So, in the mid-1990s (which was twenty years ago—OMG! How did that happen? I feel like Rip Van Winkle!), I attended law school at night while working full-time during the day. As you can imagine, this did not leave much room for fun activities like sleeping or watching TV. I completely missed the first few years of Friends.
Thank goodness, Netflix gave me a little New Year’s gift. All ten seasons of Friends are available to stream, just in time for hibernation season. I mainlined the first two seasons (I’m right at the end of season two as I write this).
I do know, in broad general terms, how it all ends and the major plot points along the way. But, I’d never seen a single episode of the first season. And, as I watched, I considered all the writing lessons I could draw from it. Multi-tasking like a boss 🙂
1) Archetypes with a twist:
I haven’t figured this out yet for the girls but the boys are classic Kirk/Spock/Bones archetypes. Their traits are not as exaggerated as in Star Trek. Joey is a good-hearted womanizer (Kirk), Ross is a socially awkward scientist (Spock), and Chandler is the wise-cracking guy covering his vulnerability with humor (Bones).
It’s just like how Golden Girls and Sex and the City are the same show. I doubt Joey, Ross, and Chandler are going to boldly go anywhere other than Central Perk but the basic character types are the same. Understanding tropes well helps to create a set of characters. The trick, of course, is giving them your own unique spin.
Lesson learned: Base characters on archetypes but be sure to give them a unique spin.
Here’s the link to TV Tropes about the trio. But, I warn you, it’s a greater time sink than Tumblr and Facebook combined.
Even though the show focuses on a group of friends who’ve known each other for a while, it’s not immediately clear how these individuals know each other at all. In the pilot, we learn that Rachel and Monica were friends in grade and high school. Pretty quickly thereafter, we learn that Monica and Ross are siblings. We don’t find out until the second season that Chandler and Ross were college roommates. I still have no idea how Joey and Phoebe became part of the group, though I know that Phoebe was Monica’s prior roommate.
So far, it hasn’t been necessary to know any of that. So the writers haven’t shared. It helps to sustain interest on the part of the viewer.
Lesson learned: Only give backstory out when it’s essential to understanding the current story. Not before.
3) Character combos:
There are six main characters in the ensemble. It’s not uncommon to see Chandler and Joey together as well as Rachel and Monica. They are roommates so lots of scenes there. We see ensemble scenes frequently too. Now that Ross and Rachel are on (for the moment) we see scenes of them together often.
They also break along gender lines occasionally so we have a few scenes of the boys and some of the girls. One of the best is the one when Rachel tells Monica and Phoebe about her kiss with Ross while Ross bonds with the boys over pizza.
So far, two seasons in, it’s rare to see Ross and Joey have a scene on their own. Or Phoebe alone with Ross. One of the funniest scenes so far was Phoebe and Chandler having dual break-ups together in Central Perk but we don’t often see them either. The writers play with these combinations a great deal.
Lesson Learned: Use unusual character combinations to keep the story fresh and interesting.
Even if I didn’t watch the show on the first run, I’d have to have been living under a rock not to know about Ross/Rachel. I remember watching an episode with my friend (I think it was the season two one after Ross and Rachel’s first kiss) with my best friend and saying to her, “So Monica and Chandler are a couple?” It was not my ever-reliable ESP but rather that, even in the early seasons, Perry and Cox are usually positioned in camera shots together. The show runners claim that the early positioning was due to Cox and Perry’s on screen chemistry and they do have great comedic chemistry. Still, it’s difficult not to see it as foreshadowing. Perhaps the writers of Friends didn’t do it deliberately but, as a writing lesson learned, it’s hard not to see it as foreshadowing.
Lesson Learned: Figure out the end game first and then use foreshadowing to get you there.
I wondered if the show would feel dated. And it does a tiny bit. The fashion and the hairstyles are very unintentionally funny. (Did we all wear those high waisted stone washed jeans?) They are perpetually dashing into each other’s apartments to use cordless phones the size of bricks. And every time they show background shots of the twin towers I feel like I’m bleeding internally. But the situations and the relationships are timeless and relatable even twenty years later.
I can’t wait to see what happens next—hey, do you think Ross and Rachel will break up again?