In the annals of television history, the impact of “Friends” is indelible, forever altering the landscape of sitcoms. A nostalgic journey to 1994 takes us back to the iconic fountain scene, marking the birth of a cultural phenomenon that, despite its enduring popularity, might be a relic of a bygone era. As TV and screenwriting professors in Emerson College’s Comedic Arts Program, we reflect on why the chances of witnessing another series with a comparable cultural impact seem increasingly unlikely.
1. Shorter Seasons, Less Screen Time
The bygone era of television, characterized by steadfast seasons that ran from September to May, allowed shows like “Friends” to flourish with an average of 24 episodes per season. In contrast, today’s landscape witnesses a significant shift towards shorter seasons. Even acclaimed sitcoms like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” receive orders for as few as 13 episodes.
The shift can be attributed to various factors, including actors’ reluctance to commit to extensive episode counts and changes in syndication dynamics. However, the consequence is clear – viewers have less time to deeply connect with characters and storylines. The once-cherished routine of tuning in weekly has been replaced by a more fleeting engagement, making it challenging for a new show to capture the audience’s sustained interest.
2. Fragmented Audiences
In 1994, when “Friends” premiered, there were only four major broadcast networks, ensuring that a hit show could attract a massive viewership. NBC’s Thursday night lineup, dubbed “Must See TV,” dominated with shows like “Friends,” “Mad About You,” and “Seinfeld.” The communal experience of watching these shows together became a cultural phenomenon.
Fast forward to 2019, and the landscape has transformed dramatically. With over 320 scripted shows airing across networks, cable, and streaming platforms in the first six months of the year, audiences are now spoiled for choice. The advent of cable and streaming has fractured viewership, allowing individuals to consume content at their own pace and on their terms. Achieving the widespread cultural impact of a show like “Friends” has become an arduous task in this expansive and diverse viewing environment.
3. Single-Cam Snobbery
The distinction between single-cam and multi-cam sitcoms has played a crucial role in the evolution of the genre. “Friends” and “The Big Bang Theory” thrived as multi-cam shows, filmed on a sound stage in front of a live studio audience. This format, enhanced by laugh tracks, created a communal viewing experience.
However, the emergence of single-cam sitcoms, such as “Girls” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” has reshaped the genre. These shows offer storytelling flexibility and visual intimacy that their multi-cam counterparts struggle to match. While the energy of a live studio audience provides immediacy to multi-cams, the nuanced storytelling of single-cams has gained favor in recent years.
In a notable shift, the Best Comedy Series category in 2019 featured only single-cam shows, signifying a broader industry preference for this style. This shift further distances the modern sitcom from the familiar and comforting format of “Friends.”
4. The Rise of the ‘Dramedy’ and the Anti-Hero
“Friends” creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman ushered in a new era of sitcoms with their innovative approach to storytelling. The density of storylines, coupled with an over-caffeinated pace, set “Friends” apart. However, the evolution did not stop there.
The advent of “dramedies” introduced darker themes and edgier storylines into the comedic realm. Shows like HBO’s “Girls” and Amazon Studio’s “Transparent” embraced a stark realism that appealed to viewers seeking more than traditional laugh-out-loud moments.
Simultaneously, the sitcom anti-hero emerged – characters like Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and Julia Louis Dreyfus’ Selina Meyer in “Veep” showcased a departure from the conventional likable protagonist. This shift in character dynamics challenges the viability of a glossy, rom-com fluff like “Friends” in the contemporary television landscape.
In conclusion, while the current TV ecosystem may not foster the emergence of another “Friends,” its enduring impact on the genre cannot be understated. “Friends” changed the game, setting a high bar for sitcoms that followed, even as the landscape evolved in ways its creators could not have predicted back in 1994. As we navigate the ever-changing world of television, we can’t help but marvel at the fountain where it all began – a testament to the timeless charm of Central Perk’s six friends.