The American sitcom ‘Friends’ (NBC 1994-2004)is known

The
American sitcom ‘Friends’ (NBC 1994-2004)is
known to many as a cult classic, a marvel of comedy in which many millennials
look back on fondly. The programme was initially aired on NBC from September
22, 1994 and ended on May 6, 2004, amassing an extraordinary 10 seasons in
total (236 episodes). The shows premise is simply really, centred around six
friends living in Manhattan struggling with their careers, relationships and
attempt to meander their way through their lives without too much hassle. Despite
such a competitive market present at the time, with similar show formats and themes
such as ‘The Fresh Prince of Bellair’ (NBC
1990- 1996) and ‘Ellen’ (ABC
1994-1998), the show did seem to stand out amongst the rest receiving critical acclaim
and a number of awards ranging from Emmys to Golden Globes. However, how did
the show’s use of branding, genre composition make it into the household name
it is known as today? This will be explored using analytical devices to uncover
what textual strategies are being employed to
attract and hold an audience as well as genre features which catgorgorized ‘Friends’ as a sitcom/ comedy.

 

   The show format follows that of a ‘flexi narrative’, as purported by Robin
Nelson, inhabiting one contingent storyline, however, and still maintaining independent
value through each individual episode arc. This facilitates for easy watching,
allowing for even the most inattentive of fans to comprehend the narrative as
well as feel accounted for. Choong Lyong Ha, a leading marketing analysis,
argues that consumer loyalty is developed through ‘consistent’ behaviours by
the brand itself. Many would argue that the homogenous nature of the show
allowed for it to maintain the their audience, with the inclusion of on-going
gags ranging from ‘we were on a break’ to ‘how you doin?’, the considerable
lack of character reform (which may have caused frustration in other shows) and
even the location of the flat, as well as incorporation of relatable themes,
interesting characters meant that Friends did not transgress into something
else, it maintained its charm and style despite the years. This sense of obstinacy
allowed for audiences to feel a sense of comfort which could appeal to such a
broad audience and both could maintain and generate a sense of cultism which
could carry the show’s success through the late 90s, early 2000s and even as
late as today, thus cementing how strong the audiences faithfulness can be- in
short, if its broken, don’t fix it.

    Many have
argued that there has been an oversaturation of certain genres of stories,
leading to more boring and unimpactful stories. Peter Ansorge, former head of
Drama at Channel 4, was quoted ‘they are all becoming the same’ when discussing
the genre of police dramas, unimpressed by the use of ‘the same lighting, same
camerawork’ and a significant lack of innovation in an, otherwise stagnant,
classification. However, ‘Friends’
could arguably break this trend following, an almost identical, layout across
the 10 years of its broadcast situated largely among a handful of flats of our characters
with an extremely select few naturalistic camera angels (with the inclusion of
other locations such as the coffee shop or their work places), as well as sustaining
there, once again, naturalistic style of lighting. As mentioned, this sense of consistency
and familiarity works in the shows favour, almost acting as a constant in the
viewers lives, and also allowing for the characters and the story to be the
primary focus for the audience as opposed to the environment.

    In regard to branding, John Cadwell claims
that, on the whole, it is a ‘central concern’ to the television industry, especially
in an age of digital convergence such as our own. ‘Friends’, on the whole, did not deviate from traditional standards
of television, using posters and billboards in conjunction with their competitors.
However, a key feature that Friends had in their arsenal was their distinctive and
catchy opening sequence, one of which is still referenced and discussed today.
Fiske and Hartley both purport that the opening sequence acts as a ‘boundary
ritual’ signalling the start of the next broadcast, more importantly though,
they represent ‘brand signatures’ which set and suggest the overall tone and
style of the programme. With an upbeat song alongside fun quirky visuals of the
characters having fun in a fountain alongside clips from the show, it not only gives
the audience a taste of the characters and a flare for their individual personalities
and traits, but also fragmented scenes to look forward to for each character. In
conjunction, the inclusion of the iconic four claps offers an aspect of audience
participation extremely uncommon amongst opening sequences. It not only gains
the attention of the audience, making them anticipate and thus join in on the
activity, but also creates a relationship with the audience and the characters,
almost joining in on their silliness to create a sense of synthetic personalisation,
as mentioned by Fairclough, whereby the show feels catered directly for your personal
benefit and pleasure.

     The idea of relaxed television viewing is maintained
throughout the shows format and branding, with even their episode titles
exuding familiarity and informality. For example, the pilot episode- later
changed by the producers- was renamed to ‘The
One Where Monica gets a Roommate’ to mimic the show’s title structure (apart
from their finale simply dubbed ‘The Last
One’). Annette Hill discussed the idea that, within modern television, that
’emotions’ have become a ‘trademark’, whereby as a collective, the audience
thrives over watching characters go through varying situations, providing an almost
cathartic function- quite literally, the shows brand is centred around the
connection established between the characters, their experience and the
viewership. The titles represent that closeness and creates the tone of
comradery and shared experience, as if manufacturing a friendship or
relationship with the audience, recounting previous situations or events in
their lives with fondness and nostalgia, as if that of going through a photo
album of memories. This, as coined in Jack Picone’s article, marked the birth
of a sub-genre of sitcom known as ‘hangout comedy’. This is a process whereby, unlike
other sitcoms of its time such as ‘Cheers’
(NBC, 1982-1993) or ‘The Golden Girls’
(NBC, 1985-1992), the audience was made to feel directly involved with the activity,
largely that of just ‘hanging out’. ‘Friends’
created a sense of inclusivity not found amongst other shows, making you
feel as though we are a part of their friendship circle, involved in the
playful exchanges and the even more outrageous scenes.

     Although story was a key, the characters
themselves were integral to the shows renowned success, as Paul Abbot suggests,
‘if you get your characters right, the rest will follow’. Writers managed to
create unique and likeable characters which enhanced the comedic value of the
show, with the interest stemming from how these wacky, yet seemingly ordinary
people react to real situations- albeit sometimes exaggerated. The shows appeal
came from this concept, with having relatable and funny characters go through life’s
twist and turns, the audience can both empathise and take pleasure from their absurdities,
possibly even finding themselves in similar scenarios within their day to day
lives, again giving it a cathartic function. Each individual character caters
to an audience member, with the ambitious Rachel to the playboy Joey, although perpetuating
generic and familiar characterisation, but with a twist to make them more
compelling.

    

     The overall shows stylistic characteristics
in terms of genre do create an appealing show to its audience, allowing for an
easy viewing experience for its viewers, as well as providing both a cathartic
and introspective function, drawing upon relatable topics of discussion such as
work, relationships and life as a goofy mid-twenties adult trying to get
through the day. The humour, although not complex can appeal to a vast
audience, with the incorporation of ongoing gags, wordplay and physical comedy
to create inclusivity.

     So, in conclusion, arguably text and genre
is still an extremely useful tool to allow for analytical study of a television
programme, largely due to the transgressive nature of the theories and the
ever-evolving study into genre and language in modern television.