I love the show Friends. It’s my go-to, I-don’t-know-what-to-watch, put-it-on-in-the-background show. I know the characters better than I know most of the people I work with, and I could probably quote you all of Chandler’s best one-liners. It’s the show my roommate and I bonded over in college, it’s the show that I watch when I have too much on my mind to sleep. I love it deeply, but there’s one thing that bothers me to no end.
I can get past the fact that the character’s birthdays change every time they’re mentioned, and I can even get past the fact that the second season turned everyone into a caricature, but there’s one thing in the show I can’t get past, even as I watch it over and over: the characters are terrible at communicating. Like, so bad. Not only do they frequently just not say what they want to say, to the detriment of literally everyone involved, but they’re also all the worst liars in the world. For how often they do it, you think they’d be better at it.
This isn’t limited to Friends. Poor communication for the sake of conflict is a staple in a lot of other sitcoms, in contemporary young adult novels, in almost every rom-com ever made…the list could go on. I recently started watching Kim’s Convenience, which is arguably even worse than Friends in the bad liars department, and how any of the characters can still believe a single word the others say is beyond me.
Lying and poor communication as a trope is popular because it’s easy to write. No one likes being lied to or not told the whole story, ipso facto, it’s a relatable conflict. It also requires no character development whatsoever. Most interpersonal conflict requires flawed personalities at odds, which requires creating consistent, flawed people. Lying doesn’t require any such thing, because it’s simply a facet of human nature that fits into any archetypal character.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s responsible Monica, educated Ross, shallow Rachel, sarcastic Chandler, dumb Joey, or flighty Phoebe—separate them by their enneagram type, their Myers-Briggs type, their Hogwarts house, anything—they all lie constantly. About relationships, mistakes, desires, accidents, motivations—everything. And every single one of them lies badly enough that the others can reasonably find out the truth twenty minutes later. Stir in a few sarcastic comments and a guest star and you’ve got yourself an episode of Friends.
Other than being annoying in its predictability and shallowness, this trope bothers me for the morals it passes on to unsuspecting fans just looking for mindless entertainment. Of course I believe that people are smart enough to not consciously take moral guidance from a sitcom. But anything repeated enough has the potential to become familiar, and anything familiar has the potential to slip past the mental guardrails that would otherwise give us pause when encountering objectionable actions. For the same reasons that people argue against desensitization to violence, Friends and its tropey ilk can plant morally questionable ideals in susceptible minds.
Little white lies are fine because any damage they cause can be reversed in a three episode arc, max, to complete forgiveness and a laugh track.
Cutting each other down with witty zingers is the best way to show your friends you know and care for them.
No one will accept your real reason for doing things, so it’s best to tell people what you think they want to hear. Even if they find out you lied, it will make the truth more palatable.
None of this is original or exclusive to Friends, and to a point, it can be argued that art is simply imitating life. People lie, overthink, rib each other good naturedly. Always have, always will. I have to wonder, though, at what point in the cycle life begins imitating art again, pushing things just a little bit farther thanks to the absurd caricaturization of fiction, shifting our “normal” to include a few more lies, a few more mean-spirited comments. Perhaps it never does, and any uptick in acceptable stretched truth and attempted sarcasm is purely coincidental. Perhaps it’s not even an uptick at all but rather a simple shift of accessibility with the advent of social media. Maybe Friends has influenced no one and people are just as mean and dishonest as they’ve always been. Either way, I can’t imagine any scenario in which holding up deeply flawed relationships as the paragon of friendship as some people tend to do—even moving outside of Friends to other television shows and movies—is healthy.
These characters treat each other terribly and are arguably some of the most selfish human beings to grace popular television. They’re mean, lazy, thoughtless, irrational, spiteful, rude, and a whole host of other unpleasant qualities masquerading as humor and unfiltered humanity.
I will always love Friends, and I’m definitely not calling for a boycott of a widely beloved classic. It’s an enjoyable show. But it’s important to see these characters and every character like them for what they are: caricatures and lazy plotlines. They’re not friendship goals or relationship goals, and their character quirks in real life turn out to often be more harmful than endearing. These characters are entertainment and escapism, and while I can relate to Monica’s need for organization and Chandler’s approach to awkward situations, I hope to never act anything like them in real life. Most people don’t find little white lies nearly as amusing as a laugh track does.