A few months ago, I found out my friend Steve had never really watched Friends. I discovered this while we were watching a rerun of “The One With the Tiny T-Shirt,” which comes just a few episodes after Ross and Rachel break up for the first time. “Ross and Rachel dated, right?” he asked. And then he gave me possibly the best gift any friend has ever given me: He asked me to explain the history of Ross and Rachel. And boy, did I! I only edited down parts of it because we had to attend a wedding, but given the chance, I’d probably still be explaining the ins and outs of being lobsters. (Yes, I did Phoebe’s hand gesture to help illuminate the concept.) “Wow, you were, like, really into Friends,” Steve said. Yes. I was. I am. I remain very into Friends! I will probably never be as devoted to another show as I am to Friends.
Part of that is timing: I started watching Friends when I was in middle school, an age when your brain and spirit are sort of designed to get obsessed with things. I got obsessed with Friends. (Among other shows, particularly Melrose Place, Chicago Hope, and ER.) Another part is pervasiveness: Friends reruns are on at pretty much all times and have been for what feels like forever. Anyone can be devoted to new episodes, but the true fan is one who watches episodes over and over. And that’s easier for Friends than it is for any show other than, maybe, Sex and the City. But the biggest reason Friends made such an impact on me at the time and why the show continues to hold such a place of high regard is that Friends has my favorite thing any show can have: It’s about people who like each other.
This is not as common as you think. Many, many comedies — good comedies, sometimes even great comedies — are not about people who genuinely care for one another. That’s what soured me on later seasons of How I Met Your Mother, and why as much as I can respect Curb Your Enthusiasm, I will never actually love or enjoy it: These people do not like each other. Not every show has to be about happy people, and the TV landscape would be plainer and less interesting if all shows were, but I picked up social anxieties from Seinfeld that I don’t think I’d have otherwise. “Big salad” — i.e., accidentally taking credit for bringing or giving something to someone? That haunts me.
Friends does not haunt me. Friends comforts and delights me now just as it did when I started watching it. I wish Friends were streaming on Netflix, so I wasn’t reduced to the crappy syndicated versions that sound weird because they’re sped up. I wish I could believe in the idea of a reunion episode, because it would be nice to have something to dream of. I wish there were more Friends knockoffs still happening, because even though people like to say lightning doesn’t strike twice, that’s wrong — that’s what goddamn lightning rods are for, for lightning to strike a bunch of times.
Until then, though, my Friends love endures on its own. On the penultimate episode of the first season, when Monica holds her newborn nephew Ben for the first time, she says, “I’m your Aunt Monica. I will always have gum.” I know now that that points to Monica’s fear that she’s not much of an adult, but at the time, tweenage Margaret thought “that’s a good idea, I’m going to make that my thing, too.” Guess what? It’s 20 years later, and I always have gum. And yes, gum would be perfection.