The Current

Friends TV series may not have aged well but it's still popular due to a 'nostalgia boom'

As the TV series Friends turns 25, we're taking a look at the show's complex legacy — and what all this yearning for the past says about us.

Show taps into pre-internet era, contemporary desire to slow down, says professor

From left, David Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc, Courteney Cox, Paul Rudd and Lisa Kudrow appear in this scene from the series finale of Friends. (Warner Bros./The Canadian Press)

Read Story Transcript

Twenty-five years after Friends debuted, the TV show is still wildly popular because viewers have a deep-rooted nostalgia for life before the internet, a professor of media theory says.

Katharina Niemeyer said that the series finished in 2004 before smartphones gave people constant internet access. She told The Current's interim host Laura Lynch that as our lives have sped up, there's "something about the analogue era" that appeals to people.

"It's also a way of coping with the … progress going on — to slow it down," said Niemeyer, a professor at Université du Québec à Montréal and author of Media and Nostalgia: Yearning for the Past, Present and Future.

The show about six 20-something people in New York started in 1994 and ran for 10 years. According to industry figures, it's the second-most watched show on Netflix. That popularity has prompted AT&T, which owns the rights to Friends, to end its deal with the online streaming giant. AT&T intends to put the sitcom on its own service, HBO Max, when it launches next year. 

Niemeyer said that nostalgia has always made money, but that "there's something deeper-rooted in the nostalgia boom today." 

She thinks that even though the internet has increased our ability to connect to one another, the virtual world can feel insular and lonely.

"There's also nostalgia about: what was a friendship before the world wide web arrived?" 

Bob Thompson, director of the Bleier Centre for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said that "there is something so quaint and charming to watching friends who are friends by actually physically being in the same space with one another." 

"There are telephones in Friends, but there are no cellphones," said Thompson. 

Friends is the second-most watched show on Netflix, according to industry figures. (Paul Sakuma/The Associated Press)

Some depictions unacceptable today

That said, Thompson does believe the show has aged badly in some respects. 

He cited episodes where the character Monica was shown in flashback as being very overweight in high school. 

The actress Courtney Cox wore a fat suit in those episodes, which Thompson said portrayed "the idea of a larger body type being something that it is the American dream to overcome."

There are also depictions around gender and race that would not be acceptable today, he said, as well as a "total lack of diversity."

Despite this, he said he can see why the show remains popular, even just as something to turn on as background noise.

"It is a meticulously written, funny show with some really hilarious performances," he told Lynch. 

"We have to … at the same time be cognizant of the fact that this is a reflection of a time that we hope we have evolved beyond."

LeBlanc, left, and Schwimmer are pictured in Friends, which began in 1994. (Friends/NBC)

More room for nostalgia nowadays

While there seems to be a boom in nostalgia these days, Thompson said it's always been a big part of the human experience.

"I am sure there were people in caves, thinking back of the glorious days before we invented fire," he said.

However, he said "the reason we're getting more of this than we ever did before is there is so much more real estate for it to move in on."

The '90s was kind of the last pure decade of stuff that we all watched at the same time, and everybody knew about it.- Bob Thompson

There used to be just three TV networks with 22 hours of programming per week, he said.

"Now we've got … twice as many broadcast networks; all of these cable channels doing original programming; and Netflix, which seems to be releasing a new show every five minutes."

However, he thinks this appetite for re-watching old shows won't last forever because we don't consume TV in the same way anymore.

"The '90s was kind of the last pure decade of stuff that we all watched at the same time, and everybody knew about it," he said.

"That's why I think '90s nostalgia has a certain value to it."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Jessica Linzey and Allie Jaynes.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?