The ideological war on ‘Friends’

I was recently nostalgic for 1990s television, and so I decided to rewatch a few episodes of the 1990s’ favorite sitcom, Friends. Although the last new Friends episode aired 15 years ago, Friends is all over my cable directory in reruns, on channels like TV Land and Nickelodeon.

As most of you will know, Friends was incredibly successful—and profitable—during its ten-year primetime run, from 1994 to 2004. I recall reading that at the height of the show’s popularity, the six lead actors—Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc, and David Schwimmer—were being paid $650,000 per episode. 

It might seem to you that a few of them have been resting on their laurels since Friends ended. David Schwimmer, who might have been the next Tom Cruise or Will Smith, has barely done anything in the intervening years. And when was the last time you went to see a Jennifer Aniston movie?

There might be a reason for that. They’ve all got tons of money. (Aniston has a reported net worth of $240 million.) 

And there might be yet another reason: Friends was so popular in its day, that all of the show’s actors have become irrevocably associated with their Friends roles. You can’t see any of them today without automatically thinking of Friends

Sometimes decades-old television doesn’t age well. Not long ago I watched a rerun of Family Ties, which aired on primetime from 1982 to 1989. I liked Family Ties in the 1980s. By 2019, however, the show’s Reagan-era jokes simply weren’t funny anymore.  

But what about Friends?

I was only about ten minutes into the first episode of Friends that I’d stored on my DVR, when I realized why the sitcom was such a hit.

The setup of Friends—six twentysomethings making their way through professional and romantic challenges in fin de siècle New York—is instantly accessible. The main characters are mostly likable (though Phoebe and Joey can both be annoying). 

The jokes, moreover, pass the test of time. I found myself laughing out loud at least once during each episode I watched. 

This is because the humor is built into the characters themselves. Ross and Chandler are funny in awkward situations because of their insecurities. Rachel, the pretty princess, is funny when she copes with smackdowns—because she’s the pretty princess. Phoebe’s rendition of the “smelly cat” song is funny because she’s just flaky enough to take the song seriously, to consider it art.

Friends is one of those cultural artifacts that I enjoyed in the moment and then mostly forgot about. I never would have considered Friends to be the least bit controversial or offensive—even by the hyper-woke, endlessly offended standards of the twenty-first century. 

I was wrong. 

There is an episode in which one of Ross’s paleontology students describes him as a “hottie” on the end-of-semester class evaluation form. This will evolve into a storyline in which the thirtyish Ross will date a twentysomething former student, a problematic enough idea in the era of #MeToo. But that’s just for starters. 

As Ross is sitting around speculating which girl in his class called him a hottie, Rachel asks, with a wry look in her eye, “How do you know it’s a girl?” 

There is a pregnant pause, as Ross considers this possibility—which would have been awkward for most twentysomething heterosexual men in the late 1990s. 

After a few more beats, Ross says, dismissively, “It was a girl.” Cue laugh track. 

This was a fairly innocuous comedic setup in 1995, or even 2000. By the standards of 2019 it is borderline hate speech. As a properly woke young man, Ross should be indifferent about the gender of his admirer. And if he has the gall to explicitly prefer women, then he should at least be open to women who have male anatomical features. 

The characters of Friends are like a lot of white, suburban twentysomethings I knew in the 1990s. They aren’t exactly puritanical, but they are plain vanilla and predictable in their lifestyle and romantic choices. This clashes with today’s identity politics. 

There is no episode in which Rachel dates an African American man who is infinitely cooler and more accomplished than all the white guys on the show. There is no episode in which Joey questions his sexuality, and goes bi for a while.

And what about the episode where Monica is involved in a polyamorous three-way relationship? That one is missing, too.

Above all this, there’s the show’s overweening whiteness. In 1995, the idea of six white Friends was no big deal. In 2019, it must be a conspiracy. They must be closet racists. 

Friends, when you think about it, is problematic on so many levels: The show is completely white, completely cisgendered, and across-the-board heteronormative. 

There is a storyline in Friends in which Chandler’s father, Charles, comes out as a transgender woman. In one memorable scene, the newly christened Helena Handbasket dresses in drag and sings “It’s Raining Men” at a gay cabaret. Suffice it to say that Chandler, rather than being pleased at his father’s awakening, is horrified and embarrassed by the whole thing. 

This may be a realistic reaction, but it doesn’t conform to the ideological orthodoxies of our present times. This is one Friends episode that would never see the light of day in 2019—not without Twitter mobs, advertiser boycotts, and no end of finger-wagging from CNN columnists.

I thought to myself: I can’t be the only one who sees this. I’m not even woke, and these problematic aspects of Friends were apparent even to me. 

So I did a bit of googling, and I discovered that Friends has already raised the eyebrows of the culture police:

“All the reasons why ‘Friends’ is problematic”Film Daily

“Millennials watching ‘Friends’ on Netflix shocked by storylines”The Independent

That’s just a sample. There are scores of articles like this throughout the Internet. 

And you thought there were still a few guiltless pleasures left, that the ideological killjoys hadn’t yet excreted on absolutely everything. Well, guess again, comrade.

A recent article in Cosmopolitan is entitled, “11 actually pretty shocking things Friends couldn’t get away with today”. The author of this piece, one Dusty Baxter-Wright, mentioned all the “problematic” elements that I identified, but she didn’t stop there, adding a few of her own:

Gendered children’s toys: Late in the show, Ross becomes a father, and that damned troglodyte objects to the fact that his son, Ben, plays with girls’ toys. Hate crime!

Fat-shaming: The character of Monica is played by the rail-thin Courtney Cox, but part of the show’s backstory depicts her as being obese in college. Baxter-Wright is shocked at the “fat-shaming” and “size-ism” on display here. 

Sexism: “Joey Tribbiani objectifies women.” I should have caught this one, really. Joey is consistently depicted as a not-too-bright-but-good-looking Italian stallion. He does indeed “objectify women”. 

So she’s right about Joey. Baxter-Wright, with the typical dour humorlessness of the ideologue, misses the bigger joke here, though: Joey is also depicted as a deeply flawed character throughout the show. When Joey constantly makes leering references to women, the show’s scriptwriters are making fun of Joey

But such subtleties are lost on culture warriors. Likewise, Baxter-Wright goes into her tsk-tsk virtue-signaling routine over a Friends episode in which Ross assumes that a male nanny must be gay. 

This episode is funny—not because it makes fun of gay men, or male nannies—but because it pokes fun at Ross’s conformity and insecurities.

Baxter-Wright observes, “Joey and Ross can’t seem to share a hug without saying ‘no homo’ or questioning their sexuality.” She’s largely right about this, too, but she misses the point, and who is actually the butt of the joke.

Young heterosexual Gen X men (I was one of them) did have contradictory attitudes about sex and sexuality. Let’s be forthright about that. Most of us considered ourselves open-minded…to a point. 

We knew that Freddie Mercury was gay, and we suspected as much about the lead singer of Judas Priest (who would come out in 1998). If explicitly asked, in 1988 or 1995, the vast majority of us would have said that being gay was perfectly okay…for other people. At the same time, though, we all went out of our way— whenever any hint of the question arose—to let you know that we weren’t gay. “No homo”, in other words.

This insecurity was symptomatic of coming of age between the freewheeling 1960s and the conservative 1980s. Gen Xers (again, I am one) were raised in a cultural environment of mixed messages—about everything from gender roles and virginity, to same-sex relationships. (Admittedly, few of us thought much about transgenderism back then.) 

Mixed messages lead to insecurities, because you’re torn between competing ideas. Those insecurities provide endless comedic fodder, and Friends capitalized on this. 

Yes, sometimes making fun of homophobia means depicting homophobia. And not only in the frowning tone of a scold. It’s called satire. Satire, by its very nature, is designed to probe areas that make us uncomfortable.

The tendency of woke young Millennials, though, is to see a naughty word, or an uncomfortable scenario, and immediately reach for the censor’s pen. 

I wish I didn’t have to be so hard on Millennials about this, but I can’t help doing so. Millennials will eventually be running our society, after all. That makes me wonder about the future of free expression in the West. 

And finally, Baxter-Wright notes: “Joey and Chandler are grossed out by breast milk.”

I don’t know quite what to do with that one. But again, I ask: Is the joke here on breast milk, or is the joke on two young adult men who can’t keep their cool when confronted by a perfectly normal aspect of human biology?

Dusty Baxter-Wright wraps up with the following assessment:

“Come the end of the programme, four of the six main characters were ‘coupled-with-children’, the fifth was ‘coupled up’ and the sixth character acknowledged that ‘coupled-with-children’ was the end goal. Considering the breath of opportunities and differences there are between six real human beings, this seems ridiculous and narrow minded.”

Egads—and you thought I was engaging in shrill, farfetched sarcasm in some of the preceding paragraphs. Most twentysomethings in the 1990s did seek to be coupled with children. What the heck is wrong with that?

Fellow Gen X-ers: Consider this fair warning: Friends is still airing on cable in reruns only because legions of woke young Millennials and Zoomers haven’t yet learned what it contains. Their older ideological allies, meanwhile, have forgotten, or they’re busy protesting Trump.

But they’ll get back to Friends, in due time.

If you’re still enjoying Friends in reruns, you’d better hoard those episodes on a secure hard drive somewhere. It’s only a matter of time before watching Friends becomes yet another form of thoughtcrime, in this brave, new, woke world of ours. 

‘The Pacific’: HBO

I’m watching The Pacific on HBO. This series is a significant investment in time, but well worth it. 

There haven’t been nearly enough films and novels about the Pacific war. World War II movies and fiction tend to gravitate to the war in Europe.

Perhaps that’s to be expected. The war in Europe took place in the middle of Western Civilization, in countries that everyone is familiar with: France, Germany, Russia, etc.

And, of course: Hitler, the Nazis, and the Holocaust. Probably half the documentaries on the History Channel are about the Third Reich. 

Much of the war in the Pacific (the part that we were involved in, anyway), was fought on thinly populated, remote islands. While the ideology of the Third Reich is well known to anyone with even basic historical literacy, few Americans grasp the essentials of the Japanese Empire, and its major players. 

Those are among the reasons why the war in the Pacific has been such a challenge to storytellers, and–as a result–often neglected by them. But this HBO series does a great job of bringing “the other World War II” to life.

Catherine the Great: the HBO miniseries

I’ve been watching the Catherine the Great television miniseries on HBO.  A few observations, in no particular order:

This is based on a period of history that many American viewers won’t know much about. You will get far more out of this miniseries if you have a familiarity with Russian history. No–you don’t need a PhD. But if you don’t know who Catherine the Great actually was, and her historical significance, you might want to skip this one. The HBO miniseries is primarily entertainment, but it assumes a certain degree of background knowledge.

-Not every minute is exciting. There are plenty of gunfights, riots, and decapitations, as befits any historical depiction of czarist Russia. But there are also many explorations of Catherine the Great’s relationships with men–both political and sexual. (In her case, the two often overlapped.)

-Helen Mirren is amazing. She is 74 years old, and she handles those ballroom dancing scenes like a woman half her age. Quite impressive. I hope I do so well when I’m in my seventies.

‘Meeting Gorbachev’ and the state of the world in 2019

I watched the documentary Meeting Gorbachev on the NatGeo channel.

This is a very worthwhile documentary for old folks like me who remember the 1980s, as well as those too young to have been there.

There are many interesting tidbits in Meeting Gorbachev, even beyond the in-depth study of the ex-Soviet leader himself. For example, the deaths of three Soviet premiers–Brezhnev, Andropov, and Constantin–in rapid succession in the early 1980s. For a while, it seemed that the Soviet Union had a new head-of-state every other month. 

Meeting Gorbachev made me nostalgic, but also a little sad. In 1986, the year I graduated from high school, the US, USSR, and the UK were governed by Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Margaret Thatcher. In China, a reformer (but alas, no democrat) named Deng Xiaoping was at the helm. 

In 2019, 33 years later, we have Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Boris Johnson leading the US, Russia, and the UK. The Chinese ruler, Xi Jinping, is a short-sighted, saber-rattling autocrat. 

In 1986, the world was far from perfect. The technology, moreover, was not nearly as slick and convenient as it is today. There was no Internet, no cell phones, and a lot less to watch on TV.

There was, however, reason to believe in 1986 that the world was in basically capable hands, and heading in a more positive direction. 

Today? Not so much…

FBI: Season 2

I was lukewarm about CBS’s FBI during its first season. For season 2, however, the producers of the show have really upped their game on the scriptwriting front. 

Episode 2 centered around the kidnapping of the child of a famous (fictional, of course) “mommy  blogger”.

There were lots of twists and turns, with a surprise ending that I didn’t see coming.

The show is not perfect, of course. This is network television, after all; and some of the gunfights (to cite one example) aren’t completely realistic. 

Overall, though, FBI is a solid cop show; and it augments CBS’s already strong lineup in that genre. (CBS is also the home of Blue Bloods, Hawaii Five-O, and S.W.A.T.)

‘The Brady Bunch’ +50

The Brady Bunch debuted 50 years ago, in 1969.

I was technically alive then; but I was too young to watch the show during its original 1969~1974 airing. I was part of that generation that watched The Brady Bunch obsessively in rerun syndication.

More than forty years later, I am still a little embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve probably seen every single episode of The Brady Bunch, some of them multiple times. I know I’m not the only one, either.

I love my parents dearly, and I’ve always had a good relationship with them. I won’t deny, though, that if you would have asked me circa 1977 or 1978, I would have been open to the idea of becoming the seventh Brady child.

Who wouldn’t have taken that deal, given the chance to live in an idyllic Southern California household like that? The parents never argued, the mother was always cheerful, and the father was always ready with sage advice.

And those two hot older sisters, who weren’t actually your sisters…

Wow, come to think of it, the Brady Bunch universe sounds like a pretty good place to me now.  When do we leave?

‘The Brady Bunch’ house gets renovated

And now for some lighter fare, from the 1970s:

How ‘A Very Brady Renovation’ turned a house into a TV home

Yes, I am of that generation for whom The Brady Bunch was a constant after-school fixture. And I know I’m not alone (though not all of us will admit to it online).

Although I was technically alive during the series’ original run, from 1969 to 1974, I was too young to have watched any of the episodes when they first aired. I watched The Brady Bunch during its rerun heyday in the late 1970s.

And I watched the heck out of The Brady Bunch for a few years there. I am a little embarrassed to admit it, but I still recall the plot lines, and major sections of dialogue, from many episodes.

But what about that perennial question...Marcia or Jan? (And yes, nine- and ten year-old boys, circa 1977, did heatedly debate that matter on playgrounds throughout America.)

That is an impossible choice. They were both pretty “groovy”, if you were a prepubescent boy just starting to notice the opposite sex, sometime during the Jimmy Carter era.

‘Speed Racer’, my favorite Japanese import in 1972

I can tell you what I was doing, most afternoons at 3 pm in 1972. (I was four that year.) I was sprawled out in front of my parents’ boxy Zenith television set, tuned in to Cincinnati’s Channel 19, WXIX. 

That was the time and place in which Speed Racer aired.

The Speed Racer franchise began in Japan in the 1960s as a manga comic series. In 1967, a Speed Racer animated cartoon was developed; and this is what found its way to the US market (dubbed into English, of course).

The best way to describe Speed Racer is as follows: The series concerns the adventures of “Speed”, the driver of the technologically advanced Mach 5 racer. 

Like many Japanese manga, Speed Racer takes place in a setting that is the real world, but not quite the real world. There are unrealistic technological menaces (like the “Mammoth Car”); and the series may have had a monster or two. 

I didn’t know back then that Speed Racer was a Japanese import. (I also didn’t know that many years hence, I would learn the Japanese language; but that’s another story.) At the age of four, I may not have even been aware of Japan. 

I just remember being thrilled by the adventures of Speed and the Mach 5. These were fun cartoons, filled with action, and instantly accessible. Speed Racer is the first television series that I ever became a fanatic of; and in 1972, I was a Speed Racer fanatic. 

I recently watched a few episodes of Speed Racer on YouTube, for nostalgia’s sake. These cartoons fascinated me at the age of four. And even at the age of 51, they retain for me a certain charm. 

Speed Racer intro, 1967

Binge-watching ‘The Sopranos’ in 2018


I have always loved mafia movies. I am one of those guys who has seen The Godfather more times than I feel comfortable admitting.

I also watch all the documentaries about the mob. I know the name John Gotti, of course, but also Paul Castellano, Carlo Gambino, and Aniello Dellacroce. The Italian mafia made an appearance in my first novel, Blood Flats. I’m sure I’ll write more stories about the Italian mafia in the future.

I was therefore a natural audience for the HBO series The Sopranos (1999 – 2007). But for various reasons, I didn’t get around to actually watching The Sopranos until this year, when I binge-watched all six seasons of the series over several months.

Yes, I’m a little late to this party. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) Pages and pages have already been written on the Internet about The Sopranos, dating back to the aughts. I will therefore keep my comments brief. (Er, well, fairly brief.)

The Sopranos is probably best categorized as a drama, but it’s a drama that’s loaded with plenty of physical threats and suspense. (In this regard, The Sopranos is similar to The Americans (FX), my all-time favorite television series.)

The Sopranos  employs a great deal of black humor. Murders are often committed with a smirk.

Black humor is completely absent from The Godfather. But 1972 moviegoers didn’t expect a film about the mob to have a laugh track. By 1999, however, incessant “irony” was thoroughly embedded in our culture, and it would probably have been difficult for The Sopranos to be played completely deadpan for six seasons. Black humor is not usually my thing, but in The Sopranos, it mostly works.

It is important to consider just how difficult this high-wire act was, from the moment of its conception through the last scene of its execution. The creator of The Sopranos, David Chase, faced a two-sided challenge:

When conceiving characters who were mafiosos, Chase had to portray his subjects’ amoralism and brutality, without turning them into unsympathetic monsters. If a main character (even an antihero) is completely unsympathetic, audiences don’t become emotionally invested in him, and don’t care about his fate.

But at the same time, Chase had to make his characters sympathetic, while never allowing the viewer to forget that they’re ultimately criminals. Crooks. Thugs. Bad guys. So it really was a very difficult balance.

Chase pulls this feat off brilliantly. The Sopranos is filled with cynicism, violence, and betrayal. And yet…Each major character is complex and distinct.

Before you finish the first episode, you feel like you know these people, and you want to see more of them. And that’s as much as anyone can ask for.

All of the major characters are also expertly cast. I did a little research, and it seems that a majority of the actors were Italian-Americans who had some connection to the New York/New Jersey area.

Not just James Gandolfini, but also Edie Falco, Lorraine Bracco, Michael Imperioli, Vincent Pastore, etc., etc. The list goes on and on.

Did that have an impact on the authenticity of the show? I think it may have.

But there’s one character, of course, who is the tentpole, the central pillar, the focus for the entire series…and that’s Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini. Without the character of Tony Soprano, The Sopranos would have been a mildly interesting Godfather knockoff that would have lasted a season or two, and then would have been quickly forgotten.

I would also speculate that without James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano would not have been nearly as effective.

I’ve seen James Gandolfini in a few other films. He played a junior U.S. Navy officer in Crimson Tide (1995), for example. Gandolfini is unspectacular in his pre-Sopranos roles. But as Tony Soprano, Gandolfini is a giant. He seems to have been born for this role. (It is also unfortunate to note that Gandolfini met an untimely death, at the age of 51, about six years after The Sopranos ended.)

Tony Soprano is capable of both nobility and venality, loyalty and ruthlessness. Flashback scenes suggest that his parents were both sociopaths. Tony, by contrast, seems to legitimately care about his wife and children. But that doesn’t stop him from engaging in a string of extramarital affairs. He is, after all, a mob boss. Philandering comes with the territory.

One of the more interesting subplots involves Tony Soprano’s (nonsexual) relationship with his psychiatrist, Jennifer Melfi (played by Lorraine Bracco). Tony is tortured by crises of identity. He suffers from panic attacks. He has a spiritual side (several episodes are dedicated to explorations in this regard), even as he’s capable of being petty, greedy, and violent—exactly what you would expect a mid-level mob boss to be.

And this is, I think, why the character is so appealing. Almost no one who watches The Sopranos knows firsthand what it is like to be a mafia capo. And yet, we identify with Tony Soprano in a thousand ways.

I know that I do: I see a lot of myself in Tony Soprano, the fundamentally flawed and short-sighted human being who nevertheless harbors aspirations of doing/being better.

The Sopranos takes some dark turns in the final seasons. This may partly be related to the changes that were happening in the real world between 1999 and 2007. The first few seasons of The Sopranos has a buoyant fin de siècle feel, despite the subject matter.

Let us not forget that in 1999 and 2000, the mood of the country was optimistic. Everyone was captivated by the ever-rising stock market, and the then novel wonders of the Internet. By 2007, American politics had taken a sharply partisan turn, 9/11 had happened, and we were embroiled in two quagmire wars in the Middle East.

And so the last few seasons of The Sopranos focus—perhaps more than necessary—on the dark sides of the characters’ lives. Not just the killings, but also various personal traumas.

One of the main characters develops Alzheimer’s. Much time is devoted to the troubles associated with Tony Sopranos ne’er-do-well son.

Tony and his wife, Carmella (played by Edie Falco), separate for an entire season, when she decides that she can no longer tolerate his extramarital adventures. (Spoiler alert: Tony and Carmella eventually reconcile.)

Some of the arguments associated with the marital split are almost too realistic. While watching these scenes, I actually felt that I was an unwilling witness to the breakup of a real marriage. There were several moments when I felt physically uncomfortable.

And what about that final scene of the final episode? After a flareup of factional mob violence that leaves many of Tony Soprano’s friends and associates dead, he meets with his wife and children at a restaurant, for what is supposed to be a quiet family dinner.

The family members arrive separately. Tony has been in hiding.

While Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” (a deliberately chosen song, of course) is playing on the jukebox, Tony surveys the other diners, speculating that one of them may be an assassin sent to kill him.

First Carmella arrives. Then his son, AJ.

Finally, Tony’s young adult daughter walks in. Tony looks up at the sound of the bell above the door (the restaurant is a neighborhood diner).

And the screen goes instantly silent and black.

The ending is wonderfully ambiguous and ambivalent, downright spiritual for a show about organized crime. (I have a confession here: I hated the ending the first time I saw it. But after I re-watched it on YouTube several times, I found that I recognized and appreciated what David Chase had done here.)

And now The Sopranos is over, for me at least. If you haven’t binge-watched this show, find a way to do so now. The Sopranos is among the best drama ever to see the screen.