I didn’t watch FRIENDS when it initially came out in the 90’s. I wasn’t a TV person but did have enough friends to know of the phenomenon when I was in medical school. I was told that this was THE depiction of life in New York City and that it would serve as a great guide for people who are living in NYC. I was intrigued but not as much as when my husband, who is particularly choosy about his recommendations and is an avid watcher of movies and shows of all kinds, also recommended it with a passion and wouldn’t stop until I had promised to watch it.
So I started watching it. And frankly, I didn’t care for it in any specific way. Slapstick and situational humor has a great deal of comic timing involved and I think the show had great humor and great timing. I was pregnant with my first and all I did, lying on my couch in the winter of 2008 in the city of Toronto six months before the beginning of my residency the following year, was watch FRIENDS and a few other sitcoms. I had signed a contract with a residency program in the Bronx, a borough of NYC, which is as different from Manhattan where the show is set, as was Karachi from Toronto, even though the two cities had many similarities.
But, here’s the inside scoop on life in New York City by someone who was a transplant there . It wasn’t the life they showed on FRIENDS. At least not for me. Not for me who called NYC home for four years and then some.
I gave birth to my daughter in NYC. For a cosmopolitan city that is widely believed to have tons of childcare, finding a nanny was no easy job. It required very close contacts with other women who had been in my shoes, other residents and attendings. It also required a lot of money. Yes! Everything about a baby is expensive but when you have a baby in NYC, expensive doesn’t even begin to describe the type of bills you’d be footing.
But the nanny was just one of our many problems. Because we knew that we’d be parents soon, we had tried to look for a 2BR/2 bath right from the outset. Now in another place this wouldn’t have been such a big deal but to find these specifications in NYC is like asking for the stars. We finally found a pre-war building which was in good hands as far as maintenance went and settled in to start our life in NYC.
But wait! This wasn’t so easy. I didn’t have a car and if you’re estimating NYC’s traffic by what they show in front of Central Perk, the famous FRIENDS coffee shop, then you’re in for a rude awakening. Traffic in the city is brutal and unforgiving. In the relatively small borough of Bronx traffic can still easily become a problem. But there’s an easy way to work around it. Get a bus. Easy enough, right? But only if you get the bus to have space for you when it finally shows up at your stop after a wait of twenty minutes in the cruel cold of a NY morning. Forget the bus! Let’s get a cab everyday. Well a great idea for the mornings when you’re running really late and don’t care if the cab driver charges twice the usual fare. But this isn’t a smart way to commute to work everyday for an eighty hour work week on a resident’s salary.
What they largely show in FRIENDS is life in Manhattan and frankly, that’s what people mean when they refer to that place called “the city”. They’re talking about Manhattan.
Life in Manhattan isn’t always a psychedelic life that encompasses a successful career (Chandler), a rent-controlled building (Monica), a chance at repeated attempts at love and dating (Joey), a non-career to a magnificent dream job in France (Rachel), an eccentric woman who picks up random guys and still comes out unscathed (Phoebe). Life in Manhattan is likely closer to what Ross’s struggles have been shown to be. Single parenting some days, demands of professional work making dating difficult, hard to decide the socioeconomic status that one belongs to, a life of self-discovery and a challenging and demanding career in archaeology.
Also, FRIENDS has shown a cast of predominantly Caucasian men and women. There is no mention of the immigrant and black population that made a huge chunk of NYC’s core population even in the 90’s. The immigrant population is actually more to write about in the city of blinding lights than love affairs and people having loads of free time to hang out unashamedly and incessantly at a coffee shop or their friend’s place.
And that’s where I probably find my experience of NYC very different from the people who projected their experience or observation or perception in making FRIENDS.
My experience is one of different colors, different looking people, careers that overlapped, places that were marked as unsafe, favorite touristy spots, growing up as a physician with a lot of pride in the diversity I introduced to a hugely diverse population. Unfortunately FRIENDS failed to capture the essence of NYC. It failed to feel the familiarity that New Yorkers have with many coffee shops simultaneously, the camaraderie they share with many baristas and the many couches that they wear under their experiences everyday. That didn’t come through.
People might say that it was a sitcom and should be seen as such but the problem is that sitcoms are translated by some of us as a somewhat truer portrayal of a situation than serious fiction. Humor makes saying things easier. Many people might consider FRIENDS timeless but to me, Seinfeld captured the essence of NYC a lot more than FRIENDS. Sure FRIENDS was about friendship but Seinfeld was also about friendship and still did its civic duty of sharing how the makers of the show saw NYC through a New Yorker’s lens.
If they ever made a sequel to FRIENDS I would like them to first of all ask New Yorkers what they pride their city on. I’m sure they’ll find a huge subset telling them that diversity, constant hustling, love for each other and fashion is what New York City should be celebrated for. They will also find that New York City is a tough city to make room for ourselves in financially but emotionally, the city embraces all.