Enough with the Friends nostalgia

Friends was practically a one-off, with pretty people making funny scenes out of trivial, but relatable, things

I don’t have a lot to say about most of the pickups (Chuck gets another season to infuriate ‘shippers and action fans alike; better news is Human Target, already a better show, getting a second season), but like Sean O’Neal I do notice one pattern here: a lot of the shows being picked up by the networks appear to be rooted in Friends nostalgia. All the comedies are about good-looking young people hanging out and talking about their relationships, and the ones that aren’t have Matthew Perry or Courteney Cox in them.

I guess you could argue that some of it has to do with imitating How I Met Your Mother. And in fact, HIMYM is having a huge amount of stylistic influence (probably not all to the good), with many shows trying to copy its time jumps and its blend of single and multi-camera techniques. But How I Met Your Mother isn’t the most popular comedy on TV by a long shot. The most popular comedy on TV is about two cynical, broken men in their 40s, and nobody wants to imitate that except the guy who created it. What How I Met Your Mother is is the closest thing TV has these days to Friends, and everybody wants to imitate it because everybody wants to make Friends again.

You can also see this on the NBC Thursday night comedies, which are deeply — maybe even absurdly — obsessed with the memory of Friends. Leslie Knope on Parks & Recreation is a big fan. Abed on Community made a whole speech implying that the ideal thing would be for their show to be as beloved as Friends and complaining that the two leads are “no Ross and Rachel.” 30 Rock has too many to count, but at least it has the excuse that it’s set at NBC and therefore refers to every show NBC ever made. Throw in Michael Scott’s occasional Friends references, like the time he got it confused with Seinfeld, and NBC’s Thursday night lineup is entirely composed of shows that won’t stop talking about NBC’s much bigger Thursday night hits of the past.

It’s disturbing that there is so much Friends-mania, still, because Friends clones nearly destroyed the entire sitcom genre in the late ’90s, with endless terrible shows about young, pretty, not-particularly-funny people sitting on a couch and whining about their stupid problems. You would have thought the networks might have learned how very, very hard it is to do this kind of show. It’s hard because young and beautiful people aren’t usually funny, and because the problems they have are not usually interesting. (Worse, the problems they have on these shows tend to be incredibly trivial, small-stakes problems. I’ve said before that one reason Two and a Half Men manages to beat the competition is that its characters have such screwed-up lives that everything they do winds up being tied to some real, high-stakes issue that they prefer to avoid dealing with. Not to mention Everybody Loves Raymond, where every trivial problem turned out to be about some genuinely important, deeper problem that the audience could care about.) Even Seinfeld is easier to repeat — Curb Your Enthusiasm did it, after all — because it calls for a cast of experienced comedians and farcical, surreal plots.

I think network executives have become obsessed with Friends for a number of interlocking reasons. It (along with Raymond) was one of the last representatives of the mass-audience comedy, and the executives feel that if they can do something like that again, the mass audience will return. Execs genuinely prefer casting young and pretty people. A new generation of execs has come along and this new generation actually watched NBC Thursday nights in the ’90s. Trying to re-create Friends is their version of Ben Silverman trying to bring back his ’80s youth.

This is not a dis to Friends, by the way. It was a fine show. But Friends was practically a one-off, managing to sign up people who were pretty and funny and making genuinely funny scenes out of genuinely trivial — but relatable — things. Everyone since then has tried to do a scene like this, and everyone has failed.

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