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Why we won’t shut up about ‘Friends,’ 25 years later

Kelly Lawler, USA TODAY

Some friends last a lifetime. Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe and Joey are exactly those kinds of “Friends.” 

NBC’s classic hangout sitcom is 25 years old this week, but if you pay attention to memes and GIFs, to what teens watch on Netflix or to what anyone asks Jennifer Aniston about in interviews, you’d think the series premiered this year.

Plenty of sitcoms have lasted 10 seasons or more, enjoyed sky-high ratings and featured beloved and talented casts always associated with their roles. But no sitcom has endured in the pop-culture firmament the way “Friends” has.

Although many aspects of the series are clearly dated – from its frequent homophobic and transphobic jokes to its lily-white depiction of New York – “Friends” endures as a cultural touchstone for multiple generations. “Seinfeld” lives on in reruns, but nobody is asking Julia Louis-Dreyfus 10 times a day whether she'd do a revival. 

So what is it about “Friends” that prevents time (or even its own shortcomings) from erasing it from our collective consciousness?

Especially in early seasons, "Friends" was a fantastic sitcom. Before its characters were undermined by their eccentricities near the end of its run, they were easily identifiable types that resisted being stereotypes. Rachel (Aniston) was spoiled, but she had ambition. Monica (Courteney Cox) was equal parts neurotic and maternal, Type A with a heart of gold. Ross (David Schwimmer) was a dorky scientist with the entitlement (and anger streak) of a Wall Street bro. Joey (Matt Le Blanc) was the lothario but also the goofball. Chandler (Matthew Perry) had the jokes but often the most honest emotions. And Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) was the waif with a better understanding of the world than her sheltered pals. 

But to say its quality is the reason for the show's enduring appeal doesn't paint the full picture. For starters, other sitcoms were simply better. “Friends” was never quite as smart, as knee-slappingly hilarious or as consistent as “Seinfeld” or “Cheers” or “M*A*S*H,” for instance. Many have pointed out the problematic elements of the series that are glaring in retrospect, and while those are mostly a result of the era in which it was made, other, even less recent  classic series, like “Designing Women” or “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” hold up just a little bit better on a modern-day rewatch.

And even if you want to call “Friends” the greatest sitcom of all time, that doesn’t explain why it has no counterpart in drama that has endured as much. What’s the greatest drama of all time, and why doesn’t it have a piece of furniture in front of the Eiffel Tower? Is it “NYPD Blue”? “The Sopranos”? “ER”? “ER” is celebrating its 25th anniversary this week, too, but you’d never know it.

The advantage of “Friends” is that its greatness stems from a different place than its peers. It wasn’t so much the gang's antics that made the show great, although there were plenty of those, and they were often hilarious. It was the love fans have for the people who got into trouble.

“Friends” was funny and familiar, but the familiarity was the real draw. It operated from a place of love and joy, rather than cynicism and sarcasm. Watching the series was, as the cliche goes, hanging out with some friends. And it's more comforting to settle into the couch with Phoebe and a rousing rendition of “Smelly Cat” than hang out with Jerry Seinfeld.

The love for the characters makes it easier to weather the uncomfortably out-of-date jokes and references. Ross is a chauvinist, but he chased Rachel to the airport in the finale! Central Perk never had a black customer, but it’s so adorably quaint. Joey and Chandler make repeated gay jokes, but their bromance is just so aspirational. And the excuses go on.

As much as fans have kept “Friends” alive these past 25 years, Hollywood has been trying (and mostly failing) to re-create the magic of the sitcom for just as long. TV networks have tried to mimic the success of the original "20-something  hangout sitcom” with varying degrees of commercial and creative success, from “How I Met Your Mother” to “The Big Bang Theory” to “Happy Endings.” But when everything keeps getting billed as “the next ‘Friends,’” it’s hard to stop thinking about the first one.

Nostalgia drives the love for “Friends” for many, but the series is also massively popular among young millennials and Generation Z. “Friends” is now older than some of its fans because it expertly rode the changing waves of the TV industry at all the right moments. Like other hit sitcoms, after it left NBC in 2004, it never really left TV, running endlessly in syndication. DVD box sets came, too, as well as “The Best of ‘Friends’” compilations that kept it available to fans. 

But most crucially, it jumped to streaming – it first appeared on Netflix in January 2015 – at the precise moment that internet TV's rise in popularity was surest. At that point, Netflix was not yet crowded with originals and still depended on its backlog of legacy programming to draw subscribers. Despite the ubiquity of “Friends” on cable, it thrived on Netflix, which introduced it to a younger audience. Although Netflix doesn’t release viewership statistics, the streaming service paid a reported $100 million to keep “Friends” just for 2019. Its move to upstart streamer HBO Max (owned by the parent of its studio, Warner Bros.) in 2020 is seen as a blow to Netflix by many industry pundits and has already caused some fans of the sitcom to vow they'll cancel their subscriptions. 

The unique legacy of “Friends” is not going to change in another 25 years, because there will never be another show like “Friends” again. TV has already changed irrevocably from the heyday of NBC’s “must-see TV” Thursdays, and the upcoming streaming surge, as Apple, Disney, HBO Max and NBC Universal all get in the game, will change it yet again. Shows are getting shorter, more specialized and seen by fewer people. Fans are watching whenever they have free time, not all at once at 8 p.m. on Thursdays. 

David Schwimmer, left, Jennifer Aniston, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc, Courteney Cox Arquette, Paul Rudd and Lisa Kudrow in the series finale of NBC's

The TV industry is unlikely to produce 236 episodes of a broad, genuinely funny sitcom full of talented, beautiful actors with effortless chemistry that feels fresh and new. But there almost certainly won’t be a finale watched by 52.5 million viewers. So while our collective obsession with “Friends” may seem a bit over the top, it’s also a singular experience we’re desperately trying to hold onto as the world changes. 

Streamers come, streamers go, but we’ll always have our “Friends” to keep us company. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Friends' 25th anniversary: Why we can't let them go