Friday, March 13, 2020

The One with the Review of Generation Friends

Generation Friends by Saul Austerlitz

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a Gen Xer, I was the prime audience for Friends when the show was spanking new. I loved the cozy, cool lifestyle of hanging around joking with friends day in, day out. I loved the style, from the clothes to the couch at Central Perk. And man oh man did I love Monica's purple apartment with the huge, multi-paneled window and balcony.

The show has long been a continuing hit in reruns ever since its run ended in 2004, but its popularity surged with a younger crowd after it landed on Netflix in 2014. The ability to binge-watch, to stay as long as you want in that bubble of beautiful people and fantastic friendships, was a siren song that lured young viewers to its shores with a promise of being there for them, always, just a click away. Many of those viewers had been busy loading up diapers or doing nothing at all (since they weren't born yet) when the show premiered in 1994, and yet the show still held an enduring appeal to them.

It's no wonder books keep popping up on the subject of this show, and no wonder I wanted to read one. The one that caught my eye, with its purple background reminiscent of Monica's apartment and its cartoon version of the gang by the famous fountain from the Friends' intro, was Generation Friends: An Inside Look at the Show that Defined a Television Era by Saul Austerlitz.

This book, unfortunately, left a lot to be desired. However, as a longtime fan of the show, I still found just enough of interest to keep me turning the pages to the end.

Austerlitz goes into exacting, dull detail of every step of how this show was conceived, cast and written. If he could've thrown in the weather on every given day in the process or what people had for lunch, he would've. We're talking a level of unnecessary detail that will test your resolve and willingness to keep turning pages.

Even the game of "Guess who almost got cast in that role?" goes to snooze-worthy extremes. Here, it becomes "Guess who auditioned or was momentarily considered as a maybe for a part?" This game includes names you'll maybe vaguely recognize along with many you almost surely won't, which makes an already boring exercise downright drudgery.

And you're bombarded with so. many. names. You'll get names of all the writers, directors, actors, and others who filled various roles in the creation of this show, large or small, whether realized or possibilities that never came to be. And most of these details are fairly uninteresting. One complaint critics voiced early on about Friends was that six leads was too many (though the show proved them wrong on that); they should try reading about everybody who had a finger in the pie of creating this show and realize that six people to keep up with is child's play.

Once the book moves into the stage where the show is cast and in production, it gets a little more interesting. It's mostly just describing what happened in some episodes, and scenes that were key in characters' development or relationships, and giving an opinion of how those scenes related to character development, or what those storylines gave to fans. It wasn't that exciting, and yet, there's still a real appeal to reading about a show you loved. Even if, like me, you wished for years they'd go ahead and cancel Friends because quality had fallen way off, but you liked the characters enough that you wanted to see it through to the end, no matter what.

Or if, like me, you thought Ross and Rachel were awful as a couple and hated the way the show kept pushing them together and pulling them apart, always with petty, silly, obnoxious reasons for doing so. Throughout its run, even as the quality tapered off, Friends had enough funny lines and enough stockpiled goodwill from fans who wanted to keep seeing these characters that I kept coming back for more. Even as those characters increasingly acted completely out of character to fulfill the demands of a poorly scripted plot, I just couldn't quit 'em. I felt the same about this book – there was just enough appealing material to keep me going.

Recently, I started rewatching the series from the start, having recorded the constantly airing reruns on TBS on my YouTubeTV account. I'm still on Season 1, and I'm loving it. That show had solid laughs and enviable relationships among the characters from the jump. I watch a few minutes here and there, finding it an easy, pleasant companion for doing tasks like folding laundry. I'm sure if I asked my husband to sit down and watch an episode with me, he'd be baffled as to why I want to rewatch that old show. And yet sometimes I'll put it on during dinner, and he can jump right in wherever I'm at in the episode and know what's going on. And he'll always get a few hearty laughs from it. I really love when that happens – even though we didn't know each other in the '90s, that show is a shared experience for us because we both watched it back in the day.

When I think about Friends, I remember working at a small newsroom in the '90s and chatting about it with a co-worker. I was not long out of college, and she was still in college. We were the same age (give or take 8 months), and that show must've struck a chord with us. I remember my friend (and we stayed friends long after we left that newspaper, though at this point we mostly keep in touch via Facebook) going on about Phoebe the morning after a new episode aired. "She wore a tiara throughout that entire episode!" she said, thrusting a finger in the air for emphasis. She seemed excited, maybe thrilled, angry, or in disbelief? I was never sure, we had to get back to work. But the memory of her a bit wound up over the show comes back to me when I think of us talking it over. I'm not sure if she thought the tiara-as-everyday-accessory was weird or awesome, but she was excited about it. The show got us invested, thinking about the characters, their lives, their relationships, even their clothes. And it did it at a time when people typically watched it the night it aired, which meant we could discuss it the next day.

That kind of connection to a show, with its flaws and all, is special. It makes books like Generation Friends something many fans will enjoy, to a degree, even with its flaws and all.

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