20 years ago today, the pilot episode of Friends aired in primetime on NBC. 20 YEARS, you guys. Seriously. This article says the show is as popular today, in re-runs, as it was back then. I’d believe it, too. Even though you watch and go, ‘wow, it’s weird that they don’t have cell phones,’ or ‘dang, Rachel’s jeans always seemed cool at the time…what happened?’ the show has joined the ranks of Truly Timeless Televiewing.
Many will say it’s because that cast of 6 had such impeccable chemistry. Others will say it was the writers’ sense of perfect timing. But I’m going to say it’s all about the place—or rather, places—into which we were invited and asked to stay for awhile (ten seasons, to be exact). Think about it: when you see the quirky mismatched furniture at Central Perk, you can almost smell the coffee. Joey and Chandler’s barcaloungers might as well have YOUR butt-print in them. And when the door to Monica and Rachel’s place opens, don’t you still find yourself wanting to dust off your shoes? Lest you set off a manic cleaning frenzy?
Y’all know I’m a sucker for context. And Friends had it, big time. The places and the things that filled those episodes were integral parts of the story. From the New York skyline in the opening credits to the turquoise door in the closing shots of the finale… the ‘wheres’ of this show mattered. The intentional sense of place around which the show was crafted, drew a full and rich narrative from what might have been a one-season slapstick fiasco. And maybe that’s why it’s still so popular in re-runs: because how many other places from that part of your life can you still go and re-visit?
When I think of the ‘places’ that I frequented 20 years ago, there aren’t many still standing… at least, not as they were. Strangers live in the house where I grew up; and for that matter, in the houses where most of my friends grew up. My grandparents sold the farm where I loved to smell the tobacco hanging in the fall. The dance studio where I spent countless hours is now a parking lot. My high school is still there, but these days, public schools don’t take kindly to people randomly wandering in during the day. And the church where I grew up is still there on Main Street, but is not ‘my’ church anymore, if you know what I mean (and I know that you do). Most of my peoples have left town, and run home only for the occasional Christmas and/or Weaver’s Hot Dogs fix, just like I do. Oh, and speaking of Weaver’s—still there but about 3 times the size of its original square-footage.
I don’t mean to be all gloom and doom and say that everything falls apart and dies. I cruise through my old home town and can also see a dozen ways that things have changed for the better—including the expanded space of Weaver’s fact that you can now order a beer in a restaurant (even if you still can’t buy one at the store). The world has moved on, and that’s all as it should be. But if we want a quick trip back in time to see and touch familiar things and places, most of us are pretty much SOL. Being able to find our Friends on the dozen or so syndicates that hold them in time and space for us—it’s kind of like visiting an old version of our own lives for a minute. Or 28 minutes. And it’s a comfort.
There is gospel truth in the knowledge that we cannot visit the same place twice, because WE are never the same when we go back. Nor would we ask to be. We grow and evolve and hopefully, we like the people we’ve become and are comfortable living with ourselves. But we do need a few reliable places to be still and stay for us. And with our real life ‘places’ falling so often to development, progress, family changes and even death, maybe Monica’s kitchen table can be sacred space; maybe a pretend coffee house is holy ground. So, pardon the post that sounds a little like a country song today. But TWENTY YEARS, people. Doesn’t it make you a little nostalgic too? As it is any time we run into an old friend and catch right up, and feel right at home. We put our feet up on their couch and realize we never really left. We were just on a break…