Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Friendship according to Friends

I've finished watching the series Friends on Netflix. I quite enjoyed it. The characters are very sympathetic, and early on you develop an emotional attachment to them. Each one has his or her own idiosyncracies and quirks: Joey is a struggling soap opera actor who likes women and food but is not the sharpest tool in the shed; Rachel is a spoiled girl trying to make it on her own in the big city of New York; Ross is a professor of paleontology trying to advance his academic career as well as recover after his divorce from his first wife; and so on.


The show is most obviously about friendship. It is about the development of the friendship of these six characters in New York, as they grow and meet with life's struggles: death, romance, heartache, economic difficulties, personal problems, etc. What is interesting to me is the conception of friendship which the show's writers try to get across throughout the series.

To my mind, the writers of the show understand friendship like this: to be friends means to be committed to the happiness of each other, even at the expense of one's own desires and preferences. There are a few times throughout the series where one character has to sacrifice something very dear to him or her in order to see another character happy and fulfilled. Friendship, then, is a kind of non-egoistic commitment to be there for the other person.

Importantly, there is no sense in Friends that friendship is about moral encouragement and transformation. A number of the problems the characters have throughout the series are due to petty personal shortcomings and character flaws. For example, Ross's hot temper and quick mouth get him into all kinds of trouble, which he later has to rectify painfully. If he simply learned to keep his calm and to listen before he speaks, he would never have any of these problems. (Of course, in that case, there wouldn't be a show, either!) Yet none of the characters ever suggest to him that ought to be a better person, that he ought to have more self-control, that he ought to develop this particular virtue.

Likewise, Joey lives a rather meaningless life. He works as a soap opera actor, though he'd like to move ahead in his career. He can't because he is not that good of an actor, but none of his friends tell him this. He sleeps with many different women, but he never maintains a lasting, meaningful relationship with any of them. It's typically one date, not followed by a call-back. None of his friends, even after they get married and experience the unique joys and beauties of a committed relationship with one other person, ever suggest that he ought to change his ways.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that Friends is totally amoral. There is a unique morality of friendship, and the characters do their best to fulfill it. One important general virtue of friendship on this show is (we might call it) an attitude of hospitality, by which I mean accepting your friends into your life as they are. The protagonists of the show do not make efforts to change one another, or to refuse fellowship on the basis of their vices; they accept one another as they are, and work with each other as they can. They are there for each other and support each other's endeavors.

Moreover, forgiveness plays an important role in Friends. There is seemingly always the assumption that the group will forgive each other, whatever the crime may have been. It may be a difficult process, it may be that the forgiveness takes a long time, but in the end they end up back together. It would almost feel unnatural for them not to forgive each other, because they have such a rapport and such history with one another! The question is not if they forgive but when they forgive, and it inevitably happens.

The value of Friends, I think, is in entertainment. It is an eminently enjoyable show, and the characters are very sympathetic. It seems to me that this is more or less the conception of friendship that "millennials" have in our present times: commitment to the other person's happiness, within the broad bounds of popular morality.