Why do so many 20-somethings want to stream a 20-year-old sitcom about a bunch of 20-somethings sitting around in a coffee shop?
When the tv critic Andy Greenwald, who is 38, returned to his high school near Philadelphia last May to speak to students about his job, he wondered how it would go. After all, today’s students are a digital generation who have only a vague association with the concept of “TV.” Sure enough, when Greenwald mentioned his job to them, one student in the group asked, “So what does that mean? Do you, like, watch Netflix?” Greenwald said, sure, he watches Netflix, since watching original streaming programming—on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, wherever—is all part of covering the complex new television landscape. Then he asked the teenagers if they watch Netflix. They said, enthusiastically, Yes. So he asked them what they like to watch on Netflix. They said, enthusiastically, Friends.
You remember Friends, right? Chandler, Monica, Joey, Phoebe, Rachel, Ross, and, fleetingly, that monkey? Central Perk? “We were on a break”? The show that feels, in its way, as iconic a relic of the 1990s as do Nirvana, Pulp Fiction, and a two-term Clinton presidency that the Onion later cheekily described as “our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity”?
Friends was not only born of that era but may, in hindsight, embody it more completely than any other TV show. Sexier than Cheers, less acerbic than Seinfeld, Friends existed at the sweet spot of populist mass entertainment and prescient pop escapism. If you were alive and sentient in the 1990s, you already understand this. In fact, if you were in, or near, your 20s back then and ever found yourself seated in a quirkily named coffee shop (e.g., Bean & Gone, Brewed Awakening, CU Latte) with a bunch of your own friends, you might have had the conversation: So, which Friend are you?
But while Friends inarguably excavated the Zeitgeist, it was a very different geist, in a very different Zeit. For starters, the show’s run, from 1994 to 2004, corresponds almost exactly with that transformational decade when people went from signing up for this weird new thing called “email” to signing up for this weird new thing called “Facebook.” The world of Friends is notable, to modern eyes, for what it encompasses about being young and single and carefree in the city but also for what it doesn’t encompass: social media, smartphones, student debt, the sexual politics of Tinder, moving back in with your parents as a matter of course, and a national mood that vacillates between anxiety and defeatism. (Not to mention the absence of any primary characters on the show who aren’t straight or white.) Which is why you might expect that Friends, like similar cultural relics of that era, would be safely preserved in the cryogenic chamber of our collective nostalgia. And yet, astonishingly, the show is arguably as popular as it ever was—and it is popular with a cohort of young people who are only now discovering it. Which is weird. It’s one thing to be young, single, and carefree in the city and drawn to a show that purports to be a reflection of your life, or, at least, some fantasy of how you’d like your life to be. It’s quite another to be drawn to a show that’s a reflection, or a fantasy, of what life used to be like for a bunch of carefree 20-somethings 20 years ago. Because if the allure of the show is, on a basic level, all about wish-fulfillment, well, what exactly is the wish that’s currently being fulfilled?
I’m sitting on the couch. The actual couch. It’s inside the actual Central Perk café set, which is now part of the Warner Bros. studio tour in Burbank, California. The couch—this familiar overstuffed orange sofa—is, for many people, the main attraction on the whole tour. Before our group set off in an elongated golf cart to patrol the studio’s back lots, the guide asked if there were any Warner Bros. shows or movies— for example, The Big Bang Theory, The Dark Knight, or The Matrix—that people were particularly interested in seeing. “Friends!” came the first, quickest answer. “Friends,” came the second. Another woman from the back called out “Friends!” before someone finally said “Harry Potter.” Later, I asked the guide if that was a typical reaction. “I’m not going to lie,” he said. “Friends is definitely the biggest attraction.”
Last year, Danny Kahn, the executive director of the Warner Bros. tour, announced a major expansion titled “Stage 48: Script to Screen,” which includes the stage set for Central Perk. “We’d always had the set on the tour,” he says—though previously it had been stored in a space that was difficult to access. Now the authentic Central Perk sits on its own special replica soundstage, waiting for your visit. In part, the decision to highlight Central Perk was intended to draw international tourists, since the show is such a huge hit globally, but it was also a general response to persistent audience demand. In 2014, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the show’s debut, Warner Bros. collaborated with a coffee company to set up a pop-up Central Perk in Manhattan. The café had a two-hour wait, with lines around the block, and the main attraction was the chance to sit on a replica couch. (There have also been replica Central Perks in Beijing, Sydney, and Liverpool.)
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