It’s not Melrose Place. That’s what it comes down to. Past the ratings and the Emmy nominations and the T-shirts and the billboards and the theme song playing at every stop on every radio dial and the 14, 15, 16 — we’ve lost count — magazine covers and the endless Internet discussions about the show, that’s what it comes down to. It’s not Melrose Place. It’s a half-hour sitcom about the people who might watch Melrose Place—and then sit around and talk about it.
It’s about people who do not know Heather Locklear or Laura Leighton or anybody who ever plotted to blow something up, people who are so wrapped up in the exquisitely mundane details of their lives — job interviews, weight gains, old crushes, new PowerBooks — that you almost believe the characters on the show are sitting there watching you, laughing at your jokes. That’s why they’re Friends. In 1995 the pop-culture landscape was overrun not by dinosaurs or by Quentin Tarantino’s ultracool urban savages or even by Batman, but by Ross the cute paleontologist pining for Rachel the aimless waitress, Joey the physically blessed but IQ-challenged actor, Chandler the adorable data processor, Monica the job-seeking bombshell chef, and Phoebe the lovely rocket scientist, er, folksinger. People just like you, or the way you were or will be or might like to be for at least half an hour every week—young and laughing a lot and weeping a little and living in Manhattan in an interesting apartment with interesting neighbors.
Rachel: ”Guess what?”
Chandler: ”Okay, the fifth dentist caved. Now they’re all recommending Trident?”
Even the booming backlash against Friends, that it’s too facile, too good-looking, too white (”I’d like y’all to get a black friend,” Oprah Winfrey told the cast when they appeared on her show. ”Maybe I could stop by”) indicates how close Friends has cut to the hearts and minds of the post-baby boom generation, desperate to be seen as more than slackers. ”We’ve sort of taken the marring label off of Generation X,” says Matt LeBlanc (standing with, left to right, Matthew Perry, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, David Schwimmer, and Jennifer Aniston).
Friends is, in fact, the first successful Hollywood offering in which Generation Xers aren’t depicted as nihilistic, self-doubting pop culturaholics, as they are in films like Clerks, Reality Bites, and Slacker. The Xers of Friends are blooming in their 20s, with Ross (Schwimmer) already married, divorced, and a daddy. Yes, Phoebe (Kudrow) writes her silly folk songs, but — as we learned early on — she does it as a means of dealing with her mother’s suicide. Our Friends are working and learning and growing.
Monica (Cox) on feeling old: ”Oh, my God! I just had sex with someone who wasn’t alive during the Bicentennial.”
But we get the feeling that these Friends are going to be okay. That’s an infinitely reassuring notion—for teens, parents, and, most of all, Xers themselves, who have taken to the show the way their older siblings embraced Seinfeld. ”When David [Schwimmer] goes outside,” notes Cox, ”it’s like the Beatles just arrived.”