I know, I know — the late ’90s called, and they want their sitcom mania back.
But hear me out. My freshman year of college, I went through a really nasty breakup with my high school boyfriend. And I mean drunken-fights-in-front-of-a-haunted-house, being-called-a-Nazi-via-AOL-instant-messenger nasty. The breakup period lasted for about two months, from mid-October until the first day of finals in December (I know!), and for a long, long time after that, I was a black hole of dispair. I looked, felt and walked around like the dead girl from The Ring who pops out of televisions and drowns people.
In addition to writing a lot of incredibly pathetic fragments of poetry during those dreary post-breakup days, I also relied heavily on the three seasons of “Friends” on DVD.
I only own seasons four, six, and seven, plus a weird DVD my mom got for me, probably at one of those Blockbuster sales (remember when video stores were still a thing?), which contains just five episodes from season one. But let me tell you. I have watched every single episode on every single one of those DVDs way more times than I can count. I could probably recite Monica and Chandler’s tag-teamed proposal word for word, complete with Chandler’s super-smooth opening line of “Oh my God.” I know all the answers to the game Chandler, Joey, Rachel, and Monica play in the episode where the girls lose the big apartment (and Phoebe gets artificially inseminated by her brother). In fact, I know these episodes so well that I often find myself about to quote lines from the show, only to realize that would be the actual lamest thing a young adult could do in 2012. Besides maybe gush about “Whitney.”
In part, I watched “Friends” because I needed something, anything, in my own head besides my thoughts, which, at the time, felt like they were trying to jailbreak out of my head with homemade shivs. Being inside my brain was so painful that I needed something loud, brash, and totally banal to drown everything else out.
But I think that explanation is too easy, and too desperate in its attempts to find a reason that a smart girl would like less-than-smart entertainment. After all, there were lots of ways to drown out my own sad thoughts. I could have read “Anna Karenina,” and inhabited a lot of other people’s sad thoughts, instead. I could have volunteered to help people with real problems, or concentrated on turning my pain into art, or all the other things that would have been considered more productive than memorizing sitcom lines. But I didn’t. And I didn’t want to, more to the point. I wanted to watch “Friends.”
There’s something truly comforting — not in a bland, mask-the-pain way, but genuinely palliative — about the relationships on shows like “Friends,” or even its slightly edgier counterparts, from “Seinfeld” through “Community,” “Parks and Recreation,” and “30 Rock” (what can I say — I’m an NBC gal). On those shows, so vastly unlike in real life, bonds between people bend, but do not break. The continuity and audience maintenance of the sitcom genre depend on the characters’ ability to forgive and, very quickly, to forget past wrongs and embark on a new adventure every week. Ross thought he and Rachel were on a break? No problem; aside from some snide remarks, the two managed to repair their friendship within a few episodes. And the same goes for all these shows — by and large, no one holds grudges, or hurts one another irreparably, or breaks up and never speaks again. Exes can be friends, because they’re both signed for at least the rest of the season, and anyway, fights that go on too long are boring and uncomfortable for audiences.
So in a way, I think watching ungodly amounts of “Friends” actually did help heal my broken heart. After all, as I watched, all the friends had hearts broken and put back together again, and they managed to do so with a laugh track. And just like I’ve learned lessons from great novels and great films, I have learned a whole lot from crappy television. Most importantly: Joey, Chandler, Ross, Rachel, Monica, and Phoebe taught me that everything hard will eventually be less hard – you just have to wait a couple of episodes.