What’s Better Than F.R.I.E.N.D.S? A Show About Nothing

Pop Culture

What’s Better Than F.R.I.E.N.D.S? A Show About Nothing

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Just this week, I was faced with the millennial version of Sophie’s Choice. My hard drive had reached its 1TB capacity and I had to make some hard choices. I looked at my list of shows – Becker, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, F.R.I.E.N.D.S. And taking up huge chunks of memory, was Seinfeld.

My finger hovered over Seinfeld. If I had to choose one sitcom about a scraggly group of friends making it in NYC, it should be F.R.I.E.N.D.S, right? The show that shaped our ’90s childhood, had all the happy endings, the easy jokes, likeable and good-looking characters, who never did a mean thing in their life. F.R.I.E.N.D.S gave me the raindrops-and-roses kind of vibe, in which my 11-year-old world was wrapped up tight.

But the 25-year-old me decided to give Seinfeld another shot before pressing the kill button and after three random episodes of watching Jerry Seinfeld and his dysfunctional and far-from-good-looking gang grapple with the banalities of life, from the amount of time to be spent waiting on tables at restaurants, to the finer aspects of masturbation, and dreadfulness of small talk, I began wondering how I’d thought this was not my idea of funny.

Unlike F.R.I.E.N.D.S, Seinfeld did not try to make its central characters likeable or aspirational. We all wanted to be as popular with the opposite sex as Joey or marry our passion and our careers like Rachel, but no one in the world wanted to live Elaine or George’s life for even a second. In Seinfeld, humour was drawn from the fact that the characters were out-of-touch, self-obsessed, and that they refused to change. F.R.I.E.N.D.S was successful because of its characters, setting, and morals; Seinfeld was successful in spite of them.

In the ’90s, cynicism had not caught on, likeability scored high, and eccentricity was not celebrated.

“No hugs, no learning” was the philosophy that guided Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David when they wrote the show, and it’s this unapologetic approach to eliciting laughs that elevates Seinfeld to the pantheon of great TV. If you watch F.R.I.E.N.D.S today, you realise that what passed for humour in 2000, doesn’t always elicit a laugh in 2019. It’s hard to smile at their jokes because the characters were interpretations of how young adulthood is supposed to be. Seinfeld dialled up the comedy, dropped the preachiness, and showed us adulthood the way it would actually turn out to be. Watching George cheap out on a hospital bill and opt for “holistic healing” that ends up making his condition worse, is funny because we all know someone who would be capable of doing that in real life.

This probably is why the exploits of Seinfeld and Co hold up amazingly well in 2019, even though these jokes, these characters were imagined in 1989, when a different kind of world was at play. In the ’90s, cynicism had not caught on, likeability scored high, and eccentricity was not celebrated.

Even though the world thinks of Kramer as the king of eccentricity, Elaine, I discovered, was the most singular character created at a time when feminism was not a full stop to every conversation. Elaine hung out with the guys and cracked dirty jokes, she could be completely asexual or highly charged with sexual energy depending on the situation, and she was just as promiscuous and commitment-phobic as the men on the show. She’s hardly everyone’s favourite character from Seinfeld (and if she were real, she wouldn’t give a fuck about it), but there’s no doubt she was one of the most empowered women characters on TV at the time.

It’s this attitude that puts Seinfeld in the realm of great TV, while F.R.I.E.N.D.S remains a great sitcom. The latter will forever top nostalgia listicles, and have its quotes featured on Buzzfeed, but the former has earned the right to be mentioned alongside Golden Age shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones, despite coming well before them, as a pivotal series that redrew the map for TV entertainment.

While F.R.I.E.N.D.S promised that they’ll “be there for you”, in today’s world, it’s Seinfeld that is “the master of this domain”.