Friends versus Seinfeld

It seems the whole country was talking about the Friends season finale last night. Not wanting to be left out, let me note that I wasn’t really a fan of the show but I did see enough episodes to have a sense of what it was all about. I thought the show last night was typical: cute and funny at times but ultimately inane fluff.

Interestingly, National Review Online had two different cultural critics cover the show. Yesterday, S.T. Karnick discussed the shows end contrasting it with both Seinfeld and Depression Era screwball comedies:

In this way, Friends was an escape for contemporary Americans just as the Depression-era screwball comedies were for their audiences. It was a retreat not into an economic fantasy world of glamour, riches, and independence, as the screwball comedies had provided; the average TV audience member has been quite comfortable economically during most of the show’s run. Instead, Friends provided an escape into an emotional dream realm where people are nice, and care about one another, and pursue sexual gratification from morning until night, however fallible and inept at helping they might be. It was the perfect entertainment for a society that enforced political correctness wherever possible, that instituted the idea that the height of civilization is in pretending to like people whose behavior you find entirely abhorrent, and that was in fact striving relentlessly to establish the rule of niceness.

Thomas Hibbs, author of Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld, also discusses Friends and Seinfeld together. And, like Karnick, finds their treatment of sex quite different:

Seinfeld’s characters were indeed preoccupied with sex; the satisfaction of sexual desire freed from all of the human complications is the last residue of the American dream in the Seinfeld’s world. But, like all other dreams of happiness and satisfaction in Seinfeld, this, too, is an illusion. In a world where the desire for pleasure cannot be ordered by anything outside itself, sex becomes a matter of cold, calculative self-interest. Romance is dead. When Elaine’s favorite contraceptive device, the sponge, goes off the market, she must ration her remaining products and introduces a complicated screening process to determine whether potential mates are “sponge-worthy.” When Jerry expresses a preference for walking dates because there’s not a lot of “face to face,” Elaine observes, “It’s almost as good as being alone.”
Like the Seinfeld characters, the characters on Friends are obsessed with sex, although Seinfeld was much more creative and more indirect in its discussion of sex. In one of the last episodes, the cleaning out of a Monica’s closet in the apartment she inherited from her grandmother uncovers handcuffs. Monica soon discovers pictures that reveal the owner of the cuffs. “Nana liked it rough!” Monica gushes. Friends gives us a much sunnier picture of the satisfaction of sexual appetite, of its easy compatibility with other things we want and desire . . . Of course, the predictable occurs and the characters all have their desires satisfied. In the logic of the world of Friends, no good thing can be denied to attractive, nice people. They get it all: sex, friendship, and — the crowning possession — children.

Count me in the Seinfeld camp. Maybe the reason I didn’t like Friends is that it really wasn’t sitcom. Chris Sullentrop makes the argument in Slate:

But there’s another, more fundamental problem with hailing Friends as the last great situation comedy: It misstates the genre to which the show belongs. Friends isn’t a sitcom. It’s a soapcom, a soap opera masquerading as a situation comedy. The earworm theme song, the laugh track, and the gooey sentimentalism all conspire to fool viewers and critics into thinking they’re watching a family sitcom like Growing Pains or Family Ties updated for urban tribes (a Golden Girls for the pre-retirement set). But the beautiful people with opulent lifestyles, the explicit sexual content (everybody’s slept with everybody, Ross’s ex-wife is a lesbian, Chandler’s dad is a transvestite, etc.), the long multi-episode story arcs, and each season’s cliffhanger ending are the show’s real hallmarks. Days of Our Lives isn’t the only soap opera that Joey has a role in. And this one’s got jokes to boot

Caitlin Macy also takes up the Seinfeld Friends issues also at Slate. She makes the case for a different sort of fantasy that forms the core of Friends appeal:

Therein, of course, lies the appeal. It’s not just the tight writing and fetching cast that make the quotidian, not terribly ambitious lives of Rachel, Joey, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe, and Ross so compelling week after week, but the cumulative representation of what is perhaps our generation’s most repressed, most fundamental fantasy—a return, in adult life, not to the womb but to that similarly cozy, overheated paradise of containment: the college dorm. Much has been made of the unrealistically large apartments the Friends inhabit, considering their various incomes as caterer, personal shopper, out-of-work actor. But the real fiction (and true appeal) of Friends is not the size of the apartment or the sex appeal of the stars so much as the much-missed, oft-lamented characteristic of dormlife: People drop by. I suspect that I am not alone in finding that the pleasure with which I’ve watched Friends in the past couple of years—after putting baby to bed, before husband comes home from work—is not without a touch of wistfulness. But watch it I do. Even the increasingly hard-to-ignore aging of its stars—Lisa Kudrow, born in 1963, has started to look particularly absurd as an overgrown slacker—has barely tickled my suspension of disbelief. If anything the cast’s somewhat lined faces have stood like a kind of testament to the dream of the show: No matter how old you get, your life can still revolve around hanging out with your friends.

I must admit that this is an issue that I can relate to. Having been married for ten years but lacking children, I seem stuck between young people who want to party and older people who have to schedule everything around their children. At times I miss the camaraderie and companionship of college life. Socially and intellectually it was easy and enjoyable just to hang out. Now that friends have their own houses and children and busy lives (not to mention the fact that all of my closest friends have moved far away), it is almost impossible just to hang out. Get together must be planed and scheduled and worked out.

Interestingly, I didn’t relate to Friends in this way. Rather than enjoy the escapist fantasy of the show I found its lack of reality annoying. When I do find myself watching sitcoms, Everybody Loves Raymond (the show about family) and the King of Queens (married but without children) are more my style. Maybe I just never felt comfortable hanging out with the beautiful people.

Well, I think that is enough cultural and psychological analysis for today . . .

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


  1. not related, but your post “Our chief weapon is surprise…surprise and fear…fear and surprise…. Our two weapons are fear and surprise…” at The Beltway cracked me up.

    Python forever.

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