You might have read it already. It’s called How a TV Sitcom Triggered the Downfall of Western Civilization by a guy named David Hopkins (who, as a side-issue, looks like me going to a fancy dress party as one of Mumford & Sons). The article has recently ‘gone viral’, like the air in a hospital toilet. Its claim is that the jokes aimed at the character Ross Geller in Friends set off a chain of events that has brought Western civilisation to its cultural knees, or something. Anyway, it’s all absolute bollocks.
The piece begins with David Hopkins announcing that he and his wife have been binge-watching Friends on Netflix. The mood turns as he talks about the show’s intellectual ‘tragic hero’ Ross Geller. Hopkins claims that Ross descends further and further into madness as the series progresses, and that this is brought about mainly by his so-called friends relentlessly bullying him for being smart. ‘You may see it [Friends] as a comedy,’ Hopkins says, ‘but I cannot laugh with you.’ (Makes you wonder why he’s binge-watching it, really. Personally, I can’t laugh at Mrs Brown’s Boys. But my solution to this isn’t to plough my way through a boxset; I turn the telly off instead, and cry in the darkness.) Whatever must evenings in the Hopkins household be like?:
‘Fancy watching Friends tonight?’ asks Mrs Hopkins, holding the Amazon Fire-Stick.
‘Friends?’ replies her husband. ‘Friends! The slayer of Western Civilisation? The comedy I cannot laugh at? The show that has brought Western civilisation to its cultural knees (or something)?’
‘Oh, ok,’ he sighs. ‘Just fourteen episodes, though. I’ve got an early start tomorrow…’
Hopkins’ article is packed with strange statements. He suggests that Ross ‘becomes a monster’ after sliding into a ‘madness and desperation lead by his own egotism’. But that’s not the Ross Geller I remember. Hopkins must have seen a different version of Friends to me. Maybe a Korean overdub or something. As I recall, by the show’s final episode, Ross is a published scientist and university lecturer who is loved by his friends (and in a romantic relationship with one of them). He definitely hasn’t slipped into madness and desperation lead by his own egotism. The only explanation I can offer for this interpretation is that Hopkins might be getting Ross confused with Cyril Sneer from The Raccoons, who better fits that description.
‘Can you blame Ross for going crazy?’ Hopkins asks. No, you can’t. Because he doesn’t. He emphatically, categorically doesn’t. He has time off work with stress in series 5, after his second divorce, but that’s it.
According to How a TV Sitcom Triggered the Downfall of Western Civilization, the sitcom’s final episode, broadcast in 2004, ties in neatly with the exact moment when Western society began to fully dumb down, ‘when we completely gave up and embraced stupidity as a value.’ Ah, yes, I remember it well: the seventies had flares and lava lamps; the eighties had shoulder pads and Rubik’s Cubes; the nineties had Union Jacks and Pogs; and the noughties, oh, the noughties, you couldn’t move for people embracing stupidity as a value back then. (To bolster this claim, Hopkins says, ‘Just ask Green Day; their album American Idiot was released in 2004, and it won the Grammy for Best Rock Album.’ Did it indeed? That’s no different to me saying that 1971 was a bad year for rivers. Don’t believe me? Just ask Simon & Garfunkel. They had an album called Bridge Over Troubled Water that year and it won the Grammy for best album.)
The most unusual thing about this Friends-bashing, however, is Hopkins’ inference that Ross Geller’s character kick-started a general disrespect towards clever people in the media and, by default, real life. He argues that ‘any time Ross would say anything about his interests, one of his “friends” was sure to groan and say how boring Ross was, how stupid it is to be smart, and that nobody cares.’ This is actually true; these things do happen to Ross. But they also happened to Diane in Cheers. They also happened to Lisa in The Simpsons. They’re currently happening to Alex in Modern Family. And it was the entire thrust of Frasier. The Boring Brainiac is as much a comedy cliché as the Lovable Halfwit. If you’re going to blame Ross Geller for making people shun education, you might as well blame the Chuckle Brothers for making people less inclined to carry a long plank of wood over their shoulders next to a body of water. (For the record, I’ve tried to find an example of any of the Friends characters implying that ‘it’s stupid to be smart’, and can’t.) I’m not a great believer in Hopkins’ whole people-are-getting-more-and-more-stupid theory. If only I could arrange for him to have a chat about literature with some 18th century farmhands and see how he felt about his theory after that.
The article also has a pop at the theme tune, claiming it to be ‘filled with foreboding’ with a message that ‘you will always have the company of idiots’. Even this is wide of the mark. The song mentions nothing of the sort. And with the exception of Joey (who’s doe-eyed, cartoon idiocy is sometimes so extreme that it makes you wonder why he’s allowed out unassisted), the other Friends characters are generally intelligent.
It is the article’s piety that has riled me so. For instance, how Hopkins tells us that, during his days as a teacher, he ‘gained the reputation of being a slayer of bullies and defender of nerds.’ So what? Why is he telling us this? ‘I promise you,’ he adds, ‘bullies can be mean, but they knew Mr Hopkins was much worse.’ And when not painting himself as a sort of scholarly Hulk Hogan, he promotes an image of the neglected intellectuals that wouldn’t be out of place in a straight-to-DVD Hollywood movie:
‘I see them [clever people] in my city,’ he says, ‘hiding at the art museum, crouching at used book stores, exchanging sideways glances at the public libraries and coffee houses…’
It’s a sickening cliche. Yes, you can find intellectuals in these places – anxiously dropping their papers on college steps, pushing glasses up their noses and saying ‘Erm, er, yes, splendid’ – but I’ll tell you where else you can find loads of intellectuals: in very expensive houses sitting on very expensive furniture having very happy lives. The same cannot often be said for the Joeys of this world. The terrible impact of Friends on Western civilisation has not yet altered the fact that clever people are still more likely to fare better in life than not-so-clever people.
As the piece progresses, it predictably becomes less about Ross Geller and more about the writer’s disdain for the world of idiots around him. He offers them – or, should I say, us – four steps to self-improvement:
- ‘Read a fucking book – reading makes you less of a jerk’
(Unless it’s Mein Kampf or something along those lines.)
2. ‘Learn something – One of my greatest challenges as a teacher was convincing students they were smart after someone had told them they were dumb’
(A moral high-ground for somebody who has just accused a whole generation of being dumb.)
3. ‘Stop buying so much shit – I’m convinced consumer culture and idiot culture are closely linked’
(He’s also convinced there’s a link between Ross Geller and the fall of Western civilisation, so don’t take this one too seriously.)
4. ‘Protect the nerds’
(From what? Name calling? Do they appreciate being called nerds?)
Of course, these aren’t real steps to improvement. He knows that the sort of people he’s slagging off aren’t likely to read his article. Instead, he’s offering a chance for pseudo-intellectuals to pat themselves on the back and say, ‘You said it, pal. I’m glad I’m not one of those people. I, for one, really like books.’ (Honestly, just read the comments.)
To end, I’d like to point out that Friends was one of the TV shows that made me want to start writing. I was in awe of it. Not once did I consider Ross to be an outcast; he was one of its main attractions (by the last three or four series, when its exceptionally high standards slipped, he was its only attraction). If Friends did indeed incite the dumbing down Western civilisation, I’m sure I could find many people within that civilisation who were enriched by its existence and aspired to be as smart, funny and kind as Ross (and his friends). And they aren’t all hiding in art museums and wanking onto the pages of Metamorphosis in coffee shops, or whatever it was he was banging on about.
In 2016, Comedy Central ran a poll to discover the nation’s favourite Friend. Guess who won. Yep. Ross Geller. He got my vote, too. Chandler, the show’s other ‘intellectual’, came second. They picked up fifty-percent of the votes between them. So, in summary, Ross and Chandler are clever, successful and much-loved both in the show and outside of the show. Their intelligence didn’t hinder them. And Friends is brilliant. It’s no wonder that even the people who hate it want to binge-watch it.