You know there’s nothing interesting on television when you find yourself watching DVDs of your favorite shows rather than trying to find something worthwhile on the air. My summer viewing this year largely consisted of past seasons of Friends, the ultimate television experience of my thirty-something generation.
While I have always loved the humorous way in which Friends addresses the pleasures and pitfalls of single life, another side of the series has begun to stand out to me: its poignant portrayal of the American divorce culture, in which young people find it nearly impossible to build workable marriages and families on the shaky foundations of their parents’ failures.
Phoebe is the product of a high-school threesome between her birth mother (whom she does not meet until adulthood), her adoptive mother (who kills herself) and her father (who abandons the family). Chandler’s cross-dressing father divorces his mother to pursue an affair with the houseboy. Joey’s mother turns a blind eye to her husband’s adultery. Rachel’s mother initiates a bitter divorce inspired by Rachel’s act of abandoning her fiancé at the altar. Even siblings Monica and Ross, who have happily married parents, remain scarred by the favoritism showed to their son.
No wonder it seems like such a profound accomplishment when the friends finally become parents themselves, even in such unconventional ways as Phoebe bearing triplets for her half-brother, Rachel and Ross raising their illegitimate child together and Monica and Chandler adopting twins from an unwed teenager. The series finale, in which Monica and Chandler leave their city apartment for a house in the suburbs, suggests that at least one couple might achieve the domestic stability that these friends never experienced while growing up. On the other hand, the series undercuts this optimism with jokes that compare the suburbs to a 1950s television paradise that never really existed.
To fill the void left by popular dysfunctional-family comedies, including Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier and Everybody Loves Raymond, the networks seem to be turning to reality shows and workplace dramas, which replace traditional families with any number of alternative character groupings. It’s no surprise that the Friends spin-off series followed the adventures of playboy Joey in Los Angeles rather than married Monica and Chandler in their idealized New York suburb.
Has the world of television abandoned the family altogether? Is it possible to imagine a 21 st-century comedy that focuses on a functional nuclear family and still seems edgy or interesting enough to appeal to large audiences of young people? More importantly, does my generation have the skill and motivation to break the cycle of divorce and to make our marriages work over the long term?
Recent books such as Fatherless America and The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce remind us how much parents’ choices do affect their children. Friends expresses the same idea in a season five episode, when Phoebe’s new boyfriend gushes about how much he loves Phoebe and wants to increase their commitment to each other by living together. Stunned by his optimism, Chandler asks in disbelief: “Were your parents happy or something?”
Eleanor Hersey is an English professor at Fresno Pacific University. She teaches courses on literature and film and has published several articles on film and television, including Seinfeld and The X-Files, in academic journals.