think we broke plenty of new ground. You’d never seen a gay wedding on television before Friends. You’d never seen blatant sexuality on a sitcom before Friends. So I think we broke our ground.”
Then-NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield recalls hearing the Friends pitch: Co-creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane’s pitch, based on their lives, “provided an authenticity and provided a point of view,” he says. “And that specificity, that authenticity, that vision spoke to us. And in the way the world has gone in the last 25 years, that message is only more true today: Make it for a passionate, loyal audience. They can smell when it’s a fake, so respect the audience; they know a lot more than you may be giving them credit for, and you will be rewarded for aiming high.”