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PROGRAM NOTES
Sex and the Family Hour
Are these ‘Friends’ a bad influence?

by Mark D. Johnson
November 15, 2002

Sex and the Family Hour_Mark D. Johnson-Are these ‘Friends’ a bad influence? Did you ever have some friends, perhaps in your adolescence, whom your parents clearly thought were not the type you ought to be hanging out with? The type that seemed to get you in trouble more often? The type that nevertheless made you laugh a lot harder than your more boring friends whom your parents liked? Deep down, you knew they were corrupting you to some degree, taking you places you’d never been before to do things you knew you shouldn’t be doing. And, at the time, you wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I sometimes wonder if television’s most-watched comedy series, “Friends,” is playing that same influential role in our nation’s popular culture. Of course, the analogy only goes so far, but amid the high ratings and critical praise of “Friends,” it is seldom mentioned how much of its humor revolves around sex, airing in what was formerly known as the family hour. That said, I never miss an episode.

It is not my intention here to go all Dan Quayle on you. Sex and comedy go way back, and nobody is shocked to find the combination on prime-time TV these days. Even commercials are getting in on it. And while “Friends” is hardly the mainstream equivalent to HBO’s raunch-laden “Sex and the City,” it often surprises me how casually this sex-tet of fictional New Yorkers treats sexual topics at 8:00 Eastern, 7:00 Central. (Syndicated reruns air on weekdays between 6:00 and 8:00 pm in many major markets.) Now it may well be that such values are the norm for younger generations, that “Friends” merely portrays realistic social attitudes, and that my family-oriented upbringing has left me out of step with the modern masses. It may also be that “Friends” does indeed influence some to think that some questionable behavior is not just normal, but perfectly acceptable. Who can say for sure?

“Friends” is rated TV14 for adult themes and sexual dialogue, meaning parental guidance is suggested for viewers under the age of 14. NBC must therefore think these topics are suitable for fourteen-year-olds, who, at that mature stage in life, are not as easily swayed when it comes to attitudes toward sex. I challenge you to watch any random episode of “Friends” with a young teen without squirming at least once. The show, by the way, ranked third most popular of all shows last year among viewers 12-17 years old.

Let’s take a look at this week’s episode: Joey and Chandler find a video tape at Monica’s former boyfriend’s apartment which presumably contains footage of the former couple doing it. They swipe the tape, and because Chandler, now Monica’s husband, can’t bear to watch, he asks Joey to watch the beginning to verify the tape’s contents. Meanwhile, Ross and Rachel find the only way to make their newborn baby laugh is to sing a naughty rap tune, while Phoebe fails to impress her new boyfriend’s parents by complimenting his sexual skills, and chatting about pimps and a song she wrote about pubic hair. Obviously, I’m only pointing out the sexual references in a show that also contained some funny non-sexual jokes. It’s true, though, that such examples are typical of the show.

It’s been well-established that Joey and Chandler enjoy porn. Monica once tried to hire a stripper for her husband to make up for the stripper she had at her bachelorette party (she accidentally hired a prostitute, though Chandler did not partake). Monica saw Joey naked, Chandler saw Rachel naked, Rachel saw Joey’s dad naked, they all saw Chandler naked in the tub as well as “Naked Fat Guy” across the street. Rachel went out to dinner in her lingerie and accidentally exposes a breast. Ross and Rachel make love overnight at a natural history museum exhibit and awaken to some very curious school children. Chandler and Monica had sex repeatedly in the hospital. And on and on and on… No big deal, right? Hmm. It almost makes you wonder if they have an agenda.

It was ten years ago last May when Dan Quayle made his famous speech decrying the out-of-wedlock birth on “Murphy Brown,” touching off a nationwide debate on “family values” and leading Pat Buchanan to declare it a “Culture War.” Last season, we learned that Rachel got drunk and had sex with ex-boyfriend Ross (who accidentally videotaped the event), which led to Rachel’s pregnancy and out-of-wedlock birth. They avoided the Murphy Brown controversy by making it clear that they had used a condom (it broke, sending viewers a message that pregnancy can still happen with protected sex) and that the father will be around for the child. In fact, thrice-divorced Ross now lives with Rachel and their daughter, creating an adorable modern-day family. Even Quayle himself says its an improvement.

This is supposedly the last year for “Friends.” Despite my argument against it, I’m not calling for any boycott. It truly is a classic at a time when the sit-com genre is woefully short on laughs and originality. So many shows have tried to imitate it that it is easy to forget what sets it apart from all the rest. These six actors have created some very distinct and funny characters, and when the writers are on target, as they were in last week’s entertaining “super-sized” edition, they rank among the best in TV history. From a critical perspective, I must say, the show too often goes over the top for laughs, and the ramped up audience reactions for big moments, a la “Saved by the Bell,” annoys me to no end. Also got tired of the Chandler-Monica engagement, the Rachel pregnancy, and babies have been known to ruin shows before. As with real friends, there are great moments and bad moments. I just hope they don’t get us into too much trouble.

Channel Hopping…

Following up on two previous reviews, Fox’s “John Doe” has been picked up for a full season, though it draws predictably weak ratings on a weak ratings night (Friday). Tonight’s episode promises to answer many questions surrounding Doe’s inexplicable condition, in which he knows everything about the world except about himself. However zap2it.com reports that the producers have a plan to unfold the whole truth over seven seasons, if possible. The last episode will reveal all. That’s an awfully long time to string an audience along. The catch is that without the ongoing mystery, the show is severely lacking. Also look for the other series regulars to get more airtime and depth now that Doe himself is established. It’s desperately needed. They could use a new script editor as well. I haven’t heard so many forced lines of dialogue since “Matlock” was on the air.

Fox’s verdict on the fate of the excellent “Firefly” could come next week. This cleverly-written series, also relegated to a poor Friday timeslot, has seemingly gotten better with each outing, yet the ratings are even worse than “John Doe’s.” The sci-fi universe needs a show like this. Here’s hoping Fox gives it a fighting chance.


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