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Why we're so obsessed with 'Friends' — the comfort food of television

A rumor that the TV show 'Friends' was leaving Netflix almost broke the Internet this week. Why do we love this show so much?
Image: Friends
The characters on "Friends" have relatable problems with dating, looking for work, and struggling with their parents.Danny Feld / NBC

Netflix subscribers were thrown for a loop on Monday, when a rumor that the NBC hit ‘90s sitcom “Friends” would be leaving the streaming service swept the internet.

Evidently, fans had looked at the details page of “Friends” on Netflix and noted that the content was listed as available only through Jan. 1, 2019. They then inferred that this meant “Friends” was being axed from Netflix, where it’s been available for nearly four years.

Netflix responded to the hysteria with a tweet declaring that in fact, no, "Friends" was not going anywhere.

The tweet was liked over 188,000 times and retweeted nearly 75,000 times, indicating massive rejoice.

'Friends' has a universal appeal like no other show

I personally don’t really care for "Friends", which makes me something of a social pariah among my peers (I’m 35, and almost all my friends are fans of the show). I’ve seen countless episodes (they’re rather impossible to avoid), yet I just don’t feel a connection with it and I find everyone very annoying.

Given that my feelings about this show are lukewarm at best, I was able to view, with an outsider’s fascination, the upset the Netflix rumor prompted in so many people. I found myself asking, “What is it about this show that gives it such a universal appeal and is so relatable for many?”

I took my questions to clinical psychologist and relationship expert Dr. Carla Marie Manly as well as to writer Kelsey Miller, author of the book “I'll Be There For You: The One About Friends,” to gain some insight into this phenomenon.

Courtney Cox Arquette as Monica, Lisa Kudrow as Pheobe, Jennifer Aniston as Rachel, David Schwimmer as Ross in the pilot episode of Friends.Warner Bros. Television Production Inc.

We relate to the characters’ neuroses — and can use them to understand our own

Manly, though not much a fan of “Friends” knows it very, very well. She’s essentially studied it because clients bring it up so often in sessions.

“My 30-something-year-old clients often bring up 'Friends,'” says Manly. “I have one client who identifies deeply with Chandler, so I’ve had to investigate Chandler, as this client is very guarded and doesn’t like to talk about much. I know about Chandler’s third nipple and his effeminate attitude and sarcasm. In a sense, this client is talking about their own issues by talking about Chandler’s.”

Yes, a therapist is essentially psychoanalyzing a TV character to better understand her patient. I find this astonishingly brilliant (and bizarre), but Manly suggests this isn’t so out of the ordinary, noting that she’ll often ask clients who may be guarding trauma or other issues who their favorite superhero was as a child.

"Friends" may not feature superheroes, but it does showcase what you might call super-neurotics — and it does so in safe, jovial way. "Friends" revels in an environment where nothing “crazy” is really that crazy, and where no quirk or personality flaw, no matter how extreme, can ever disconnect you from the love and support of your best pals.

“When people feel like they can see themselves in another person, they feel that they are not alone — they’re not ‘too’ eccentric,” Manly says. “Take Joey. He’s one that some of my male clients identify with because he’s very awkward and goofy. Or Phoebe — some look at her and see their own eccentricities or their family’s. They identify with it and when they do, they’re not isolated anymore. [Additionally] a lot of people live alone and don’t have a lot of friends. Watching 'Friends' is way of vicariously experiencing friendship.”

‘Friends’ revels in an environment where nothing “crazy” is really that crazy, and where no quirk or personality flaw, no matter how extreme, can ever disconnect you from the love and support of your best pals.

My immediate retort to Manly is, “That’s depressing!” as I’m thinking about how I maybe, sort of have this relationship with “Seinfeld.”

“It’s not depressing,” Manly asserts, “because it’s comforting, and you know what? It’s better than nothing.”

'Friends' gives us a big dose of 'aspirational normalcy'

Miller, who you may call a “Friends” expert given her book on the subject, highlights the cultural pressure points that have driven interest (both old and new).

“It comes down to this one thing that [media executive] Lauren Zalaznick brought up to me when I was interviewing her for the book called ‘aspirational normalcy’,” Miller tells NBC News BETTER. “Television really represents the national mood, economy and political events of its time, and in the ‘90s, the vibe was this aspirational normalcy and the appearance of attainability. 'Friends' is like real life, but a little bit better. The characters have relatable problems with dating, looking for work,and struggling with their parents’, but everything is fine and everything works out.”

And it’s not just Americans who can relate. Miller notes that “Friends,” has been broadcast in some 200 countries and translated into nearly just as many languages.

“It connected so many people and it never really went away,” Miller says. “There was a resurgence of interest around 2014 or so, when the [pop culture] nostalgia cycle hit the mid-'90s point, but there was never a time when ‘Friends’ wasn’t being aired, and it bled into so many other parts of culture: the fashion, the famous haircut. There’s even research that shows it influenced our speech patterns and the sarcasm we use.”

But beyond all these touchstones and trends that the show so perfectly encapsulated in “Friends,” the main reason the show is such an enduring success is quite self-explanatory — titular, in fact.

“Ultimately the big core reason ‘Friends’ was so universally popular and remains so is the fact that it is a show about friendship,” says Miller. “That's it. The entire concept, the whole show, is about the experience of having friends. Everyone can relate to that, yet not everyone has experienced friendship in such a magical style. It also speaks to the times in our lives when your friends took primacy and mean everything to you. That's an era not in the ‘90s, but an era in our lives, and that’s what makes it hit so hard.”


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