Monday, May 24, 2010
Not the timeliest of posts: In defence of Friends
So, that Lost finale. Didn’t it make you think about Friends and how it was cleverer than it’s generally given credit for?
Just me then? Let me explain before you call me crazy.
I gave up on Lost sometime while watching the season one DVDs. Nothing against the show, just not my thing, and I was far too spoiled from casting news by the time I could catch up with it. But I know enough to know that it inspired some spectacularly clever thinking in fans who analyzed and followed its twists to an end that, by some accounts, paid off emotionally if not intellectually. I can’t and wouldn’t argue that Lost wasn’t clever, but some argue that the complex mythology equals an intelligent show. I could and would argue that Byzantine does not equal intelligent. The show’s themes were as big as you can get, though: the meaning of life and death and smoke monsters.
So that’s what got me thinking about how we evaluate whether a show is “smart” or not. That label is usually, unfortunately applied to failing shows as a way to justify why the masses aren’t watching: Arrested Development, The Wire. Because calling people stupid is a great way to get them to look favourably on your pet show. Both shows were great – The Wire arguably the greatest of them all. But saying a television show is too smart for the masses is like a guy saying he can’t get a date because he’s too nice. There’s always so much more to the explanation, and the excuse just reeks of the pathetic.
No one watches it though critics love it? Smart show. Big themes? Smart show. Educated protagonists? Smart show. Those indicators are actually pretty decent. But they’re not exclusive. And they lead to the fallacy that if a show is popular, focuses on the minutia of life, and has working-class protagonists, it's not smart.
I was never a big fan of Frasier, though given the endless reruns and my fondness for Niles’ should-have-been-futile pining for Daphne, I’ve probably seen nearly every episode. I thought Frasier was an arrogant, annoying gasbag. Some people thought that was his charm; I didn’t. A coworker once gave me permission not to like it by saying it was highbrow and so not to everyone’s taste. Sorry, but a joke about Freud where you don’t actually have to know anything about Freud other than what Niles thinks of him doesn’t make that joke too intelligent for popular consumption. Frasier was well-written, but there was nothing intellectually inaccessible about it. But it was about a highly educated, pretentious character with highbrow interests, so it’s safe to consider it intelligent.
Friends, on the other hand, was about six people who hung out in a coffee shop. Other than Ross and possibly Chandler – who the hell knew what he did anyway - none of them had jobs requiring higher education. Joey was really, really dumb (except sometimes when the joke depended on him being not quite so dumb). The plots often revolved around sitcomized familiar situations, like splitting the cheque in a group with disparate incomes, or what happens when a friend dates someone you don’t like, or revealing that your father is a drag queen. During its long, too long run, it was incredible the number of times I’d be talking to my actual friends and someone would say “remember that Friends episode where…” to explain something that happened in their real life.
It’s not cool to love Friends. It’s not smart to extol its intelligence. Yet its ability to craft a 22-minute character study that spoke to everyday life is an under-appreciated art. Jane Austen and Anne Tyler are often dismissed by those who can’t see depth in the quotidian. I say the same’s true of Friends, on a popular sitcom scale. It managed to be frequently laugh out loud funny – the real life kind, not the LOL internet kind – with cleverly constructed jokes on which Jane Espenson could base a joke-writing textbook.
I’m not at all saying Friends is more intelligent than Lost or Frasier. I am saying that our own intelligence is often blinded by the trappings of cleverness – complication, or highbrow name dropping, for example – and we often can’t see brilliance in simplicity. Friends was deceptively simple, deceptively clever. As sitcom after sitcom has proven since, that's not at all easy to duplicate.
Now you can call me crazy.