With these famous lyrics, coupled with the iconic image of the fountain and the sofa, the Friends phenomenon was born. It went on to become one of the most popular sitcoms in history, captivating a global audience.
I was a bit late to the Friends party, having grown up in a household where sitcoms were regarded with mild disdain. By the time I started watching it, a few seasons in, it had become the stuff of sleepovers; episodes taped off T4 on to VHS (VHS!) and pocket money spent on second hand copies from charity shops. I mean, we even sang the theme song in my school choir (yep, we were that cool). Let’s be honest, who among us didn’t secretly join in the *clap clap clap clap* bit?
I still remember that Channel 4 chose to market the day of the last ever Friends episode as ‘Black Friday’. It just so happened to coincide with my last ever day of sixth form, and that evening we celebrated/commiserated as any normal teenagers would – with a party and a huge water fight. We watched, we drank, and there may have even been some tears. I still remember the lump in my throat on seeing that final shot of their keys on the table. I felt as though it was the end of an era, in more ways than one.
Twenty years on from its first episode, Friends hasn’t lost its magic. In our current age of hyper-connectedness, it seems strange to look back at a world that existed not long ago at all – a world without Facebook and Twitter and smartphones and knowing what everyone else is doing all the time. In an era where we have so many superficial connections at the click of a button, Friends is a reminder of what real relationships look like.
Perhaps this has always been the appeal of the show. Yes, we love the humour of it – the witty one-liners, the ridiculous storylines, the laugh-out-loud moments. But more than that, we love the connections between the characters: Chandler and Joey’s antics; Phoebe and Monica’s unlikely friendship; Ross and Rachel’s: ‘Will they, won’t they?’ It is, in a sense, a collection of coming of age stories with each character trying to make his or her way in the world. Despite the fairy tale of unrealistically large apartments and a disproportionate amount of time spent drinking coffee, the struggles they face are real: failed relationships, hurt feelings, dead-end jobs, absent parents and unrequited love. In the midst of this, they become each other’s family.
It’s an exclusive club, where outsiders are never really welcomed in. Yet it’s a club that we feel part of because we’ve come to know the characters as well as they do each other. We love and celebrate their idiosyncrasies, be it Chandler’s sarcasm, Monica’s neuroticism or Phoebe’s stupid songs. We are one of them.
Isn’t this, after all, the thing that we humans crave? Our deepest desire is to know and be known, to love and be loved. And to know that come hell or high water, at the end of the day we’ll have five friends waiting for us in that coffee shop, saying: “I’ll be there for you, ‘cos you’re there for me too”. This is Friends’ timeless and universal appeal: the power of belonging.