Friends is a miniature of America’s soft power and its bygone golden era
23 May 2021
With the reunion special of the classic American sitcom Friends soon to be aired on May 27, the English-speaking internet is already abuzz with speculations, expectations and, above all, nostalgia. 27 years after the show was first aired, it still topped the list of most streamed series on Netflix, and remained the most popular sitcom according to The Economist. However, it is beyond the confines of the Western world that the significance of the hit TV series shows.
On a wintry evening in the trendy Honarmandan Park of Tehran, I was approached by an affable young man of my age hoping to practice his English. One of Iran’s many youths who aspire for a life in the West, he wished above all to emigrate to Canada – he would have preferred the United States, if not for the practical impossibility for him to move there. Determined and ambitious, he had taken every opportunity at his limited disposal to prepare for the leap. He studied the English language assiduously, honed his professional skills as a programmer, and most eagerly immersed himself in the bits and pieces of the Western world sifted into Iran.
Yet just a stone’s throw away from the Park was a local landmark candidly named “the U.S. Den of Espionage Museum”, replete with anti-American graffiti painted on its surrounding walls. I could not help but be amused by the irony, and inquired as to how he came to become so infatuated with the West – but in particular America. His answer was simple: Friends.
Homebound by his Iranian passport, Friends was his window to the West. He could comfortably recite the A to Z of episodes and trivia of each of the six characters. We spent the better part of an evening in a café discussing the show (and why he identified with Ross the most).
In Friends he saw his American counterparts, the 20-somethings of the Promised Land. They laugh, banter, meet friends and find love, with never a thought of the everyday struggles of life – not the stratospheric rents in New York City (it has been frequently pointed out that none of the characters could afford their respective apartments), not the rampant petty crimes, and certainly not the discriminations an Iranian immigrant would face. It is the idealised version of life in a country thirteen times richer than his own.
The catch, of course, is that Friends is not quite the real life. Yet to many aspiring young men and women like my Iranian interlocuter, Friends represents a glimmer of what lies beyond, even if it is fiction. Friends is hope and promise. I hesitated whether I should poke the bubble. Perhaps better to tone down his expectations lest he was bitterly disappointed. I casually related to him some of the mundane difficulties and social ills I observed in America and even in the more civil Canada. He stared at me in disbelief and quickly dismissed them as mere idiosyncrasies. The persuasion of Friends, it would seem, ran deep.
However, I was not surprised by his reaction; for just a few short years ago, I was a Friends-watching, America-loving teenager dreaming of a life in the West. Like many of my peers, we were taught from a young age that a land of milk and honey, of justice and equality, lies beyond the vast Pacific; its people, affluent and beautiful, are models to be emulated; mastery of their tongue is not just a useful instrument but a symbol of modernity. To learn how to become more like one of them, look no further than their numerous films and TV shows. That evening in Tehran, I seemed to have met my former self.
Friends is for this reason not alone among Western cultural exports in shaping the rest of the world. Intentionally or otherwise, they presented America as a country of thrills and excitement, while England one of top hat-wearing gentlemen. The legions of big and small screen exports pouring from the two English-speaking cultural superpowers have shaped the opinions and perceptions, tastes and values, and ideals and aspirations of millions of young men and women across the globe.
Yet Friends is unique in its place in American and world history. Filmed and set in the decade from 1994 to 2004, the series documented the ideal life in America’s golden era. Abroad, America’s present superpower rival was but a “Third World country” (Friends S1E24), the Middle East a mass production centre of American war heroes (Friends S5E3), and Soviet Russia had passed from a source of terror into an object of ridicule (Friends S7E11) – tellingly, one of the biggest hits in the year before Friends aired was the poignantly Soviet ‘Go West’ by Pet Shop Boys.
At home, America experienced not a single annual recession in the decade, one of the longest periods of sustained economic expansion on record in American history. Chandler’s computer upgraded as America entered its tech boom (Friends S3E18). Politics was the stuff of dinner table jokes and hardly mattered beyond the scribbles on newspapers (Friends S5E12).
Friends has epitomised a scaled-down version of the American dream, one of small happiness in life. Yet in the 17 years since the last season of the series, America had fallen from grace in the Middle East, its economy was battered twice in as many decades, its once unassailable hegemony has become a prize for competition, and its politics a toxic division cutting the nation in half. It is only natural that the upcoming reunion special evokes nostalgia among American viewers, if not for the show, then for the era. Confidence and hope no longer define the mood of America; in their place stand anxiety, confusion, despair and hatred. If Friends were to be produced today, it would be out of touch, out of time, and out of place.
Two and half years have passed since that evening in Tehran, and 27 have passed since Monica found a new roommate. Though I had not the chance to see if the storming of the Capitol, racial violence and riots across America, and a botched pandemic response have had any effect on my Tehrani acquittance’s views, I continued to see T-shirts imprinted with the iconic font of Friends in Istanbul, ‘Central Perk’ cafés in Bangalore, and a new generation of Chinese students learning English with the show. Yet I cannot help but wonder, in another decade’s time, if the lure of the show will simply pass into memory, nostalgia, and youthful dreams.
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