Of all the cultural touchstones of the '90s, surely few loom as large as the NBC juggernaut that was the sitcom Friends. It's hard to believe that Friends didn't debut until the fall season of 1994; the show is so inextricably entwined with my memories of the '90s that it seems like it must have been there all along.
Friends: Champion of the '90s
Even beyond "The Rachael," this show ruled the '90s.
It's fashionable to hate on Friends, and certainly understandable. Familiarity breeds contempt, after all, and the show has been in constant re-runs ever since it was canceled in 2004. On my current cable line-up, I have at least three opportunities to watch Friends every day, on three different channels.
But as easy as it is to mock Friends, to dismiss it as mass-market crap, I'm telling you: it's a pretty good show. I have yet to watch an episode that didn't make me laugh at least once. Which is more than I can say for most sitcoms, either then or now.
Sure, the kids had ridiculously large apartments. Sure, we're all tired of "the Rachael" haircut. (Even Jennifer Aniston is tired of it. Turns out, she hated it all along.) Sure, its earliest episodes have a surprising emphasis on high-waisted pants, and Rachael occasionally wore overalls as a fashion statement. But there's a lot to like about the show, too.
One of the things I particularly appreciate about Friends is the way in which it let its characters evolve. Each major character, for example, follows a fairly complex career path. You can triangulate any given episode on the chronology by figuring out which job any three characters are working at the time.
This career progression is not only true to life (especially the lives of 20-somethings), it's also a surprisingly sophisticated and complex narrative structure for a sitcom. Compare it to any other long-running sitcom (Frasier, Cheers, and MASH all spring to mind). Their characters are stuck in a rut.
The same is true of their romantic entanglements. The eponymous friends become involved with one another, with other people, develop crushes, break up, have fights, and endlessly remix their love lives. Again, this is not the kind of thing you see in most shows. Even setting aside the Rachael/Ross thing, think of the long list of lovers lost (and in some cases found and then lost again) over the course of the series: Rachael and Paolo, Chandler and Janice, Monica and Richard, Chandler and one of Joey's sisters. Not to mention the time Phoebe developed a crush on Monica and Ross's father.
In its style, humor and snappy dialogue, Friends was truly the ruler of the '90s.