I went through a phase a few years back of watching just two or three different TV series over and over again on a cycle. They were my passive-consumption “comfort food”, if you will — things I turned to when I didn’t really want to do anything, but didn’t really want to fall into that pit of depressed ennui that normally ends up with staring at the wall for hours at a time. Those shows included Spaced and Black Books, which are two series I still own the DVDs for and will never get rid of, and Friends, which I have never owned a complete collection of but have had scattered home-recorded VHS tapes and a few purchased DVDs and videos over the years — also, for many years, it was on a constant cycle of repeats on E4 alongside Scrubs.
Friends is something that I’ve watched so many times now that I can pretty much recite it word for word along with any episode that’s on. It kind of fell out of favour with the public in its latter stages as many people saw it as outstaying its welcome, but I enjoyed it consistently all the way through. As I say, it was comfort food; you knew what to expect with every episode. It was never anything adventurous, but the characters were both relatable and attractive, the situations they got into often personally relevant, and the quips and jokes memorable and, yes, genuinely amusing.
I started re-watching Friends again the other day having come into possession of a complete collection, only this time around I’m watching the “extended cuts” that came out a few years back. These aren’t Lucasesque “special edition” versions, they’re simply about 5 minutes longer per episode, with numerous scenes restored to their full length and, in many cases, adding a whole bunch of additional context and depth to the characters and setting that simply wasn’t there before due to the constraints of the TV scheduling.
I’m really enjoying them so far. This extra footage means that watching the show again after a few years’ break strikes a wonderful balance between the comfortably familiar and the brand-new — and, given how well I know the original versions, I can immediately recognise when something is new. In many cases, scenes that had rather awkward and obvious edits on TV now make much more sense, and in some cases there are scenes that I simply don’t think were even there at all in the first place — Joey’s first meeting with his colourful agent Estelle, for example.
More than the pleasure of getting some “new” Friends to watch, though, I’m overwhelmed with the feeling of comfortable nostalgia that watching this show always infuses in me. I’ve spent so much time with these characters inside my TV over the years that I feel like they’re my friends, too — a fact helped by the fact that I still, to this day, tend to group people in my mind according to which one of the main cast they most remind me of. (Shh. Don’t tell anyone.)
One thing I’d forgotten about is that the show appeared to coin the term “friend zone” back in its first season, where Joey uses it to describe Ross having waited too long to make his move on Rachel. I shan’t get into any of that endless discussion over people who use the term “friend zone” today because it’s inordinately tedious and frustrating, but I wonder how many people remember where it actually came from and its original context. A few years back, I would have deemed it unthinkable for someone to not have knowledge of Friends, but a lot of years have passed since then.
And yet, I struggle to think of a recent TV show I’ve been quite as attached to as Friends. I’ve enjoyed various American comedies that have come since – How I Met Your Mother was originally sold to me as something of a successor to Friends in many ways, and I have major soft spots for Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock — but for me, nothing will ever be quite the same as the time I spent with Monica, Phoebe, Rachel, Ross, Chandler and Joey. However well (or otherwise) you think it may well have aged, there’s little denying that for many people of a similar age to me, Friends was and is a touchstone of popular culture that will always carry at least some degree of personal resonance.