How Friends Illustrates the Depressing Insularity of Our Lives

I'll be there for you . . . and others in our census bracket

By the show's end, having gone through all of white Manhattan, four of the six characters settle down with a mate from within their group. For all the cosmopolitan setting, then, the Friends eschew the romance of urban serendipity for incestuous familiarity. (This also explains the characters' lack of interest in people of other races—or even other boroughs.)

Like a lot of ensemble sitcoms about single characters, Friends eventually becomes a screed against dating. The parade of flawed, unworthy, or just-not-right partners is so long that settling down with (and for) a good friend ultimately seems like the most sensible choice: better the Long Island Princess you know than the one you don't. (The Friends copycat How I Met Your Mother goes even further in this regard by making its protagonist's two decades of dating merely a prelude to his wedded destiny, explaining away its most promiscuous character's obsession with sex as the product of severe neurosis.)

By the end of its run, the show groups its couples essentially by census bracket. The pairing of Monica with Chandler and Ross with Rachel unite the friends who are the most financially and ethnically similar (Rachel and the Gellar siblings are Jewish; Chandler is the Jew-adjacent kind of goy). Across town, masseuse Phoebe marries musician Mike, her "rightful" partner in anti-bougiedom. Friends has often been accused of being cash-stupid show—e.g., Monica and Rachel live in a huge West Village apartment despite no outward signs of being millionaires—but it's always been a very class-conscious one. Opposites may attract, but familiars breed.

Friends, Season 1
Friends, Season 1

The ultimate sign of the show's tenet of "settling down as settling for who's around" is the reunion of the will-they-now-or-will-they-later couple, Ross and Rachel. It's a pairing that only worked in the early years because of David Schwimmer's hangdog eyes, and the relationship's initial dissolution was rather welcome, not least for bringing out a sarcastic edge and a screechy feistiness in Jennifer Aniston.

Despite the characters' mutual attraction, they were always wrong for each other: Ross deserves a partner who's more intellectually challenging, Rachel one who's more fun. When they create a child and rekindle their romance in the show's last two seasons, their happy ending feels like a tragic death—of adventure, of idealism, of question marks. No longer so young, and yoked together by their kid, they see sense in trying to fall in love again, however many times it didn't work before. Their fate isn't written in the stars; it's dictated by two much more powerful forces: convenience and familiarity.

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