When the first episode of Friends aired 25 years ago, I was 3 years old. Today, I am on the cusp of turning 30 — and I had never seen an entire episode until two weeks ago.
The critically acclaimed sitcom about six adults with their own unique set of challenges trying to figure out life together in New York City had zero appeal to me, even as I got older. But as a twentysomething, I almost didn’t need to watch it. The show’s popularity became so overwhelming, I began to absorb things about it through osmosis.
I couldn’t escape the references made by my friends, the memes on Tumblr, the merchandise sold at Urban Outfitters and chatter from my colleagues during my nearly decade-long stint in entertainment journalism. By the time I was in my early 20s and living in N.Y.C., the show had been long over, but I somehow knew every character’s name, a vague idea of each of their storylines and all the words to “Smelly Cat.” To understand my pure indifference to the show, you’d have to understand a bit about me.
As a Korean American raised in predominately white neighborhoods, it took me years to come to grips with my own identity. Most of my friends growing up were white, the boys I had crushes on were white, the movies I watched as a kid featured white actors, the teachers who taught me in school were white. My formative years went by while I was submerged in a particular culture that I thought I was a part of, until I moved to a different high school my junior year.
On my first day, a Korean American boy approached me at my locker to introduce himself. Prior to meeting him, I didn’t really have any Korean friends, even though I was secretly desperate for some. After a few weeks, he had included me in his circle and I was amazed at how at ease I felt right away. I grew close to this group and we shared food, jokes and rides to the mall — all things I did with my white friends, but the feeling was different. The food we shared was Korean, the jokes were mostly framed around our Korean heritage and rides to the mall became a safe space for us to talk about racism and how frustrating it can be to have foreign-born parents who couldn’t relate to us. One time during a sleepover, I remember one of the girls asking, “If you could be one race, what would you be?” I responded, “Korean, obviously.” The girl who asked the question quietly countered, “I would pick white.”
At 29, I’m a lot more confident in knowing who I am and how to nurture both sides of my Korean and American identities. However, Hollywood has yet to catch up with its ongoing diversity issue. There are still plenty of films and shows starring mostly all-white casts, so what would I get out of watching yet another one?
There’s no denying the show has had pop culture staying power. For its milestone anniversary, everyone from Ralph Lauren to Pottery Barn has gotten in on the celebration. But once I told my coworkers that I’d never seen it, they urged me to watch it and write about my experience. If I was effectively the last twentysomething to have never seen an episode, maybe I could bring a fresh perspective to the popular show.
I loaded up my iPad with the pilot and begrudgingly pressed play. I sat through the first few minutes and got to watch these characters, who already felt so familiar to me, reveal themselves and the issues they were facing as adults in their mid-20s.
Rachel, a rich girl who’s never worked a day in her life, barges into Central Perk after having left her fiancé Barry at the altar. Ross gets dumped by his wife Carol, who turns out to be a lesbian. Interesting, I thought. These were already two storylines that might’ve felt far-fetched if I started watching the show during its heyday, but now that I’m older than the characters on the show, I already knew people in my life who’ve been in those exact situations. After watching a few more episodes, I started to feel intrigued.
By episode three, Monica becomes irritated that her friends like her new boyfriend Alan more than she does, and Chandler gets hooked on cigarettes for a second time. As I watched, I was immediately reminded of a recent phone call with a friend, who had doubts about dating a guy I thought was perfect for her. On the call, I had to gently remind her that his calm personality would balance out her more anxious one. Chandler’s bad habit also took me back to a few weeks ago, when I ran into an ex-boyfriend who used to hate smokers, but is now an avid JUULer. We went back and forth on the street about whether or not JUULing is bad (it is) and if he should quit (he should).
By the eighth episode, “The One Where Nana Dies Twice,” there is a scene in which Ross is digging through his late grandmother’s closet, only to find a box filled with her favorite Sweet’n Lows. The fortuitous discovery softens a frustrated Ross, who then stops to soak in the memory of his grandmother.
The touching moment took me back to last year, when I was looking through my mother’s closet. I was searching for a book when I came across wedding photos of my parents that I never knew existed. My mother and father separated when I was very young, so I never knew them as a couple. I never knew their wedding date or if they went on a honeymoon or if they ever even liked each other. But holding a real photo of the two of them together on their wedding day took my breath away.
After decades of putting off a show so universally beloved that 52.5 million viewers tuned in to its 2004 finale (and which caused equal devastation when Netflix didn’t renew it this summer), I finally understood why people love Friends. No matter who you are or where you come from, everyone can relate to the absolutely terrifying, disorienting and sometimes absurd experiences that come with getting older. The strength of the show lies in each episode’s ability to take those “adult” thoughts that start to chip away at you — Will I ever get married? Will I have a successful career? Will I ever have children? — and get these characters to live out each scenario to help soften the blow. They tackle real-life situations that don’t always have a happy ending by reassuring you that no matter what the outcome may be, you will always have Friends to lean on.
Maybe I was lucky to have neglected this show until it was the right moment for me to start watching. Now that I’m about ready to load up season 2, I take comfort in the fact that when my world feels like it’s on fire, Monica, Rachel, Phoebe, Chandler, Ross, Joey and the once-annoying, now-delightful laugh track will calmly cool me down.