Who is your favourite character on Friends? It’s perhaps the first question asked when two people begin bonding over their shared love of the 90s sitcom. The two most common answers I’ve heard are Joey Tribbiani and Chandler Bing. Out of six possible answers, only one makes me pause.
I first began watching Friends back when I was in 6th grade. I was far too young to understand the jokes of course, but repeat airings on Star World ensured that I eventually caught on.
Like most fans of my generation, over the years I’ve rewatched the entire series over several months and countless meals.
To be clear, I hold Friends in high regard. My appreciation for the sitcom has only grown as the years pass by. Each new episode of sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory or Man With A Plan only serves to highlight the iconic show’s strengths.
It would be simplistic to measure a sitcom based on decibels of laughter elicited. Else, a blooper reel would suffice.
Friends as a show was extremely well crafted. Not only did it evenly follow the lives of six different characters, but it also ensured that a gradual plot progression was woven into situations established for comedic purposes. Many shows lack that duality in scripting.
The Big Bang Theory may manage to set up an episode where two couples engage in a set of party games. That situation in and of itself might be funny. But it doesn’t advance the story.
Friends on the other hand, serves up iconic episodes of failed auditions, party mishaps, office fiascos, dating disasters, unconventional parenting structures, and surrogate pregnancy, all while telling the story of Joey, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Ross and Phoebe.
The episodes deliver not just witty one liners, but fragments of character quirks, back stories, group dynamics and quiet moments of reflection. The way 240 plus episodes delivered over the course of a decade captures the life of six people as they overcome doubt, fear and heartbreak, resonanted with millions all over the way.
It is precisely because of these lofty standards in storytelling and character development the show has adhered to, that the case of Monica Geller sticks out like a sore thumb.
The Odd One Out
She is my least favourite character on the show. But rather than be beaten to sixth place by slim margins however, it is the way Monica Geller is portrayed that disappoints me. She cannot compete with the rest, not because of an absence of witty one-liners or slapstick acting in her arsenal. But because, in service of the plot, she has ultimately become rather two dimensional.
Every character on the show displays their own set of flaws, shaped by their past behaviour and environment. Chandler is afraid of commitment, yet he ultimately matures enough to propose marriage. Joey chases girls, eschewing relations for one night stands, only to finally understand what it means to feel love rather than lust. Ross is a die-hard romantic who learns not to scare off his true love. Phoebe comes to terms with her turbulent childhood, finally achieving stability in marriage. Rachel sheds her entitled upbringing, transforming into a responsible, independent and successful independent mother.
In each of the five cases, their traits are used as comic fodder. We laugh at how Joey sidesteps awkward encounters involving women he slept with but never called back. Ultimately, however, he matures, satisfying not just a weekly demand for comedy, but a decade long wait for emotional growth.
This is how I realized Monica Geller was dealt a bad hand. Almost from the get-go, she is portrayed as a control freak. Someone insanely competitive. Sometimes inappropriately selfish. But it is all in service of episodic humour. Barney Stinson isn’t the kind of guy you’d like if he seduced you and then never looked back. You’d wanna punch Sheldon Cooper if he was being obnoxious and rude to you. But within a sitcom setting, such flaws are accepted and even cherished.
But by magnificently completing every other character’s story arc, the creators of Friends do a disservice to Monica Geller.
Jokes about her turning violent during Pictionary, bossing her boyfriend/husband, obsessing over wedding plans…they persist till the last season. While her friends become less selfish, less weird, less possessive and less superficial as seasons pass by, she remains the same in terms of behavior.
I’ve often wondered about Chandler and Monica’s relationship. While the story of how they graduated from friends to lovers and ultimately a married couple was narrated in an organic manner, it always seemed to rely on a little suspension of belief.
A cardinal rule of writing is broken in order to sell the story. “Show, don’t tell.” You don’t need Rachel to explain that Ross is caring, he conveys that through his actions.
But Monica’s situation is perhaps best summed up by what happens when she forces Chandler to state that she isn’t high maintenance. Phoebe and Rachel don’t buy it. We laugh at the irony of the statement. And the show acknowledges their own exaggerated portrayal of Monica, by having Chandler turn around and say that she is, in fact, a little high maintenance but he loves her for it. Because he loves “maintaining her”.
It is a statement which, in retrospect, feels less flattering to Monica than it is made out to be. And it isn’t an isolated incident. Several episodes unapologetically paint her as shrill, ultra-competitive and obsessive, to the point where it feels like she has become a caricature.
Her behaviour skirts the fringes of lazy stereotypes far more frequently than anyone else. Be it the bossy wife, the domineering roommate or the ultra-competitive friend. She sets up the joke premise by playing up any one of her several enduring character flaws, so that Chandler, Ross, Joey, Rachel, and Phoebe can step up and deliver the punchline.
Of course, the ensemble nature and overall quality of the show initially mask such issues. The irony then, of course, is that the very brilliance and longevity of the sitcom is what allows for such an issue to become apparent upon repeat viewings.
Ultimately Friends remains one of the most successful sitcoms of the past few decades. As a television show, it got a lot of things right. But perhaps Monica Geller could serve as a reminder to future writers. About the need to strike a delicate balance between laughter at the expense of a character, and overall development of their story arc.