The TV Show “FRIENDS” Became the Shibboleth of an Entire Generation

Jun 4, 2021 | Finding Hope on Friday

When the first episode of FRIENDS aired in 1994, I remember exactly where I was — sitting on my navy velour couch in my Bay Area apartment with a growing pregnant belly. I lived on the coast opposite of New York City, where the six friends famously lived.

I watched with initial interest. The characters were beautiful and funny and wildly carefree. Their camaraderie was contagious; everyone wanted what they had (or at least what they portrayed to have). But within a few months, I was tuning in on Thursday evenings to watch the latest friend-escapade while also nursing a newborn and recovering from a traumatic birth. What I saw on the screen appeared so far removed from my everyday real-life existence, about as far as the east is from the west.

As postpartum depression settled in like a grey heavy fog, I watched the show with increasing dis-ease. The friends would gather in Central Perk Café to share their latest sexual exploits while my world as a young 20-something consisted of Huggies diapers, sore breasts, and middle-of-the-night feedings.

I. Just. Could. Not. Relate.

I turned off the TV and never finished Season One.

Eventually, the postpartum depression lifted as I went about the daily business of caring for my infant daughter and going to church on Sunday mornings and supporting the youth ministry on Wednesday nights. Tens of millions of other people my age, however, continued watching the show. I know this because I would frequently find myself around others and miss the inside jokes. My peers would have to explain to me the Joey-isms and Chandler-isms. I got to where I’d smile and nod as if I knew what they were talking about, even though I had no reference for it.

The famous scenes and popular one-liners from the show FRIENDS became the shibboleth of my generation. Either you were fluent in FRIENDS-language or you weren’t. I definitely was not, and this feeling of always being on the outside of the FRIENDS scene has never really gone away. Even today, it’s common for people my age to communicate whole messages using a string of GIFS taken from the show. I look at those GIFS the way astronomers look at faraway planets through giant telescopes. It’s still completely other to me.

And yet, the uber popularity of the show cannot be overstated. With Netflix now assisting a whole new generation of fans, it’s no surprise that so many people eagerly anticipated the recent reunion on HBO. I didn’t tune in. Didn’t have to. I knew there’d be countless articles written about it within days, if not hours.

As expected, the world gushed over seeing the famous six together again on the familiar sets. One superfan said:

“We loved it. The Corden and catwalk bits were entirely missable, and the script readings were hit and miss. But the on-set pieces, cast reminiscing and the memory segments were TV gold and more than worth the watch.”

But among the typical fan oodling, something unexpected also happened. Some of the articles surprised me.* I discovered I wasn’t the only person on the planet who wasn’t a fan of the show.

One writer stated:

“Friends was a decade-long Hollywood experiment in testing the moral limits of Americans and desensitizing viewers to harmful sexual behavior. For starters, the show made a punch line out of casual sex and hookups and portrayed them as consequence-free. No STDs, no trips to the abortion clinic, no staring at their phones waiting for the one-night stand to call. Just a good laugh about fighting over the last condom in the apartment and a porn marathon.”

Another writer noted:

“Friends also did much to normalize watching pornography as part of the everyday lives of young adults. This was before digital pornography became a ubiquitous part of American life (the first iPhone came out in 2007, three years after the show went off-air.) There was an episode featuring Chandler and Joey stumbling across a free porn channel and watching porn for days; Phoebe’s sister was a porn star; porn is a punchline, not sexual poison. For young people taking their cues from their favorite TV show, the message was simple: Normal people watch pornography. It’s no big deal. Women don’t care about it. It’s just part of being an adult. Feel free to watch porn, just like your Friends.”

Even a secular online magazine reported:

“After thoroughly researching all 236 episodes the answer is 85 sexual partners. Between the six characters of Friends — Ross, Rachel, Joey, Chandler, Monica and Phoebe — [they] have had sex with 85 different people . . . How was this number arrived at? By reading every single outline, and looking at the guest star cast list, for every episode aired in the ten seasons on NBC. Now, the 85 partners are actually people who appeared in the show. The number could be way higher — especially when Joey starts talking about his past — but this number is for the partners who appeared on the show. The producers had to physically cast a guest star in these 85 roles.”

Eighty-five partners? Between six people?

One writer briefly explored the spiritual dissonance involved when a Christ-follower follows along:

“And when religious people consumed the same entertainment as everybody else, it created a sort of moral schizophrenia — laughing along about everything from porn binges to promiscuity one day while attending church to hear a pastor explain how such things were so wicked God Himself had to be crucified to save people from these sins the next.”

Moral schizophrenia indeed.

Some might say I’m being too much a prude. It’s possible. But this isn’t to say I’ve never allowed anything impure before my eyes. In high school, for example, I loved the movie 16 Candles, so decades later I invited my teenage daughter to watch it with me, except I had forgotten some of the content. Some of the scenes shocked me. I couldn’t believe how desensitized I had been as a high schooler. (Obviously, it was not one of my finer mom moments.)

Thankfully, God had mercy on me as a young person and began his sanctifying work (which is ongoing). For without God’s restoring grace, we’d all be lost in a sea of godlessness. So, if you’re reading this and thinking to yourself, “Um, I really liked the show,” but you’re also wondering if maybe there’s something more to life than living single and carefree in a big city without any responsibilities, there is good news.

God wants to give us a better life than the one glamorously portrayed on FRIENDS. It may not be the kind of life that includes red carpets and limousines, but it does include forgiveness for every wrong we’ve ever committed. God gives us a brand-new start and a new hope. All of this comes with a new family too — God’s family. We can come just as we are and gather every week with our new family. It probably won’t look like Central Perk Café (and it shouldn’t), but over time, God’s Spirit works inside us, healing us and restoring us. It’s what he does.

Then something strange starts to happen. Those unwholesome things that once attracted us, no longer have the same pull over us. We are new creatures, having been made new from the inside out.

Will there ever be a FRIENDS spin-off or movie?

Lisa Kudrow, who played Phoebe, responded:

“At my age, to be saying ‘floopy’? Stop. You have to grow up.”

I agree. At some point, we have to grow up, which is why I found the following to be the best and most succinct description of the show:

“The appeal of the show was (and is) simple. Friends showcased that period of life post-puberty but pre-maturity now generally referred to as ‘adulting.’”

That period of life post-puberty but pre-maturity. This is precisely why the show could not continue indefinitely. People age. Some people even decide to do the “adulting” thing and settle down. For some that will look like getting married and having a family — that period of life when you stand at an altar and say “I do” and commit your life and your body exclusively to another, and then, by sheer grace, perhaps expect a tiny new life at some point, which means sacrificing your own for the sake of raising another.

One fan who watched the much-publicized reunion noticed:

“Obviously the main takeaway was the ageing process, wasn’t it? For me, Matt LeBlanc was the big winner, and the most enjoyable part of the reunion. The only cast member not to dye his hair, unafraid to let his body gain a little extra weight, bearer of the best and funniest anecdotes, clearly happy and at ease with himself and with the passage of time.”

Oh, to be at ease with the passage of time. That’s not easy for any of us. But to see a picture of the famous six reconvened — and hardly looking like the 50-somethings they are today — is a testament to how much this world desperately strives to hang on to the glory of youth.

But, eventually, life and age catch up to us all. For me, perhaps I missed out on part of my youth by getting married and starting a family so young. I’ll be the first to admit it was not easy. Then again, I’m also glad I didn’t spend a full decade investing in a life that has a clear expiration date (among other serious problems). I want to invest in something lasting, something eternal. Even as we grow older in these frail human bodies, those of us who have put our hope in Christ can look forward to the resurrection of our bodies one day. We have a new heaven and a new earth to look forward to.

In the meantime, I want to spend whatever remaining days I have left on this earth speaking a different kind of shibboleth, the kind that speaks of the redeeming work of the cross. Because it’s really the only thing that matters.

 


 

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*While some of the articles I read were written recently, some included links to older articles that I simply hadn’t come across prior to now.

 

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Denise J. Hughes

Denise J. Hughes

Denise writes about “the quiet life” — a phrase found in 1 Thessalonians 4:11. It’s a vision for living counterculturally in a loud and restless world. She is the author of Deeper Waters and the General Editor of the CSB (in)courage Devotional Bible. Denise lives in North Carolina with her husband and three kids.

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