TCS Daily

That's What Friends Was For

By Ilya Shapiro - May 11, 2004 12:00 AM

During every election season, politicians make pains to appeal to the younger set. We are told to "Rock the Vote," to make our voices count, to care about the future so that the narcissistic Baby Boomers don't saddle us with overwhelming debt. These appeals usually come off as awkward parent-child lectures, with graying stuffed suits intoning about civic responsibility while trying to appear cool and hip, told by their handlers to ditch the tie and speak our language.

Of course, everyone knows that 18-20-somethings never vote, and that Generations Xers, in particular, are renowned slackers, too busy founding dot-coms and "hooking up" -- to reference Tom Wolfe's (accurate) collection of essays about our mating habits -- to care about social security or IMF bailouts. The coming of age of Generation Y, coinciding with 9/11, changed that somewhat, but those young people who actually get involved in politics must either be over-idealistic and ultimately misguided Deaniacs (or whichever Naderite, anti-globalization type you prefer not to take seriously) or the reaction to that traditionally progressive collegian of our parents' generation, the Hipublicans, as recently christened by the New York Times Magazine.

Well, I don't feel comfortable with any of these political ploys, perceptions, or characterizations. On the one hand, as someone who will be attending his fifth college reunion at the end of the month, I'm now entering the camp of the "old youngs" -- to reverse a turn of phrase coined by seniors' groups to describe the relatively spry among them -- and so am a little past that bifurcated age of apathy and activism. On the other, my friends and I are more concerned with establishing our now-chosen careers and fostering serious relationships than with hanging on every word of George Bush and John Kerry (though those of us who are political junkies do the latter anyway).

This is where Friends came in. Though the show ended last week, to tearful fanfare, it will live on in our memories -- and, more importantly, in syndication -- as an idealized gloss on that time in life when anything and everything is possible, when you have all the adult opportunities but none of the responsibilities, when friends are your closest family. Friends issued every Thursday the cri de coeur of every post-collegiate 20-something who tries to find his way in a big city while looking for (and also fearing) love and commitment.

Unlike so much pablum on network television, and unlike the nihilistic Seinfeld (literally, the "show about nothing") that previously occupied the eight o'clock slot on NBC's must-see-TV, Friends was neither banal nor neurotically navel-gazing. It was saccharine at times, but always with the appropriate modicum of comic relief to break the lack of tension -- and appeal to the male audience when Jennifer Aniston was off-camera.

More importantly, Friends had not one ounce of the politicized schlock that Hollywood inevitably injects even into solid shows like E.R. (or have you not noticed all the cracks about President Bush arising out of the Africa storyline?). Phoebe was a tree-hugging vegetarian hippie but she was disarmingly so, and the other friends treated her affectations in much the same way they treated Joey's dimness: as an endearing quirk, rather than a statement.

As a flip-side to West Wing's refreshingly overt liberalism, Friends had no bias to be overt about, so its writers could concentrate on Chandler's existential angst or the true-to-life on-again-off-againness of Ross and Rachel. I really appreciated that about the show, as it allowed for good, clean, vicarious escapism without the consternating political checks.

Moreover, despite being set exclusively in Manhattan, with the sort of "why would you ever leave the island?" attitude prevalent among Manhattanite yuppies, there was no apparent New York bias. Yes, Friends made fun of Oklahoma and Iowa and New Jersey when various characters were sent there, but that demonstrated more of a metropolitan than a nooyawker snobbishness -- and one that I admit I share to a certain extent despite currently residing in Mississippi.

In short, Friends saw my generation, and particularly those who more closely parallel the characters' ages, through a sometimes difficult but often exciting transition from wide-eyed world-is-your-oyster 22-year-old to mature wed-and-settled 32-year-old. That it did so while providing quality entertainment to viewers in 100 countries and 40 languages is a testament to the universality of at least some American values.

As I watched the cast take their bows on the Tonight Show, I couldn't help but think that Friends had no relation to or effect on my political ideology, but that it "spoke my language" and understood my quotidian concerns better than most politicians, activists, or NGOs. That may not mean that political actors ought to spend more time talking to their yuppie children, but it does prove that good writing (along with beautiful people) conquers all.

Ilya Shapiro, who last wrote for TCS on human rights abuses, will be moving to Washington this fall to establish his now-chosen career as a lawyer and part-time writer.


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