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In 2019, TV's 'Friends' Remains Successful And Divisive

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. So as we reflect on the end of this year and also the end of the decade, we want to point out that one of the most popular TV shows in all of America right now is actually 25 years old. The classic NBC sitcom "Friends" was the second most watched show on all of Netflix last year. More people spent more time watching "Friends" than any original Netflix show.

NPR's Sam Sanders has some big questions about what an old sitcom like "Friends" being so big right now says about us.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: "Friends" is so valuable to Netflix the company paid $100 million just for the rights to stream "Friends" this year alone. And Netflix has pushed the show so hard recently, they even convinced me to watch after I avoided the show my entire life. This year, it seems "Friends" was kind of everywhere - "Friends" screenings in theaters across the country, a CNN documentary, "Friends" pop-ups in several cities with recreations of "Friends" memorabilia. I went to one in Santa Monica, Calif. All the "Friends" swag was made of Legos. And it had a "Smelly Cat" karaoke booth.

Come on. Get on this mic. Come on, Matt (ph).

MATT: I'm ready.

SANDERS: (Singing) Smelly cat. Smelly cat.

It's not the right key for me.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Why is "Friends," this old show, so big right now? Meredith Blake covers streaming TV for the Los Angeles Times. And she says part of it is what types of shows work on streaming platforms like Netflix. Shows on Netflix get more time spent viewing if they have more episodes. And all these new Netflix shows, they just can't compete with the big back catalogue for a show like "Friends."

MEREDITH BLAKE: There's 250-something episodes, I think, of "Friends." That's a lot of TV hours - right? - especially if you're looking at - typically, a season on it for a show on Netflix these days is, you know, eight, 10, 12 episodes. It's not 10 seasons of 22 episodes each.

SANDERS: Blake also says "Friends" proves that the most bankable hits on streaming are broad and general interest, which may show where streaming is headed next.

BLAKE: I do think if you're someone who is a fan of kind of the small, quirky, unusual risk-taking shows, you know, things like "Russian Doll" or "Master Of None," there may be less room for that.

SANDERS: "Friends" can also show us something else - how our comedic taste may or may not change over time. Scaachi Koul is a culture writer at BuzzFeed. She wrote a piece for BuzzFeed earlier this year arguing that "Friends" is not a good show.

SCAACHI KOUL: I just find it dreadfully, dreadfully unfunny and mean-spirited, too - like, this oddly mean show.

SANDERS: Scaachi points to several examples of the show being full of gay panic, overwhelmingly white, mean to trans people and really, really mean to fat people - like the plotline of Monica's character being overweight when she was younger.

KOUL: The joke is like, oh, we don't have enough room in the fridge for these pies. Monica will eat them. It's just so like - ugh.

SANDERS: But Scaachi Koul says even though society has become in general less accepting of that kind of humor, something about "Friends" helps us overlook all that.

KOUL: There's something really comforting about watching a show that is almost ritualistic. It's very setup, punch line. There's no real consequences in that universe. And I think that can be really enjoyable.

SANDERS: That sitcom model, the "Friends" model, it holds even as the medium changes, even as our values change. So "Friends" will continue to be there for you this decade and most likely the next as well.

Sam Sanders, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE REMBRANDTS SONG, "I'LL BE THERE FOR YOU")

GREENE: You can hear more about "Friends" on Sam's podcast, It's Been A Minute from NPR. In his latest episode, listeners share their "Friends" stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You know, I actually had Rachel's haircut. I even had to cut it myself because my stylist back then couldn't get it right.

THE REMBRANDTS: (Singing) Your love life's DOA... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.