"Friends" for Life

Remember at the end of Friends when everything worked out great for everyone just before they hit 30?  Ross and Rachel finally got together and put an end to that ridiculous Rachel and Joey subplot, sending Matt LaBlanc off to L.A. where he would later be forced to make a movie with a monkey.  And there was Monica and Chandler with those two babies that Ana Faris had birthed for them, moving out to the suburbs to become middle-aged and boring?  Something good happened for Phoebe too, I'm sure. 

Now it's seven years later, and two "friends" have returned to network television.  "Monica" currently resides in ABC's Cougar Town under the alias of "Jules Cobb."  Having grossly miscalculated the staying power of the sexually predatory middle-aged woman as a cultural icon, Cougar Town has to be the most unfortunately titled show since CBS's ill-fated Stoned, their notorious "Pet Rock" sitcom back in '78.  Despite this gross error in judgment, however, Cougar Town has somehow settled into a successful transplantation of Friends to a Florida cul-de-sac (and a boat, and some kind of outdoor plaza place where everyone hangs out drinking wine).  Advances in TV writing and editing have allowed this tight-knit social circle of 39-somethings to deliver witty banter at an even more breakneck pace than Monica's old pals back in Manhattan, an accomplishment that is particularly remarkable given the inexorable synaptic decay that typically comes with middle-age and the incredibly high levels of humidity that come with Tampa Bay. 

Not to be outdone, Chandler has now resurfaced as Mr. Sunshine, currently playing in Cougar Town's time slot (was this part of their divorce settlement--joint custody of Wednesdays at 9:30?).  Matthew Perry is now Ben Donovan, manager of a mutli-use arena in San Diego called the Sunshine Center. Judging from the premiere, the Sunshine Center will be prone to complexly interwoven shaggy dog stories that resolve unexpectedly in the final block, acted out by a family of workplace eccentrics who serve at the pleasure of an imperious and frequently inebriated Wendy Malick..err, strike that, Allison Janney. 

In Cougar Town, Courtney Cox plays a divorced mom of one, apparently transitioning into a new and improved relationship.   Mr. Sunshine, on the other hand, has signaled that its ongoing element of "drama" will be yet another examination of the "arrested" American male, and in particular, the white middle-class American male who spent the "Friends" years buying clothes, cars, and condos while avoiding any long-term commitments to the crushing heteronormative burdens of marriage, children, mortgages, and "taking shit seriously."  In the premiere episode, Donovan realizes that he's 42 and all alone in the world (except for his zany work pals, of course), initiating the series' central challenge: snark-boy must grow up and start a family before its too late, most likely by rescuing his "friend with benefits" from her burgeoning relationship with their insanely over-optimistic co-worker. 

As argued previously, the culture industries have set up a wonderfully diabolical and profitable dynamic around the "crisis" of the arrested male--making the mid-life epiphanies of such men the centerpiece of much recent comedy.  Having helped create a world that worships the energy and elasticity of a perpetually delayed adulthood--both in terms of day-to-day behavior and the habits of cultural consumption--the very same industry has lately taken to making films and TV shows about "man-boys" teetering on the brink of disaster because they have yet to "grow up," who have so far "failed" to find an age-appropriate position that would allow them to contribute to the society's shared responsibilities of productive labor and productive love.  Thus, "40 year-old virgin" Andy Stitzer (Steve Carrell) must sell off his collection of mint in-the-box action figures so that he might successfully couple with Catherine Keener and open his own business.  In Step Brothers (2008), Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly both reluctantly decide to become functional adults--but still get to have an awesome tree-house in the back yard.  In I Love You Man (2009), Paul Rudd eventually realizes that getting married may actually be a better option than masturbating in the garage to Rush records.

Back in the 1990s, those hoping for a more "morally responsible" model of adult existence often attributed the nation's descent into anomic narcissism to the disengaged irony of Seinfeld.    A decade later, however, Seinfeld's universe of constant kvetching plays closer to A Serious Man (2009) than any sacrament of relativistic hipsterism.  Plus, the main players on Seinfeld all seemed to have already arrived at whatever they were going to be in life--successful comic, long-suffering putz, neurotic mid-manager, and mysteriously solvent doofus. 

Friends has much more blood on its hands.  Operating somewhere between cause and symptom, the series expanded the middle-class ritual of taking a year or two off after college into a full decade of lounging around doing pretty much nothing.  Worse yet, after ten years of drinking coffee and hanging out in an apartment that even a Kardashian couldn't afford, each friend was rewarded with a "dream" career suddenly dropped in their lap: actor, Paris-bound Barneys buyer, paleontology professor at NYU, folk singer, chef turned restaurateur.  The only one that had a "real job" was Chandler--no wonder he was so irritable all the time.  It was the perfect sitcom for a decade of endless consumerism bolstered by a sense that everything would basically work out okay in the end (imagine the credit card debt those kids must have had living in Manhattan all those years working service jobs!).

But with Mr. Sunshine, perhaps we are to assume that everything didn't necessarily work out so great for the Friends-folk (and the generation--be it X, Y or X/Y--that they symbolize.  The notoriously unwed and childless Jennifer Aniston, after all, is now currently in a movie where she plays an anti-cockblocker helping man-child extraordinaire Adam Sandler get in the bikini of a much younger, hotter woman.  As for Kudrow's "Pheebs"--how could she not have ended up living in an alley somewhere in the Bronx?).  From Mr. Sunshine's opening episode, it would seem Ben Donovan has spent the last ten years living in the world Chandler Bing himself created, a penchant for corrosive "snark" and self-centered cynicism having produced---not a normative life of 30-something marital bliss in Westchester--but an ongoing exile of emotional detachment and dysfunction. 

Happily for Ben (and his peers), however, the goalposts have been moved back once again.  40 is now the new 30, at least in terms of feeling some potential embarrassment for having not "settled down" to assume the rather unimaginative life plan society has worked out for most of us.   Shifting this "crisis" from 30 to 40, both on TV and film, makes the oppressive "normalizing" impulse in this convention even more palpable, an energy that feeds on the guilt/anxiety of its target audience for having not yet realized a professional/familial "ideal" that is itself increasingly impossible.  Maybe I'll be "normal" at 30, at 35, at 40.  I'm sure after four or five seasons (should he last that long), "Mr. Sunshine" will at last "come home" to the very model of marriage and work that produced him back in the 1970s--but most likely it will be only another illusion, just like Ross and Rachel's unlikely "Hail Mary pass" at the end of Friends.  As this generation moves through life, I'm looking forward to seeing Matt LeBlanc return as a 49 year old "Joey," still living alone in a studio apartment in Van Nuys and waiting for his big break in Hollywood, but beginning to realize that he should probably just "settle" for marrying his divorced real estate agent girlfriend and taking that job teaching theater at the local junior high.  New on Fox this fall: Functional at Fifty!

Given the ubiquity of this plot, I've come to have increasing respect for Charlie Harpersheen over at Two and a Half Men.  For reasons I'm not sure I fully understand nor am I willing to disclose at the moment, I've seen about 20 or 30 episodes of Two and a Half Men over the past couple of months.  As a devoted aficionado of comedy so clever you often can't tell if its actually funny, I started watching America's most popular sitcom as a kind of sick joke (after a brave colleague introduced the show to our introductory media studies class as an example of something Americans actually watch in significant numbers, as opposed to say, Boardwalk Empire).

Early on, I was predictably appalled. Has there ever been a primetime network show with more jokes about dicks, balls, assholes, vaginas, boobs, taints, semen, menstruation, KY jelly, golden showers, masturbation, blow-jobs, cunnilingus, 3-ways, straight-sex, gay sex, bi-sex, transvestism, transsexualism, fetishism, and the various muscle-groups strained by the more ambitious sexual positions?  No, I would say there has not. 

Over time, however, I have developed an appreciation for the purity of the show's vision, especially the dedicated performances of the two leads.  Realizing that Jon Cryer's hapless "Alan Harper" is actually a fairly brilliant channeling of Barney Fife was a good start.  And now that Charlie Harpersheen is in rehab for his cocaine/prostitute addiction, can we finally honor his incredible commitment to "the method" in bringing us the weekly misadventures of a drunken playboy?

As a vehicle for dick jokes, Two and Half Men is fairly predictable in its structure (or to be more charitable, consistently polished in its execution).  But as a subtle protest against the ongoing attempt to redeem the "arrested" male at 40, the show is actually fairly subversive.  Consider Charlie Harpersheen's daily routine:   He gets up around noon and says goodbye to his most recent one-night stand.  He has some kind of a breakfast/lunch served with a "hair of the dog" before sitting down at his piano to "work" for a couple hours on a jingle or two to pay the bills.  By late afternoon he's on his Malibu oceanside deck, having a cocktail and watching the sunset.  If his idiot brother and nephew haven't enveloped him in some type of comic complication, he then goes out for an expensive dinner with that night's date and the whole process begins anew.  His brother, meanwhile, did get married and pursue a "respectable" career (chiropractor!), and all he got for his troubles was a woefully moronic son and the privilege of being thrown out of his own house.  From what I can tell of the overall series arc, the show has gradually made Charlie's perpetual "adolescence" a central concern (his unwillingness to wear long pants, for example), and the most recent seasons have centered on his complicated engagement with the woman whom, given the overall logic of the series, is supposed to be his "true love."  

But even as the program insists, as it must, that Charlie Harpersheen relent in his irresponsible, childish womanizing and drinking, the overall architecture of the series--even down to the breezy mise-en-scene of his bought-and-paid for Malibu hacienda--reiterates just how little incentive Charlie has to give up his life as a perfect consumer--of liquor, of cigars, of women, of fine automobiles. Early in the series, there was at least some attempt to forge an ersatz father-son relationship between Charlie and his still somewhat cute nephew Jake.  But as Jake gets older and stupider, more annoying than adorable, even this incentive for "reform" has become increasingly ridiculous--at the first mention of "kids," Charlie is out the door.

Perhaps the schizoid fantasy of Two and a Half Men explains why a rather stridently puritan moralism has crept over into Harpersheen's real life as well.  Shortly after Charlie's most recent escapade, the one that landed him in rehab and put the show into its current hiatus, several entertainment pundits hinted that Harpersheen should personally pay the salaries of the cast and crew left idle while he dries out.  At the risk of echoing the Republican "punishing success" meme...really?  It seems to me that the cast and crew have been riding a fairly lucrative Charlie-train for 6 or 7 years now, saved the yearly horror of having to find some risky property to attach themselves to in order to survive until the next pilot season.  Harpersheen, meanwhile, has destroyed his family, his liver, his nasal cavities, and probably any hope of a "normal" future so as to better fulfill our national fantasy of what life might be like if we had the money, property, and looks to avoid any and all responsibilities (save, of course, assuming prudent protections against STDs).   

Perhaps this explains the enigma of how Harpersheen can still have an incredibly popular TV series even while engaged in such anti-social behavior.  "Charlie" is both revolting and fascinating precisely because he has avoided--so far--the fate of Friends 2.0  like Jules Cobb and Ben Donovan.  While they struggle to make "real life" work before it's too late, Charlie is living a consumer fantasy even more core to American identity than faith, family, and friendship:   If I only had the money, I'd tell everyone to f#@k off!

My thanks to Max Dawson for being that brave colleague.  

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