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Shallow sitcom stereotypes: How shows influence expectations

Sitcoms are an art form that hasn’t been tapped into its full potential. 

One sitcom that really came up short of that potential is NBC’s syndicated “Friends,” which launched the career of Jennifer Aniston, and to a lesser extent, the other five members of its cast, who have not made enough of a mark for me to name. 

It’s one of the most watched shows on Netflix, though that will change once it’s ripped from the platform in a couple months. Young people everywhere, and many students here at Rutgers, still watch the '90s hit as if it aired yesterday. 

There are numerous issues with “Friends,” and many have been elsewhere written. Other writers mention that the characters are problematic as human beings, but I’ll stray away from that argument. Sitcom characters aren’t meant to be the pinnacle of the human spirit, something “Seinfeld” touched on in its offensively bad finale, in which the main characters find themselves in the clink for their terrible behavior. 

The issue with “Friends” lies in its absurd and narrow portrayal of young adult life. Sitcoms are meant to be relatable to an extent, with jokes the audience can chuckle at due to their universal, minute nature. “Friends” fails at this. 

First, the characters live in apartments that the show’s producers couldn’t afford in real life. There’s no real explanation for this, and none of the characters are shown as particularly wealthy aside from Chandler. Rachel doesn’t have a stable job until season three, Monica bounces between several cheffing jobs, Phoebe works as a masseuse with no stability and Joey is largely unemployed, leaching off of poor Chandler for the majority of the show’s run. 

These characters also stumble into success with no real merit. How Joey, with his acting skills shown as pitiful on numerous occasions, managed to star in a television show and blockbuster film is unexplained. Rachel somehow ends up as an executive at Ralph Lauren, explained only by her love for fashion. 

Personally, I love football, and I’m still awaiting my phone call from the New York Jets. 

The group of friends portrayed in this show is also wildly unrealistic. It sure did work out well for the heroes of “Friends” that the group is half male and half female. Chandler and Ross, college roommates, somehow have retained their friendship through the years, and the same can be said for Monica and Rachel, who were high school friends. Justifying Joey and Phoebe meshing with the rest of the group is beyond my cognitive ability. 

I’m very aware that this is fiction, where the walls of realism can be bent, particularly for a sitcom. So why am I whining? 

Because this is damaging. 

There’s a lot of talk nowadays of social media, and how it damages mental health by placating social pressure on people. Experts on the issue speak of how social media is essentially a person’s “highlight reel,” a digital platform espousing how great their life is. People see others’ highlights and feel insecure that their life doesn’t measure up. 

“Friends” did the same thing, a decade staggered from the rise of widespread digital Darwinism. Young people struggling to make rent, struggling in dating and struggling generally watch this show, and realize how easy-breezy the lives of these “relatable” characters are. It makes people feel inadequate. It makes people insecure. 

There is a term for this: “affluent normalcy.” Sitcoms in general are supposed to show a slightly up-ticked, peppier form of real life, something for viewers to envy and relate to at the same time. 

Affluent normalcy may be contributing to the entitlement we see nowadays, not just from the oft-maligned millennials, but also from everyone. These “relatable” shows set the bar too high, and people feel as if their life should go as swimmingly as some made up characters. 

Among other problems, the show also has a narrow scope. The characters are prototypical upper-middle class white people, depicting a very specific lifestyle and normalizing it, which is, and forgive my shoddy terminology, psychological gentrification. 

Also, the show is just bad. I admit that the first two-and-a-half seasons are high-tier comfort food television, with a few funny wisecracks. After that, the show is aggressively not funny, and the characters become blithering caricatures intended to amuse the lowest common denominator.

It’s best to be wary of what you expose yourself to. I suggest you don’t expose yourself to “Friends.”

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