The friendships of Friends are something of a marvel. Six vastly different people in their young adulthood with disparate wants, goals, professions, and relationships all closely orbit one another (and a single coffee shop). Whenever they need each other, there’s always someone available to help or comfort them. Whether it’s Monica letting Rachel move into her apartment at the series’ beginning, or Phoebe rushing Ross to the airport to try to win Rachel back at the series’ end, the tightly knit bonds of their lives are so interwoven that they experience all of their milestone moments together.
Monica, Rachel, Chandler, Ross, Phoebe, and Joey live together (sometimes literally) and love each other — and eventually find their happily-ever-afters with each other, too. But the cruel lie of Friends, which comes to HBO Max for a reunion special on May 27, and so many shows like it is that in real life, friendships often don’t operate like that at all.
Television and movies have long given us unrealistic expectations for romantic relationships. There are rarely any perfectly timed meet-cutes or mad dashes to the airport, and the chances of an ironic misunderstanding that lead you to the love of your life are slim to none. But less attention has been devoted to how television and movies shape our perception of friendships, too, in ways that don’t always reflect reality.
Modern adult friendships aren’t just challenging to create and maintain — some evidence suggests they are also in decline. Twenty-two percent of millennials in a 2019 YouGov poll said they had “no friends,” compared to 16 percent of Gen Xers and 9 percent of baby boomers. The reasons can be pinned on a variety of factors: Americans today lead increasingly busy lives, and as members of our friend groups grow into their careers and relationships, incomes and schedules start to vary. People move away for new jobs or to be closer to family. Distance and time become barriers in a way they weren’t when everyone was young, single, and devoted to their found families.
But you’d never know that from watching television. From Friends to Living Single to Grey’s Anatomy to New Girl, TV reinforces the fantasy that true friendships are and should be deeply close but require no real effort to maintain. It’s a stark difference from the way we know friendships operate in our own lives — as meaningful but sometimes fleeting relationships that can eventually dissolve because we have no language, script, or social expectation for how to seriously integrate friendships into our adult lives.
When Grey’s Anatomy’s Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) anointed Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) her “person,” she originally meant it literally — she’d put Meredith’s name down as her emergency contact for a planned abortion procedure. Still in its early seasons, the show had found a way to signify the depth of their budding platonic romance. Cristina didn’t need to say much; Meredith understood her intuitively and didn’t need to crack her friend wide open in order to support her. The scene was the basis of their decade-long relationship and the seed that planted a whole new lexicon for talking about female friendship. It was as swoon-worthy as any declaration of love because it was a declaration of love — just not the one we’d been conditioned to expect.
But Meredith and Cristina’s relationship was one crafted in a writers’ room. Real friendships are rife with conflict, separations, jealousies, and reconciliations. They are relationships like any other, stretching through their growing pains and sometimes snapping from the stress of ongoing tension. But none of that ever seems to make it to a television screen. As a result, we’re left idealizing relationships that wouldn’t happen outside the context of scripted television.
TV friendships, for example, rarely depict friendships that survive big life changes. In that world, jobs, families, and children are always given more value than the friendships its characters have been building for years. Have you ever noticed how many TV shows about friendship end with everyone leaving a central, grounding location? The Friends finale had the gang say goodbye to Monica’s (Courteney Cox) purple apartment, New Girl ended with a farewell to the loft, and Broad City saw Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) leave New York in favor of Colorado. Even workplace comedies such as The Office and Parks and Recreation end with their characters moving on from the jobs that brought them all together in the first place. In every one of these shows, the story ends as the characters move on not just with their lives but also with the very narrative premise that binds them.
And as an audience, we want closure when stories end. We spend years with characters and invest in their lives. It makes sense that our journey ends as they exit the phase of life in which we met them. But over time, this accumulation of choices has trained us to associate friendships with the spaces where they initially thrive. And we don’t have great models for how friendships should endure when they exist outside the realm of convenient proximity, despite the fact that in the real world, people’s locations and jobs are constantly changing: The average American adult moves 11.7 times and changes jobs around 12 times in their lifetimes. Millennials in particular are lonelier than they’ve ever been and have less time than ever to cultivate the kinds of deep, meaningful friendships we see depicted on television.
But the characters on these shows not only live and work together, they also date and marry each other and go through many major life events by one another’s sides. They often have no significant relationships outside of the designated group, and when they do, those people are either presented as a threat to the established collective or are eventually subsumed by it.
Workplace comedies are especially guilty of this. For shows such as The Office and The Mindy Project, professional and private boundaries quickly blur. In both Parks and Rec and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the main characters get married in the workplace itself because all of the people important to them are already there.
In contrast, for dramas like Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, and Being Mary Jane, the chief complaint becomes that the main characters have no friends at all, only colleagues they try to keep at arm’s length. Frustrating as that is — especially given that this narrative loneliness seems confined to Black female characters — in a way it’s almost a truer, more honest depiction of how friendships tend to operate in our modern, hyperconnected lives.
But for all of these shows, characters tend to begin or end at the point at which they are attached to the group. No one ever has a college friend who’s in town for the weekend or a family emergency that takes them back home for a week or two. In every way that matters, these characters are one another’s entire worlds. They rely on one another in times of crisis and triumph. They are each other’s support systems. And they value each other above all others.
The way television depicts friendship has progressed in some ways. Female friendships especially have shifted in the last decade in largely positive ways. We’ve come a long way from the sexist presumptions of catfighting in films such as Mean Girls to the wonderful, supportive vibrance evident in movies like Someone Great and Bridesmaids. And while the new visibility of friendship in media is a refreshing change from its usual focus on heterosexual romantic relationships, pop culture has sometimes swung too far in the other direction: Now, intensely romantic but platonic friendships must fulfill all the emotional needs that should rightfully be spread across multiple relationships.
Broad City is a classic example of a sincerely loving friendship that borders on toxic codependency. In the show’s final season, when Abbi announces her intention to move out of New York for good, Ilana (Ilana Glazer) has a full-blown meltdown. The show presents her tantrum as a testament to the depth of the women’s friendship — and it is. But it’s also a sign that the women cannot function without each other. As envious as their friendship is, it’s also all-consuming. Their very identities are challenged at the prospect of its potential dissolution or separation. But the show also makes clear that in their quest to be each other’s everything, they’ve neglected to become whole people of their own.
But perhaps more insidious than the portrayal of a too-close friendship is the lack of work their relationship seems to require. Disagreements and miscommunications between them are quickly resolved within the span of an episode or two, and very little time is allotted to working through the disloyalties, real or imagined, that have infected their friendship. Conflict resolution is unnecessary when your love for each other supersedes all.
Slowly but surely, television is catching up to this glaring emotional disparity. Shows such as Insecure are finally taking a hard look at what happens when a friend group fractures, and how deeply wounding it can be to fall out with the person who used to know you best. Issa and Molly’s “breakup” in Insecure’s most recent season resonated with audiences because it acknowledged that friendships — like all relationships — are work. It takes time and dedication to maintain them. The fallout felt real and hurtful, in part because there have been so few honest, realistic cultural scripts in media for how friendships should end.
The upcoming Friends reunion won’t undo the story choices that came before. The trailer suggests it will be rooted more in nostalgia than in advancing the storylines of what 17 years could (and likely would) do to a close group of friends. This reunion special, like so many others before it, will likely exist as a form of fan service: Perhaps what viewers really want, if we’re being honest, is for the friendship dynamics of our favorite TV characters to never really change or evolve as they do in our real lives. We want them to stay frozen in that inexplicably spacious purple apartment in ’90s New York City.
If only our own friendships could be so pat.
Cate Young is an award-winning writer and culture critic. Her work has appeared in Vulture, Glamour, Jezebel, NPR Music, and The Cut. She currently works as an audio producer in Los Angeles.