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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Friends’ Reflected the Atomized US of the ’90s—and Today

What an era’s most popular sitcoms can tell us about their time and our own.

To reminisce about the “long 1990s” is to remember a brief end to history, when the towering gingerbread house of liberal democracy finally enclosed us all. This was the decade when the value of investing in finance capital and divesting from the public good went fully mainstream. The slow-falling scythe blade severing individuals from each other, institutions from their purpose, and the myriad forms of sacredness and ways of life from capitalist realism was blissfully welcomed. One important reaper of this anti-public ethic was U.K. Prime Minister Margaret “TINA” Thatcher—TINA meaning, “there is no alternative” to economic liberalism. One of her other brutally witless yet memorable sayings was: “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” The “nuclear” family—recalling the nucleus of an atom—is a key ingredient in modern capitalist society. It was vital to the neoliberal project that all sense of meaning and purpose in life revolve around the family. In this worldview, all value—in any sense of that word—is stripped down to just two acts: production (of capital) and reproduction (of labor). The family, as a site of care, sexual reproduction, and filial bonding, maintains the human bodies needed for war and work—the same bodies whose labor channels wealth to owners of capital.

The family has become a dominant institution. As part of the neoliberal ideological realignment, modern economies—by which I mean industrial, higher-energy-dependent ones—have sought to diminish other sources of meaning-making outside the family. Friendships, non-marital romantic relationships, non-reproductive relationships, relationships between people who aren’t heterosexual—all of these lack the fundamental importance of the family. The pursuits of art, knowledge, and the divine, as well as spending time in nature, are increasingly inaccessible. Society has either closed off social and institutional pathways for engaging in these activities, created physical spaces that preclude them, like eliminating free public spaces from towns and cities or destroying wilderness areas, criminalized them, or made them too expensive for most to pursue. 

Among the most widespread cultural artifacts from the long-’90s are Seinfeld and Friends. Their reruns still grace channels on cable and online streaming platforms across the world. They have frequently been compared with one another because they ran in overlapping years (Seinfeld from ’88 to ’98 and Friends from ’94 to ’04), and their shows portrayed roughly the same time and place (New York City between the late ’80s and early 2000s). Many actors appeared as side characters on both shows. Some of their jokes are similar, and both are about a group of friends navigating the professional and romantic pangs of young adulthood. 

The two shows are quintessentially ’90s, but have one critical difference: Friends, despite its name, earnestly reinforces the primacy of the family while Seinfeld highlights the absurdity of modern alienation—itself often a result of familial atomizing. These differences illuminate the value systems that still plague the country 20 years later: the destruction of meaning-making outside of the family, the divestment from the public, the destruction of the commons, and the increasing alienation we feel as atomized individual profit-generators and relationship units.

Friends is a show about a group of six ethnically white mid-20-somethings, divided evenly between male and female, living in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. Much of their time is spent together, sitting around in a palatial rent-controlled apartment, or the cutely named coffee shop Central Perk (a play on the famous Manhattan park, Central Park, except instead of a park, it is either the verb meaning “to become or make more cheerful” or the noun meaning “an advantage or benefit arising from a particular situation”—in the show, the coffee shop is often both!). 

The pack of six has a mix of economic backgrounds, covering just about every imaginable stratum on the American economic hierarchy, and a good balance of personalities and senses of humor: Chandler is a wan, middle-class corporate drone who is “fluent in sarcasm” and delivers the show’s best one-liners. Joey is an Italian-American actor from a blue-collar background who is both a ruthless womanizer and also benignly stupid, two bottomless wells for most of his jokes. Ross, meanwhile, is a whiny upper-middle-class professor of paleontology whose humor comes from being both obnoxious and curious about the world (some people conflate these). Rachel comes from significant generational wealth and manages to leap from a short-term pretend waitressing job to long-term pretend professional clothes-buying career. Her humor is alternately sarcastic, stupid, and whiny—a kind of synthesis of the three men. Phoebe is a quirky masseuse who came from extreme poverty—orphaned young and lived on the streets—and gets a good deal of mileage from weird, absurdist humor. With her esoteric beliefs and art-adjacent style, she presages the manic pixie dream girl in the way Joey anticipates the dating app fuckboy, deftly ghosting women with his landline. Monica, Ross’s sister and a chef, is funny in the way a bundle of neuroses is always funny.     

The first half of Friends made in the 1990s is better than the latter half, say, the post-9/11 episodes of the early 2000s. There are a few noticeable quality differences between the Early Friends and Latter Day Friends—the costume choices, the jokes, the setting. But there’s one glaring difference between the Early and Latter episodes: the focus on certain relationships. In its beginning, Friends was about friendships, though with some familial relationships mixed in—like Ross and Monica—probably to maintain the genre convention. Friendships, after all, have tended to be less important than families in situation comedies in general. Sitcoms arose in the wake of the Second World War and quickly became some of the most popular televised programming. Probably the most common thread running through them is their focus on dramas among nuclear family members

Early Friends, in its focus on friendships, was also notable because the nature of human connection was changing at that time. Friends depicted platonic solidarity and unconditional love at a time when neoliberalism contributed to increasing real-world levels of alienation. While an epidemic of loneliness, antisocial behavior, and disconnection from traditional sources of community rose, we can infer that genuine unconditional love between non-kin members—the kind featured so centrally in Friends—fell. Fabrics of community may have been fraying in the real world, but the characters in Friends, in their giant Greenwich Village apartment, love one another not because they share genes, but simply because they are friends. They share their property, they provide unevenly reciprocated emotional and financial support, they make major life decisions together, they show personal vulnerability with one another, and they spend all of their non-work time together. This isn’t to say that such a depiction is politically radical, though such behaviors may seem so today. But, rather, its effect on the viewer is that of a utopian fantasy that may ease the loneliness or (potential) lack of solidarity in real-life relationships. 

Furthermore, even though we think of the late 20th and early 21st centuries in the U.S. as profoundly individualistic cultures, I don’t think that individualism alone has been causing the deterioration of social connectivity. Despite Thatcher’s admonition that only individuals (and families) exist, in some ways, modern capitalist society is extremely collectivist. There is no culture of promoting the well-being of an individual or of cultivating their unique gifts. Just the opposite. Conformity is enforced in virtually all realms of life. Most people are forced into monotonous yet brutal and often low-paying jobs—or some who are well educated and privileged get a good-paying bullshit job—working for corporations that care little for their individual talents or needs, and are forced into uniform housing and neighborhoods. In this way, we sacrifice individual wants and needs for the wants and needs of an autocratic boss or “the market.” 

What early Friends captures is a totally different kind of banding together, one where seeking refuge in the relationships of those who might otherwise be competitors—through economic classes, through romantic partners—creates a real safety net of interpersonal love. Consuming that kind of immersive fantasy when reality is so contrary can be doubled edged: the viewer can gain some satisfaction from experiencing the kind of collective bonding that they might be unable to create for themselves in reality; yet they may turn to such low-risk virtual experiences repeatedly instead of trying to create community—a far riskier proposition—in real life.

Seinfeld is different. In a review that should be read with a grain of salt, conservative critic Carol Iannone writes that it “may be the first situation comedy truly to achieve the status of art.” Seinfeld, like Friends, follows the travails of a group of friends in Manhattan. The titular character, Jerry Seinfeld—also the name of the actor playing the role—is a semi-successful comedian whose blithe indifference to the well-being of those around him is either an indication of total zen equanimity or a severe personality disorder. Either way, Jerry drives much of the action. His college friend and adult sidekick, George Costanza, is a stout, balding man with histrionic tendencies. A proto-Millennial washout archetype, George leaps from job to job, moves back in with parents, and fails to maintain long lasting relationships, doing so before young adults had the excuses of recession and wage stagnation (yet he still manages to date a large number of women whose attractiveness compared with George grows increasingly unbelievable). Elaine Benes also models, in all but her clothes, an archetypal Millennial experience: the Brooklyn hipster woman. She is irreverent and witty, she is cynical and charming, she has a feminist chip on her shoulder, and she alternates between jobs in publishing and personal assistance to a richer man. Cosmo Kramer is Jerry’s lovable deadbeat neighbor—and suave style icon—who mooches off Jerry and initiates whacky schemes.        

Unlike Friends, the four leads in Seinfeld mostly detest one another, but they just can’t quit each other. There’s backstabbing, competition, and constant belittling, even as they engage in mutual parasitism on which they all seem to both thrive and wither. They’re friends because no one else can stand to be around them—a whole episode explores this when Elaine attempts to escape the other three by joining a group of well-adjusted doppelgangers, who eventually reject her. It is also worth noting in passing that the costuming on Seinfeld is better than that of Friends, so much so that it has inspired at least one Instagram account: @jawnfeld

While Friends offers an escapist opiate for the competitive, alienated hellscape, Seinfeld revels in the cruelty and absurdity of the hellscape, whether Jerry is stealing the last marble rye from an elderly woman, accidentally getting his Pakistani immigrant friend Babu deported, or dumping a woman because her hands are big, or because she pronounces papier-mâché an unacceptable way (that one was George, and both men break up with women for such superficial reasons a lot). George, meanwhile, somewhat accidentally kills his fiancée with their wedding invitation envelopes by choosing the cheapest ones that happen to be made with toxic glue. None of the four seems in any way affected by this turn of events; if anything, George is relieved and then is rewarded with a directorship at a charity in her honor. Kramer, despite being ever on the hunt for an opportunistic grift—even engaging in attempted dog assassination—is the most noble of the group, often going out of his way to help strangers, or showing a deep sense of loyalty to his friends (and their parents), yet is rarely rewarded for his generosity of spirit.     

One can be lulled by the momentum of the stories and miss the ethics at their core. It’s the finales that really reveal the values that have been driving the stories all along (or, in the case of Friends, the time after 9/11, an event that is conspicuously absent from the New York City of the Friends utopia).

For much of Friends, the show depicts a group of people deriving a sense of meaning in life from struggling with all sorts of challenges alongside their friends. They overcome financial difficulties together, spend holidays with one another, and battle the pitfalls of other relations—professional, familial, and romantic. Chandler provides a stable home and, it’s implied, pays for much of Joey’s lifestyle without ever expecting repayment as Joey pursues a precarious acting career. Monica invites Rachel into her home when Rachel cuts ties with her rich family and has no resources or job prospects. They all patiently sit through and clap for Phoebe’s horrendous open-mic performances. But that ethic of platonic solidarity is finally disavowed in the latter portion of the show, and fully demolished in the finale, when it becomes clear that the writers believe in one value, and one value only: reproducing offspring within the nuclear family. 

In Early Friends, babies are mostly treated with irreverence, either with jokes about ugly babies (also present in Seinfeld) or by keeping them well at the margins of the drama. At one point, Phoebe carries her brother’s and his wife’s triplets as a surrogate. The friend group rallies around to support Phoebe in this effort, even while showing a lack of interest in the babies themselves or the act of parenthood. Though it is an example of biological reproduction, it is an unconventional form and one in which Phoebe must break her maternal bond. It seems that the friends’ disinterest in the infants or parenting reflects yet another family value: the preference and reverence for one’s first-degree genetic kin.

In Latter Day Friends, all the Friends quickly pair-bond to prepare for the issuing of offspring, which culminates in a finale of homogeneous character arcs. Just prior to the latter episodes, Chandler and Monica marry (Season 7) and immediately become boring non-characters, dropping out of much of the drama. Monica assumes the role of domestic nag, Chandler becomes suddenly docile, too nagged to hurl sarcastic one-liners. Chandler finally sticks it to the capitalist man by leaving his soul-crushing job to pursue the calling deep in his heart: advertising. In the finale, which lays on the cloying sentimentality with a contempt one might hope is reserved for corporate advertising or state propagandists, the couple dissolves their friend group, leaves their Village unit, and moves to an affluent suburb populated by other rich corporate professionals to raise their adopted children. Their arc terminates in raising members of the next generation. 

Rachel gives up a once-in-a-lifetime (capital production) opportunity in Paris so that she and Ross can raise their child together. Phoebe’s arc is even more symbolic of this harsh value system, so it’s worth looking at in more detail: Phoebe marries not the love of her life, the quirky scientist, David, with whom she built a meaningful relationship over several years. Their relationship had been shown to be deeply compatible and their separation caused a significant sense of loss to them both. Instead, she marries some random guy introduced late in the show, Mike, with whom she builds no meaningful relationship. Significantly, from a reproductive fitness standpoint, Mike is attractive, healthy, stable, and, most importantly, rich—all vital for giving your progeny an edge in America’s Darwinian nightmare. These traits are contrasted sharply with the impoverished, socially awkward scientist in the penultimate season when Phoebe definitively and callously dumps the emotionally compatible mate for the mate with higher genetic and societal fitness. Though their shared awkwardness and quirkiness was a meaningful point of connection in earlier seasons, by season 9 it was a liability for David. In the episode where he is discarded, the group is in Barbados and David has accompanied Phoebe. After she mistakenly calls him “Mike” repeatedly and other characters ridicule him surreptitiously, he attempts to propose to Phoebe with a ring that is comically cheap—“one seventieth of a karat. And the clarity is uhm… is quite poor”—for which he is ridiculed instead of commended (he is, after all, decidedly not wealthy). 

But Monica has alerted Mike to the possibility of the proposal and secretly invites him to Barbados to intervene. He arrives just as David is about to propose. They are quite literally set side by side for comparison. When David attempts to one-up Mike by saying he has a ring, Chandler says, “I wouldn’t brag too much about that thing, big guy.” Phoebe nonchalantly rejects David without much of a second thought. His last lines are, pathetically: “Please, you don’t have to explain. I mean, perhaps if I hadn’t gone to Minsk things would have worked out for us. And I wouldn’t have ruined my career, or lost that toe to frostbite. It was a good trip!” Then he leaves. Ridiculing the impoverished academic and unceremoniously disposing of him had the dual role of emphasizing the importance of choosing the fitter reproductive mate while also reaffirming the wave of anti-intellectualism that was popular in the U.S. at the time—and that, if responses to COVID and climate change are any indication—is still gathering strength. 

In the final episode, when Monica and Chandler arrive to Central Perk with their adopted twins, Mike and Phoebe have this exchange

Mike: (To Phoebe)

I want one.


Oh yeah? Well, tell me which one, and I’ll try to slip it in my coat.


Seriously. Wanna make one of those?


One? How about a whole bunch?




Yeah! Ooh, we could teach them to sing, and we can be like the von Trapp family! Only without the Nazis. Although that sounds kinda dull.

For Friends, the arc of the social universe bends toward dullards changing diapers.

Joey, meanwhile, is left out: he’s the only character without this, or really any, conclusive arc. Though he had been a prolific sex-haver with plenty of potential unknown offspring, he is exiled from what had been a tight-knit group for 10 years—a group of people with no other friends but each other—for the crime of failing to form a stable enough mating relationship in which to raise children. He gets his own spinoff show, Joey, based on his character, but it ended up performing poorly and was soon canceled, a dismal epilogue to his character’s arc-less end: the childless actor punished with death without afterlife, or, worse, life in Los Angeles.    

In Seinfeld’s finale, the leads fly in a private jet to Paris together, but Kramer falls into the cockpit and accidentally grounds the plane in the fictional town of Latham, Massachusetts. While there, they witness a man being robbed at gunpoint. Instead of helping, they record the man with a video camera while making jokes and laughing at his plight—deftly anticipating behavior of the smartphone era by a decade. The four are arrested for not helping and are prosecuted under a “good Samaritan law” that requires people to give assistance in such events (it’s misnamed in the show; “duty to rescue” laws are the ones that require this, while good Samaritan laws are something else). While on trial, the long parade of characters from past episodes whom the four have wronged are called forward to stand as witnesses against them. The elderly victim of Jerry’s marble rye mugging has come to testify. Babu, Jerry’s deported friend, is summoned against him and leaves him with an iconic finger wagging. George’s semi-intentional homicide of his fiancée Susan floats back up to haunt him. In the final scene, the friend group, found guilty, is stuck in a cage with one another, rehashing conversations they’d been having for the past nine years. 

Jesse Armstrong, head writer of television’s best show (Succession) and co-writer of television’s third or fourth best show (Peep Show), has stated that his shows are informed by his belief that people typically do not fundamentally change, subverting the common wisdom that character drama only stems from growth or decline. I don’t know whether Seinfeld was a direct inspiration for Armstrong, but the show is an effective progenitor of this model in modern television drama and comedy. There are no arcs, growth, or progression in either the show in general or characters in particular, or really any fundamental change whatsoever with the characters’ lives and personalities. The possible exception to this is Elaine, who moves from being self-serving but optimistic to bitterly misanthropic, and becoming a funnier and more sympathetic character over the course of the show. 

Friends reaffirms the dominant ethic in society, that value and meaning can and should only be found through reproduction of human bodies. The leads all turn away from the public and retreat into their nuclear families (except for doomed himbo Joey). The final message of Seinfeld seems to be that this social Darwinian America will atomize everyone, turn them into callous assholes, and then put them in jail for it. Or rather, if you mistreat the public so wantonly, you’ll pay the price (one year in jail). It’s debatable whether reveling in this meaninglessness is subversive. I would lean toward, It’s Not. But at least—or maybe, at most—it’s honest, and funny. 

Seinfeld’s arc, or non-arc, of miserable friends stuck in jail together seems more depressing than the cheery bow tied at the end of Friends. But I find Friends much more dismal. Seinfeld invites us to laugh both at and with these absurd losers trapped in the same cage we’re all trapped in, perhaps to recognize the silly evil of the cage, or maybe to recognize our own duty to rescue a damned public. But Friends demands in earnest that we submit to the nihilistic value system that proclaims that meaning can only be found by producing more genetic copies of oneself. There’s the cage and nothing but the cage, and it’s got a mobile with hanging dinosaurs above it. 

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