Since my exam on Thursday morning, I have watched three seasons of that popular SitCom “Friends”. I watched seasons 1, 5 and 6. I laughed and I laughed and I laughed. While I was going through this catharsis, some small part of my superego cried out in shame an horror. It represents everything I detest in television and entertainment. It is the inevitable result of mass culture operating on a mass medium: its operations are based on the almost mechanical and callous manipulation of the audience. Once you care, even a little, once you show some interest, once in fact you buy in to the reality on any level, you are theirs to play with.
I’m gonna hire the remaining seasons next week, when I’ll have as much, or more, spare time than I do now. It’s just damned funny stuff, and boy, am I so hooked. I caught a handful of episodes during its real outing, but no more than one or two a season based on how many episodes I recognised from 1,5 & 6. I guess Scott Adams was right, if you don’t love at least one TV show, you’re not trying.
Thing is, I’ve tried to watch SitComs before. WKRP in Cincinnati, Cheers, Alf, Spin City, Scrubs, Who’s the Boss?, Benson, Charmed… and they’ve all left me flat. Seinfeld, for example, was very witty without being especially engaging. Home Improvement passed the time, but I felt a certain stagnancy; though the segments from Tim’s show ToolTime were always “cool”. The dynamic duo which broke me of the SitCom habit were Cybil and Frasier, which must have been around 95/96. Friends must already have debuted by then.
What I couldn’t stand about Cybill and Frasier was ultimately what made Desperate Housewives unbearable, and that was the predictability of it all, coupled with unpredictable character decisions. Frasier in particular, would have the characters change their basic motivations and habits to get them into bizare situations, whose outcomes were inevitable once you understood the premises and invariably embarrassing. The worst not only could happen, but always did.
Some shows turned this into a virtue. Chef and Blackadder, for example, always had their protagonists end up in some mischeif or problem, but the two crucial things which made this “work” were the sparkling quality of the dialogue, and the plausibility of the results. Of course Gareth always ran into problems: he was a collosal egotist and loquaciously vituperative. Those people never have a smooth path through life. Gareth and Edmund had just enough vitality and charisma to hook you in, and the rest… was pure comedic brilliance. The nature of these characters made the various accidents seem natural. To a large extent Fawlty Towers tapped in to the same vein. I wonder whether it’s co-incidental that only British shows are springing to mind when taking this line.
Entertainment for me begins and finishes with the characters. I wanted to like Star Trek: Voyager, for example. I’d easily forgiven the bad dialogue, campy aliens and “science” in the other Trek outings, but Voyager‘s characters were simply too flat and insipid to care about one way or the other. Frankly, The Next Generation hung by a thread at times too. Enterprise possibly could have worked for me, but the mechanics of the character relations were too nakedly exposed to ignore; the characters were presented as archetypes and stereotypes. I found moments in BattleStar Galactica were also marred by character inconsistencies. In particular, the dynamic between Adama and Roslin seemed preposterously unstable and variable.
So, what I liked about Friends was that the characters felt plausible and consistant to me. There were obviously a few moments of incongruous action, but on the whole, characters did only things which seemed to be plausibly similar to things they’d done before. There was also a degree of character development. The Rachel of season 5 is fairly different from the Rachel of season 1, but the two seemed to be plausibly related. The occasional times that bugged me were obvious back-sliding moments, where it seemed like a joke or a moment had been written 5 seasons before and was only now being brought out.
The other thing I liked was that the producers seemed to understand that the emotion is invested in the anticipation, not the event (to paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock). They showed some disasterous moments, but that seemed to be only so the audience was always aware that the worst might actually happen. On the whole, disaster was averted at the last moment, or there was a judicious cut allowing the worst to be reported rather than depicted verbatim. In fact, often the anticipation was built through judicious use of cutting to alternate places in the narrative scope. So too, were there a handful of expert reversals, where disaster appeared to be averted and then blindsided you.
What this means, ultimately, is that I found the show very funny, and about generally lovable characters, with very little cringe-factor. Unfortunately, despite all this entuisiastic hand-waving, I can’t entirely obviate the knowledge that for all it’s skill and pleasing aspect, it is nothing truly new or original. There is hardly a joke, a scene, a moment, a characterisation, that I have not seen somewhere else or at least predicted given a moment’s thought. Even as I list these manifest failings, my conscious mind is telling the internal critic to take a hike, and leave me to laugh until I hurt.
(917 words, 43 minutes)
You are Jean-Luc Picard
|A lover of Shakespeare and other
fine literature. You have a decisive mind
and a firm hand in dealing with others.