‘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 a refrain that will be familiar to almost anyone who came of age in the 1990s or early noughties watching six impossibly attractive twentysomethings hang out in Central Perk. And not only watching, but wishing, hoping, planning that one day, this life would be ours.
Friends, which, slightly terrifyingly turns 20 next week, presented a vision of adult life that went against everything anyone warned us about growing up, one where even if not everything turned out as planned, it would be all right anyway. If you lost your job, there’d be another. If you didn’t have insurance, you’d manage, possibly with the help of George Clooney. Relationships could and probably would fail, but you’d be able to pick yourself up, even if – shock horror – you were a woman of marriageable age.
Supposedly, Monica’s apartment was rent-controlled, but even in the mid-1990s property in Greenwich Village was scarcely affordable. How was Rachel able to pay her bills as a waitress, after Daddy and Barry cut her off, especially given her predilection for expensive clothes and a haircut that must have required a significant amount of maintenance? No matter, she managed, and we would too, as long as we had good friends to help.
Fiction inevitably reflects the outer world, and Friends captured the zeitgeist of an affluent, stable decade. Yes, it was a comedy, often trivial, with storylines about monkeys, Ugly Naked Guy, and the logistics of wearing a turkey on your head. The early episodes appear very dated – those clothes! those hairstyles! Life before all-encompassing technology! – but watching it now is almost like slipping into a comfy pair of old slippers. In part, that’s because a better sitcom is yet to come along – How I Met Your Mother was never quite as charming – and in part it’s because it put a rose-tinted gloss on growing up and having to figure things out.
As a teenager by the time E4 started airing Friends on Big Thursday (followed, of course, by ER), I remember a show that made adult life seem better. These weren’t the overconfident goddesses of Sex and the City or the muddled teens of Dawson’s Creek – they were relatively normal (albeit more attractive) individuals dealing with what life threw at them. And at a time when decisions were being presented as life-changing and every social situation was a minefield, it was the ultimate escapism to watch a programme where nobody talked about how well they did in their exams or where they went to university; where success was about being surrounded by people who made you laugh or who were there when someone made you cry.
In the Friends universe, adult life offered a (mostly) clean slate; Monica’s weight and Ross’ nerd status were recalled, but they were never really judged for the poor decisions of their younger selves (until Brad Pitt’s cameo, at least). Cool, in Friends, was about being funny and self-deprecating, not having the right pair of shoes and dozens of boys chasing after you.
It glamourised independence; made living with your friends seem the ultimate dream. This group spent every holiday or birthday with their friends, threw fabulous parties and only occasionally had to deal with familial responsibility. Monica’s nagging mother was there, but in the background.
And looking back, in an age when endless column inches are dedicated to the portrayal of sex and relationships in programmes like Girls, it made things seem simple. In Friends, there was no judgment; Monica and Rachel argued over the last condom in the packet, but there was never a suggestion they were doing anything shocking. The men and women in Friends were always on equal footing; intellectually, comedically, and even emotionally.
However, as with so many things, Friends sold us a lie. Very little about it ever made any sense, from the friendships themselves – after not even being invited to Rachel’s wedding, would Monica really have been willing to let her into her home? Would palaeontologist Ross have had anything in common with the dim actor Joey – to the situations they extricated themselves from. You could be sent home from your job for rage issues, and be flourishing as a professor a few years later; you could wake up in a lover’s arms to a roomful of museum visitors and shrug it off. And let’s not even start on Phoebe having her brother’s babies.
More pertinently though, Friends presented an image of early adult life that was probably never true, but today seems laughable. The modern twentysomething can’t afford to sit around drinking vats of coffee, partly because of the cost of a latte, and partly because in 2014 if we want a career we’ve got to be working for it most of the time. The modern twentysomething is dating online or on Tinder, not enjoying ‘meet-cutes in a coffee shop’, and women are being judged for their choices in a way none of the female Friends ever were. And for a good number, even moving out of the family home and in with friends remains a pipe dream. Nothing in Friends gave any clues about navigating the adult world as it fell into recession; a reality based around unaffordable living costs and internships, not lucky breaks round every corner.
So yes, it sold us a lie, and not because few of us would ever live in Greenwich Village. But then, it was never anything like Girls, or 2 Broke Girls, or even Modern Family; it never wanted to be warts-and-all. It never pretended to be a universe where actions had consequences, or where mundane worries mattered. And so – while I look back and rage bitterly at their easy, worry-free lives – a part of me still wants to be having coffee at Central Perk. Served by Gunther, obviously.