When long-running popular sitcoms come to an end, they generate a lot of discussion about what they mean or, as in the case of How I Met Your Mother, what will happen. But when Friends aired its last episode, a decade ago tonight, there wasn’t; it was just a popular, fun show that ran a lot of years and now wasn’t going to anymore. What else was there to say? It was Friends, for God’s sake!
The reason, I thought, was that there was a bias built into our definition of “important” sitcoms: they had to spur controversies (like All in the Family) or shake up the format and tone of the sitcom form (like Seinfeld). But that’s not the only way TV affects its audience: sometimes, shows are significant precisely because they’re innocuous. They make a statement not about what irritates our society but about what it has, sometimes without entirely noticing, come to accept. So I did a deep dive into the past season DVDs–this was 2004, after all–and wrote an essay for TIME about the show’s open-secret theme: that the “normal” family was a thing of the past, and that a mass audience, as shown by Friends‘ very innocuousness, was fine with that.
The essay, unfortunately, is paywalled. (TIME, fortunately, is glad to sign up you to subscribe so you can read it and everything else in full!) But here’s an excerpt, and the gist:
It’s not as if Friends changed society single-handed, or that society has changed that completely at all. Even if audiences were unfazed by Friends‘ gay wedding (performed by Candace Gingrich!), gay marriage is still becoming legal only state by state. But it’s certainly true that Friends‘ running theme of untraditional, improvisatory families is now part of the standard language of sitcoms like Modern Family (in which Cam and Mitchell are readying to get hitched) and Trophy Wife. Transgender characters are more common, as on Orange Is the New Black, and given a more subtle portrayal than Chandler’s Vegas-drag-queen father. (Friends wasn’t that perfectly enlightened, the major case in point being its almost entirely white universe of characters.)
A decade after Friends, in other words, complicated is now normal. Maybe Friends didn’t proselytize for these changes, and it never sought credit for them. Today, if you watch the reruns, you probably think of the show, if anything, as The One Where They Drank Coffee and Dated Each Other in Various Combinations. You probably don’t think about the importance of Friends at all. And that means it did its job.
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