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Friends: Love it or loathe it?

Twenty-five years after it first screened Luke Rix-Standing asks if the iconic comedy show has stood the test of time

Take a bow: Matthew Perry (Chandler), Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe), David Schwimmer (Ross), Courteney Cox (Monica), Jennifer Aniston (Rachel), and Matt LeBlanc (Joey) on set
Take a bow: Matthew Perry (Chandler), Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe), David Schwimmer (Ross), Courteney Cox (Monica), Jennifer Aniston (Rachel), and Matt LeBlanc (Joey) on set

By Luke Rix-Standing

When Friends premiered in 1994, director James Burrows took the main cast to Las Vegas for a bonding trip. "This is your last shot at anonymity," he apparently told them, as they ate dinner at Caesars Palace. "When you guys go on air, you won't be able to go anywhere without being hounded."

In fact, initial reviews were actually a bit mixed. "Concept is okay," mused Variety, "but the dialogue is not exactly snappy."

"Who would want advice from these dysfunctional morons?" asked Time.

People Magazine gave the show a D+, but remarked that "the saving grace... is that the characters begin to grow on you".

And grow they did. Fast-forward a decade and a 30-second commercial during the US finale cost $1m, which, incidentally, was also what each main cast member was earning per episode.

To mark the 25th anniversary, we look at the comedy, characters and controversies that made Friends one of our most universal cultural touchstones.

The one where everybody loves Friends...

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In their original pitch to NBC, creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane promised "a show about sex, love, relationships, careers, a time in your life when anything's possible". In other words, pretty much everything.

Certainly, Friends was a broad church. It aimed at guys, girls, teens and parents; it doled out life lessons like they were fashion tips; it had humour without silliness, emotion without trauma; it was famously innocent and wholesome, yet still obsessed with sex.

Maintaining this balance was quite a feat. Friends is more lurid than you probably remember - from the free porn no one risks turning off, to Ross and Rachel watching their own sex tape - and as a mainstay of family-friendly fun it would be risque even now.

More than anything, it was relatable, and it helped that the main cast had more than a little in common with their characters. Jennifer Aniston's style, Courteney Cox's drive, the fact Matt LeBlanc turned up to his audition as a struggling actor-model with roughly $11 to his name - the central six reflected their roles from day one.

Matthew Perry was the most natural fit of all and many of Chandler's mannerisms grew from his own behaviour. Could that character be any more perfectly cast?

Of course, art did not always imitate life. Many will remember 'The Rachel', the ubiquitous long, layered bob that every woman with a scalp was rocking during the late-Nineties. Aniston called it "the ugliest haircut I've ever seen".

The one where everything turned out differently...

Somewhere in a parallel universe, there's a four-person show called Insomnia Cafe, starring Iron Man director Jon Favreau as Chandler, with REM's Shiny Happy People as its theme song.

The cutting room floor was littered with rejected titles, including Six Of One, Across The Hall, Friends Like Us, and Once Upon A Time In The West Village.

Cox had been earmarked for Rachel but preferred the "strong" Monica during readings, while the role of Phoebe was coveted by controversial comic Kathy Griffin and Glee superstar Jane Lynch.

The writers experimented with plot point after plot point, and correctly discarded many of them. How might fans have reacted if, as originally intended, Ross had impregnated his 20-year-old student-girlfriend Elizabeth at the beginning of season seven? And could the show have survived if lovelorn barista Gunther spent all 10 seasons as a non-speaking role?

A few stinkers squeezed through the net and the cast hated the short-lived Joey-Rachel romance just as much as you did.

The one where there's surprisingly little drama...

The very first line in the show is "there's nothing to tell", and, Joey-Rachel hatred aside, Friends' 10-year run was remarkably sedate.

Compared to Charlie Sheen's antics on the set of Two And A Half Men, Roseanne Barr's eviction from her own programme, and the backstage horrors of The Cosby Show, the Friends PR people must have spent hours waiting for controversies that never came.

The leads broke the actor's code by giving each other notes in the first week - led by Cox who'd recently appeared on Seinfeld - and quickly developed a team ethos. David Schwimmer convinced the main cast to negotiate collectively - as a sort of miniature union - and promptly wangled equal (massive) pay packets.

There must have been some problems of course, but the show cultivated a culture in which what happened backstage stayed backstage. Aniston was rumoured to have almost left before the final season, LeBlanc spent a decade hiding two drink-driving arrests and Schwimmer reportedly struggled with the fame.

Perhaps the worst struggles belong to Matthew Perry, who has previously talked about going through addiction issues and admitted he can barely remember seasons three to six.

The one with all the controversy...

Today, the show occupies a grey area of pop culture - old enough to feel dated, but young enough that people still think it ripe for criticism. When Friends hit streaming services in 2016, it gained a new generation of viewers and a small avalanche of millennial condemnation.

Ross is problematic enemy number one, struggling with his ex-wife's lesbianism, his son playing with dolls and the very concept of a male nanny. There's 'fat Monica', whose youthful struggle with obesity is repeatedly played for cheap laughs. Then, of course, there's Joey.

Perhaps most egregious of all is the character of Charles Bing - aka 'Helena Handbasket', star of Sin City show Viva Las Gaygas. The butt of joke after joke, in today's more trans-aware age, the part is a blatant misfire.

Online essays aplenty spell out the show's perceived transgressions, but fewer give Friends its dues for pushing the progressive envelope. Season two saw one of the first same-sex weddings aired on mainstream US TV. NBC braced themselves for thousands of complaints, but received just four.

The show also broke boundaries with its portrayal of female sexuality and the leads have casual sex with little ceremony.

In the pilot, Monica has a one-night stand with the devious 'Paul the Wine Guy'; executives tried to pull the character, fearing viewers would take against her loose morals.

"The person who was the head of NBC at the time felt that Monica got what she deserved for sleeping with a guy on the first date," said Kauffman. The creators stood their ground and the storyline stayed.

Every episode passes the Bechdel test several times over, and many observers feel that you should judge Friends by its intent. Even the show's fiercest critics would struggle to accuse it of malice.

More than anything, the backlash proves just how quickly society can change.

In a positive review of the show's premiere, the New York Times described Friends as 'pitch-perfect 1994'.

It may not dim your affection for the show, but pitch-perfect 2019 it is not.

Before you go though, let's just clear one thing up. They absolutely were on a break.

Watch Friends daily on Comedy Central. Friends: The Complete Series 1-10 is available now on Blu-ray and DVD

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