DUBAI: Twenty-five years ago tomorrow, viewers got their first glimpse of a show that would go on to dominate viewing figures, watercooler chat, and tabloids for the next decade: “Friends.”
It’s doubtful that even the most optimistic of TV executives would have dreamed of the stratospheric success that the sitcom — which followed the life of six 20-something friends (three men, three women — all white, all good-looking) living in New York — would go on to enjoy.
The writers’ great trick was to make the six characters broad and accessible, but (just) variable enough to have some depth and become more than two-dimensional stereotypes. So, everyone recognized themselves or a friend in dim, kind-hearted womanizer and struggling actor Joey; or in uptight, anxious Ross; or bossy-but-well-meaning Monica; ditzy, privileged Rachel; sarcastic, insecure Chandler; or in kooky, but often insightful, free spirit Phoebe.
As Yomna Taha, a UAE-based fan, told Arab News: “I think many Arabs watch it because the diversity of its characters allows everyone to relate to it in one way or another.”
The show’s 238 episodes made superstars of its six relatively unknown leads, earned 63 Emmy nominations (and six wins), spawned “The Rachel” (reportedly the most-requested hairstyle of all time), and were seen all around the world countless times on syndication (which the six savvy stars still earn a percentage of, netting around $20 million a year each, according to USA Today). Its popularity was — and remains — staggering. Thanks to its ubiquity on international networks, “Friends” is probably into its third generation of fans.
And the Middle East is far from immune to its charms. Arab News spoke to several regional fans from different generations who praised the show’s universality. Twenty two- year-old Alia Nabulsi said, “I can be anywhere in the world and watching ‘Friends’ makes me feel like (I’m) home.”
“It’s a classic show and I watch it to remind myself what a perfect and healthy friendship is supposed to be like,” said Ameen Kunbargi, 24.
For 42-year-old Souhail Halwani, “Friends” has been a constant companion for more than half his life.
“I used to wait for each DVD to come out and I would buy it (straight away),” he said. “I still watch it. When I have time, I’ll play it on Netflix.
“Me and people from my generation, we used to watch a lot of other sitcoms that lasted for a while, but I no longer watch any of the others. With ‘Friends,’ you can relate to the cast — you can relate to the day-to-day things that happen to them: The fun side of it, the sarcasm and the funny way they (made light of) a bad situation,” he continued. “Even knowing what happens — I know almost all the scenes — I still laugh. Like, I know Ross’s reactions, but I’ll be waiting for it and I will laugh every time.”
Not everyone agrees, of course. Talla Al-Khafaji, 31, feels the show has dated badly: “For starters, they always use the fact that Monica used to be overweight as a punch line — as if being overweight is comical. Also, there are no people of color on the show, despite the fact that it’s New York, (which is) full of diverse ethnicities. Additionally, there have been various occasions where Ross and Chandler, who are super-misogynistic, have made jokes about being attracted to teenagers, and that’s problematic.”
Certainly, it’s reasonable to say that — by today’s social standards — “Friends” has issues. But it’s also reasonable to question if a sitcom from an era when “The Benny Hill Show” was still considered by many to be wholesome family fun should really be held to those standards. The majority of its fans would likely say not. Yes, there was little-to-no representation of ethnic diversity (Arabs barely got a look in, except for a falafel salesman whom Rachel’s sister mistakes for Ross, and a crowd of Yemenis at the airport in the episode where Chandler claims he’s been reassigned to “15 Yemen Road, Yemen” in an effort to break up with his girlfriend, Janice), but the immaculate writing and performances, it seems, are enough to make up for that. For 21-year-old Sarah Kader, “the more I watch it, the funnier it gets. I never get bored of it.”
And for industry insiders, including Mazen Hayek, group director of commercial, PR and CSR at MBC (which screened “Friends” in the region for many years with Arabic subtitles, although it was never dubbed), the show remains a shining example of television’s potential for mass appeal.
“The series embodies the best of the comedy genre,” Hayek said. “It’s light and funny, entertaining, insightful, tackles real societal issues, appeals to all family members and is — mostly — fit to be viewed any time, anywhere, by a global audience.”
John Korounis, a spokesman for the official Warner Bros. Studio tour in Hollywood, agreed. “It’s all about the friends. It’s not about current events, so none of the show really hinges on what’s happening in the world,” he said. “It’s about their dynamic. It’s about their bubble. So it’s almost timeless, because the jokes are about them and the situations that they’re in.”
Hayek praised the show’s leading actors, but added, “The scriptwriters made the difference in making ‘Friends’ such an all-time classic.” Of the show’s ageless appeal in the Middle East, he said: “Human insights have no boundaries. People — especially youth — relate to the same kind of issues, aspirations, and jokes.”
Rumors of a reunion show, or movie, continue to resurface every couple of years — despite constant rebuttals from cast and network. And that’s something fans from the Middle Eastern — and beyond — would definitely turn out for in droves.
“I would love to see the same cast in new episodes,” said Halwani. “To see how they relate to the current day, because technology has changed and a lot has happened since they stopped.”
However, he added. “They keep talking about a reunion but I don’t see it happening. But I hope it does. Even a movie! Anything!”
Just in case you need reminding, we’ve created a deck of cards with some fun facts about each of your favorite ‘Friends’ characters — including the monkey!
We start off with ditzy but lovable Rachel Green.
And her flatmate, Monica.
Next up is everyone’s favorite free spirit, Phoebe Buffay.
And the king of sarcastic comedy, Chandler Bing.
If you thought we were taking a break, we’re not. Next up is Ross Geller.
And Joey Tribbiani rounds out the group.
But wait, what would ‘Friends’ be without Janice’s annoying laugh?
And who could forget the much-loved duck?
Marcel the naughty capuchin stole our hearts in season one.