The One Where I Finally Understand

I have an on and off relationship with the TV show Friends and that is as it should be. 

Or, to put it in the lexicon of the series, I’m never quite sure if we truly love each other or are just taking a break.

I see what you did there!

As its creators Marta Kauffman, David Crane and Kevin S. Bright recalled in the new HBO Max special, Friends: The Reunion, the one-line pitch to network executives about the series was always this simple:

That time in your life when your friends are your family.

So naturally there comes a point when you move on, other priorities take over and you begin creating your own family

At least that’s the way Kauffman put it in a series of interviews sprinkled throughout the special.

Hearing it said out loud in such stark terms I finally understood all these many decades later, in the 20-twenties, why a television series that became an international phenomenon from 1994-2004, and continues to this day, and will likely continue for generations to come, was never MY story.

Let’s unpack that Chairy…

I’m one of those people who never thought of moving on from my really good friends.  I knew early on I didn’t want to have kids and wasn’t going to have kids. I knew my real family would be my friends, and whatever relatives I chose to stay in touch with.  I didn’t make a distinction because there NEVER WAS a distinction.

I knew that I could create my own family any way that I chose to.  It would not even for a millisecond occur to me that the people in my life closest to me, who I’d love most in the world, could NOT include those who were my dear, dear friends.

Some of this has to do with being gay and of a certain age.   Many of us LGBTQ baby boomers simply didn’t fit into the hetero-normative margins of the straight world so we fashioned an even more fun, kind and loving one comprised of OUR friends. 

You didn’t necessarily have to be queer to be part of that world.  You just hand to get it, be there and love us.

Sound familiar?

Phoebe gets it

It is important to note this was done not out of resentment but of choice.  If you grew up the way I did, at the time I did, moving on wasn’t on the table.

To have a real, true friend meant you had a forever family.  Especially if you had lived through the eighties and early nineties period prior to when Friends debuted.

A reminder of how painfully 90s Friends is

It was the height of the AIDS epidemic and by 1994 each day was like climbing through the rubble of a nuclear holocaust if you were one of my friends.  Who was alive, who was dead, who was depressed, who was doing well and who was just generally in denial or drifting or drinking/drugging themselves to death?

That was a daily occurrence and just about the only thing you knew is that your friends that remained would be there for you.

Oh Chairy.. ya did it again!

But miraculously here’s what each day also brought you —

Dumb jokes and dumb jobs; hilarious and heartbreaking dates that might or might not turn into love affairs; mortifying moments of embarrassment and secret vices that your good friends would be more than happy to publicly rag on you for…

Terrible fashion choices, silly haircuts, weight gains and weight losses, and relatives who could swoop into town and undo every neurosis you had spent years getting under control in one quick visit.

You wouldn’t think this would be the case at the time but it’s true.  It was also what made Friends work, even for those of us who didn’t quite always get it.

Well we all get bad haircuts…

Unlike other network sitcoms of its era:

  • It was funny, it was clever, it was silly and, every so often, it tugged at our heartstrings.
  • It had six of the most charismatic and adept casts in all of sitcom history – Jennifer Aniston, David Schwimmer, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow and Matt LeBlanc – who even now, reassembled together again onstage at the Warner Bros. lot, some 17 years later, seem incapable of phoning in a false or phony note when it comes to their interrelationships.
Dare we say.. authentic?
  • It has even managed to rise above all types of the usual show biz b.s. antics since its been off the air, those that have eclipsed and nearly swallowed up the afterlife of almost every other late 20th century show.  To whit:

a. Yes, we knew the actors all got paid a record-setting one million plus per episode and more towards the end of its run.  We were HAPPY for them.

b. Yeah, we know to this day it’s reported the EACH make $20 million per YEAR in residuals and the show STILL generates about a billion dollars a year for WB TV.  We can live with that if it means we get to sometimes see it.

I’m with Janice here #wow

c. Uh huh, we get the friends each received about  $2.5 mill for this special alone; that there’s a lot of cosmetic “enhancements,” and hair dye, to keep them so dewy-looking; that the “girls” are closer than the guys; that some of their careers have fared better than others; and that Matthew Perry, in particular, continued to struggle with severe substance abuse and other health issues that plagued him throughout the run of the show.  Whateva and we’re rooting for him.

But nothing truly tarnishes the juggernaut that is Friends.  And if you don’t think so consider…

a. What other cast would get paid that much money to reunite?

b. Which other show has a worldwide audience ranging from Nobel Prize winner Malala to one of sport’s GOATs David Beckham?

c. And how many nineties sitcoms could get Justin Bieber to dress up live as a potato or Lady Gaga to do a duet on a song called Smelly Cat for no billing on a reunion special?

100% would watch this show

Friends, like our friends, our families, is far from perfect.  Yeah, I wish it was more multi-cultural, economically inclusive and LGBTQ positive, too.  And, um, please, no WAAAAAYY could they have afforded that apartment at that time – grandmother or not.

But I think of everyone interviewed  Matthew Perry got it exactly right when trying to express what Friends continues to mean and how it endures.

He said no matter what party you went to years later, if you ran into another cast member, you were probably going to spend the evening with them.  You apologized to whomever you were with because all bets were off.  You knew, in that moment, you could talk for hours and very likely would do so, as if no time had passed.

The indefinable pull of that type of relationship is what makes real friends.  And what made Friends.  Whatever either of their drawbacks.

Friends Opening – Season 1

Snob Stories

Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 12.17.22 PM

There are few things more annoying to me than an art snob. That endless debate about high and low art where the snobs turn their nose up at specific artistic endeavors – meaning the commercial kind, the childish kind or even the basic kind – in favor of what they perceive to be masterworks that have not gained mainstream acceptance. This group also doubly bridles when others often criticize their masterworks for being slow-moving, esoteric, sad, depressing, overly intellectual, confusing, distancing or, at the end of the day, just plain boring.

This argument cuts equally the other way. For there are also those who are consistently determined to leave what little bits of brains they have remaining at the door and dismiss anything on film, television, the stage or even at a museum that challenges them to spend more than a second or two pondering or, heaven forbid, processing its meaning. The adjectives this group – the anti-snob snobs — apply to their hate list usually begins with pretentious and ends with high-fallutin’.’ Translation: Anything that doesn’t immediately make me laugh or cry is beyond the ability of a reasonable person (Note: ME) to understand and enjoy and therefore is not worth my time. This, too, is snobbery, but of the mainstream kind.

Ugh. Is this movie in black and white?

Ugh. Is this movie in black and white?

Of course, neither of these forms of elitisms is to be confused with the most treacherous – the financial and/or critical version. Meaning the amount of money a creative effort makes in relation to the cost or how many experts write complimentarily and eloquently about it is the real bottom line of its value???

Uh, no.

Simply put, just because your latest favorite film has grossed a billion dollars worldwide is not tangible evidence it is great. Money is not necessarily proof of artistic talent. It is evidence of a talent for moneymaking. Similarly, a handful of rave reviews from your fellow intellectuals and/or critics who always agree with you does not prove the new piece of cinema which didn’t get theatrical or even VOD distribution but you so, so enjoyed is better than anything playing at any random multiplex anywhere in the world. Nor does it give you a pass to boast voluntary ignorance or giggle derisively when someone mentions it might be worth your time to check out a really fab new limited TELEVISION series they saw with their kids and spouse at home one Saturday afternoon while lounging on the sofa.

#goaway

#goaway

Full confession: I was a film and television critic for Variety many decades ago and used to fight these battles daily with fellow co-workers, studio executives and other critics – as well as with many in my family and friends. There is a reason why the saying, Everybody has two businesses – their business and show business has stood the test of time. People get very emotional and are very invested with what they find good and bad on the cultural landscape.

This is why comments by Variety’s chief film critic this week proclaiming his total ignorance about contemporary television – as well as an article in Filmmaker magazine that boldly declared TV IS NOT THE NEW FILM (Note: You could almost hear the writer shouting it off the page) really got my goat. Oh, and add to that writer/director Ethan Coen’s response to a question at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where along with his brother Joel he served as grand jury president, about the much-acclaimed TV series version of their hit film Fargo.

It’s not that I don’t like TV. It’s alien to me.  I haven’t watched a television show in decades. 

…..he said proudly.

Oh yes, he was just being honest. The same way Variety’s Justin Chang was truthful when he wrote about the Cinema vs. Television debate in a gee whiz sort of way:

I would have to bone up on years of neglected TV watching before I could hazard a guess — as it stands, it feels like an apples-and-oranges comparison, and one where I don’t have the clearest idea what oranges taste like.

I suppose this was better than what Mike S. Ryan proclaimed in Filmmaker.

As much as I love Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men or Twin Peaks, as great and as groundbreaking as those shows were, they are still not Cinema.

Oh, why is it whenever anyone says or writes the word cinema I want to stick my tongue down their throats and get them to spit up a hairball?

Preach

Preach

The reason this has surfaced is that the upcoming Toronto Film Festival has decided to follow the lead of other film festivals all over the world and feature one of two programs this year devoted to television i.e. the pilot episodes of several new series viewers will be treated to later in the year.

The immediate reaction of critics like Chang is to sniff they were just too busy with CINEMA to watch contemporary television, even the superior kind. It seems like it’s even the inferred response of a prominent film artist like Mr. Coen, who treats the mere mention of the medium as some rare oddity from outer space he, as an earthling and non-scientist, has just not had the time or education to get familiar with.

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Frankly, I’m amazed at these reactions.

Certainly everyone has the right to sample what they choose to or have time for. We’re lucky to live in a world where there are so many possibilities of art to sample with the click of a button. But this is the same reason for any evolving artist and/or critic to try and take a little bit more time to survey the contemporary world if they want to continue to remain interesting, or even relevant.

This past week I stood in front of three different small groups of students in the first classes in the college semester where I will guide them as they formulate and execute any number of screenplays, television pilots and spec episodes of existing series. These are all smart, aware and active young people in their early twenties and it might or might not surprise you to know that the vast majority of them only very sporadically go out to the movies or watch a television series at the precise moment its network or cable outlet decides to first air it. Nor do they particularly care whether they view what they eventually watch on a big screen, laptop, iPad or smart phone. Oh sure, there are the occasional events, or motion pictures that must be seen large or viewed as early as possible. But these are rare. Like – VERY rare.

Like this...

Like this…

And studio executives take note – the two most repeated words I heard in all of our conversations about which movies and TV shows they liked and watched (Note: Yes, they all did BOTH!) were:

HULU and NETFLIX.

Unless one wants to write about or create art rooted or set solely in the past it might be nice for those at the top of their game in either of these fields to take note of some of the above. It does not mean you are betraying Renoir, Tarkovsky or Chantal Akerman. Anymore than it means you are turning your back on The Real Housewives if every now and then you decide to go to your local art house or streaming service and check in to see what Andrew Bujaski or the Dardenne brothers are up to.

As for the high vs. low art issue, I for one refuse to get into a debate over whether The Hangover is better than Breaking Bad, if the first season of True Detective had camerawork and imagery that would indeed rival the latest Terrence Malick film or if Guardians of the Galaxy was more enjoyable than any one episode of Mad Men or even The Sopranos. I mean, who really gives a shi damn???

Oh who am I kidding? The answer is ALWAYS Mad Men. #EmmyforHamm

Oh who am I kidding? The answer is ALWAYS Mad Men. #EmmyforHamm

Yes, I’d rather watch Breaking Bad on a loop for the next three years than to have to sit through another Hangover even one more time. But I have actually seen the first two (Note: Ok, not all three) Hangover films. Not to mention all of the above choices, even the last few from the brilliant Malick – a director I really have to take a rest from before I become one the very kind of lazy, non-thinkers I’ve warned my students (and all of you) not to become.

See, sometimes it’s not enough to simply be aware of your tendency toward marginalizing, judgment or limited thinking in the art world. You actually need to make an effort to get off the couch or your soapbox, or flop down onto your couch and put on the TV. You’re free not to do that. But if so, please spare us your snob stories.