F.R.I.E.N.D.S TV show: Does the world that we see on the screen exist anywhere in reality?

F.R.I.E.N.D.S series as a tool of cultural colonization

A 90's TV series that has entered the hearts of millions, and more than a decade after its finale, comes back with another wave of millions of spectators who know every incident, scene and plotline by heart; reciting the lines along with the characters as if they're holding the script, and playing the episodes on repeat in times of both happiness and bitterness. The characters of the series deal with life situations that a "common” person deals with, spontaneously, idiotically, without former experience, and the series tells the tale of six friends who live in apartments in the Manhattan district of New York City, struggling to advance in their various fields, going through emotional experiences and failed relationships in their pursuit of love, suffering from family problems and relatives' implications, all the while learning the values of friendship through life and the good and bad it brings to them.

According to Forbes magazine, the series reached 25 million viewers each night, grossing 1.4 million USD for the actors and producers, and billions more for the production company so far. Throughout the past few years, another wave of its trend splashed social media in the whole world, reaching even Arabian countries. What is the reason behind this unparalleled success, then? What secret lies behind the global popularity of this series? How real is the life we see on the screen, and what psychological and cultural impact does it have on the current youth?

Simulation of an un-reachable social life

"What attracts you most to the series on the personal aspect, and what is the reason behind its sweeping success?” was a question I asked to a number of my friends, and the answer I received in turn was united: the series offers us a social environment that we cannot attain, and as a generation that has lives most of its life on social media, we cannot be like these characters that we love in reality.

  • "most of the posts or comments on fan groups say: I wish I had friends like them, or I don't even have companions and those are my friends, or for example, when I see someone in university wearing a "Friends' shirt, I wish I could talk to them or befriend them”, says a Syrian girl.
  • "I think the reason behind its huge popularity in the past few years is that our familial conditions have become very miserable; the series gives us a family atmosphere without a family. It gives you hope that a family does not have to necessarily consist of parents or relatives, and is not the only familiar atmosphere”, says a Palestinian.
  • "I watch it because it reminds me of childhood, because we used to watch it when we were kids. It shows us all the situations in a friendship, and I loved how they never give each other up. And aside from that, it helped me learn English vocabulary which is a very good thing”, says a girl from Jerusalem.

The series simulates the natural social needs that a human longs for, and its sweeping success, despite the fact that all its viewers come together in a united familiar atmosphere in their down or dull periods of life, yet it is a reflection of the negative side of virtual communication… and an indicator of problems of much deeper dimensions.

An outlet for a suppressed generation

One of the constant themes in the series, as in life, is the search for love affairs and emotional experiences. The characters constantly make new acquaintances through work, social occasions, friends and so on, through which they experience love, sex, and realistic relationships, both the steady and turbulent types, which could possibly happen in the spectator's life.

If we are considering the society watching this televised sensual simulation to be an individualist society, in which one has the freedom of sexual and emotional experimentation, then the events he is watching dictate his expectations from real life. And while it seems decent for that to be the case, since these events are realistic and are drawn from reality, yet it dictates the same expectations and experiences to millions of viewers, blurring the line between the real and the made-up; did reality inspire the series, or has the series become the one inspiring the actions of society?

A whole different supposition arises if we are considering the millions of other viewers living in a community of solid and complex social structure, which is that this virtual reality created by the series constitutes an emotional outlet for its viewers who cannot experience these scenarios in reality, and are incapable of even trying to imitate them in such a society. In the context of everyone in that society spectates these emotional or sexual experiences, this indirect communication between them becomes a coded language through which to speak of "unspeakable” things with the other gender; a luxury that a community sieged by borders and eyes cannot reject.

Does the world that we see on the screen exist anywhere in reality?

The series presents to us a coherent group of friends who share life and all its costs as a single united family unit, similar to a small Eastern society in the largest commercial city in the world, in the center of the global market. Each of them begins his or her twenties in a humble or miserable job, and works very hard until the opportunity of a lifetime arrives. The somehow, a waitress reaches the highest positions of the fashion industry, a lousy actor is casted in a globally known soap opera, and a chef ends up with her own restaurant… in other words, living the American dream. And even though the series portrays a horrible side of the American society and grand cities (shown only in a comedic context), which could have prevented us from calling it a portrayal of a capitalist Utopia, if it wasn't for the fact that this horrible side is in face part of capitalism's Utopia.

The lifestyle that the series portrays is presented to us as the only possible social order, even if this wasn't the initial intention. And the level of popularity it reached indicates to us that this lifestyle has become the wish of a large part of the world, if not all of it, and any other lifestyle is not possible… or even worse, does not exist in cognitive reckoning; the new generation does not expect that there is a different lifestyle in existence, and this step, once reached, is irreversible.

What does this mean for the youth generation?

What follows is that this series has become a symbol for the utmost level that one can get to in our time: a job, an apartment in the city, successive relationships, and a few loyal friends. Yet even the portrait of friendship painted to us by the series contradicts the system in which one must put himself before others, as the values that the series promotes even in its title cannot realistically overpower personal interests in a realistic, untheatrical context. In other words, a group similar to that in the series does not exist in the reality of commercial societies, and the series takes the two positive halves of each form of society to create its own Utopia.

Despite that, the image of the series haunts the minds of millions who dream of travelling to those societies or creating a similar atmosphere in their own, and in both cases, it is an attempt that can only give them half of what they dream of, as the other half is always somewhere else. The existence of this image in the minds of the audience creates a constant deficiency inside themselves, and constant hope, someday, in some Utopia. The broadcasted experience replaces the real one, and the simulation continues as age passes by; young people don't talk to each other in reality, and dream of a social life in front of a television. And yet our conclusion is not to condemn the youth, for it is colonization which branches out to cultural colonization through screens that imposes suppression on outsider nations, and brainwashes colonized nations with the aim that they would continue to provide their energy and capacities to colonial and neo-colonial efforts. To geographical colonization that deprives nations from freedom of travel to different societies, tying them with its bureaucracy to their own sieged and targeted societies, as political colonization pollutes these societies so that they become an image of the colonizing society…

"The establishment doesn't want us having sex because they know it makes us feel good, right? If we can feel good on our own, what do we need the establishment for?”,
says another TV series, and all are nothing but nicer faces of military colonization on real ground.

Despite the fact that the series itself did not intend all of these implications, yet what it has become is a wide-range propaganda tool used to seduce millions into dominant countries and a globalized lifestyle. But as long as we are aware of that, then there is no harm in enjoying watching one of the masterpieces of modern television… "F.R.I.E.N.D.S”, the series we all love.

(Originally written in Arabic)

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Author`s name Athar Barghouthi