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How to make ‘Friends’ and influence people

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Here in 2018, the television entertainment options presented to us are truly staggering. Between broadcast networks, cable channels and an ever-increasing number of streaming services, it feels as though there are nigh-infinite options for new content.

And yet, for many of us, the choice is to look back. Whether it is a nostalgia trip or a youthful discovery of a show from before our time, we use the Netflixes and Hulus of the world to watch what was beloved a generation ago.

We watch “Friends.”

Why does this sitcom about six, well … friends living in New York City from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s still resonate? Why is it still among the most watched programs in both streaming AND syndication, even well over a decade after the final new episode aired?

That’s the central question behind Kelsey Miller’s excellent retrospective “I’ll Be There for You: The One about Friends” (Hanover Square Press, $26.99). This thorough and thoughtful book goes deep on the beloved show, exploring the behind-the-scenes making of the show as well as the broader pop cultural impact it had during its decade-long run.

Obviously, “Friends” is remembered as significant, one of the most popular shows of its era. But when Marta Kauffman and David Crane first created the show, it was a far cry from a guaranteed success. There were plenty of obstacles there right from the beginning. Would they be able to assemble the right ensemble? Would the network allow them to do it the way they wanted to do it? Would people really watch a show that was just half-a-dozen people living their lives?

It turns out that the answer to all three questions was – eventually – “yes.” And thus, the phenomenon that was “Friends” was born. No one – not Kauffman and Crane, not NBC and certainly not the young largely-unknown cast – could have anticipated what would happen.

Within a few short months, “Friends” was everywhere. A legitimate mania had set in, a cultural fascination with the show and its stars that vaulted everyone involved to staggering heights of fame and fortune.

Much of its success came from the simple fact that so many viewers were able to see pieces of themselves in the characters on screen. Everyone had a group of friends that shared qualities with the gang at Central Perk. Social circles everywhere were doling out their designations – groups all had their own Rosses and Rachels, their Chandlers and Monicas, their Joeys and Phoebes.

Along the way, “Friends” trends sprang up. Who can forget that summer when it seemed like half the population had gotten Rachel’s haircut? And it’s hard to remember now, considering their ubiquity, but coffee shops weren’t really much of a thing back then.

“I’ll Be There for You” delves into some of the most memorable moments in the series, as well as into the groundbreaking ensemble negotiations that helped change TV contracts. The book also takes care to address some of the more dated (and more problematic) aspects of the show and how they are perceived with culturally sensitive hindsight.

While it might be presumptuous to refer to a work like this one as definitive … if the shoe fits. Miller has given us a tremendously detailed look back at one of the most beloved sitcoms of a generation, one of the most popular shows during an era that has to be considered the peak of the broadcast sitcom. The timeline of the production itself is exquisitely rendered, with each season receiving attention. Each Friend is given ample page time – every actor’s relationships with the show and with each other are explored.

But what really makes this book shine as a piece of pop history is the way that it folds the “Friends” phenomenon into the larger context. This show was very much a product of its era; Miller does a fantastic job in examining that fact. And by connecting the show’s vast past popularity with today’s still-significant viewer base, she offers a look at the universality of the show that can’t be defined by haircuts or pop songs.

Full disclosure: I still watch “Friends” from time to time. I watched it regularly in its heyday and will still tune in for at least a little while if I come across it while flipping through the channels. It is TV comfort food, one of those rare shows that both evokes nostalgia and entertains on its own merits.

“I’ll Be There for You: The One about Friends” is aimed at people like me, to be sure, people with fond memories of the show. But it’s not aimed JUST at me. There are plenty of younger people – more every day, in fact – that genuinely connect with the show despite being toddlers when it first left the airwaves.

Everyone has friends … and everyone has “Friends.” It’s that truth that Kelsey Miller captures. And it’s that truth that makes this book such an engaging, entertaining piece of pop culture history.

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