Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
Unlike most of my childhood classmates, I did not watch Friends in junior high or high school. It was a bridge too far for my very conservative parents, so it wasn’t allowed on the television in our house. But like most of my peers, I knew who Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Monica were. Friends captured the zeitgeist of a generation—it was impossible to escape it, or to escape the catchy theme song written by The Rembrandts and immortalized by the show: “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.” Words that defined for a generation what friendship was supposed to be all about.
In college, I finally caught up with the big Friends fuss, and if you watch Friends: The Reunion on HBO Max (now retitled The One Where They Get Back Together), you will come to realize that Friends was indeed a huge fuss. Before watching the reunion special, I never knew how massively popular the show was on a global scale or how important it was to so many people—to me it was just that show about 20-something single New Yorkers all my friends had been watching for years that I’d never been allowed to watch. I’m still not sure how I managed to see all the episodes while I was in college. I know I had to have watched them out of order—picking up the linear story in 2001 when I started watching, and somehow piecing the rest of the earlier seasons together via network reruns (yes, kids, once upon a time, we couldn’t stream television on demand). It’s possible that one or more of my roommates might have owned previous seasons on DVD—I honestly don’t remember! What I do remember is that once I started watching it, I got it. I understood the hype even if I didn’t grasp the global impact.But the idea that people go through a stage of “friends as family” and then graduate into “real” family is one I find to be a less-good story.
Friends was a show with a very specific goal, which was to depict the lives of young adults at that time “when your friends are your family.” In Friends: The Reunion, this is what writer/co-creator/producer Marta Kauffman said they set out to do, and it was a winning formula. In this way, all six principal actors were the stars of the show—no one person was the stand-out star. They told a story about a time of life that nearly everyone experiences. The period after high school for some, after college for others—the deep breath into the whatever-is-next. It’s a period of tension and high emotion—a time of life none of us ever really feels prepared for. I got it, and I still get it. In a way, I’m glad I didn’t start watching Friends as a preteen in 1994 because when I did start watching it, I was finally within the target audience. I started watching at that time in my life when my friends actually were my family so it resonated with me on another level rather than just entertaining me. And by the time Friends came to an end in 2004, I was a newlywed and feeling that stage the friends were in as they parted ways with each other on screen. But that also meant I felt the sadness of the Friends finale in a way I wasn’t able to fully put my finger on until I watched Friends: The Reunion. Because the fatal flaw of this meta-theme of Friends is, I think, the insinuation that “friends as family” is a period of time that has to come to a natural end.
Watching Friends: The Reunion was fun and nostalgic, but as Marta Kauffman talked about how they decided to end the show when they did—that the friends getting married and having children signaled a natural end to the period when your friends are your family—I started to think about what that communicates. What does a show like Friends say about when adulthood—”true” adulthood—begins? What does it say about our loves and the way we make space for people in our lives? Or, rather, the way we don’t make space, and the desperate loneliness many of us experience in young adulthood because of it.
I understand the impetus to end these sorts of shows where they often end—when friends pair up into forever relationships, marriages are formed, and children are had. I get that it feels like a natural ending to shows like Friends, to end the story where one type of family is traded off for another. I also understand that stories have to end somewhere and such transitions lend themselves to a feel of a natural ending. But I worry that such stories send an unhealthy message about the way we segment and fragment our lives—as if we only have so much love to go around and one stage must be traded off for another or you cannot advance in life. Married people with children can thus become viewed as those who have progressed to the next stage of adulthood, and singles or childless people can become viewed as those who are “stuck” or less mature—in stories and in real life.
But this is simply not true. There’s nothing less-developed or less-mature about a person who is single or childless (by choice or by circumstance), but the relegation of the single life to “before” status in sitcoms like Friends can communicate that—especially if you “graduate” from your friends being your family into a family of marriage and children (leaving your friends behind). Some relationships die natural deaths of course; not every friendship is meant to last a lifetime. But the “time when your friends are your family” doesn’t have to end; in fact, it shouldn’t. If we give up on friendship-family when we get married or have children, we deny blessings in our own lives and abandon people who need the family that can only be found in friendship. What happens to the friend who never gets married when all his or her friends pair up at the altar, have children, and move away? To the lonely single mother? To the widows and orphans among us? Married couples often find themselves lonely, as well, once they realize they “moved on” from their friendship groups when they got married. The message that we leave one behind for another has, I believe, created generations of lonely, sometimes desperately unhappy, people who have family and children, but no one to talk to.
Friendship-family must coexist with marriage and children, or we will all find ourselves not only lonely, but poorer in our relationships. Furthermore, if singles only hang out with singles and marrieds only with marrieds, we will never fellowship together. We grow and experience life with perspectives each of the others need. Cultivating friendship-family can help us see through the eyes of friends of all stages of life, learning, helping each other, and growing in empathy.
Maybe I’m overanalyzing what Marta Kauffman said in Friends: The Reunion; maybe I’m judging the show a little too harshly. Friends set out to tell a story about a period in time in some young New Yorkers’ lives. And it succeeded in its goal. And it does tell a true story: some friendships peter off around the time marriages and children happen; this is very common. People move away and fall out of contact. Lives fall out of rhythm. Not all friendships are close friendships for life, and we don’t really know what happened to the friendships of Ross and Rachel, Chandler and Monica, Phoebe, and Joey after that final scene. (In fact, we’re welcome to believe what we want about their future friendships, I suppose!) But the idea that people go through a stage of “friends as family” and then graduate into “real” family is one I find to be a less-good story than some other stories that have handled similar material with just a slightly different touch.
The sitcom New Girl always struck me as an updated (and needfully diverse!) Friends. It’s essentially the same concept executed the same way, but instead of New York City, these friends live in an apartment in Los Angeles. New Girl, like Friends, ends at about the stage that the friends start to get married and settle down—but with one important difference. Whereas the Friends final episode gave us the six friends saying goodbye to their empty apartment and then heading down for one last coffee (a clear end to their way of life together as they move forward), New Girl gives us a goodbye to an empty apartment, but then they flash forward in time. All of them are still friends! Living in the suburbs and hanging out together with their families, having adjusted the habits and rhythms of their single lives to fit the rhythms of marriage and child rearing. In New Girl, the friends don’t outgrow the time when they were each other’s family—rather they expanded that time to embrace spouses and children. And that’s what true family does: it expands and embraces as life changes, it doesn’t contract and fragment. The New Girl writers showed us that the end was not the end of friends-as-family; the friends remained integral parts of each others’ lives.
It’s fitting that HBO Max has gone back and retitled the reunion special The One Where They Get Back Together because the six actors who play the friends hadn’t all been in the same room together more than one time in seventeen years. I was astonished at that fact, and it was interesting to see the way the cast looked around at each other—a little baffled, almost, confused as to why they hadn’t taken the time to make space for each other. Life had imitated art, and they moved on from the show into relationships and natural families that took them away from their Friends family. But when they got back together for Friends: The Reunion, they all expressed that each of the people in that room—from that show—was like family, and they wanted to spend more time all together as a group. They wanted to recapture the reality of friendship-family.
Speaking as someone who recently moved north across the country to live in the same city as my childhood best friend, I am here to attest to the power of the familial nature of lasting friendships. Being married (with children) doesn’t in any way diminish the importance of my closest friendships—they are still life-giving and sustaining in ways no other of my relationships are. Neither do my friends who are like family to me detract from my actual family. There is room for all at the table. And for some people, the friendship-family is vital.
Friends as family and family as family (parents, children, spouses, siblings) are not the same thing—they’re not supposed to be the same. Friendship love is a different sort of love than our other loves, and we need it all throughout our lives. So what do we lose when we declare a “natural end” to the time when our friends are our family? We lose the sort of fellowship only a “friend who sticks closer than a brother” can bring. We lose a facet of love that can teach us about the nature of God, that can teach us about Christ manifest on earth walking with his friends, that can teach us about what it means to love another person as a peer without the romanticism or eroticism of marriage or the authority of being a parent or child. If we’re going to love and live like Christ, we should consider the time when our friends are our family as a perpetual season rather than something to move on from. It is a blessing from God the Father to us.