The dark side of Friends

Beneath the commercial appeal and schmaltz, it was always a subversive show.

Andrew Doyle

Andrew Doyle

Topics Culture

Woody Allen once remarked that he wished he had been a tragedian, and it is certainly the case that as a genre tragedy ages far better than comedy. With the advent of social media and digital television, one might expect the ageing process to be accelerated, and for sitcoms of the relatively recent past to be buried by changing tastes. But this does not seem to have happened to Friends, the first episode of which aired a quarter of a century ago. Last year it came out on top of an Ofcom survey into the most popular subscription streaming shows, and was the second most watched show on Netflix in the US. It seems as much of a crowd-pleaser now as it ever was.

Friends is a particular favourite of those too young to remember its first outing, thanks to Netflix acquiring the rights in 2015 to stream all 236 episodes. The strength of the writing and the core cast has sustained the show’s relevance, and doubtless the fact that it so irritates the supposedly progressive voices of the mainstream media offers an added appeal for a younger generation who are pushing back against the prudish excesses of 21st century ‘wokeness’.

There has been a good deal of nonsense written about Friends as we approach its 25th anniversary, not least the deservedly maligned Buzzfeed article that dismisses it as ‘a show about white people being thin’. This is the very same website that published a list of ‘26 Really Inappropriate Friends Moments That Don’t Hold Up In 2019’, and invited its readers to shudder at the ‘problematic’ jokes of yesteryear. Other media outlets have followed suit. ‘Millennials watching Friends on Netflix shocked by storylines’, runs one headline in the Independent. ‘Friends is problematic AF’, claims Film Daily. The show ‘represents the uninformed privilege of the 90s and therefore that is the era in which it should stay’, brays a critic for Insider. These people come across like some ageing librarian scoring through the offensive words in a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey with a black felt-tipped pen.

All of these articles are exercises in wishful thinking; these critics disapprove of Friends and so have a vested interest in pretending that there is widespread outrage from a younger, more enlightened audience. The method is to cite a handful of tweets from a few uptight millennials and young people in order to smear an entire generation. It doesn’t stand up. This weekend I was giving a talk about comedy and social media at a girls’ school in London, and I asked the pupils to put their hands up if they found Friends offensive. Only one tentative hand was raised, and this was from precisely the demographic who we are told are so ‘shocked’ by the show’s content.

Let’s consider one example that is routinely judged to be ‘problematic’. In ‘The One with the Metaphorical Tunnel’, Ross is upset because his infant son Ben has developed a fondness for playing with a Barbie doll. Ross is concerned that, since Ben is being raised by his mother and her lesbian partner, he might turn out to be gay. Ross attempts to wean his son off the Barbie using a toy GI Joe, but his efforts are in vain. A writer for Cosmopolitan expressed disgust at this storyline on the grounds that it makes Ross ‘the mouthpiece for conformity and stereotypes’. This is, of course, precisely the joke. The show is not endorsing Ross’s fears, but inviting us to laugh at them. That this should even require an explanation is headache-inducing.

The kind of latter-day puritans who write for Buzzfeed and Cosmopolitan are about as well qualified for comedy criticism as their heroine Mary Whitehouse. But in compiling these various sin-lists they have at least managed to hit on one of the most underappreciated aspects of Friends. For all its vast commercial appeal, it has always been a relatively subversive show. Even in its own time it was censured by the more moralistic voices of the press. The day after the final episode was aired in May 2004, the New York Post ran an opinion piece attacking the show for its consistently inappropriate subject matter. When today’s critics argue that, for example, Ross’s attempt to seduce his own cousin was ‘all kinds of gross’ (to quote the Metro), they forget that even at the time this was considered unusual fare for a sitcom that had such broad appeal.

The very fact that the branding of Friends indulged in the glossy and the mawkish enabled the writers to steer the plotlines into genuinely dark territory. This is no better demonstrated than by the character of Phoebe. In the early seasons, she is presented as an innocuous kook who plays whimsical songs on her guitar. She is later outed as a former criminal (‘The One With The Mugger’) who once ‘stabbed a cop’ (‘The One With Ross’s Sandwich’), contracted hepatitis from a pimp’s saliva (‘The One With Ross’s Inappropriate Song’), and, in one deleted scene, goes so far as to threaten to ‘cut’ Monica (‘The One Where Joey Dates Rachel’). When Phoebe discovers that Sting’s son goes to school with Ben she thinks nothing of posing as his mother’s partner in order to use the child to secure free concert tickets (‘The One With Monica’s Boots’).

Moreover, all the lead characters in Friends are opportunists whose first instinct is to lie to each other for their own short-term benefit. The writers are happy to sentimentalise the burgeoning relationship between Monica and Chandler (in seasons five and six), but when the couple finally marry they become a satire on the destructive nature of wedlock. They routinely deceive each other and score points through petty insults; even on honeymoon it soon becomes clear that their priority is the acquisition of free gifts (‘The One Where Rachel Tells…’). When Monica starts to believe that Chandler has a shark fetish, she attempts to arouse him with a marine documentary rather than discuss the problem (‘The One With The Sharks’). The schmaltzy image of the show made such dark conceits even funnier, and there are many occasions when the title Friends feels like a sardonic gesture.

When asked to explain the show’s ongoing appeal, co-creator Marta Kauffman describes it as ‘comfort food’. ‘It’s warm’, she says. ‘It’s inviting. You want those people in your house.’ This was never an interpretation I was likely to share. Even in its early days, I was attracted to its more transgressive elements, and quite why anyone would invite such a hilariously dysfunctional group into one’s home is beyond me. So, yes, in a way the pearl-clutchers at Buzzfeed are right. Friends is deeply ‘problematic’. And thank God for that.

Andrew Doyle is a stand-up comedian and spiked columnist. His book Woke: A Guide to Social Justice (written by his alter-ego Titania McGrath) is available on Amazon.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


Gareth Edward KING

28th September 2019 at 12:52 pm

So, Andrew, you teach or contribute to something as lowly as Media Studies? Now, that I find very funny! ‘Friends’ I always found very corny and was put off ever watching any episode in its entirety due to my working at the time with a trite American woman called Jessica who was a real fan. Nuff said. I can’t imagine that she ever saw the ‘dark’ side in anything to do with ‘Friends’. For me, it was just a show with a few good-looking American men in it and I’m sure Andrew watched it for that reason too.

Hana Jinks

24th September 2019 at 1:43 pm

Mandy Mohel.

How can anyone other than The Fey Squad know anything about this show?

This is possibly the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen on this site.

James Knight

23rd September 2019 at 7:00 pm

You Could Not Be More Wrong. You Could Try, But You Would Not Succeed..

A group of young “losers” living together is a tried tested formula. The Big Bang Theory was just a more up to date reworking of the same idea, only the characters had everything from selective mutism, social anxiety disorder to high functioning autism. I say “losers” but in the UK we would probably say “underdogs”. Something most of us can relate to.

You forget to mention The One Where Phoebe thinks her cat is her reincarnated mother. A perfect metaphor for the insanity of transgender ideologues where everyone is forced to agree with something absurd to protect her feelings.

Burp Weed-On

23rd September 2019 at 4:34 pm

That episode where someone had a turkey over their head… That really socked it to the woke vegans that did!

Danny Rees

23rd September 2019 at 2:09 pm

Feminist sad acts have had it in for Ross from Friends for years saying he’s an “MRA” and treated Rachel badly because he was jealous and controlling.

But Ross’ ex wife had left him for a woman when she was pregnant with his kid so it was no wonder he was insecure in relationships. Had it been Rachel who was this way with men after she had been left by a husband feminists would have been sympathetic and blamed men for being scum.

They have no empathy for men and are vile.

christopher barnard

23rd September 2019 at 12:40 pm

People who are shocked and offended by a TV programme should simply not watch it.

Why do they often demand that nobody is allowed to do so?

Amelia Cantor

23rd September 2019 at 10:52 am

Ok, Friends was subversive, but nowhere near as subversive as Titania McGrath. You can see that by looking at all the cutting-edge artistic and aesthetic subversives who are fans of Titania:

• Rupert Murdoch and The Times
• Nelson Fraser and The Spectator
• Nigel Farage
• Douglas Murray
• Nick Griffin
• James Delingpole
• Andrew Neil

Edgy endorsers of the world’s most subversive satire!

Jim Lawrie

23rd September 2019 at 11:11 am

Or maybe, Amelia, they just see the funny side of it.

Do you check the opinions of those on your list before deciding whether it is okay to laugh at something?

Stephen J

23rd September 2019 at 11:18 am

She almost certainly does, because like Cleese’s “Manuel” …

They learn it from a booook.

Amelia Cantor

23rd September 2019 at 11:37 am

Or maybe, Amelia, they just see the funny side of it.

Ah, so when Nick Griffin sees the funny side of Titania, this is proof a) of how funny Titania is; b) how objective and open-minded Nick is (coz he can see the humour in like totally subversive and edgy comedy even tho it like mocks and undermines his entire world-view).


Dominic Straiton

23rd September 2019 at 2:23 pm

Maybe Amelia is actually Andrew Doyle

Freddie Steele

23rd September 2019 at 6:14 pm

And if somebody I consider reprehensible looks at what you’ve written, does that make you reprehensible by association?

Is that how this works now?

Amelia Cantor

25th September 2019 at 10:04 am

And if somebody I consider reprehensible looks at what you’ve written, does that make you reprehensible by association? Is that how this works now?

No, Freddie. Let’s run through it again and see if you can understand the brain-racking intricacies of basic English.

Rupert Murdoch, The Times, Nigel Farage, Nick Griffin et al are FANS of Titanian McGrath.

They are FANS.


Not of me or Greta Thunberg or Afua Hirsch or Owen Jones.


Being a FAN involves more than looking at what someone has written. It involves LIKING what something has written and generally (certainly in this case) AGREEING with it.

No-one politically or morally reprehensible could read what I or Greta Thunberg or Afua Hirsch or Owen Jones say and LIKE it or AGREE with it.

So, no, that isn’t “how this works now”.

Jonathan Yonge

23rd September 2019 at 9:26 am

Good grief, lighten up will you ?!
Its only TV. Can’t we have just a little entertainment without feeling horror and revulsion all the time ?
Spiked in in danger of falling into the identitarian trap of seeing badness EVERYWHERE. The gloom …..

Claire D

23rd September 2019 at 9:26 am

Do the ‘ woke ‘ have a sense of humour ? Do they know what humour is as a concept ? Just wondering.
I’m pleased to hear how popular Friends still is, there’s hope for us yet, because it’s humane and very witty in a distinctly American wisecracking way.

Amelia Cantor

23rd September 2019 at 10:41 am

Hate disguised as humour is always and everywhere unacceptable. The test is whether you’re punching down at the vulnerable or up at the pompous and privileged.

We members of the Woke Community can certainly enjoy a good joke at appropriate targets and appropriate times:

Stephen J

23rd September 2019 at 11:03 am

Yes, I expect you laughed when young Ivan Cameron died too. How dare he have a father who is both rich, and a member of the CONservative party.

That way, you can joyfully punch both up and down simultaneously.

It looks a bit odd though.

Amelia Cantor

23rd September 2019 at 11:39 am

Ivan Cameron was too young to have made a choice about whether to be on the Right Side of History with people like me and my comrades or on the Wrong Side of History with his repulsive father and mother.

So, no, I did not laugh. Please not project your own warped psychology onto me.

eli Bastenbury

23rd September 2019 at 3:24 pm

Claire D

23rd September 2019 at 1:40 pm

Oh dear.

Geoff Cox

23rd September 2019 at 8:16 am

“I read the book from cover to cover and it was every bit as disgusting as I thought it would be”. Mrs Mary Whitehouse.

Danny Rees

23rd September 2019 at 2:10 pm

Mary was the ultimate triggered easily offended snowflake.

And she was right wing

How we forget when we attack leftists for being as such.

Hana Jinks

24th September 2019 at 2:12 pm

Yep. No difference between Whitehouse and you an your pervert mates.

Stephen J

23rd September 2019 at 7:50 am

I have never seen a full episode of this show, which represents a titanic effort, since all of my three children were addicted to it at various times.

I never realised that it was capable of upsetting lefties.

I am going to log in to my daughter’s Netflix account just to watch a few episodes.

Now where is that television?

Jim Lawrie

23rd September 2019 at 11:15 am

It’s the thing “you point your furniture at”.

Stephen J

23rd September 2019 at 11:19 am

Not in my house.

Stephen J

23rd September 2019 at 11:20 am

I think there is one in one of the kid’s old bedrooms….

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