It’s been more than a decade since “Friends” went off the air, and Rachel, Ross, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe and Joey have all moved on. But us? Not so much.
That’s obvious from the rabid excitement swirling around Sunday’s “Friends” reunion, which — to be clear — is definitely not a reunion. “We feel like the show did a really good job of telling their story, and when it was done, it was done,” said co-creator David Crane in a phone interview. It’s actually NBC’s tribute to James Burrows, featuring cast members from “Taxi,” “Cheers,” “Frasier,” “Will & Grace,” and yes, “Friends.” The entire Central Perk crew will be there, except Matthew Perry, who will appear in a pre-taped segment from London.
The anti-reboot stance of “Friends” stands in contrast to shows such as “The X-Files,” which came back in January. “Fuller House” premieres on Netflix on Friday, while reboots of “Gilmore Girls” and “Twin Peaks” are still to come.
On the one hand, this wave of collective ’90s nostalgia — also fueled by the accessibility of shows on streaming services — allows us to appreciate the timelessness of a sitcom such as “Friends,” which co-creator Marta Kauffman described as “about the time in your life when your friends are your family.” But on the other hand, some aspects feel a little outdated in how they approach — or don’t — topics that we’re hyper-aware of today, such as diversity and sexual identity.
To be clear, it’s not just “Friends.” It’s hard to imagine a character such as Pakistani immigrant Babu Bhatt on “Seinfeld” passing muster today. And in one infamous “Sex and the City” episode, when Samantha dates a black man, she puts on a stereotypical “blaccent,” and says to the suitor’s sister, “And your okra wasn’t all that!”
But “Friends’” has been the main lightning rod for such perceived shortcomings, especially since it became available on Netflix in January 2015. Right after that, Slate ran a piece that called Chandler Bing “agonizingly obsolete. . . . Once he may have seemed coolly sarcastic, the gang’s designated ‘funny one.’ But through the eyes of a 2015 viewer even vaguely cognizant of modern gender politics, he’s also the cringe-worthy one.” The piece referenced a YouTube video called “Homophobic Friends,” a montage of the show’s male characters engaging in “gay panic” — where the implication that one of them might be gay is the joke. The concern has cropped up in other online think pieces, listicles and forums, including one Reddit thread that asks: “Was ‘Friends’ really as homophobic as the Internet seems to think it was?”
Crane, who is gay, strongly rejects the implication that Chandler was homophobic. “He has his own anxieties and issues, but I don’t think the character was homophobic in the least.”
“His father’s transgender,” Kauffman added, referencing Kathleen Turner’s portrayal of Chandler’s estranged father, Charles Bing.
On the show, Chandler’s father is referred to as gay and a drag queen, but never transgender (this was the ’90s, after all). Today, it is a bit jarring to see Chandler greet Turner in full makeup and a dress with a sardonic “Hi . . . Dad,” followed by a laugh track. But Chandler’s acceptance of his dad becomes a growth experience, and the show deals more with the breakup of his parents’ marriage than his father’s sexuality.
Ray Bradford, director of entertainment media for the LGBT advocacy organization GLAAD, said that even today, the portrayal “wasn’t what we hate seeing on TV by a mile.”
“Images don’t exist in a vacuum — you look at where they were at that time of progression of TV and our country, and also where we are now and the standard,” Bradford said. “When I looked at Kathleen Turner’s character, there was nothing tragic about it. It was not a story line depicting her as a killer or a psychopath or a sex worker 0r anything like that.”
Writing “Friends” off as homophobic ignores the inclusion of Ross’s ex-wife, Carol, and her partner, Susan, which landed “Friends” three nominations and a win for outstanding comedy series at the GLAAD Media Awards. Carol and Susan married in a 1996 episode that was not aired on TV stations in Port Arthur, Tex., and Lima, Ohio, drawing a strong rebuke from GLAAD.
Even more prominent in discussions of “Friends” is its lack of diversity. A YouTube video titled “A semi-alphabetical listing of black actors with speaking roles on ‘Friends’” points out, in rap form, that, yes, there were black people on “Friends” — but only if you were watching very closely. And it’s hard to imagine the show being cast with six white leads today.
During the Weekend Update segment of “Saturday Night Live” on Feb. 13, Vanessa Bayer appeared as Rachel from “Friends,” and at one point asked co-host Colin Jost “What’s that?” while pointing to co-host Michael Che. Che pulled a knowing smirk and responded, “She’s on ‘Friends,’ she’s never seen a black person.”
“That is a criticism we have heard quite a bit,” Kauffman said. “When we cast the show, we didn’t say to ourselves, ‘This is going to be an all-white cast.’ ” She added that the mission was to “find the cast that suits and elevates our writing in such a way that we see something in the characters that we hadn’t seen before. And these were the six best actors for the material.”
“Seinfeld,” which premiered five years before “Friends,” received similar criticism. Years later, creator Larry David confirmed that he had gotten the message, as “Curb Your Enthusiasm” poked fun of David’s lack of comfort with people outside of his inner circle. In one episode, Larry unintentionally but repeatedly insults a black dermatologist with a joke about affirmative action. In Season 6, he takes in a family of hurricane survivors, not-so-subtly named the Blacks, and the show mined laughs from the culture clash.
The issue still crops up today. “Girls” creator Lena Dunham got flack for an all-white cast when her HBO show premiered in 2012. Dunham’s response on NPR’s “Fresh Air” was candid: “I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me. And only later did I realize that it was four white girls.” When Dunham hired black actor Donald Glover for a two-episode arc, many took it as a response to the criticism.
Sheldon Epps, who is credited with helping to diversify casts and audiences as artistic director at the Pasadena Playhouse, directed three “Friends” episodes late in the series, starting in 2001. In one of them, Aisha Tyler, a black actress, was introduced as a recurring character and love interest to Ross (also Joey). Janet Hubert, a black actress known for “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” appeared as Chandler’s boss on another Epps-directed episode.
“I think they were making an effort to more reflect American society by the time I was doing the show,” said Epps, who is black and whose other television directing credits include “Sister, Sister,” “Girlfriends,” and more than 20 episodes of “Frasier.”
Epps noted that the lack of diversity on “Frasier” may have been more accepted because “it was Seattle, not New York City.” “ ‘Frasier’ tended to deal sometimes exclusively with the ensemble cast and maybe only had one guest star,” Epps said. “They weren’t out in the community a lot. You didn’t have scenes in great big coffee shops.”
Epps said that dramas such as “ER” — which premiered the same week as “Friends” — led the charge in diverse casting. “You were dealing with things like hospitals or newsrooms or courtrooms . . . where it would have just been sort of ridiculous to have all-white experiences.”
Robi Reed, vice president of talent and casting for original programming at BET, said that early ’90s sitcoms such as “Friends” and “Seinfeld” tended to create “the world that they existed in and that it was okay if those worlds were predominantly one ethnic group or another. It just so happened to be white for each of those.”
It worked similarly for predominantly black shows, said Reed, who cast “In Living Color,” “Girlfriends” and “A Different World” before joining the network in 2010.
Two decades later, TV casting has changed immensely. Shonda Rhimes, while considered a trailblazer in television diversity, recently said that “it’s not trailblazing to write the world as it actually is.” Even on BET, casts reflect a larger worldview than the network acronym might suggest.
“There are certainly worlds that exist that are all one ethnic group, but the truth is more the slice of life that we see in [Rhimes’s] shows and are starting to see more often,” Reed said.
So where does this leave us with “Friends”? Call it a layer of beef in an otherwise well-executed trifle, to paraphrase the plot of one memorable episode. If you liked the show in the ’90s, it will still make you laugh and cry for all of the reasons it did before. But that feeling that something’s not quite right? You might call it progress.
A Tribute to James Burrows airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on NBC.