Once upon a time, we made do with less television. Three broadcast networks dominated everything. （Channels weren’t flipped so much as triangulated.） We had a local public station and whatever oldies a UHF signal could tune in. Now? Now, we romanticize our cable-assisted, internet-borne so-called golden age and carp about the galactic girth of the streaming era. Somebody even lent the girth a fretful name: “peak TV” — the “money can’t buy happiness” of screen life.
In retrospect, less television has come to imply?lesser —?by volume, by value, by verisimilitude. But what was “Friends” lesser than? There are 236 episodes of it, merely one fewer than a combined tally of “Game of Thrones,” “House of Cards,” and “Orange Is the New Black.” Most of those episodes are perfect as tidy comedies. Maybe it’s hard to think of “Friends” as perfect, let alone as great, because it looked easy.
如今看来，贫乏年代的电视，就是从数量、品质和真实程度来说都要差一些。但是《老友记》（Friends）又比谁差呢？该剧共有236集，仅比《权力的游戏》（Game of Thrones）、《纸牌屋》（House of Cards）和《女子监狱》（Orange Is the New Black）加起来少一集。其中大部分作为干干净净的喜剧都是完美的。你可能很难把《老友记》想成一个完美的剧，伟大就更别提了，因为看上去难度不大。
Most “old TV” looked easy — even when characters broke up, bled and died. That’s because, even when they did, they were obviously not in a movie. TV now?is?the movies, so we love it more. We believe it more. For its entire existence, the American sitcom was anti-cinematic, beholden to the demands of advertisers.
Before there was too much TV, there was simply a lot, including a lot of NBC’s “Friends.” Think about the effort required to make about 24 episodes in a nine-month season （certain scripted shows somehow made?more）. This was impossible work that we at home took for granted. A network like NBC could turn “granted” into “mandatory” with maximal FOMO threat. “Let’s all be there,” it demanded in the 1980s. A decade later, we had to be there for “Must See TV.” Technologically, it was an uncertain age. If you missed an episode, who knew when you’d be able to catch it again?
“Friends” was easy TV at an elite level. So many jokes, so much body comedy, so many surprises and awwws, and squeals of live studio audience excitement. Hairdressers were doing — and not infrequently botching — the Rachel. Coffee shops became people’s second homes. Tens of millions of Americans watched all of that writing and directing and acting, all of that seemingly effortless effort, for all 10 of its years. That work and a country’s devotion to it feels like proof of a golden age of?something.
“Friends” debuted on NBC in the fall of 1994, ran for an entire decade, typically had around 25 to 30 million viewers a week （sometimes many more） and now airs in Nickelodeon’s Nick @ Nite block, which my cable conglomerate has stationed near the top of the channel pyramid. That means if you’re a chronologist like me, the five-channel trip from NY1 — past the local news, TNT and “The Simpsons” — always terminates at Chandler, Joey, Monica, Phoebe, Rachel and Ross. Laziness is a factor. （Do?you?use the number keys on your remote? I’ll bet you don’t even?have?a remote at this point.）
《老友记》于1994年秋季在NBC首播，播出了整整10年，每周通常有大约2500万到3000万观众（有时更多），现在，它在Nickelodeon的Nick @ Nite版块播出，这个台在我家的有线台列表上位于前列。这意味着，如果你和我一样喜欢挨着次序换台，从NY1出发，往下看五个台——经过当地新闻、TNT和《辛普森一家》——最后总是以停在钱德勒、乔伊、莫妮卡、菲比、瑞秋和罗斯。懒惰是原因之一。（你还用遥控器上的数字键吗？我敢打赌你现在连遥控器都没有了。）
But, really, it’s simplicity. “Friends” actually?is?enormously easy to watch. The genius of “Seinfeld” （and “The Simpsons,” too） has everything to do with the “com” arising from the “sit.” What trouble will Jerry and the gang instigate? Whether you’re watching an episode for the first time or the 27th, the inciting premise is a major element of the pleasure. The premise of “Friends” is the friends.
Matters of behavior and economic inequality only seemed to bring them together. Take the show’s 29th episode. Everybody goes out for a nice dinner to celebrate Monica’s promotion, and Phoebe, Joey and Rachel order the cheapest items on the menu, then balk at evenly dividing the bill. Income turns those three against the other three, until Monica loses her job and Joey valiantly offers to pay for her $4 coffee — with Chandler’s money. The theme song didn’t lie: They really were there for each other, punchlines and all. That thereness was the show’s intangible hook. The writers could engineer plots for the directors to orchestrate. But these six actors working together, on anything, on nothing — it was the highlight of many a person’s week. That thereness was phenomenally elastic, too. These were six people who could snipe at one another, who could fight and lie and practice what we’d now call radical honesty yet keep so many secrets, who can break up （many times, in many ways） but, as a sextet, keep snapping back together. I like them that way, as half a dozen. I like them in tandems and trios, as human math problems, as chemistry experiments. Maybe 10 times I’ve watched Chandler, Joey and Monica break down and confess to the other three that, yes, Chandler?did?pee on Monica’s jellyfish sting.
I don’t know how many takes that sequence took or how much caffeine was consumed. But it’s never less than a marvel of harmonized hysterics. That kind of exclamatory, high-energy comedy could happen in any configuration of the cast because it was the best such collection in the history of television. Other hall-of-fame comedies, like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Cheers,” had wits and jesters and clowns mixed in among the goody-goodies and grumps. Some, like “All in the Family” and the first few seasons of “Designing Women,” were all zingers, personality and delivery before the whole thing went to schtick. A few permanently watchable jewels like “The Golden Girls” and “Frasier” sneaked in a combo platter of slapstick, vinegar and fuzzies. But the proportions were bigger on “Friends.” They went for more, more often, and rarely missed.
我不知道这场戏拍了几条，或者摄入了多少咖啡因。但这绝对是令人捧腹大笑的奇迹。而他们之间任意的组合都可以带来这种令人惊叹、充满活力的喜剧，因为这是电视史上最好的组合。其他殿堂级喜剧，如《玛丽·泰勒·摩尔秀》（The Mary Tyler Moore Show）和《干杯酒吧》（Cheers），都是在装模作样和牢骚中穿插着机智、玩笑和扮小丑。而《全家福》（All in the Family）和《设计女人》（Designing Women）的前几季，虽然一开始充满活力、个性和表现力，但最后整部剧还是沦为滑稽戏。在《黄金女郎》（The Golden Girls）和《欢乐一家亲》（Frasier）等剧集里，值得一看再看的珍宝偷偷藏在由打闹、尖酸和暧昧组成的大拼盘里。但在《老友记》中，珍宝的比例更高。他们想实现更多，更频繁，而且很少失败。
For one thing, the actors had more to play with. The “Friends” friends started out as types. Rachel was a princess, Monica a control freak, Joey a dumb actor. But the types kept recombining.
Ross seemed like a geek because his paleontology was frequently mocked and there’s something gluey in the music of David Schwimmer’s whine. But Ross was sad, needy, insecure, quick to anger — dark, basically — and built like a jock. Phoebe evolved rapidly from hippie na?f to schemer, dreamer, peacekeeper, and pot-stirrer. In another era, she’d have been the “Three’s Company”-era Suzanne Somers of the bunch, a hapless bombshell. But Lisa Kudrow, with her akimbo intelligence, brought the part in sideways. Not far into the show’s run, actually, some of the six are watching TV and Chandler, in Matthew Perry’s contagious sardonic snark, says “I think this is the episode of ‘Three’s Company’ where’s there’s some kind of misunderstanding.”
罗斯看起来像个极客，因为他的古生物学专业经常成为笑柄，而且戴维·史威默（David Schwimmer）的嘟囔抱怨常常让人觉得磨磨叽叽。但罗斯伤感、渴望关注、没有安全感、容易生气——基本是个黑色人物——身材像个没脑子的运动健将。菲比迅速地从天真的嬉皮女郎变成谋划者、梦想家、和事佬和惹是生非的人。在《三人行》（Three’s Company）的时代，她会成为同伴中的苏珊·萨默斯（Suzanne Somers），一个不幸的金发美女。但丽莎·库卓（Lisa Kudrow）凭借她的超高智商，让人忽略了她的金发美女特征。实际上，《老友记》开播没多久就有这么一场戏，他们当中有几个人在看电视，马修·佩里（Matthew Perry）以他特有的、具有感染力的嘲讽口吻，假钱德勒之口说：“我觉得这是《三人行》里的一集，就是他们之间有点误会那次。”
“Then I’ve already seen this,” Phoebe snaps and turns off the TV.
“Friends” could easily have been “Three’s Company,” where “sit” and “com” strained credibility. Chandler was so frequently presumed gay that he could have been Jack Tripper, the faux-mosexual from the other show. And Matt LeBlanc played Joey like Somers but by way of Tony Danza. That probably would have made Courteney Cox the Joyce DeWitt of “Friends” — neutrally sane. For a few episodes at least, Cox, as Monica, seemed meant as the crux of the pack. Monica was Ross’ sister. Rachel was an old high school friend who became her roommate.
《老友记》本来很可能会成为《三人行》，后者的“情景”和“喜剧”配合得相当好。钱德勒经常被认为是同性恋，他很有可能成为杰克·特里珀（Jack Tripper），也就是《三人行》里那个假同性恋。马特·勒布朗（Matt LeBlanc）扮演的乔伊就像萨默斯，不过是以托尼·丹扎（Tony Danza）的方式。这可能会让柯特妮·考克斯（Courteney Cox）成为《老友记》里的乔伊斯·德威特（Joyce DeWitt）——中立而又理智。至少在几集里，考克斯扮演的莫妮卡似乎是一群人中的核心。莫妮卡是罗斯的妹妹。瑞秋是她高中时的老朋友，后来成了她的室友。
But halfway through Season 1, it was clear this boat had no captain, just a lot of oars. And the rowing Cox did has never received its due. She wasn’t as rubbery a funny person as Perry and Schwimmer or as radiant and tangy in her approach to comedy as Jennifer Aniston was as Rachel. She couldn’t physicalize sarcasm and shock with as much cursive and calculus as the other five. But athletic gumption launched Monica entirely beyond classification.
I mean, I guess her type was Type A. Monica made the most psychological sense, as a former fat person who’s holding onto whatever it took to shed the weight and keep it off. We can shake our heads now at the idea of the show’s laughing at her size through the fat suit Cox wears in flashbacks. These flashbacks also explain why she seemed to think everything was grist for competition, why winning and losing mattered so much to her, why control was so important. And Monica lost so much control, so much cool, so much coolness. Each actor managed to do a lot with intensity, but Cox made it a state of Monica’s mind.
People now ding “Friends” for all kinds of offenses — regarding homosexuality, mental health, race, interracial dating, ethnicity. （Here’s pregnant Rachel, exasperated by the surfeit of gift diapers at her shower: “What are we feeding this baby — Indian food?”） “Friends”-as-problematic disserves the show’s complex relationship to those issues. Sometimes it winked at them. Monica did a lot of winking, especially under a spell of casual blackness. Her cornrows and Chandler’s disdain for them were one thing. My favorite, though, is the time she comes down with a cold but refuses to give up on sex with Chandler. He’d rather not. She comes at him anyway, in a bathrobe as plush and scarlet as a Muppet, full of mucus and the R&B of Guy. “Are you saying,” she asks, thrusting her body at her man, “that you don’t wanna. Git. With.?This?” It’s peak Monica: addicted to victory, unlimitedly white.
There’s a way to watch “Friends” so that its very whiteness — and the associated entitlement — is the problem. That magical casting configuration probably couldn’t happen now without considerable umbrage — umbrage I’d understand. For a great while during “Friends”-mania, Eriq La Salle, of “ER,” was just about the biggest star on a smash-hit show who wasn’t white. “Friends” gave you white people who leave infants on city buses without consequence, who only rarely face a challenge to their permanent spot at Central Perk （for many years, a “reserved” card rested on the coffee table）. But I’m not sure this was the show to do the labor, to open those doors with the same alacrity.
有一种观看《老友记》的方式可以使它的白人性本身——以及与之相关的优待——成为问题所在。这部剧魔幻般的选角配置，要放在现在可能免不了得罪人——我能理解这种不满。在《老友记》风靡的年代，《急诊室的故事》（ER）里的艾瑞琪·拉·塞拉（Eriq La Salle）有很长一段时间基本上就是热门剧集里最大的非白人明星。《老友记》呈现给你的，是把婴儿落在公交车上也不会尝到苦果的白人，他们在中央乐园（Central Perk）咖啡馆的固定座位只是偶尔遇到挑战（咖啡桌上常年放着一张“留座”卡）。但我不太相信，费了那么多周折，以同样的轻快姿态一次又一次打开那扇门，就是为了这样一部剧。
“Friends” made most of its social bets on gender differences, the way men get away with being chauvinists and lust buckets and layabouts, and the women have to pick up the slack. But tweaking the stereotypes became a meaningful staple of the show. Once, the girls’ failure to know the boys as well as the boys knew them cost Monica and Rachel their apartment. To be fair: Do?you?know what Chandler does for a living? Nonetheless, their place suddenly belongs to Joey and Chandler. It remains a shocking turn of events. I watched the early years of this show with roommates in the dorm of a college where bad housing could ruin friendships. I wasn’t watching a comedy that night. I was watching a cautionary tale. The show knew our loyalties were with the women and that Monica might not survive making breakfast in a man cave. So it refused to shake the Etch A Sketch. She unleashes a scream of “no” fit for no sitcom. It belonged in “Hamlet.”
“Friends” left prime-time television in 2004, just as the culture began to distrust meaningful intergender adventure. Its offspring — “How I Met Your Mother,” “The Big Bang Theory” “The Mindy Project,” “New Girl,” the short-lived masterpiece of repartee “Happy Endings” — did their best. But “Sex and the City,” which hit HBO in 1998, and the movies that sprang from Judd Apatow’s laugh factory would so convincingly relocate the sexes into ladies’ nights and boys’ clubs that the culture never quite came to reinvest in the coed comforts of a Central Perk.
《老友记》是在2004年离开黄金时段的，当时正值文化开始不信任性别间能进行有意义的冒险。它的后代——《老爸老妈浪漫史》（How I Met Your Mother）、《生活大爆炸》（The Big Bang Theory）、《明迪烦事多》（The Mindy Project）和《杰茜驾到》（New Girl），及存在时间不长却妙语连篇的杰作《快乐结局》（Happy Endings）——都表现不俗。但1998年在HBO开播的《欲望都市》（Sex and the City），以及从贾德·阿帕托（Judd Apatow）的逗笑工厂里蹦出的一部部电影，已经令人信服地将男男女女重新安排到女士之夜和男孩俱乐部，以至于文化再也没有重新投入于中央乐园咖啡馆这样让男女一同得到抚慰的地方。
“Friends” wasn’t a fantasy during its original run. But I can see why so many people who weren’t alive the first time around have devoured the show on cable and streaming like it’s a tub of ice cream. （I know of a 10-year-old as “Friends” conversant as I am.） There are no sexual threats, just Monica, her robe and her cold; just a vengeful guest star, in Julia Roberts, stranding Chandler in a pair of her underwear as comeuppance for a preadolescent prank; just a last run of Rubik’s Cube hookups and occasionally vaguely funny lechery. Otherwise, the show was an oasis: adult women hanging out with adult men, with no monsters to fear, run from or prosecute. That could explain why droves of us are addicted to it. Sure, it’s excellent Easy TV — funnier, dirtier and more audacious than you heard it was, than you remember it being. But maybe, now, “Friends”?is?a fantasy. If you’re looking to restore some thereness to your life, maybe it’s more than must-see TV. Maybe it’s a clue.