In recent licensing deals that everyone saw coming from miles away, both “The Office” and “Friends” will leave Netflix in the next year or two. For reasons we can ponder but never truly know, the full library of these classic sitcoms rank among the streaming service’s most-watched offerings. That Netflix is losing them is one of the industry’s biggest stories of the year.
The rights to these reruns, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, make absolute sense as competing providers gird themselves for a streaming showdown with Netflix. NBC, which is to say Comcast and Universal, wants to reclaim all those “Office” fans for its own; AT&T, which now owns everything Warner, wants to lure “Friends” fans to its new HBO Max streaming service. How will Netflix customers possibly cope?
Perhaps we could interest them in all the new shows now available to TV addicts, across all platforms: the 500 or so dramas and comedies currently produced for the American market; hundreds more imported from other countries; and nearly countless titles in the non-scripted/reality genres. It must be somewhat galling to creators, producers, networks, writers, craftspeople and actors to live with the idea that, despite all their work to deliver some of the finest programming ever made, millions of people still habitually zone out to 201 episodes of the American version of “The Office,” which aired on NBC from 2005 to 2013, and 236 episodes of “Friends,” which also aired on NBC, from 1994 to 2004.
Here in 2019, some of us are drowning luxuriously in new content, trying to sort the impressive from the merely mediocre and carry on a discussion about an ever-elevating art form. But you’re still over there in Ross and Rachel Land, sucking your thumb. You’re still pining over Jim and Pam. You’re still punking Dwight. You’re still singing along to “Smelly Cat.”
At the very least we can agree — both shows were excellent in their day. I nearly ran out of ways to praise “The Office” when it was still airing new episodes, even after Michael Scott (Steve Carell) left in 2011. In fact, I maintain that those last two seasons are when “The Office” came to most resemble the typical dysfunction of the American workplace, as new corporate owners and middle managers brought the specter of disruption and change to Dunder Mifflin’s atrophied existence. “The Office” is a classic for the ages — a spot-on, perceptively funny mockumentary of the dreariness of modern employment, corporate exploitation and the idea that love and friendship can still flower in a sea of gray cubicles.
(Did I get all that right? Or will you now need to go back and re-watch it from the start, for the zillionth time? At four or five episodes per day, we’ll see you in about six weeks.)
As for “Friends,” honey, I am one of the originals — a bit younger than Lisa Kudrow and Courteney Cox but older than Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston. I was there. I remember. They brought the show out in the fall of 1994 and, trust me, we did everything we could to sneer at it, spit on it and send it right back where it came from, as we had already done with so much else. NBC was trying to typify us, and we weren’t having it, because we were bitter, we were wary, we were hardcore.
But we were soon helpless in the grip of “Friends.” After years of neglect and boomer dominance in popular culture, someone had finally noticed us, in the sweetest way — or, I should say, they noticed us in a very particular, very white, very imaginary-Manhattan way. “Friends” was comfy, adorable, yet sharp. The hate-watch became a secret pleasure and, soon enough, we all had their haircuts. (Much was written about “the Rachel,” but let us also quantify “the Ross.” Imagine a dramatic increase in sales of hair gel.)
What nobody could have envisioned in the 1990s was the way children in the 2010s and '20s — born after "Friends" first started to wear off — would form their own fixation on the show. And as for "The Office," who would have ever thought poor Jenna Fischer would be approached in Target (as she recounted to Conan O'Brien last year) by teenage boys telling her she looks sort of like an older version of Pam Beesly?
My nearest frame of reference to this sort of cultural inertia would have to be “The Brady Bunch,” the 1970s sitcom that, in reruns and brief revivals, acted as Gen X’s security blanket. It was so cherished that theater troupes began staging live reenactments of episodes in the early ’90s. Melanie Hutsell’s hilarious interpretation of Jan Brady started offering commentary on SNL’s “Weekend Update.” Paramount released two movie updates with a new cast of Bradys living anachronistically in the modern age.
Irony was the key to it all and has been ever since — even HGTV’s Brady reunion this fall, in which the surviving cast members will help the Property Brothers renovate the San Fernando Valley house seen in the original show’s exterior shots, lends a certain tongue-in-cheek approach to the tongue-in-groove. Irony, in the end, used to play a vital role in our nostalgic regard for nearly all of television’s past: “I Love Lucy,” “Leave It to Beaver,” “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” The American Dream with a wink.
But irony seems to have no place when it comes to the nonstop streaming of “Friends” and “The Office.” They’re slavishly re-watched with what appears to be an authentic and uncomplicated sincerity. Nobody watches them to make fun of the clothes or mock the message. They have been loved to death in the on-demand age, deprived of a proper burial.
“Friends,” in particular, acts as a soothing gateway to a time when people aren’t constantly looking at their phones. They sit on their Central Perk sofas and just talk, maintaining eye-contact. They listen to one another. They hilariously relate, in a constant state of mutual care. Their idea of stress is almost touchingly benign. No wonder people still want to hang out with them.
Where this gets dangerous, as we have seen time and again, is when fans insist on resurrection. What would it take to reunite the Friends? When will “The Office” gang re-up? Carell, hosting SNL last November, grimaced through a monologue in which some of his former “Office” co-stars implored him to instigate a reboot. “I love all those people, but I just don’t think it’s the best idea,” he said. “Maybe we should just leave it alone.”
Aniston once again played footsie with a “Friends” reunion talk last month, and why wouldn’t she? Even while sitting on her piles of residual money — several lifetimes of wealth earned from the perpetuation of “Friends” — she can, like any sentient showbiz being, sense yet another pile of money just sitting there, waiting to be made, if only . . .
It usually falls to “Friends” co-creator Marta Kauffman to swoop in and declare that there will never be new episodes of the show, nor should there be, no matter how lucrative. “There are several reasons,” she told Rolling Stone in March. “One, the show is about a time in your life when your friends are your family. It’s not that time anymore. All we’d be doing is putting those six actors back together, but the heart of the show would be gone. Two, I don’t know what good it does us.”
It’s not that time anymore. Courageous words.
As the “Friends” theme song goes, “I’ll be there for you.” But those words referred to the bond among its characters. They were not an eternal promise to generations yet to come, and they should not have to be your friends forever. Let television take you somewhere, anywhere, everywhere else.