I remember watching Friends for the first time. I was too young when it first started, only ten years old, and I have vague memories of hearing about Ross and Rachel and “how you doin'” jokes from pop culture. The internet was still relatively new to me at that point, so I didn’t have information or fanbase to tap into quickly to learn about the show. It was in its fourth season when I was fourteen and finally able to start watching, and I became obsessed. One of the very first times I wrote about television, it was Friends. I even had my own website – long since gone (thankfully) – with profiles on the characters and my favorite quotes. It took some time before I was able to watch the first few seasons and catch up, but I watched it until the very last episode. The show lost some of its shine by the tenth season, but it never stopped making me laugh. Revisiting it as an adult has been an amazing experience, because as a teenager I couldn’t possibly connect on a real level to the struggle these twenty-somethings went through. It amazed me when I got to the episode about everyone turning thirty during my re-watch, and I myself just turned thirty. Wow. I was in high school when that episode aired, and thirty seemed unbearably old. As you can imagine, a lot of the adult jokes went right over my head, but I didn’t always have to understand the jokes to laugh at them.

The nostalgia hit me hard today, in the best possible sense. I didn’t see the premiere of the show, but I think it was such an integral part of the 90s that it’s impossible to think of that era without picturing Friends and Central Perk. Those characters are deeply ingrained in pop culture now. I love that they show reruns on TV now, and I wonder if a younger generation watching it will find it dated. Or go “well our current sitcoms are doing the same thing” without realizing that this is where they got the inspiration from in the first place. That’s not to say Friends was a brand new idea. Sitcoms have been a staple of television entertainment for a long time, although they used to look more like I Love Lucy and Happy Days. Sitcom stands for situation comedy, a genre where a group of characters share a common environment (work or home or both)  and have storylines about every day life. The older I got, the more I appreciated how Friends really did deal with serious issues for the 20s and 30s. They talked about career, marriage, making families, navigating new relationships, dealing with break ups, dealing with friction with friends, losing friends, making friends, losing family members, and love of all kinds. I’m a huge fan of “found family,” the idea that the family you make is just as important, if not more important, than the one you have.

I was trying to figure out how to paint a broad brush of the show, but still talk about the things I love the most, so I thought I could do quick character sketches of where they started out and where they ended. If you haven’t heard a fan set up a Central Perk in NYC. It’s open right now and only for the month of September. If you’re in the area, go check it out. I’ll be envious from a distance. Here are the six major friends, and I’ll admit I’m going to start with my favorites, since they were all equal parts of the ensemble and no one really was the main.

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Chandler Bing: Chandler was my favorite character from day one for obvious reasons: he was the funniest. I often use sarcastic humor myself, although I’ve never been a one-liner the way he is. Chandler was always the one with the quick wit, from beginning to end, but he changed in other major ways. He was always very bad in the romance department, awkward around women and fickle about them at the same time. He went back and forth with Janice for awhile, but it was obviously his relationship with Monica that became the focus of his character from season five on. Still, I like Chandler on his own. Glimpses into his difficult family home was always interesting, such as his drag queen father and sexpot mother, and I loved the flashbacks of him being ridiculous in college with Ross. His bromance with Joey is the stuff of legends, they were roommates who openly acted like a married couple, and they were inseparable to the point that Monica and Chandler made a Joey room at their house. I liked his career change when he realized he hated his job and wanted to find his passion.  It was great to watch him and Monica grow together as they navigated the awkwardness of friendship to lovers to a marriage. Without a doubt my favorite Chandler moment is when he emotionally persuades the pregnant Erica to let him and Monica adopt her child. Overall it was a long but steady character arc for Chandler, where he stayed the funny guy, but also became a family guy.

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Monica Geller: Monica was a character that I don’t think they really got a sense of in the first season. She was fairly bland in the beginning, with her escapades being mild and man-related. Her major traits of being highly competitive, OCD, maternal, and emotional didn’t really start kicking in until season two and three. She was the character who cared the most about finding love and family from early on. She always wanted to be married and have children, so it was satisfying to see her get it in the end. I liked when her quirkiness became more and more pronounced, and the nerdiness of her and Ross as siblings never failed to make me laugh. The Geller dance will always stick in my mind. Her career was a big part of her identity, and I appreciated that part of her, and how much she genuinely loved being a cook. She was the emotional center of the group, not just because she owned the cool apartment, but because she was the mother hen. The only thing I wasn’t hugely a fan of was all the fat jokes. Yuck fat-shaming, go back to your corner. I feel like her major plotlines were slightly more serious than the rest of the group, like her fertility struggle and subsequent adoption plot, and the up and down of her relationship with Chandler. In the end she got everything she wanted, and I was happy for her. My favorite moment for Monica was when she proposed to Chandler.

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Phoebe Buffay: Phoebe was the ditz of the group, and her storylines were always just a little more bizarre than everyone else. But I liked that about her. In a lot of ways that made her stand out the most, because some of the random details I remember best are from her. Singing terribly about smelly cat, her mother’s suicide, her “evil” twin, giving birth to her brother’s triplets, falling in love for the nerdiest guy on this show (and that’s saying a lot), marrying a “gay” ice dancer, growing up on the streets, robbing Ross when he was a kid, Regina Phalange, Princess Consuela Bananahammock, and then her lovely relationship with Mike. She was eccentric, sure, but that was her charm. She had a big heart and was very understanding of her friends and all their flaws. She was also able to call them out on bad decisions, and she took a lot of their skepticism about her strangeness in stride. She compromised occasionally on her more strident liberal views to get a good job and settle down, but Phoebe always liked who she was and stood by it. My favorite Phoebe moment is actually in the first episode when she’s asked if she could help, and she said “Oh I wish I could, but I don’t want to.” Perfect.

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Rachel Green: When I was first watching the show I didn’t like Rachel much, although that was probably due to the will-they-won’t-they that was a major part of the story. Ugh I don’t care. Of course they were going to end up together. Look at how well they did Chandler and Monica, they could have done that too. Oh well. But my recent watch led to me liking her a lot more, because she was the friend who drastically changed her life the most. She was a snooty, spoiled brat who decided to take the hard road to become an individual. That took guts! She was lucky that Monica let her crash, yes, but she went through a long process to become a functioning adult in the show. She started working in Central Perk and then ditched that to find a real career in fashion. She struggled up the ladder until she was highly successful in her field, and then she juggled her demanding career with being a single mother, something a lot of women are trying to do now in the world. I have a lot of respect now for what she accomplished. That being said I’m hard pressed to really pinpoint a lot about her personality. Maybe it’s that she was the most middle road of the three women, not as eccentric as Phoebe or as intense as Monica. I think my favorite Rachel moment is during her break up with Ross, the first one not the “we were on a break” one, when she talked about how it was extremely important to her that she was doing work she loved for the first time in her life and how much that meant to her. That resonated with me.

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Joey Tribbiani: As the show went on all of the characters tended to get more extreme, and none more so than Joey. While he was always cute but dim, he hit pretty bad lows in stupidity over the seasons. I think the saving grace for his character was how equally sweet he was. He had a big heart and he was very supportive of all of his friends. He was openly emotional too, which I appreciated, and fairly good about sharing his feelings without shame. Maybe it was because he grew up in a house of all sisters. Joey was the guy everyone could count on to have their backs no matter what, and even when he made mistakes, he found ways to make it up to the person. He was just very lucky that a big mistake, setting Phoebe up with a complete stranger, led to her getting married to Mike! I think like Phoebe he tended to have the most ridiculous storylines, mostly dealing with his acting. The Days Of Our Lives storylines were pretty funny though, him getting killed and then coming back later on, and his various awkward commercials. Otherwise though Joey got the short end of the stick, he had much fewer serious character arcs, and the major one was falling in love with Rachel. And that didn’t work out, which I ended up appreciating, but still. On the whole he had the least amount of character development. Still I’m affectionate toward the character and I never saw his spin-off, so I can still feel that way. My favorite Joey moment was when he got emotionally attached to Little Women and put the book in the fridge when Beth got sick.

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Ross Geller: Ross was my least favorite character, so I am very thankful they didn’t go through with him being the “main” character from the beginning. I have to respect that Schwimmer refused to make more money than his castmates when it was offered early on. It’s funny because ordinarily I have a lot of affection for nerdy characters, so I can’t pinpoint why he bothers me. I just found him irritating from early on. It was a pretty typical story with him and Rachel, nerdy guy obsessed with popular girl, eventually she sees him and they fall in love. I do think the relationship became a great deal more complicated than that, and I think they weren’t afraid of letting their characters make terrible decisions. I’m actually not one of the people who hold the “break” thing against him. I understand why Rachel did, but it wasn’t a character-destroying moment for me. I thought his intense jealousy and possessiveness was far more annoying, and that was before the cheating incident. It was that same jealousy that continued for him with all of his girlfriends and Rachel over the years, and every time I was like ugh you have no trust in them and no rights to their bodies when they’re not with you. Grrrrrr. Anyway, suffice to say most of his storylines I just rolled my eyes and suffered through. He was a sad sack and things never really worked out for him, but a lot of the time he had himself to blame. He was arrogant and pretentious and very petty. I do not miss him. I guess his only saving grace was his love for his children. I’m trying to think of my favorite Ross moment and nothing is coming to me. Maybe the famous Pivot scene, but that was mostly laughing at him and not with him. Maybe when he found out about Chandler and Monica.

I could write about Friends forever so I’m going to stop now. Mostly, I look back on the show with a great deal of fondness. I still find it funny and charming, and I was surprised at how easy it was to rewatch. While there were definitely some problems in the show, and it grated toward the end, looking back at the whole it was worth the shaky episodes because of the great ones. It will always be the first sitcom I fell in love with, and I tip my hat to the show. Twenty years later, and you’re still remembered and respected. Well done you.

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