3. Finding God Again: I’ll Be There For You
On September 22, 1994 the first episode of Friends was aired. It was lucky to make it onto the screens. A test audience’s reaction to the Pilot was not very encouraging, concluding it was weak. It went on to become the most successful sit-com ever with the six actors concerned earning $1,000,000 an episode each by the time it finished, after 235 episodes, on May 6, 2004. Rumours continue to circulate that there will be a reunion special. Maybe not yet, however if eventually they need the money, which, admittedly, is unlikely, you can see the temptation. Meanwhile, the show continues to enjoy life after death through endless repeats and DVD sales.
What made it so successful? I would suggest that it was more than the humour, though I personally did, and still do, find it very funny. The basic idea is easily described: 'Six friends in their twenties pursue careers, love, and happiness in New York while relying on each other for support.' Some of the flavour can be got from the story-line of the Pilot. Five of the friends are in the coffee house, Central Perk. Central Perk is one of three places were the action in Friends largely takes place. A young woman enters, wet through, in a wedding dress. This turns out to be Rachel. She has just stood up her bridegroom who was waiting for her to get married. She decides to move in with Monica with whom she went to school. The group of six is complete:
- Joey, who wants to be an actor, but is a bit dumb.
- Chandler, who is an office worker and enjoys wisecracking. He shares a room with Joey. This is the second place where much of the action takes place.
- Ross who is a palaeontologist, but a bit of a nerd.
- Monica, Ross’ sister, is a chef and rather compulsive. Her apartment is the third place where the action takes place.
- Rachel, a spoilt little rich girl who likes shopping and fashion.
- Phoebe, who is a bit of a hippie, and has had a weird background and upbringing.
In the pilot, we are introduced to these six characters. The plot itself hinges around Ross, who has just been divorced because his wife discovered she was a lesbian, and Monica, who goes on a date with a man from the restaurant known as Paul the Wine Guy. Although only her first date, Monica has him back to her apartment and sleeps with him. She does this quite openly. The friends persuade Rachel to cut up the credit cards that her Daddy pays for. As Monica says: ‘Welcome to the real world, it sucks you’ll love it!’ Rachel gets a job as a waitress at Central Perk.
This gives us the four main characteristics of Friends and the lives of its characters.
1. Messy: The friends lives are all complicated. They have had issues, to put it mildly, in their upbringing, they all have their hang-ups, and their sexual relationships and love affairs are especially problematic. For the next 234 episodes the friends get into various difficult situations that provide the basis for each show. For example, Joey sleeps with any girl he meets. Monica falls in love with an older guy, but breaks up with him when he won’t have children with her. Rachel and Ross have an on off relationship throughout the whole 10 episodes including marrying by mistake, divorcing, and having a baby. Chandler isn’t good at relationships, but ends up marrying Monica after sleeping with her at Ross’ wedding (not the one to Rachel). Phoebe has problems with her twin sister, Ursula as well as her own share of sexual encounters. And this is not to mention problems at work and with parents, and many, many more relationship issues!
2. Support: In all this, however, they have each other to turn to for help and encouragement. It is this that keeps them going. So Phoebe, for example, can rely on them when she acts a surrogate mother for her brother’s children as can Chandler when he decides to change career and enter advertising. Whatever happens, they stick together and share it all.
3. Community: Following on from this, the six form a tightly knit group living either with each other or near each other. This can cause problems when they have boyfriends or girlfriends from outside the group. They enjoy just hanging-out with each other in the Coffee House or at each other’s apartments. While they have life apart from the group, but it is the group that is the focus of their lives. It is being together that keeps them going.
4. Acceptance: Although each has their own quirks and personalities, they totally accept one another. They may have annoying habits or character traits like Monica’s competitiveness and obsession with tidiness or Joey’s total stupidity, but there is no condemnation because of them. They may tease and banter with each other, but there is no question of judgement or rejection because of personality or behaviour.
So why was it so successful and why is still so popular? Well, it is extremely well-written and it is funny. But I believe the appeal of the show is that people can identify with it. People do live messy lives - not necessarily as messy as Friends, but messy nevertheless. The encouragement that they receive from one another is an ideal that we would all like. We feel disconnected and fragmented in our urban lifestyles. It is friends who keep us going and we, too, would like to have people who would support us in the way Joey, Chandler, Ross, Monica, Rachel and Phoebe support each other through thick and thin.
Friends is the sixties come of age.
The friends don’t worry about politics, religion, or ideology. These simply don’t concern or interest them. Ethically, there are no moral absolutes apart from their relationships with each other. There is no hierarchy within the group. They are all equal. They have their opinions, but they respect the fact that the others may not share them. Tolerance is taken for granted.
Why am I going on about this? Well I’ll tell you more in the next post. For now though, I would like just to ask this: if you were to create a God for Friends what would he be like? Wouldn’t he be like the Benevolent God I have described in previous posts? The ever-loving, ever-supportive, always accepting, never condemning God of much present Christianity?
And don’t you think our image of Jesus is that of someone who would be at home in Central Perk? I have no doubt at all that Jesus would be found drinking coffee at Central Perk, Starbucks, or wherever, but would he be any different to the rest of the clientele? Not if you listen to a lot of sermons, he wouldn’t. In fact, the Friends theme song could be his message as, indeed, it already is the message in many churches:
So no one told you life was gonna be this way
Your job's a joke, you're broke, your love life's D.O.A.
It's like you're always stuck in second gear
When it hasn't been your day, your week, your month, or even your year, but
I'll be there for you
(When the rain starts to fall)
I'll be there for you
(Like I've been there before)
I'll be there for you
('Cause you're there for me too)