18 June 2021

I'll Be There for You by Kelsey Miller

I like Friends the way everyone likes Friends. I'm not a die hard, owns-several-t-shirts type of fan but I know most of the episodes, references, etc. and won't change the channel on a rerun. I got this book for Christmas and figured with the announcement of the reunion that recently aired that now would be a great time to dig in. 

This book is deep-dive into Friends part in our culture. It covers the history of how the show came to be, including each individual actor and their casting stories. It discusses how the show progressed and became incredibly famous across a changing network TV landscape and across diverse demographics. It talks about behind the scenes drama in the writers' room, jokes that never made the series, how the show survived global tragedies and the actors' progressing careers, etc. It also spoke a lot about the way the cast negotiated their contracts as a team which was a first for network TV. It's fully loaded, Miller doesn't leave any stone unturned.

Kelsey Miller

Miller is totally underrated as a nonfiction writer. As I was reading her writing, continued to remind me of someone and it didn't click until she mentioned him herself- Chuck Klosterman. While she doesn't quite have his comedic tone, her straightforward style and attention to detail really reflect his work in my opinion. Like Klosterman, I feel like I could read Miller's writing on just about any topic and remain interested. It's crazy this is only her second novel (her first is about her journey away from diet culture). I hope she has more to come.

One of the biggest changes in media, in my life, is this shift towards taking television as seriously as we take it now... Television was what you watched when there was nothing else to do." - Chuck Klosterman

Here's the disorganized list of "fun facts" I learned that I kept on my phone while reading this:

  1. David Schwimmer is the only cast member the writers actually wrote a character around. The others were all written then openly casted.
  2. Matthew Perry went to school with Justin Trudeau when his mother was Press Secretary for Pierre Trudeau. Miller calls Justin a "beloved political dreamboat" which I found funny from an American author.
  3. Pheobe was made a twin because her Lisa Kudrow was already playing Ursula in Mad About You and they couldn't figure out how to make viewers marry the idea that she could be Ursula and Pheobe in two hit sitcoms at once.
  4. Cox was originally brought on to play Rachel but asked to read for Monica after reading the scripts.
  5. Aniston and Cox ate lunch at the set cafeteria almost everyday together and ordered a cobb salad with chickpeas and turkey (these are the details I read these books for).
  6. The episode where Chandler and Monica leave for their honeymoon and compete with another couple for newlywed perks was a complete re-shoot because the episode was already filmed with a different storyline - Chandler makes an inappropriate bomb joke at the airport and the two are detained- but 9/11 happened before it went to air and naturally, it couldn't air afterwards.
  7. The 9th season came down to a 6-way vote by the cast members and none of them have revealed ever who voted for what. The cast made 1 million dollars per episode each at that time, a salary LeBlanc called "fuck you money".
  8. The cast got to have their families and friends in the live audience for the last episode and they barely got it filmed on time because everyone kept crying. 

The biggest strength of this book is the way Miller sets the show in a context. The show aired for 10 seasons across a number of social and political landscape changes. It gets criticism today for its handling of racial and LGBTQ subjects, even religion, but it was a comedic masterpiece in its own context, and it served a purpose for everyone at different periods of time. Miller talks about how while yes, there were an incredible amount of homophobic jokes, Friends was also the first network TV show to air a lesbian wedding (albeit, not the ceremonial kiss), etc. and was even considered progressive on some fronts.

Viewers no longer craved the full-blown fantasy of '80s television, nor did they want thinky dramas like My So-Called Life (those were a little too real). They wanted comedy, but not absurdity. They wanted characters whose lives they could relate to and whose clothes they could covet (but also conceivably find at a mall). Gone was Dynasty's Alexis Carrington, with her fur dressing gown and her forty-eight-room mansion, and in came Monica Geller, with her GAP cardigan and her two-bedroom, rent-controlled apartment. Unrealistic? Yes. But not impossible."

Would a show about six white, skinny, straight adults get put on TV now? Likely not. Would the trans community today be gutted at the handling of Chandler's dad? Absolutely. But as Miller said, 'transphobic' wasn't even a concept at the time. That's not to say it shouldn't have been, but these just weren't topics on anybody's radar in the mid-90's, just as I'm sure the shows we hold beloved today won't hold up to critical standards say ten years from now. We evolve and get better, we progress. It's hard to judge art out of the context it was created in, and Miller does a great job of not defending the show, but placing it carefully in pop culture history. 

a still from s4e3 "The One with the Embryos" which Miller regards as one of the show's best episodes of all time (the girls lose their apartment in a trivia game and have to switch with Joey and Chandler)

So much research and so many interviews went into making this book such a detailed, objective, and informational read, but my one complaint is that it wasn't written by one of the cast members themselves. I know that's a totally unrealistic expectation but I just want the first person experience always. Even if one of the cast members did write a memoir, it still wouldn't be this book exclusively on Friends, which is what I want. 

This series has come to represent everything beloved from the good old days- all kinds of good old days: the heady 1990s, the world before 9/11, the years before smartphones took over our lives. To some, it is a reminder of their youth, and their own friendship-families. To younger generations watching it now, it is a throwback to a simpler time, and all that that implies."

The Friends reunion special recently came out on Crave and I have to say, the longer I sit with it the more I hate it. I felt like they all looked awful (someone said melting wax figures and I can't let it go), and the whole thing felt awkward after they premised the show by saying the group had only been together once in the last 19 years!!! Hello, why??? Them being friends off screen is part of why people bought into the show, but they must not be that good of friends to literally never hangout. Matthew Perry literally said "I hear from no one" and it didn't seem like he was kidding. It put a stink in the air for the entire show that I just couldn't shake. 

I also hated the guest stars. Why is Justin Bieber there? Lady Gaga? It made no sense and felt desperate. Couldn't they have stuck to famous people who had actual guest appearances in the show? Clooney? Pitt? All of the bits were brutal. I also think the host was a miss. Nothing against James Corden but I think it deserved the weight of say, Letterman, if they were going to do it right. Corden made the whole thing feel rather silly.

Mostly I hated that the reunion felt, almost quote for quote at times, like an adaptation of this book, but as far as I know nobody has called it that. Miller is sort of an up-and-coming author and she put together a compelling 'story' that the reunion seemed to just fully rip off. I'm not sure if this is a real thing or if Miller even cares, but I am mad for her.

More so than any other show, Friends was guided by its viewers, especially those watching it live. The writers crafted the material, but the crowd decided whether or not it was good enough. If a joke didn't yield the expected laugh, the writers huddled up, rewriting on the spot."

I really liked this book. I think whatever we would call this genre is my new favourite (I've only read this one and a few on The Bachelor but I've added a few more to my wish list now). I think Miller is a great writer and I will definitely be on the lookout for a new novel from her. Overall though, if you saw the reunion, and you're not a big reader, I wouldn't rush out to grab this. A lot of the information overlaps. However, if you're a die hard Friends fan there's a lot more to be learned from reading this. I don't like Friends any more or less from reading this or watching the reunion, but I do think I respect it more.

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