One of the more interesting recent news items from the world of American popular culture has been the announcement that Netflix, rather than cancelling its streaming reruns of that Gen X TV blockbuster, Friends, on January 1, 2019 (as many viewers feared), has actually decided to up its payments for the rights to the series from $30 million to $100 million per year. The continuing popularity of this pop culture icon in an era decades later than the period in which it originated offers a particularly good topic for semiotic analysis, revealing how the same cultural sign can signal entirely different meanings when the context in which it appears changes.
When we look at those contexts, the striking thing about the early 1990s and the mid-twenty-teens is their similarity. For the early 1990s, too, was a time of reduced expectations in the wake of a searing recession. Though Millennials and iGens today may not be aware of it, Generation X too was identified as the first generation that expected to do more poorly in life than their parents. Theirs was the Grunge era, when youth culture, making the best of a bad situation, turned to a shabby-chic aesthetic, reviving the thrift-shop consumer ethos of the late 1960s and shrugging off the glitz and glam of the "go-for-the-gold" 1980s. The cast of Friends—in a thoroughly unrealistic evocation of the new spirit with their West Village digs—accordingly made personal relationships more important than material possessions, and thus became role models for a generation that felt left out of the American dream.
Sound familiar? After all, today's young, whether Millennials or iGens, are coming of age in the long shadow of the Great Recession, and so can find much in common with these six young adults whose portrayers are now, after all, the age of iGen parents. So with both Gen X nostalgia, and iGen relatability, on its side, it's no surprise that Friends should be worth $100 million to Netflix, as the streaming service maneuvers to survive in an era of intense competition.
But a little more research into the enduring popularity of Friends reveals something of a surprise, a difference upon which we can hang a semiotic interpretation. For it appears, according to an article in the New York Times, that for iGen viewers the appeal of Friends lies not in the personal relationships but in the thoroughly laid back lifestyles of the friends in question. This group of people prefers hanging out with each other at their favorite coffee house—and otherwise taking time out from their jobs—to the frantic pursuit for career success. It isn't that they don't have certain career aspirations, but they don't get all worked up about them. They'd rather fool around.
This reveals the dismal reality facing today’s youth – the worst of all possible worlds. At a time when the gateways to socio-economic prosperity and career satisfaction are either narrowing or slamming shut entirely (especially if technology isn't your thing), the cultural pressure is to achieve a big money, career success – to be the next Elon Musk or Steve Jobs. The Grunge era said, in effect, "if the opportunities aren't there, wealth isn't where it's at anyway: learning to live with less in the way of material prosperity by turning to your friends and lovers is the way to go"; while the Google era says, "if you can make it to the top, join the club, your TED talk invite is in the mail; otherwise, tough." No wonder at least some young fans of Friends feel nostalgia for an era they never experienced.
I think that there may be an added dimension, another difference, that accounts for the enduring popularity of Friends in a new era. For in that dim and distant time before smart phones, when these six friends wanted to get together, they really got together, in person, not via text, Facebook, Instagram, or whatever. Today, the smart phone is the center of social attention, and a continuing stream of news reports cite an accompanying teen despondency over an inability to socialize with others in person. Facebook has swamped face-to-face.
Thus, it is highly likely that younger fans today are responding to something that has been taken away from them. So here is a case where popular culture, which so often reflects the need for each generation to step out of the shadow of the previous, presents the spectacle of youthful nostalgia for what is effectively the world of their parents. Once a sign of Gen X adaption to tough times, Friends is now a signifier, paradoxically enough, of loss.