‘Friends’ the quintessential 90s sitcom has landed on streaming service Netflix, prompting many fans to revisit the show for the first time in years. However many people are now wondering ‘how did they get away with that?’
The show is over twenty years old, and attitudes change. Viewers returning to the show have been shocked by the body shaming of ‘Fat Monica’, the homophobia of Ross when confronted by a male nanny. The casual abuse of good natured simpleton Phoebe, vicious abuse of Janice and lets face it were Joey real his acting career would be in tatters right now from all the harassment he has got up to.
Watching some of those scenes now is uncomfortable. The show at times seems to epitomise the line from L.P. Hartley’s ‘The Go-Between’ “The Past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”.
Part of the problem is that these issues were always there, the episode with the male nanny was criticised at the time, as was the body shaming and making light of eating disorders. In the isolation of his own spin off Joey became predatory and sad meaning the show was quickly axed.
Other sit coms from the time also seem slightly off now. The ‘Seinfeld’ episode ‘The Outing’ gave us the phrase “Not that there is anything wrong with that” when George and Jerry are mistakenly outed as gay. That episode still hold up but then there is ‘The Beard’ where Elaine goes to a wedding as the beard for a gay man, then tries to convert him. Although this seems as much about her inflated self image than anything else.
Talking of Eliane one episode sees her going on a date with a stand up comedian friend of Jerry’s. This ends abruptly when he exposes himself. It wasn’t exactly played for laughs but also in the current climate the normalising of this sort of thing back then does seem shocking.
‘Seinfeld’ also handled race issues, something that wasn’t a feature in ‘Friends’. Mostly with a base in Jewish humour, however in one episode Elaine thinks the man she is dating is black, he thinks she is hispanic. The whole thing now seems a lot more awkward than it did back then.
‘Fraiser’ has one episode where an openly gay character is under the impression Fraiser and the rest of his family are gay, the character is briefly recurring and the mixup seems like a mixup. No one is offended just embarrassed at them all making a mistake.
However in another episode Fraiser and his new boss argue and Fraiser declares he’s turned on and kisses her. Only she doesn’t succumb to his advances, he is escorted from the building by security and he and all his colleagues have to spend the weekend on a sexual harassment course. This is rather refreshingly realistic.
Of course this is where I point out how superior British sitcoms of the era were in this regard. Although I can’t really. Female characters in British sitcoms tend to be a little more dominant and less objectified. There is much less ‘Girlfriend of the week’ based stories and there were shows like ‘2 point 4 children’ where the lead characters are women, one of whom has a dim witted husband and two teenage kids.
As for LGBT issues for the most part in the 90s they were conspicuous by their absence. Aside from the Julian Clary vehicle ‘Terry and Julian’ and the wonderful ‘Gimme, Gimme Gimme’ gay characters were few and dar between. Although a lot of young male characters would pretend to be gay to get close to a girl they liked.
The first prime time British LGBT sit com ‘Rhona’ launched in 2000, eight years after ‘Terry and Julian’ and a year after ‘Gimme, Gimme, Gimme’ which occupied late night slots. It only lasted one series, the problem wasn’t having a gay lead character. Rather it was another attempt to make a British ‘Seinfeld’ and like all the other’s it failed because of that.
Satirical sit com ‘Drop the dead donkey’ did have a gay regular character, Helen, although she seemed to spend most of her time sleeping with male coworker Dave and regretting it.
‘Father Ted’ had the titular priest encounter a gay TV host, he delivered an Irishfied version of the line from ‘Seinfeld’ “Not that there is anything wrong with that type of thing.” Only to be immediately challenged that the church thought that there was indeed a lot wrong with that type of thing. Ted once again proved that his knowledge of religion and the workings of the Catholic Church come a very distant second to his knowledge of the novels of William Shatner and giving money a good long rest.
Ted also inadvertently upset Craggy Island’s Chinese community in the episode ‘Are you right there, Father Ted?’ but this episode is so well observed and well written that it is anything but awkward. Even today you can see people desperately trying to clear their name after saying or doing something inappropriate and making as big a mess of it as Ted, Kevin Spacey springs to mind.
The thing is you can probably find fault with almost any sit com, somewhere. When watching shows from the 90s you have to remember that although it doesn’t seem that long ago, it is. ‘Seinfeld’ featured a scene where Jerry talks about how dated ‘I Love Lucy’ is. We are as far from ‘Seinfeld’ today as Jerry was from ‘…Lucy’ back then. It’s okay to love the shows from the 90s, even if at times they make you cringe rather than laugh.