I’m a huge fan of the television series Friends. It would be impossible to count how many times I’ve seen each episode across it’s 25-year history on our screens - often, it’s on in the background when I cook, do housework, and things like that.
For me, it’s the tv show equivalent of a comfy pair of sweatpants. It’s comfortable, soothing, light-hearted and well, ‘there for you.’ Just like your perfect pair of sweatpants, the group of friends on the series is always there each other throughout it all. Even more than that, it seems that for the viewer, the group dynamic situational comedy formula can deliver big psychological benefits.
I realized that the reason why I find the show so comforting isn’t just the familiarity - it’s in the process of watching a whole set of various situations and circumstances play themselves out across the group and dealt with within a relatively short time frame. Processing, reacting, resolving.
According to Marc Hester, a clinical psychologist at London's The Summit Clinic, watching Friends—and other sitcoms like it, which set up a problem and solve it in the span of 30 minutes or less—may help reduce anxiety. For Hekster, part of the soothing nature of sitcoms is the lighthearted way in which characters deal with life’s uncertainties. He claims that watching Friends "is about an experience of repair, of watching the characters in the show repeatedly having worries, which then get repaired and soothed, usually in the context of other relationships in their lives.”
As each situation develops and plays itself out across the group, we observe each character react in their own way and we watch them figure out how to get to a decent outcome. Whether they end up hilarious (like Ross, Rachel and Chandler trying to get Ross’s new couch up the stairs), relatable (Rachel quitting her job at Central Perk and apply to her dream job by using Joey’s “ya gotta have The Fear” pep talk), or devastating (such as Chandler having to give the fertility results to Monica after the doctor’s phone call), we see a group of young people handle life as it happens. And then we watch what happens next.
Granted, not many people can relate to a group of characters who have a surprisingly huge amount of free time on their hands - I’ve never seen a professional chef with as much down-time as Monica - but everyone can relate to the stress of life’s uncertainties. Somehow, for me at least (but I suspect I’m hardly alone) it makes me approach all of my own situations with a lot more confidence.
After all, who knows what will happen; but at least there will be a story to tell and lessons learned. Rachel’s Thanksgiving Trifle. The Geller Cup. A blue nail in the quiche during Monicas’s first catering job. And of course, “Smelly Cat.”
Other great group dynamic sitcom shows like Frasier and The Golden Girls deliver the same anxiety-soothing benefits. The Office is another solid choice. The magic is in the group and in the way problems come and go - we laugh, we cry, we relate. The longer the series run the better, because the characters have a past. There are so many complexities, and so much to handle.
Every day when I turn Friends, this “Sweatpants of Shows,” I am interacting with the ambitious concept that everything will get handled in due time, and with some kind of resolution. All wrapped in 90’s fashion, music and technology in way that I remember all too well.
That nostalgia factor is also a powerful comfort tool, one that some experts say is because television from yesteryear can make us feel safe and secure in a world that feels increasingly chaotic. It’s like mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving, just like your grandmother made. Suddenly everything feels just a little more soothing when you tuck into a nice big helping of either those delicious potatoes or “The One Where No One’s Ready.”
While I can’t even imagine actually living life with big group dynamic like that, I can certainly enjoy watching them all “attempt to handle this.” As I reflect on the psychological benefits of observing it all take place, I have a much deeper appreciation for my love for the series. The next time I accidentally watch five or six episodes in a row, I can say I’m doing it for my health.