Long-running situation comedies become long-running situation comedies by inviting TV viewers into an appealing world where they can feel welcome: the home of a loving, functional family (The Brady Bunch, Family Ties, Full House), a workplace that employs lovable misfits (Mary Tyler Moore, Night Court, Murphy Brown), etc. Cheers asks you to inhabit a world where everybody knows your name. We feel welcome there. In many ways, our virtual interaction with fictional TV characters could take the place of real-life relationships. It's easier, and in some ways, more gratifying.
If this is true, it helps to explain the staggering success of NBC's Thursday night monster, the shrewdly titled Friends. The producers wrestled with several other names for the program (e.g. Across The Hall, Insomnia Cafe, Six of One) before settling on a one-syllable, iconographic label that could attract the correct audience. What is appealing about Friends? The friendships portrayed therein. These are six attractive, devoted people who will drop everything to offer moral support. The infinitely catchy theme song actually underlines the theme of the show: "I'll be there for you." They cope with problems by starting a round table discussion. It's rare that one of the friends will be absent for such an event. All six remain completely informed about each other's lives and each one is absolutely essential to the well-being of the group. What a world! What a crock!
Let's face it. A circle of friends like this is one in a million, if one truly exists in the real world. We could look at Friends as a self-conscious creation of the ideal situation, the way that Mad About You has become the Gospel of Newlywed Behavior. Is that why Friends has spoken so emphatically to a generation? Because they want to learn how to live like Chandler, Rachel, Ross and company? I don't think so. I think that most viewers are drawn to this show because they prefer a half-hour visit into this world each week to the hard work and dedication that would be required to maintain a circle of friends to this degree.
I've seen college dorm rooms become quietly social for a half-hour on Thursday nights as roommates watch the TV shenanigans before heading out to the computer lab to play Doom. Many twentysomething fans that I have known will refuse interaction with real people and stay home to watch Phoebe give Monica a haircut, or whatever craziness is scheduled that week. Does this viewing behavior encourage intimate connections between two people, much less six? Of course not. I could even suggest that allowing yourself into this world might sublimate the urge to find such loving confidantes. Maybe so, maybe not.
Does this mean that Friends is dangerous? Not really. It's not such a bad show. There's a real chemistry between the actors, and the one-liners are often bitingly funny. It's not the best show on TV, and probably doesn't deserve its huge commercial success, but it's mostly harmless. Viewers should keep in mind that Norm and Cliff don't know your name. These television experiences should not replace a quest for real intimacy. They're not your friends.