Streaming 'Friends': How a '90s Sitcom Became Gen Z's New Favorite Show
The One Where Millions of Teenagers Are Watching 'Friends.'
Friends executive producer Kevin Bright was eating at a Benihana when a 10-year-old was sat next to him. "And she was wearing a Friends T-shirt," he recalls. Side-by-side at the teppanyaki grill, "I said to her, 'Why do you watch that show Friends? It's 25 years old. Why do you watch that old show?'"
The zeitgeist-defining series had aired its 2004 series finale years before that 10-year-old was even a twinkle in her parents' eyes. Monica and Chandler had moved to the suburbs. Rachel had gotten off the plane. Joey's spinoff had come and gone. Now, Friends, which premiered on NBC in September 1994 and ran for 10 seasons, has actually been off-air longer than it was ever on.
But what was once appointment viewing for tens of millions of fans throughout the better part of the '90s and early aughts has managed a second act with a totally new generation, thanks to streaming. Netflix first made Friends' entire run -- all 236 episodes -- available to its subscribers in 2015, and despite the sitcom ending more than a decade prior, found themselves asking, "Could we HAVE a bigger hit?"
While simultaneously airing in syndication on traditional TV channels, Friends became one of Netflix's most-watched shows. Though the platform is reticent about releasing its ratings, Nielsen reports Friends totaled roughly four percent of all Netflix views in 2018, which may seem like an insignificant amount until you consider exactly how many users are streaming how many hours of content. It also explains why the streaming service happily shelled out a whopping $100 million in late 2018 to continue streaming Friends for one more year. In 2020, Friends relocated to HBO Max, with the newbie streaming service doubling down by bringing the entire cast together for a long-awaited reunion special.
But it wasn't just the original fans revisiting "The One Where No One's Ready" and "The One With the Embryos." Friends, a show made by Baby Boomers about Generation Xers that was obsessed over by Millennials, had unexpectedly found its way to Generation Z.
"I have three kids and my youngest is 20, but when she was in high school and it first went on Netflix, her friends said to her, 'Did you see that new show called Friends?'" Marta Kauffman, who created the series with David Crane, told ET. "They thought it was a period piece about the '90s. Isn't that great?"
That they found it on a streaming service isn't all that hard to wrap your mind around. Gen Z, the heir apparent to tech-savvy Millennials, consumes media differently, and Netflix and HBO Max cater to those demands: It's available when you want, on whichever device you want, to watch as long as you want. And teens, who weren't born when the show premiered, were watching Friends. A lot of Friends. The more curious matter is, why Friends?
Gen Z arrived into a world far removed from what the times were like when the show ended in '04, which was itself radically different than when the series premiered. And while Friends exists as the almost perfect epitome of its era -- albeit one that was, on the whole, void of politics, gender identity and non-white people -- it was an era removed from much of what has been central to Gen Z's coming of age, untouched by likes and retweets, by Tinder and TikTok.
So I sought out the youngest member of the ET staff, Associate Video Producer and person born in 1997, Charles O'Keefe, and asked him what he liked about the show. "Everyone relates to one of the characters," he explained. Charles began watching Friends on Netflix as a freshman in college. "I've met people before that, instead of asking your astrological sign will be like, 'Oh, which character from Friends are you?' Or, 'You're such a Monica personality.'"
Though some Gen Z-ers may have sooner recognized the cast as the lady on the Smartwater billboard or the guy in that GIF, Rachel, Ross, Joey, Phoebe, Monica and Chandler fill archetypes that are timeless, in many ways, if the reference point is just a little bit different: Phoebe isn't a busking hippie in 2021 but a VSCO girl. Ross might be an incel. They're grappling with the things all 20-somethings encounter in their young adult lives -- friendship and unrequited love, breakups and bad bosses -- and they're doing it together. "There is a wonderful part of all of us that you want to feel like your friends are your family, you do have that community and you do have that support system," Crane says.
"It's aspirational," he goes on. "There is that hope that, for kids, even who are discovering it today, that when they're that age, they'll have that, they'll have those friends."
When the core truth remains, well, true -- that growing up is difficult and messy and some of the best years of your life, or as Monica (Courteney Cox) tells Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) in the pilot, "Welcome to the real world. It sucks. You're going to love it." -- it's easy to look past the things you may not relate to: Hanging out in a coffee shop and not just to use the free WiFi, the very notion of leaving a voicemail on an answering machine.
"It's always funny to watch shows from the '90s," Rad, another 22-year-old who found the show on streaming, told me. "There is an episode where Rachel is on the phone [and] telling someone else to call 9-1-1, and Monica says she can't because Rachel was 'on the phone.' I remember growing up only having one phone in the house. I do think it connects with me and my friends and sometimes it helps navigate conversations in real life. None of those things really change."
"I think a lot of it has to do with, these are characters that you care about," Kauffman reasoned. "Television is a very intimate experience -- you watch it in your living room, in your underwear, while you're folding your clothes, in your bed on your computer -- and I think these are people you want to invite into your home. I also think it's very warm. The show is a little bit like comfort food."
Each episode of Friends is 23-or-so minutes of breezily digestible comfort, that leave you feeling good enough that when Netflix asks if you're still watching, the impulse is to press play once again. Or it might be left streaming in the background as you scroll through your Instagram Stories. "It's not a show where you need to be glued to the screen," Charles told me. "It's an easy watch and keeps you entertained without being stressed about the story. I like how you can turn on any episode and laugh along with it."
Maybe it's as easy as that, as easy as what that 10-year-old told Kevin Bright at Benihana. "I said to her, 'Why do you watch that old show?' She goes, 'It's funny,'" he says. "Funny doesn't get old."