Personal Voices: The End of an Era

I've watched maybe, ten hours of Friends, one for each year it was on the air, being generous, since I think it might have slipped in the cracks, like: Do commercials count? Surely the time I spent watching Friends commercials should amount to something. They should pay me: After all, I ceded a small part of my brainspace to Phoebe, and -- wait -- I know the rest of their names. At least I know them as people: Jennifer ("Hot Chick-Next-Door") Aniston, Matthew ("Rehab") Perry, David ("Why Doesn't He Have a Movie Career?") Schwimmer, Courtney ("Remember that Springsteen Video?") Cox-hyphen-whatever, and The Dumb Guy ("The Dumb Guy"). Phoebe, or Lisa Kudrow, seems adorably smart and scattered -- not that I know much about the character of Phoebe but I've heard Kudrow on NPR.

I watched the final episode of Friends from a hot tub on the roof of a hotel in Burbank. I just wanted to go to the hot tub, I swear. Went to dinner with a friend, bitched about how the end of Friends is eclipsing one of the defining moments in modern American democracy: the slow-motion implosion of America's legitimacy on the global and human-rights stage, quite possibly the end of an empire, because even Rome could not stand beset by enemies without and the slave revolts within, and should Rummy resign? And was the apology enough? It's enough to curdle your sushi (pass me the unagi....) -- or, wait, maybe it's the reverse. Maybe this media coverage of this whole torture-Iraqis thing was some evil rival-network attempt to take media attention away from the end of Friends. Like, CBS exposed the prison story and Friends is NBC. It's clear now! Those bastards!

But I digress.

After sushi we came back, we changed into bathing suits -- had checked the tub just minutes before, mind you, and it was empty -- and there are three guys camped out, two enjoying The End of an Era while basking in the embryonic warmth of the hot tub.

Yes, the hot tub had a television, and if I had a hot tub and a television together at my house (if I had a house) I would turn all wrinkly like a raisin in the water. Someone would have to get a pool guy to fish me out with an extra-large green net and deposit me on a pool lounger to dry.

When we climbed into the hot tub, Friends was on the twins thing. Another infertility plot. They're getting so common these days. It's like the Handmaiden's Tale, with working-class pregnant women -- played as stupid trailer trash -- acting as breeders for the impeccably well-qualified upper-middle-class main characters. And, yes, I'm thinking of Sex and the City -- Charlotte's near miss, with the family that just wanted a trip to New York. How cute! Do you think people like that really exist?

The entrance of the twins to the FriendSpace © was so old school, with the double-triple-takes, gags that go back, to what? The twenties? And I thought: my god, I am watching an actual sitcom, like, the things I avoid all 364 days of the year, but this is a leap year, and this is my lucky day.

But I digress. Again.

And why did Rachel have to get off the plane? Okay, I know, she loved him. And they were meant to be together. But the whole gag of the show -- or the payoff, whatever -- was that the Schwimmer character could be completely emotionally inarticulate, exhaustingly so, and still get the girl. Way to go y'all. Raise the bar. Keep doing what you're doing, guys, treating love like a game of poker, where the only sure way to lose is to show your cards.

But let's be real. Girls are pretty much as emotionally boxed-up as guys now, maybe it's what we have to do to get ahead, but God forbid someone actually lay their cards on the table -- like we say we want -- 'cause half of us would run screaming into the void.

Which leads us to: sitcoms -- which are all but emotionally irrelevant -- but they're the best shorthand we have for processing the modern rules of intimacy. We learn from these things. They're like pattern imprinting and recognition. And it starts so young -- hell, dump parenting. Let's just dub kids a DVD of all the shows they should emulate and let them pattern themselves thus.

Sitting in the hot tub, I expected to brace myself against the manipulation of my emotions. But I didn't have to. It fell flat. Literally flat. Visually two-dimensional. Contrast the palette of a show like Alias -- or even Survivor -- against Friends. Compared to the lush, real world filming of that fictional and "reality" show, the set of Friends looks like cardboard props for the middle school rendition of Our Town.

Maybe I'm biased. I lived in one of the buildings used as an exterior for Friends. It was adorable but tiny, and so cold in the winter that, for heat, I left the oven open and running so hot I worried about melting the dial. The whole apartment could have fit into one of the Friends bathrooms. I think this is New York by way of Minnesota (or Ohio or Arizona). That is: The interior sets of Friends were calibrated to what someone in that state thinks a New York apartment looks like, because they couldn't possibly be as small as they actually are, because that would be inhumane and make New Yorkers little more than lab rats. The interiors were so flat because FriendSPace © need not be a real or even real-simulacrum expression of an apartment. It was a blank slate against which we projected our rapidly antiquated notion of what America is (and New York is) like, and indulged in emotional myth-making that doesn't begin to reflect the complexity of life today.

I guess that's why people watch. But me, I was just there for the hot tub.

Farai Chideya is a multi-media journalist and the host of "It's Your Call" on San Francisco's KALW 91.7 FM/Information Radio.

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