Even though Friends didn’t go off the air until its tenth and final season ended in 2004, for me the show remains quintessentially in and of the ’90s. Compared to Seinfeld, with which the show shared NBC’s mega-successful Thursday night Must See TV lineup, the six eponymous friends were younger, less cynical, and inhabited a world that was visually and chromatically brighter. Whereas Seinfeld was in more ways than one a product of the Reagan/Bush era, having debuted in 1989, Friends was downright Clintonian in its youthful optimism. As critics rightly pointed out, Rachel could never have afforded that apartment as a coffee shop waitress, nor could Joey have afforded his as a struggling actor.
Friends, maybe more than any other show, helped to define a mid ’90s aesthetic. Compare Central Perk, the friends’ favorite hangout, to the generic coffee shop from Dennis Miller’s 10-10-220 "it’s the ’90s" commercial:
Same exposed brick, same color palette–they really could be almost the same Starbucksesque coffee shop. Which points to another big difference between the two shows: whereas much of the action on Seinfeld took place around the city, Friends was mostly confined to either the apartment building that Rachel, Monica, Joey, and Chandler shared, or Central Perk. Not much about the show, aside from the coffee shop’s name, locates it in Manhattan; in many ways, the show is set in a generic American city.
If, as veteran ACT UPer Sarah Schulman suggests in her recent memoir, Gentrification of the Mind, the 1990s saw New York opened up to corporate capital investment, leading to a flattening of the city’s commercial and aesthetic culture, then Friends is even moreso in and of the decade. Every era has its own trends, but in the ’90s popular culture became increasingly uniform on a scale and to a degree theretofore unprecedented. Sure enough, the ‘do remains insanely popular in Britain, long after Jennifer Aniston herself abandoned it. (For what it’s worth, she hated the style.)
The point isn’t really that lots of ladies in the UK still want bouncy, highlighted hair, or the persistent cultural relevance of Jennifer Aniston, but that the world was changing in important ways before everything changed on September 11th. The early Clinton years held tremendous hope for young people and progressives, even at the same time that everyday life was becoming, in many ways, more uniform and corporatized. Some trends were accelerated by the War on Terror and others reversed, but sorting out which is which will help us better understand how we got to where we are now.