Settle back on the comfy couch in your favorite local coffeehouse and grab yourself a latte in an oversized mug, because Kelsey Miller’s I’ll Be There For You: The One about Friends is an entertaining read that delves into nostalgia without hesitating to examine the more problematic areas of arguably the biggest cultural TV phenomenon of the 90’s.
Friends debuted in September of 1994, during my freshman year of high school, and nearly everyone I knew watched it. While I never had a ‘Rachel,’ Jennifer Aniston’s iconic haircut, we did own a copy of The Rembrandts’ tape that featured the Friends theme song, and my mother had a Central Perk sweatshirt that I would occasionally borrow (and always feared spilling something on). For folks older than me, Friends was a reminder of those years just after you’d flown the nest and your friend group was everything; for people my age, it was a glimpse into the future, of all that could be possible and the friends who would support us as we made our way in the world.
Ms. Miller recalls the show’s origins, from the meeting of David Crane and Marta Kauffman in college, their time working together in theater, their pilots that didn’t quite get off the ground, and their initial success with Dream On, which eventually earned them an Emmy. I was charmed to know that the first iteration of the show was originally titled Insomnia Café, followed by Friends Like Us, then Six of One (changed to this to differentiate from the other NBC series in development at the time titled Friends Like Mine, which was later renamed Ellen) before it returned to simply Friends. This is followed by a brief history of each of the cast: where they grew up, how they got into the industry (Matt LeBlanc was originally training in carpentry and working in construction; Lisa Kudrow graduated from Vassar with a BS in biology and had plans for med school; Matthew Perry beat up Justin Trudeau when they were 10. Could that be any more hilarious???), and how they were selected, including other actors and actresses who auditioned and/or were offered the parts.
She follows the show through each season, reminiscing about the more memorable episodes and the many bits and pieces of the show that nestled comfortably into our cultural jargon (Smelly Cat, anyone?), never shying away from calling attention to the more problematic aspects of the series: its blinding whiteness, constant homophobia, slut shaming, fat jokes, transphobia. What makes this book different from so many of the scathing articles that have come out in the recent years detailing Friends‘ issues, though, is that Ms. Miller is quick to point out that for all those problems (many of which are viewed through that crystal-clear 20/20 lens of hindsight and cultural pivots), at the time, they were signs of growth. Ross’s ex-wife Carol married Susan on the show in what was the first televised lesbian wedding, and while it was bland and toned-down and lacked a kiss, it was there. The storyline of Chandler’s father, who was referred to only as gay, a drag queen, or the now-passé cross-dresser (and would nowadays most likely be referred to as transgender), might not have been handled perfectly, but she was there, at a time when transgender people were only ever seen as murder victims on Law & Order. These were steps forward- maybe even the steps that started us down the path to a world of more acceptance and understanding, and that’s no small thing. As someone who always felt uneasy about these aspects of the show, I appreciate this perspective. It wasn’t one I’d considered before.
The final chapter of the book contained a lot of new-to-me information, including the lawsuit brought by Amaani Lyle, a writer’s assistant, against Warner Brothers, due to harassment in the Friends writers’ room (a #MeToo case that took place before society was ready to listen). By the time Friends was in its final two seasons, I had a small child and had lost interest in a group of people whose lives were so very different from mine (although, in a horrible moment that I’ll never forget, the episode where Rachel tries to cook and ends up making a trifle with layers of custard, ladyfingers, jam, roast beef, peas and onions played as a re-run the night of my first hospitalization for hyperemesis gravidarum- you know, the kind of morning sickness that can kill you. URP). Reality TV had begun its dominance of the network schedule, the storylines had played out, and the cast was ready to move on…but Ms. Miller’s description of the taping of the final episode? Bittersweet, with a side of teary.
This is no celebrity exposé, nor is it a lurid tell-all with stories of infighting and on-set drama. While certain aspects of the casts’ personal life are mentioned- relationships, pregnancies, Matthew Perry’s drug addiction- they appear solely when relevant. Ms. Miller maintains clear focus on the show- its growth, how the cast grew with it, and how not only the US but the entire world changed because of it.
I’ll Be There For You is both a comfort read and an opportunity to remember where we were at the time Friends appeared, the paths it blazed, and the many things we’ve learned since those days. It’s a trek back to a simpler- though not necessarily better- time. There are no rose-colored glasses in this book, just an even-tempered, well-balanced examination of a beloved television show whose influence is still felt today. Now how about that latte?