Vulture is holding the ultimate Sitcom Smackdown to determine the greatest TV comedy of the past 30 years. Each day, a different notable writer will be charged with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals on March 18. Today’s battle: Salon TV critic Willa Paskin judges Friends versus The Golden Girls. Make sure to head over to Facebook to vote in our Readers Bracket. We also invite tweeted opinions with the #sitcomsmackdown hashtag.
The Golden Girls was one of the first grown-up TV shows that I remember. My grandmother was a fan, and I watched with her in a room with a color scheme Blanche Devereaux would have admired (coral, and then more coral) in a Florida apartment not far from where Blanche and her three roommates lived. As a result, I’ve always had a great fondness for the show; I’ve hummed its theme song, admired its influence (forget all the Sex and the City copycats; Sex and the City is a Golden Girls copycat) and the still remarkable fact that it was a hit starring three women in their 60s.
In the meantime, I’ve seen every episode of Friends at least twice, and to this day —like, actually, yesterday — would rather watch its re-reruns than almost anything else on TV. I am inclined to think there are three kinds of people in the world (or four, if I have to grant that there are some who have never even seen Friends): those who prefer Friends, those who prefer Seinfeld, and those who prefer Seinfeld and want to tell you that’s because Friends is hackneyed and lame and therefore contemptible. It is those people to whom I have pledged my eternal eye-roll and the energy to always, always yell at them loudly at bars. Friends may be hugely popular and beloved by chicks but that does not make it bad (it just makes it an easy target). Have the Friends detractors no lungs to laugh? Have they not watched Monica dance with a turkey on her head? Marveled at Joey lunging while wearing all of Chandler’s pants? Heard, and never forgotten, that soulmates are really just like lobsters?
So I assumed that Friends would win easily. But after re-watching The Golden Girls, the competition tightened up. Since Friends ended its ten-season run in 2004, audiences have been treated to/tortured by one clone after another. (The treats are the British Coupling and Happy Endings, and that’s it). But before we lived in a world where there were dozens of shows just like Friends, there was Friends, which was a show sort of like The Golden Girls. The latter finished its seven seasons in 1992, just two years before Friends began. Based solely on the clothes, you would think they had been separated by a decade, but they do share a major theme: What happens when a group of strangers, a few with blood ties, devote their lives to one another and become family, not because they have to, but because they want to. Golden Girls’ theme song “Thank You For Being a Friend” might as well be the Friends theme (though then The Rembrandts would not have gotten to be the answer to a trivia question).
The Golden Girls was created by Susan Harris, who had worked with Norman Lear and Bea Arthur on Maude, and GG existed in that Lear-influenced TV era when sitcoms still believed in the teachable moment and in taking on social issues. This was a tradition that Friends did as much as any sitcom to annihilate, choosing instead to address hot-button topics in a glancing, casually liberal way, if at all. (Golden Girls dedicated a very special episode to Dorothy’s lesbian friend coming to visit and falling for Rose; on Friends the fact that Ross’s ex-wife is a lesbian, with whom he has a son, is just a recurring plot point.) Of course, the most teachable moment turned out to be the entire show: Yes, you can create a hit sitcom out of middle-aged women — a conceit that continues to be revolutionary. TV not only ignores this demo on screen, they don’t even care what they watch; truly, their eyeballs and wallets do not count.
And yet roughly 18 million viewers tuned in weekly to watch the withering Dorothy (Arthur), her sassy mother Sofia (Estelle Getty), the ditzy, sweet Rose (Betty White), and the lascivious Blanche (Rue McClanahan). This was an active foursome, engaged with the world, each other, their jobs, families, men, and sex — which all of them, not just boy-crazy Blanche, had. (Blissfully no one makes jokes about cougars, plastic surgery or Viagra.) They hang out, they eat — something TV characters increasingly do not do, unless they’re zombies — they cook, they watch TV, they laugh, and in the middle they have heavy, tossed-off, wonderfully written conversations like the one below, where Blanche casually shares the story of her husband’s death.
Golden Girls can feel dated: The pacing is slow, the laugh track intrusive, and some of the jokes barely land. But if you’ve never watched an episode, you might be surprised by its edge. The humor is sardonic, consistently funny, and often biting, particularly when they bicker. Dorothy, Blanche, Rose and Sofia are unkind to one another in the way you can only be to the people who really love you: In other words, realistically. Blanche and Dorothy’s favorite thing to do is to wind up the Amelia Bedelia-esque Rose, then laugh at her behind her back. Dorothy smacks Rose upside the head with books. Sofia, the adult-turned-foul mouthed child, exists to level scathing insults. In one episode, Blanche is sexually harassed by her teacher. Substitute teacher Dorothy counsels her to report it, drawing from her own experiences, but when Blanche tries to update her roommates on the situation, they ignore her, too focused on getting tickets to a Frank Sinatra concert to let her get a word in edgewise.
Memorably, the women go to therapy together because they’ve been fighting non-stop. Blanche is accused of selfishness, Rose of being annoying, and Dorothy of being impossibly competent. “Dorothy cannot be blamed for being capable,” the shrink says. “She doesn’t have to lord it over us!” Rose counters. But competence is an extremely generous term for Dorothy’s manner. She is fierce and imperious and scary as hell; she calls her friends dumb and finds everything they do exasperating. She is — and I think Dorothy would have long since re-appropriated this term — a bitch, albeit a well-meaning, emotionally generous one. She and her roommates are the ancestors of all the lost, flibbertigibbet twentysomethings on TV right now (New Girl’s Jess Day = Rose Nylund) who are supposed to be so radical because they are occasionally unlikeable. Dorothy was doing unlikeable first and she, at least, had her shit together while she did so. And she was usually right.
There is a Dorothy-like character on Friends — a woman of the same generation who is almost diarrheatically judgmental: Monica and Ross’s mother Judy. In the season-one episode, “The One Where Nana Dies Twice,” Judy complains about her mother after her funeral: “Do you know what it’s like to grow up with someone who is critical of every single thing you say?” The joke is that of course Monica knows; that’s what Judy does to her. Monica asks her mother if she ever wishes she had told Nana how that felt. Judy considers this, and with an inkling of where her daughter is headed, replies, “No, I think some things are better left unsaid. I think it’s nicer when people just get along.” And then she reaches over, intending to insult Monica’s hair, but catches herself and compliments her earrings instead.
Dorothy, who believes nothing is better left unsaid, would have just insulted her hair. She never caves in to a pleasantry, but Friends always does. There is very little bite to Friends; the characters snip and snipe, but gently, and they always make up by the end of the episode. There would never be a need for them to go to therapy together. It’s this preference for amiability that can bug people: It’s a vanilla sitcom. In fact, praising Friends feels a lot like praising vanilla ice cream— something that I don’t do because it’s banal and chocolate is better. But at the same time, I can’t deny that a really great vanilla ice cream is the platonic ideal. Whatever else we may like or want in our ice cream, vanilla is the purest expression of the form — and so it is with Friends.
The best sitcoms are as much about the casting as the writing, and in this respect Friends was perfect: Jennifer Aniston as Rachel and Courteney Cox as her roommate Monica; Matt LeBlanc as Joey and Matthew Perry as Chandler, the neighbors across the hall; David Schwimmer as Monica’s brother Ross; and Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe. None of them could be played by anyone else. (This is why it’s funny to imagine Cox as Rachel; she was given the choice of roles during casting.) And here’s where Friends distinguished itself in a way that Golden Girls did not. If you think of Dorothy as the quintessential Golden Girl, and Rachel as the quintessential Friend, the thing that differentiates Rachel (like the thing that differentiates Mary Richards or Lucy Ricardo) is that at some point, unlike everyone else around her, she ceased to be defined by her idiosyncrasies. Much as I love each character on both shows, to the very end Phoebe was the space cadet who sang “Smelly Cat,” Monica the control freak, Joey the loveable dummy (he, of course, is the Rose Nylund of Friends), Chandler the sarcastic guy, Ross the spazzy paleontologist, Dorothy the abrasive critic, Blanche the oversexed Southern belle, and Sofia the tiny, wise-cracking Italian. Only Rachel was a whole person, not a type. Jennifer Aniston may have done too many bad movies for you to remember how great she is on Friends, but she took a ditz with a nose job and made her so much more than her quirks. It is one of the all time great, effortless-seeming comedic performances.
Excluding the misguided Joey-Rachel arc, Friends was lovely and hilarious and enjoyable and so, so satisfying because the friendships were relatable (even if they all lived in absurdly large New York apartments that they couldn’t possibly afford). It could be simplistic and formulaic, but the show’s sharp writers and even sharper cast accomplished the hardest thing of all: They made a really funny sitcom for ten years, and they made making a really funny sitcom look easy. When the show ended, Time’s James Poniewozik wrote that unlike most other great sitcoms, Friends “is simply about being a pleasant sitcom.” I think this is true, but I would amend it to say that Friends was simply about being a pleasure. Look around. There are hardly any of those on your television right now, and a whole lot more shows that, in trying to be like Friends, and in failing to be anywhere near as good, burnish it.
Golden Girls is funny and prickly and because we live in a world that is sexist and ageist it is also rare and remarkable: You should go watch the hell out of it. But give me a remote control and a choice and Friends is the one I want to see. Some will continue to downgrade it because the show is easy, because it is simple, because it doesn’t make you work to love it, and that makes it feel like it might not be worth respecting, but it’s not going to be me. Another way to put it: Friends is a show that Rose and Blanche would have curled up on the sofa to watch together, and they would have laughed and laughed, having reached a time in their lives when they know a good thing when they see it.
Willa Paskin is the TV critic at Salon.com. She is a Dorothy.