The Friends fallacies
Last year, the real estate site Movoto took a close look at the houses and apartments featured in fifteen iconic television series, crunching the numbers to see which characters would really be able to afford the homes in which their fictional lives took place. Not surprisingly, many shows turned out to paint an unrealistic picture of how much house you can have, and the lead exhibit, as usual, was Friends. Rachel and Monica—a fashion coordinator and a chef—were estimated to earn a combined monthly salary of $9,300, while a comparable apartment of 1,126 square feet in Greenwich Village would set them back $5,000 every month, or well over half their gross income. “Most sitcoms,” a related article on Fast Company concludes, “ultimately serve as lifestyle advertising,” and there’s no question that viewers are often left with unrealistic expectations about the quality of life they can reasonably expect upon, say, moving to New York after college. But this only gets at part of the answer. If the apartment on Friends is twice the size it should be, it’s because it’s essentially an ordinary apartment cut in half longitudinally and unfolded to create an invisible proscenium arch. Monica and Rachel aren’t living alone: they’re sharing the space with three cameras.
The sets in sitcoms, in other words, aren’t explicitly designed to arouse viewer envy, at least not in terms of their size: they’re simply a pragmatic response to the logistics of shooting a three-camera sitcom with a live audience, and the proportions of these apartments roughly match those of the soundstage. In another Fast Company article, the interior designer Iñaki Aliste Lizarralde, who is often asked to recreate sitcom sets for his clients, goes into greater detail about the compromises that the format entails:
Almost all the shows have triangular proportions to lend the sensation of depth to the sets. Even the apparently squared sets are in fact trapezoidal…and sometimes it’s very difficult to translate to a sheet as “real houses” because all the tricks of the set decorators are in evidence.
A show filmed using a single camera isn’t subject to the same limitations, which is why a series like Girls can get away with sticking its characters into cramped, depressing, “realistic” spaces. Whether Friends would have seized the imagination of its audience to the same extent if it had been shot in the same way is something we’ll never know. But there’s no doubt that some combination of the show’s practical demands and the attractiveness of the cast and their stories fused into one in the minds of many viewers, until they could no longer safely be separated.
It’s a pattern that we see repeated in other elements of storytelling, in which conventions that were originally introduced to solve specific problems of writing, staging, acting, or direction become bundled up with the larger fantasy that the narrative presents. The fact that actors in so many movies and television shows are always smoking doesn’t point to a vast conspiracy with the tobacco companies: it’s more a reflection of an actor’s need to do something with his or her hands. Actors are always looking for bits of business, and the cigarette—with the rituals of lighting, puffing, gesturing, and stubbing it out on the ashtray—is manifestly the best prop ever devised, even if its collateral damage has been immense. Similarly, the ensemble cast of a show like Friends, which provides writers with useful pairings and combinations for generating plots, leads to a form of unrealism of its own. Most of us don’t spend our lives hanging out with the same set of six friends from our twenties, and we don’t engage in humorous adventures with our colleagues after work. People drift apart; they move away; they find themselves more preoccupied with marriage and children; and the last thing many of us want to do is spend more time with the people we see at the office. But none of this prevents me from watching Parks and Recreation and feeling a stab of regret that I never found that kind of family in the workplace. (If anything, shows that have suffered from creative turnover, with supporting players disappearing abruptly and stars departing over contract disputes, are closer to real life than the few that manage to keep their core casts intact.)
You could even say that the idea of a plot itself affects the way we see our own lives, and not always for the better. For reasons of economy, fiction is usually tightly focused on one aspect of the protagonist’s world: our real lives are a constant balance between the competing demands of work, love, family, and other kinds of fulfillment, while stories generally only have room for one of the above. That’s often the correct choice, as far as constructing a workable plot is concerned, but it rarely reflects the complexity and messiness of everyday reality. And the imperative for a story to deliver a neat beginning, middle, and end has problems of its own. A romantic comedy, for instance, focuses on a single slice in the story of two people, and very few have ever tried to consider what might happen in the years and decades after that closing kiss. (From a viewer’s perspective, this isn’t always a bad thing. Many of the best fictional romances actively create a dynamic of tensions that would realistically shake any relationship apart within a matter of weeks. It’s hard to imagine Cary Grant settling down with the Katherine Hepburn of Bringing Up Baby, but that movie is so fun precisely because it creates an impossible pairing and focuses intently on the handful of days in which it could be expected to survive.) Movies and television aren’t out to fill us with dissatisfaction: they’re only trying to crack the hard problem of holding our attention for an hour or two. But when we make lives of our own, we need to use a different set of blueprints.