Illustration by staff illustrator Sakura Siegel.

Everyone remembers their first friendship: the inviting gap-toothed grins, eyes filled with wonder, conversations about everything and yet nothing at all.

When most people hear the word “friends,” they might look back on these quintessential relationships that shaped them into who they are and their current support system that’s always there to offer a helping hand.

However, when people have heard the word “friends” for the past 28 years, odds are that their minds might immediately go to the popular NBC television sitcom of the same name. It is the first thing that comes up when you Google the word, after all.

With 236 episodes and 10 seasons, NBC’s smash hit “Friends” is still one of the most popular TV shows, despite the series finale airing nearly two decades ago. It’s one of the top ten most watched television finales ever, with over 52 million viewers.

The show focused on a group of six 20-somethings (and eventually 30-somethings) navigating through life in New York City and propelled the main cast to superstardom, most notably Jennifer Aniston.

However, the show has been critiqued for some problematic aspects, mainly the lack of diversity among the all-white cast.

(Courtesy of Spin Southwest)

After examining the show through a more modern lens, “Friends creators” recognized the problematic nature of certain storylines and characters in the show, with show creator Marta Kauffman donating $4 million to her alma mater Brandeis University’s African Studies department in an effort to financially support scholars in this discipline in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protest movements that occurred worldwide when George Floyd was murdered by police brutality.

While Kauffman has recently expressed her embarrassment and regret over the lack of diversity as well as misgendering Chandler’s father, Lisa Kudrow, who played quirky musician Phoebe Buffay, defended the show’s creative decisions at the time. She went on to say that the creators wrote about what they knew and that they had no business writing stories about being a person of color, since that’s an experience unfamiliar to them. However, Kauffman claims that she’s now conscious in hiring and actively pursuing people of color in her productions.

Valerie Caamano, a 24-year-old Bayonne resident who’s watched the series all the way through about six times, started watching it with her family during dinner.

“The show is funny. It may be a boring and obvious thing to call out, but it’s so funny and full of characters that people can see themselves in,” she said.

Another thing that she loved about the show, as well as millions of other fans, was “the fantasy of it: the idea that a group of friends living in New York City could afford any of those apartments seemingly only go to work a couple of times a week and still have time and money to hang out and go out to eat as often as they did.”

Caamano says she’s always noticed that the show was predominantly white.

“I was always pretty aware of it. I thought it was kind of weird, since New York is such a melting pot and that’s where the show is based.”

She said it wasn’t shocking to her because many other popular shows that were set in New York City at the time also had predominantly white casts, such as “Sex in the City,” “Will and Grace,” and “The Nanny.”

From countless homophobic, fatphobic and transphobic jokes to the lack of racial diversity within America’s favorite friend group, the show would need to be completely reimagined if it was made now.

“A lot of the humor and storylines definitely wouldn’t be included if the show was made today,” says Caamano.

However, she’s okay with that because of the insensitive nature of many plotlines.

“I also think that there would be a lot more people of color in a modern reboot of the show because that’s a more authentic representation of what a group of friends would look like, especially living in New York City, and that the living aspects would be more realistically portrayed.”

While “Friends” fans continue to show their support for the show, they also agree that the show could use major improvement in incorporating storylines that showed what life was like for a variety of people in the city that never sleeps.

Sarah Perney, a 23-year-old North Arlington resident who’s watched the show at least eight times in its entirety, started watching it on Nick @ Nite when she was about eight or nine years old before going to bed or with her family.

As a child, she didn’t notice the lack of diversity within the show until she rewatched an episode from one of the later seasons when she was in her teens.

Perney specifically remembered the moment she noticed that the show lacked diversity when she rewatched an episode from season 7 where Gabrielle Union appeared as a side character that Ross Geller hits on.

As a huge Union fan, Perney was disappointed and shocked that the “Bring It On actress” was only in one episode.

“That’s when I realized she’s one of the only POC characters I could recall seeing on the series. The next POC I remember seeing in multiple episodes didn’t come until season 9, which was Joey and Ross’ ex-girlfriend Charlie. I felt a little confused that with all the characters and significant others they’ve each had on the show, only one was a person of color.”

In a 2020 interview with The Guardian, David Schwimmer, who played paleontologist Ross Geller, discussed how he advocated for more diverse casting in the show, especially with the women his character was dating.

“I was well aware of the lack of diversity, and I campaigned for years to have Ross date women of color. One of the first girlfriends I had on the show was an Asian-American woman, and later I dated African American women. That was a very conscious push on my part,” Schwimmer said.

However, the actor also expressed similar views to Kudrow later in the interview by stating that he believed the show was groundbreaking for the way it depicted sex, gay marriage and relationships at the time.

He also stated he didn’t care if certain viewers thought the show didn’t age well in certain ways. While it’s arguably admirable to stand by one’s work, especially if it turned that person into a household name, it’s also important to acknowledge constructive criticism and know that the creators could have done better.

Perney says she thinks the show is still talked about and admired because of how it makes people feel.

“I know a lot of people who refer to it as their comfort show probably because there aren’t many overly stressful topics portrayed in the show compared to a more serious show like Game of Thrones where there’s plenty of controversial topics displayed. It was also one of the first shows I remember watching on Netflix and I recall it being on Netflix for a very long time after that, so I think accessibility plays a role in that as well.”

Perney agrees that the cast would be more diverse if the show was made today.

“We are living in an era where they are remaking Disney princesses like Ariel to be African American and there’s Encanto and Moana which feature people of color for our youth to look up to. They’re paying more attention to that kind of stuff for sure especially with social media and cancel culture and I’d love to see them do a remake of the series with a more diverse cast.”

Like many other “Friends” fans, George Duenas, a 25-year-old resident of North Arlington who has also watched the show about eight times in its entirety, also started watching the show from reruns he watched as a child.

He also heard about the show through friends at school, who were mostly people of color. When he was around seven or eight years old.

Duenas was well aware that the show was predominantly white by comparing to other sitcoms, such as “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Family Matters,” and “Everybody Hates Chris.”

“It honestly wasn’t that much of a bother or surprise to me because I feel like there were other shows with their own ethnicity.”

Duenas also pointed out that “Friends” and “Full House,” which was also set in a major city, rarely included main or side characters who weren’t white, whereas shows that focused on people of color like “Fresh Prince,” “George Lopez,” and “Everybody Hates Chris” included characters of all races.

(Courtesy of We Heart It)

While Duenas is a fan of the show, he acknowledges that part of the reason it’s still so popular is because of how much people love nostalgia.

“Creativity now is at an all-time low where they start reviving old shows with a twist. Usually, it doesn’t do too well, so that makes people fall back to something familiar. Friends is part of that.”

When thinking about what the show would look like in modern times, Duenas believes it wouldn’t be as popular or enjoyable and that it shouldn’t be revived at all.

“People are too sensitive so it makes the show very limited to what it could be, so I’m glad they did it at a time where it wasn’t as sensitive as it is now.”

While there was a cast reunion that premiered on HBO Max last year, the cast and showrunners have all stated that they weren’t interested in bringing the show back unless they felt it made sense.

On the other hand, Jamie Canfield, a 24-year-old Hackettstown resident, started watching the show in college when she saw it was on Netflix and immediately became hooked.

After watching the show every day since then, she said she felt the lack of diversity was noticeable but not something she ever deeply thought about because of the inclusion of Susan and Carol, a lesbian couple, and parenting while divorced.

One of the main reasons Canfield enjoys the show is because of how it affects each viewer.

“I think the show provides something different for everyone who watches it, whether it reminds you of your twenties and spending time with your friends while being young or you watched the show when it aired and loved it.”

Canfield states that it’s her comfort show and that no matter where or when, she can always watch it and laugh. She’s also of the same sentiment that the show would look different in today’s age and that it would talk about topics, such as COVID and job hunting after college, as well as navigating the world of social media and 21st century technology.

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