Last month, it was reported that a woman named Chase Robinson is being sued for, among other crimes, binge-watching Friends at work.
This wasn’t just a lazy hour during a slow afternoon. No, Robinson allegedly enjoyed 55 episodes over four days. Her work ethic is undoubtedly questionable, but I can relate to the obsession.
Like so many of my generation, since the final episode aired in 2004 I have watched Ross and Rachel go on a break and Monica get stung by a jellyfish (not to mention sung along to Phoebe’s ‘Smelly Cat’) more times than I can count. I know most of the characters’ lines by heart, and my sister and I regularly give each other the finger Ross and Monica-style.
However, to me, Friends isn’t just a cult TV show or a happy pastime. It’s a coping mechanism.
I have lived with depression and anxiety for the better part of a decade. Over that time, I’ve found ways to manage my symptoms of feeling stressed, worried and having trouble sleeping through different methods, including watching TV shows on repeat in order to unwind. I have a great social network of amazing people who are always willing to help, but when I’m feeling low, I prefer to be alone – it’s how I process my emotions.
Friends is a distraction, but it’s also a cherished mate that I can hang out with, commiserate with, laugh with and struggle with
However, quite often I need some form of distraction, and Friends is just that. But it’s also a cherished mate that I can hang out with, commiserate with, laugh with and struggle with whenever I need.
On the most basic level, it also brings back happy memories, like when I was a teenager sat in front of the TV with my mother and eagerly waiting to find out if Rachel got off the plane.
When Friends first came out, my life was uncomplicated (barring school nerves and unrequited crushes), but as I grew up the worries started to add up, as they do for most adults.
In my early twenties, I was in a job I hated. I was being micromanaged and every day felt like an angry, frustrated struggle – so much so that it affected my personal life. The day I left and was sat smiling on the tube headed home from the office of hell, my mind flicked to the episode where Monica, a hard-working passionate employee, got fired because of a couple of steaks and an aubergine, and how everything worked out just fine for her despite the pain she went through.
I’m fully aware it’s not reality, but rather a scripted TV show designed to make me feel better – and it does what it says on the tin.
Who among us can’t relate to the heartbreak, the career struggles, the money problems, the overbearing parents and the disappointing moments
I keep the show on in the background while I’m cooking, I’ll watch an episode to help me relax before I go to bed and sometimes, if I feel very anxious, I’ll even go on my Netflix app during my lunch hour at work (which is probably what Robinson should have done when she needed a Friends fix).
When I’m going through a stressful time, I have the habit of catastrophising – a mental health term for always imagining the worst scenario possible – as well as overthinking, which is exactly why I turn to a TV show that I’ve seen over and over, a million times. There’s an innate comfort in knowing exactly how a situation will unfold, even if it’s imaginary.
Of course, I love the complicated characters of Killing Eve, the political games in House Of Cards and I’ll happily analyse intricate scenes in Game Of Thrones, but these shows were designed to stimulate the mind, not relax it.
There’s a stressful element to them, which makes it difficult to sit through more than a few episodes at a time. When season two of Killing Eve came out, it took me several weeks to finish it, because the storyline made me feel tense and on edge. These shows are expertly made and feature fantastic actors, but there’s something missing: the human connection.
If we look past the glaring problems with Friends, such as the lack of BAME characters, the homophobic jokes and anti-feminist ideals (honestly, Rachel should have stayed on the plane) the show touched on a lot of issues that happen in most people’s lives. Who among us can’t relate to the heartbreak, the career struggles, the money problems, the overbearing parents and the disappointing moments.
One of my favourite scenes is when Chandler tells Rachel to quit her job at Central Perk, because she needs ‘The Fear’ of not having a job or money coming in, which will then push her into pursuing her dreams. Or the scene where Phoebe, who was a surrogate for her little brother and his wife, holds her newborn babies and cries, because she has to say goodbye to them. Or pretty much any scene that focuses on the bond between Chandler and Joey.
The feel-good moments that made Friends a cultural phenomenon, and it's why people keep coming back to the show
It’s these feel-good moments that have made Friends a cultural phenomenon and why people keep coming back to the show. It’s a model that followed the success of Seinfeld and Frasier, and was almost matched by shows such as Will and Grace and Gilmore Girls.
Friends was also released at the very beginning of the dotcom bubble, and before mobile phones became mainstream. This timing is important. These days, online streaming services and production companies are churning out new TV shows every month, and our attention span has been reduced. If the pilot episode isn’t amazing, we’re unlikely to keep watching because there’s another option just a click away – whereas in the mid-90s to early Noughties, we had to settle for whatever our weekly TV guide offered.
Friends also arrived during an era when we spent most of our days socialising with loved ones. It is the very ethos of the show; seeing the people you love every day, hanging out at your local coffee shop (let’s face it, pub) and gossiping with your best mates.
Comparatively, in 2019, we spend majority of our time communicating with people through digital means, which only serves to amplify stress and loneliness. As an example, nearly one fifth of the UK’s population reports feeling lonely, according to a recent study by Campaign to End Loneliness. Many of us are also constantly pushing ourselves to do better, eat better, work out more, be successful at work and be all-around perfect human beings who never fail.
Current TV offerings reflect this. Watch one episode of Suits, and you’ll feel empowered to become a badass boss who always wins. Switch over to Grey’s Anatomy, where ruthlessness is rewarded with special favours and a boost in popularity.
What the writers of Friends did so brilliantly – up until season seven at least, it became ‘glossier’ after that – was that they offered us a reality with normal people who mess up from time to time, but where everything is always okay in the end.
Perhaps this is why Friends has become my on-screen security blanket.
I’m grateful for Ross’s three divorces, Rachel’s journey to independence, Phoebe’s lack of money, Monica’s fertility struggles, Chandler’s daddy issues and Joey’s persistence in becoming an actor. They allow me to shut off my mind, if only for half an hour, and remember that life can be beautifully complicated, but that even when the rain starts to pour, they’ll be there for me.
Almara Abgarian is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @almaraabgarian
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