More sitcoms about friends - what we can learn

12th February 2017

There’s a reason for all these sitcoms on TV about friends who live together.  We’re moving beyond the traditional image of what constitutes a normal household - a married couple and 2 children, one of each sex.  It is a recognition that the world is changing, that fewer choose to be married and have children. Less than half the adults in UK are married and single people who are not cohabiting and living as a married couple make up 40% of the population. The composition of households is changing.

On the other hand, there is also a falsity in them.  Many single people live alone and most shared households are single sex or have a greater proportion of one gender over the other. They are not a balanced gender and stereotypical character mix as portrayed.

And there tends to be much more fluidity than is presented in the sitcoms as tensions mount about how each other behaves, without the compensating commitment made to each ‘for better, for worse’.  Our single friends appear to spend considerable time exploring options and then moving.

Nevertheless, it is a welcome return to signalling and modelling the value of friendship.  For too long we’ve had the myth that romantic couples can supply everything for each other. We need friends whether single or married. In fact, whether married or single, psychologists have found that we are each very good at determining what different friends can do for us - those that give advice, those that calm us down, those that give us courage (gird our loins) when we need to take action, etc. Relying on a spouse to provide all those aspects of living is both inappropriate and ineffective.  So modelling what friends can do for each other is a valuable and welcome return to a more social way of living.

Another reason why sitcoms of friends have become popular may lie in the greater variety of situations that are possible than those occurring in a married couple and their children.  It makes viewing more realistically interesting. They are entertainment, but not solely light entertainment. They deal with weighty issues like jobs, death, love, sexual orientation, parents, and money. Their allegorical substance is often interesting and commonly helps us think through situations that we might face.

And the stereotypical characters help us too.  We identify with one more than another and can explore our feelings and thinking. Sitcoms often lead to discussion in media and among audiences along the lines of: ‘Which girl are you most like in Sex and the City?’ or ‘Which character are you in Friends?’ This character identification is probably because most sitcom characters are intended to be stereotypical and audiences recognise their characteristics in real people. By looking at the ways in which sit-com presents us with ‘real’ people in ‘real’ situations we can begin to see how they fit into our picture of the society we live in.

And even if we are in families, we can identify with the characters. In FRIENDS, each character fills the role of a typical family member. Monica is the mother-figure with her profession as a chef and her obsessive organisational and bossy personality. Joey is undoubtedly the child as he is naively slow to grasp things and shows childlike excitement in such things as food and games. Rachel could be the older sister with her obsession with shopping and men, while Phoebe fits into the role of the ‘weird distant cousin’.  While Friends offers alternatives to the ‘normal’ family, it does not oppose it as an institution. Accordingly, Ross pursues marriage three times and Monica marries Chandler.  It is reflective of the new society.

So enjoy the old and new sitcoms about friends.  Use them to think through life if appropriate (some such as Sex in the City may not be!)  But most of all, form friendships in which you can explore similar issues about living in our society, resolving differences and deepening faith.

Sandi Durnford-Slater, 8 February 2017