Getting by without a little help from Friends

E4’s latest import, 2 Broke Girls, isn’t a patch on sadly-departed Friends. But its humour fits our times.

David Bowden

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It’s still taking each day as it comes, the odd tear still probably trickles from its eye at weak moments and you’d think twice about inviting them both to a dinner party, but E4 seems to be getting over its break-up from Friends.

It’s been eight months since the digital broadcaster finally stopped showing the hit sitcom, but it was a long and often intense relationship: for 10 years it provided much-needed support, helping fill its schedules during the lean years, tirelessly going through the motions as it became part of the wallpaper. While it was far from a surprise when the split happened last September, it was difficult to know how E4 was going to fill those dark hours over long evenings through a bitter winter. A staggering 1,000 hours a year, in fact.

Like all first love affairs, it hasn’t really found anything which quite captures that same fresh excitement. There have been some dodgy one-night stands and ill-advised rebound relationships: Happy Endings pretty much does what it says on the tin but it’s not exactly serious, and Perfect Couples was pretty much a drunken fumble which nobody ever brings up in conversation. The continued presence of the execrable Rules of Engagement comes laden with the thick stench of self-abasement and shattered self-esteem.

As its replacements come and go through the revolving door, and the more that absence makes the heart grow fonder, it’s increasingly hard not to admire the sheer craftsmanship which went into Friends. Rarely does a piece of light entertainment so perfectly capture a cultural zeitgeist: it was the show which launched 1,000+ Cultural Studies essays about the changing nature of the family unit and transformative attitudes to sex and relationships in the consumerist, post-Soviet Bloc era. Forget Fukuyama and the End of History: all cultural historians need to understand the 1990s’ Western triumphalism are a few hours in the company of Ross and Rachel.

Beyond the now-familiar cant, of course, lay the truth that it was simply an immaculately well-made and slick TV programme. It stole brazenly from other sources: its style from MTV reality hit The Real World; its old-fashioned ironic approach to modern dating mores from the retro-romcoms of Woody Allen and Nora Ephron. And it sprinkled in enough of Seinfield’s literate and offbeat humour to make it interesting but not off-putting. Like the hyper-processed Twinkie bar of American cultural legend, it was cheap and hollow – yet undeniably tasty and (as E4 discovered) didn’t come with a ‘best before’ date.

That timing is everything in comedy perhaps goes some way to explaining why the likes of How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory – both equally well-made and perfectly competent pieces of mildly diverting mainstream sitcom – have managed to pad out the schedules without ever quite achieving the same levels of affection or grudging respect. Both begin roughly a decade later than Friends, and take a similar format and in different ways tread the same ground their forefather delicately trod before them: the former amps up the sweetly nostalgic conservatism, the latter takes up a more realistic depiction of tech-savvy white, middle-class twentysomethings (well-educated, low-paid, more comfortable with internet dating than hooking up with strangers in bars).

It is the kind of territory being mined by much-hyped HBO comedy Girls which, if excited reports are to be believed, takes a more cynical approach to the sex lives of young metropolitan women than that other late Nineties/ early Noughties staple, Sex and the City. Yet E4 is currently treating us to another in the shape of Friends-aping hit US sitcom 2 Broke Girls, co-created by one of SATC’s chief writers (Michael Patrick King). An odd, odd beast it is, too.

As a snapshot into how mainstream US cultural self-loathing has become it is vivid and as an example of how a sitcom can end up being less than the sum of its parts, 2 Broke Girls could be a laboratory dissection piece. It is compelling viewing for almost all the wrong reasons. Where Friends deftly skirted the mainstream landscape of America’s Culture War, 2 Broke Girls feels like someone has stitched two different worlds together and sent it staggering out into the wilderness.

As the title indicates, it centres on two female leads thrown together by impoverished circumstances: one a sultry and wise-cracking waitress from the wrong side of the tracks, the other a privileged rich girl whose father lost the family fortune and now has to make her own way in the world.

If that setup feels familiar, it is possibly as avant-garde as it gets. 2 Broke Girls is deeply old-fashioned: but not in a retro-vintage kind of way, rather an ancient, man-out-of-time, hoary and dusty kind of way. As Emily Nussbaum has observed in the New Yorker, the cardboard cut-out racial stereotypes are so lamely presented that it is baffling rather than offensive. The dialogue is clunky, the sets sparse and the jokes so signposted and lame that the canned laughter feels almost sympathetically human. Yet those same jokes are laced with an unexpected pop-cultural sharpness, filled with a moral indignation at the kind of clueless trust-fund hipsters you’d expect to find in an Occupy camp. Unlike the kind of cutesy manic pixie girl portrayed by Zooey Deschanel in the similar New Girl, or Lena Durham’s frumpy-girl shtick in Girls, Katy Denning’s Max is an attempt to put the foul mouth of Roseanne Barr into a provocatively sexual pin-up body. Which is somewhat more appealing.

If it was actually nearly as good as it sounds, it would be brilliant. Sadly it only really works in theory. It’s difficult to imagine that it’ll live on in repeats. But it seems to capture the sour and pessimistic mood of its time as effortlessly as Friends caught the sunnier optimism of the 90s. Perhaps this explains its otherwise puzzling success. 2 Broke Girls is funny peculiar, rather than funny ha ha, but these are undoubtedly strange times we are living in.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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