Perhaps it was the fact that Friends recently became available on Netflix, but I feel like this classic sitcom has experienced a second wave of popularity lately. It feels as though all the Gen Y kids who used to watch Friends with our moms when we were 12 are now re-watching it at 26, in complete awe of the jaw-dropping truths and revelations we were never mature enough to realize before. All those innuendos and daily references that are typical of urban living that, while entertaining and hilarious at age 12, never really quite hit home the way they do now. It’s particularly funny how when we used to watch Friends, the characters seemed so old. Back then, they were ADULTS. With adult clothes and adult hair. But guess what? We’re their age now.
I went through a pretty earth-shattering breakup half a year ago (my very first), and much to my surprise, despite how much I was anticipating this inevitable demise, I was completely incapacitated. I basically became a mirror image of the textbook breakup mess. I left wet towels on my comforter after showering. I ate crackers and cheese for dinner and pizza for breakfast. I talked to my pillows. Actually, come to think of it, most of my post-heartbreak activities took place in my bed. It was my place of refuge.
One of the decisions I can say I’m not AS ashamed of, however, was my decision to re-watch my favorite childhood show, Friends, from start to finish. Ten masterfully crafted, heartfelt seasons of quip and quirk and character, full of episodes that make your spine all tingly. There really is a something about that show. Some unidentifiable quality that just makes you feel good when you watch it. Perhaps it’s just how genuine the characters are. How lovable. How despite all their tumultuous life experiences, they still come out the other end cracking jokes, participating in group banter, and carrying on without a heavy heart. There’s a sort of naïve sweetness to that, an admirable sense of purity that never fails to make us feel all warm and fuzzy. But above all, if there’s one thing I learned from re-watching Friends, it was the magnitude of powerful life lessons they learned navigating the confusing realities of dating in your twenties.
Rachel enters the scene early on as a spoiled Daddy’s girl from Long Island. Her purse is full, but not for long, as she realizes she’s signed up for a life she doesn’t want with a man she doesn’t love. She’s 25 at the time, which is the age I’ve come to identify as the archetypal quarter-life crisis—that time when you cross the bridge from your naïve early twenties (a time you feel invincible and everything seems endless and easy) and slowly transition into the foreboding abyss of Future You. With a little vigor and the help of old friends, we watch Rachel evolve beautifully from a clueless brat into a noble young woman, passionate about fashion and determined to find independence. When Rachel starts dating Ross, we watch her fall in love smoothly and naturally, and while it’s all endearing and romantic, we watch the walls of female strength she’d spent months building slowly begin to soften. As the year progresses, Rachel gets busier at work—a satisfying representation of how her determination and passion have paid off, and Ross gets upset. He misses her, needs her around, doesn’t understand why she’s so invested in her work, and why that leaves him by the wayside. And how does Rachel react to his insecurity? She puts up a fight. She doesn’t reduce her hours. She doesn’t quit. She doesn’t apologize and let love take priority. She fights for what she’s worked for—because for the first time in her life, she’s doing something she really cares about. The beauty about this is that it reminds us that while love can be all-consuming, powerful, and so completely fulfilling, it’s simply not enough. It cannot be your only source of happiness. And as Rachel shows us, we as young, bright women have a responsibility to generations before us to become more than just a person in love. And even if the perfect guy with whom your heart lies gives you an ultimatum, you must find that inner voice urging you to do what’s best for you.
Ross is one of my favorite characters for many reasons. Most notably, he’s just a lovely guy. Smart and sophisticated, yet so silly and sweet—he genuinely wears his heart on his sleeve, and it shows through his smile. Throughout the show we watch Ross get shut down, time and time again, as he navigates through a series of different love affairs—so many that it actually becomes an ongoing joke amongst the friends. Perhaps it’s the very fact that Ross is so blindly hopeful about love working out that makes these failures so comical. The irony that someone who trusts in love so much—who so obviously deserves authentic, respectful love—just keeps getting disappointed time and time again. That’s just good comedy! But herein lies the important lesson to be taken from Ross Gellar. That no matter how dark love may be, no matter how many curveballs you encounter on your path to fulfilled romance (whether it be a spouse changing sexual orientation, a girlfriend dumping you for a job, or a drunken night in Vegas), it’s all worth it. It builds you, shapes, you and teaches you. And when love goes to shit, your best bet is to keep that naïve, hopeful grin smeared across your face, pick up the pieces, and keep on moving. Never give up on love. There’s a beautiful naivety to falling in love—and that’s what makes it so special, and no matter how much hurt we swim through, we should never lose that. Like Ross, never stop wearing your heart on your sleeve. Never get rid of that naive smirk on your face. Because it’s the fuel that forces you to carry on.
So Chandler is undoubtedly my favorite character. He’s just perfect. Not exactly the perfect guy, but just the perfect character. He represents everything we think but are too afraid to say out loud. We know Chandler as the funny friend. The awkward, nervous ball of energy with the corporate job and relentless quick wit. He’s such a fantastic talent but he finds himself stuck in a Manhattan sky rise pushing paper for a living and obeying orders of “the man,” so to speak. He comes home from work, loosens his tie, rests his stern professional persona, and cracks beers with his beloved friends who see him for who he really is. I think a lot of us go through this in our twenties. This battle of finding out who we are at work, and finding who we really are once the day ends. People like Chandler don’t fit the usual 9-5 mold. But I think a lot of us do it because we think we have to. We think we have to reserve our quirks and idiosyncrasies for a later hour instead of embracing them in our everyday lives. We feel the pressure to fit the job, as opposed to letting the job naturally fit to us. (What a luxury that would be.) We see this a lot in Chandler. He plays the role he thinks he’s supposed to, both in his professional life and his romantic life. His skits are all about games he plays with women, as he erratically tries to decipher the dating rulebook. Should I call? What message do I leave on her phone? Does she think I’m manly enough? How do I be the perfect mix between casual and sexy? It’s hilarious to watch him nervously buzz through each one of these romantic encounters—but what’s even better is what happens when he falls in love for real, with a person who doesn’t care about any of that. A person who’s not only watched him go through the motions but loves him regardless. Not only that, Monica’s love for Chandler does him absolute wonders—she inspires him to quit his corporate stint and go into advertising, a career where he’s basically paid to be funny. Paid to be himself. So what does Chandler teach us? That you can act and perform and play the part as much as you like for people, but eventually you’ll realize that the best relationships are the ones where there is no performance. There’s just you, and that thing you’re desperately seeking might have been right under your nose the entire time.
I don’t know about you, but for some reason it feels like more and more people this year are posting photos all over Facebook about how they’re getting married, having babies, or consummating some act of love and commitment that only reminds me how far I am from these achievements. It’s a bit concerning, actually. To reach 26 and realize that you’re farther behind than you thought you were. That the “pressure is on,” so to speak. But this is what I love so much about Monica’s character in the show. Monica is strong. She is assertive. She lives her own life and just assumes her position of womanhood without ever questioning it. The best part about Monica is that she is so irrefutably true to herself. She floats along a string of romantic affairs throughout the seasons, never really finding someone worth keeping—until Richard. Richard is her first real love. The man that shakes her world wholly and completely, and we’re nearly certain they will stay together until, alas, he tells her he doesn’t want kids. A significant blow, of course. To hear that the man you love endlessly doesn’t want the same things you want. Actually, Monica didn’t just want children. She needed them. She felt the maternal longing just vibrating within her, and she knew she had to be a mother. So what does she do? She leaves him. She swallows the experience and stands strong in the face of love and lets it go. Because ultimately, no matter how strong your love may be, you should never sacrifice or question your needs for someone else. You should never silence that internal voice that keeps you accountable to yourself. It’s hard to turn down the perfect man, but it’s even harder to live with yourself after making the wrong decision.
Phoebe. Oh man. Who doesn’t love Phoebe? For one, she’s hilariously bizarre. She basically defined what it meant to be quirky in the 90s. Long billowy skirts, curly hair, and vintage earrings her grandmother left her—she managed to strike the perfect balance between hippie and hipster. The other thing we love about Phoebe is that she reminds us of a very important lesson in the search for love: that no matter what happens, don’t let it get to you. Don’t take yourself so seriously. We watch Phoebe sway through her twenties, dating casually and freely, picking up a few serious encounters along the way. But despite whether she flails or triumphs in love, she somehow maintains this delicate aura of serenity and self-assuredness—almost like an unwarranted certainty that everything is fine, even when it feels like it’s not. The important thing to take away here is that even when it all feels confusing and painful and scary and lonely, just chill out. Let your hair billow and learn to laugh at yourself. Because it’s not a race, and you don’t need to panic if you’re 26 and still single. Still searching. Still living with a roommate, or still a self-employed masseuse. Because who cares? Life is fun, and it’s so funny, and if you take yourself too seriously or put too much pressure on yourself, you’ll miss those little beams of glory that peak their way through at the most surprising moments. And those are the best parts.
What can we say about our favorite pizza eating, beer-drinking, lady-swindling Italian actor? Well, besides the fact that he’s so smooth and loveable he could charm the dress of a nun, Joey is the portrait of eternal youth. Maybe it’s his overly relaxed disposition (which is comically attributed to dopiness), or maybe it’s the way his smooth black hair just sort of flips over to one side, revealing his signature Cheshire grin, but Joey feels like the embodiment of what it means to be young and vibrant. He just owns it. We watch Joey go through countless women, and his Don Juan tendencies eventually become the brunt of the joke. He’s your textbook “player.” But what’s so surprising and wonderful about Joey is what he reveals when he actually feels serious about a woman. When he falls in love and the hardened walls of his male ego begin to crack, a bright seductive grin that once occupied his face is replaced with an endearing kind of vulnerability that completely humanizes him. It’s really sweet. And what we learn from Joey is that no matter how cocky you may get, how attractive and vain you may become in your quest for success, love will always bring you back down to earth. It’s a force stronger than any pickup line. It will pierce your heart, wipe that smug grin off your face, and make you rethink everything you thought you had figured out. And while that may be a painful process, it’s so completely necessary, and it is these sporadic wake-up calls of love that show you who you really are inside.
I’ll go out on a limb and presume you’re thinking the same thing my brother used to say to me when I gushed over Friends repeats: it’s just a silly sitcom and it’s not realistic at all. OK, fair enough.
If anything at all, the biggest lesson to take from Friends is this: Life is messy. It’s painful, it’s unclear, and it’s absolutely hilarious. But at the end of the day, all you can hope for in life are connections with the kinds of people that make you feel safer when you’re navigating the uncertainty of it all.