As the sitcom reaches its 25th anniversary, TV Hunter looks back on what the show meant to him and a generation.
The first television DVD box set I bought was the second season of “Friends” and I remember the day vividly.
It was September 2002 and all I wanted was to own every movie in history on DVD - a materialistic ambition I now see was futile.
My mom and I were walking past the generically named video store of the month in my hometown’s now-defunct mall and I noticed it on the new release shelf. It was a bright red, tightly packaged block of cardboard and discs that cost $69.95. I had to have it, even if my mom needed some convincing.
To this day, I don’t think my dad knows how much we paid for it, the kind of secret between a boy and his mom that keeps the peace in the household. (We have a similar agreement about the “Harry Potter” Lego set I bought.)
To say this was a major moment for me would be an understatement.
I was only 3 when “Friends” premiered on Sept. 22, 1994 - a quarter century ago this Sunday. But as soon as I could understand what was happening, I was obsessed.
By then, it was already a must-see fixture of America’s Thursday night that would straddle one century coming to a close and another in its infancy.
But when I finally had that entire season of episodes in my hands, I was no longer just watching with the rest of the country. I was also able to re-devour each episode insatiably. I studied them and memorized them.
In many respects, those late nights spent with Monica, Rachel, Phoebe, Chandler, Joey and Ross were what first taught me how to appreciate, analyze, understand and crave more from TV - for better or worse. I realize this makes me the most basic 90s kid, but so be it.
Within a few weeks, I’d mowed enough lawns and begged for enough advances on my allowance to go back and afford the first season on DVD - and as they say, the rest was history.
Before you think it, yes, I know the criticisms of “Friends” today. That it was a white-washed, completely unrealistic depiction of life in New York City. That it bred an entire generation of entitled millennials who believed they deserved a massive rent-controlled apartment like Monica’s and a vaguely successful career like Chandler’s. Ask some people and they’ll even tell you the show just wasn’t funny.
But to me, it was my gateway into what has become my favorite thing in the world - television.
I’m not denying any of the criticisms, except the preposterous unfunny claim. The show absolutely should have been more diverse and a little more mindful of its real-world logistics.
But I also can’t deny that it was a formative show for me and 25 years after it premiered, it too often feels like you have to justify why you were/are a fan of “Friends.”
For me, the show was always my retreat away from what were some incredibly isolating and rough childhood years. I think deep down my mom knew I needed that trap door to another world when mine got too overwhelming, and that’s why she supported my “Friends” addiction.
It was a joyous show about friendship through thick and thin that, yes, lived in a bit of a blind world of privilege that led to some harsh realities for us millennials when we reached our own 20-something years.
Despite that, there was something comforting about the finite world in which “Friends” existed. A few apartments, an unassuming coffee shop and the occasional venture out to an ATM vestibule or London wedding. It’s small footprint was believably accessible from afar. It felt familiar and attainable, even if its legitimacy doesn’t hold up when you start pulling on its threads.
Maybe that’s why I never took to “Seinfeld,” a show famously about nothing that stars notoriously bad people living very much in the real world. Sure, it was more honest in its portrayal of adulthood, but I had enough negativity swirling around me as a gay kid in North Carolina. I didn’t need more of it in my TV too.
As cheesy as it sounds, “Friends” offered a group of mostly likable people (save for Ross, who is still the worst) who I never had to feel nervous around. They were the friends I wanted and needed, and for 22 minutes plus commercials, I had them.
I was smart enough not to view the world through the narrow “Friends” keyhole, and I certainly grew up to know TV could be bigger (and often better) outside Central Perk.
But - and I know plenty of people will roll their eyes at this - I am a proud member of a generation of TV disciples born from their experience growing up with “Friends.” On occasion, some of us will still even fall asleep to it on Nick at Nite or Netflix (for now).
More importantly, I think we all took something from it.
For me, it was that I knew these characters and this happy place of mine would always be there for me when I needed them - even after I watched my DVD box sets into an early retirement.
Reporter Hunter Ingram can be reached at Hunter.Ingram@StarNewsOnline.com. Hunter is a member of the Television Critics Association.