Cable TV came to my house a year after it reached my neighbour’s in the late 1990s. My mother finally got tired of shouting my name every evening from the large window, which overlooked houses not very different from ours—refugee homes that had morphed into multi-storeys over decades—and convinced her husband that it “didn’t look nice” that their 12-year-old daughter had to go next door to watch TV. It never bothered me. Instead of spending hours waiting for the clock to strike 6 so that I could tell my tired stenographer mother how school went, I had found new company, Friends.
Friends was the first TV show I watched in English. I would wrap up my homework by 4:30pm, and 15 minutes later, knock on the neighbour’s door and plonk myself in front of the bloated 1990s television set alongside their two teenaged kids, all set to be mesmerised for 30 minutes by the lives of six strangers in a foreign land. Once the show was over, I would ask someone what words the actors had used while playing foosball, eating pizza or staring at themselves in the mirror. The American accent was still alien to me. What was not alien was the comfort the characters offered.
In Lisa Kudrow’s Phoebe, the so-called “different” one, especially, I had found the assurance that it was okay to be taller than the rest of your seventh standard classmates. So when the gang got together for a Friends Reunion special on Thursday, I knew I had to watch it as soon as I wrapped up work for the day. At some point during the one-hour-plus nostalgia trip combining behind-the-scenes clips, recreation of classic scenes, a ramp walk, and a talk-show-style interview with (fanboy) James Corden, a teary-eyed Lady Gaga said something similar when she joined Kudrow on the Central Perk couch to perform Smelly Cat. “Can I just say something?” said Gaga, dressed in a wacky-meets-Phoebe boho chic bright orange outfit. “Thank you so much for being the person for all of us on Friends that was — I don’t know if this is the right way to say it — but the different one, or the one that was really herself.” Phoebe’s hair-eating habits, weird painting skills and devil-may-care attitude were like a balm for an awkward teenager who was too shy to tell her parents that she was afraid of being bullied.
Friends is perhaps the best sitcom ever, simply because of the genial affection that the characters had for each other and the simple ways in which they showed it. During the reunion, when Corden asked the cast, most dressed in black (Matt Le Blanc looked adorable in a bluish purple suit and black shirt), about off-screen romances, Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer confessed there was some real attraction. “I had a major crush on Jen,” Schwimmer said. “It was reciprocated,” Aniston said. “I remember saying one time to David, ‘It’s going to be such a bummer if the first time you and I actually kiss is going to be on national television,’” she said. “Sure enough …”
Back to the 90s
By 1999, I was watching Friends from my sofa at home. The internet had come into our lives too. I would note down the instances when I couldn’t understand a line and log in—using a dial-up modem—early the next morning to read the scripts online. I would memorise the lines and perform them for my brother, seven years younger than me, and we’d laugh and entertain ourselves while work kept our parents busy. That’s how—much like BTS’ RM shared during his appearance on the reunion special—I gained the confidence to speak in English.
Often my grandmother would complain that I was watching gore log (white people) instead of studying. “Brush up your math. Become an accountant,” my businessman father would insist. “You can become a doctor since you like science so much,” my mother would suggest during dinner. I didn’t want to be accountant. Nor a doctor. I didn’t know what I wanted. I had one dream though: to live in New York. The city where you could be whatever you wanted to be. A bride-to-be who changes her mind at the last moment to not be a bride, an actor who’s unlikely to make it but doesn’t give up, a masseuse who drives a cab and speaks her mind, a cleanliness freak who has a vacuum cleaner for a vacuum cleaner, a “doctor of bones” who’s ready to love someone for the rest of his life without telling them, or someone whose job title is known to no one. But in a family where girls are “supposed” to get married by the age of 23, it was a meant to be just that, a dream.
Behind all those quirks and that slapstick comedy, Friends offered a promise—of being there not just for each other on the show but also the person watching them. It’s probably why so many—even those who were born after the show ended its 10-year run in 2004—have binge-watched the show on streaming platforms during the pandemic. It’s reassuring and soothing, even if it is impossibly upbeat.
When I watched the reunion special, 21 years after the season finale, it didn’t feel as special as I thought it would be. While it was nice to see the cast catching up, even if it was all scripted, and on one stage, I realised there was a reason the show was never revived. It’s hard to recreate that reassuring sense of everything turning out okay in the end. There’s simply too much to the show to be revisited in an hour or so. Some things should be left frozen in the past, to be savoured by generations to come.
As for me, when I finally made my way to university in New York and stood in front of that iconic building in the West Village in 2018 on a full moon night on a Tuesday, I realised that the show was actually shot on a set and not inside the apartment. It’s funny how a fictional comedy show can propel you to dream and make you work towards it, even if you weren’t aware of it until you stood outside that building.