No hugs, no learning” were the two, negative rules for the composition of episodes of Seinfeld, a sitcom focusing on the lives of single adults in New York City. In some ways a Seinfeld clone, Friends–which signed off Thursday night in a predictable, and mostly unfunny, series finale–was, in fact, vastly different from Seinfeld. Friends ended with a big group hug and its trademark mixture of humor interspersed with meaning-mongering, relationship-analysis. Friends is Seinfeld with and for beautiful people, whose brand of humor is most accurately described as cute.
This is not to deny that Friends has many strengths; like all successful sitcoms, it features lively dialogue and well-defined characters that share great chemistry. It might even seem that Friends with its theme-song communitarianism–”I’ll be there for you because you’re there for me”–was morally superior to Seinfeld.
None of the Seinfeld characters had any sense, beyond momentary or habitual appetites, of purpose to their lives. For these characters, marriage, family, and the American dream are elusive to the point of being illusions. Family life, which formed the dramatic and more or less overtly moral framework of the classical American sitcom, is not just unlikely for the Seinfeld characters; it is impossible. The break-ups in Seinfeld are always inevitable and always occasioned by something utterly trivial: a woman who eats peas one at a time or a man who fails to write an exclamation point at the end of a phone message containing exciting news.
On Friends, by contrast, the relationships, break-ups, possible and actual reunions are subjects of endless speculation and anticipation, although Friends has been blessedly free of the excessive self-importance that has often characterized teen shows such as Dawson’s Creek. One of the great virtues of the Friends’s cast is the self-effacing humor of which each of the main characters is capable, especially the charmingly dim Joey and the ever self-mocking Chandler. Joey’s intellectual ineptitude was always treated gently. For example, when Joey asks, “If the homo sapiens were actually homo sapiens, do you suppose that’s why they became extinct?,” Ross responds with mild frustration, “Joey, homo sapiens are human.” Joey says reassuringly, “Oh, I’m not being judgmental.” The humor on Friends is always light and essentially upbeat; whatever frustrations they might endure, these characters will realize their aspirations or at least achieve a reasonable degree of happiness.
Beneath Seinfeld’s witty and hugely entertaining verbal repartee was a dark inversion of the American dream. If the former was supplied by Jerry Seinfeld, the latter was inspired by Larry David, whose vision of human life is now more purely on display in his HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm. Nearly every episode of Seinfeld ended with the frustration of the desires or plans of one or more of the central characters. Seinfeld perfected the art of the unhappy but funny ending; the characters laughed at, more than with, one another.
It is not possible as a viewer to imagine oneself happy in the world of Seinfeld, while every fan of Friends wants to be Rachel or Chandler.
Seinfeld is much rougher and darker than Friends could ever imagine being. In this, it is not just a better reflection of New York City life–Friends’s New York, like Ally McBeal’s Boston, is any big city with a coffeeshop (a bar, in McBeal’s case). Seinfeld is also a more honest sitcom, especially when it comes to relationships and sexuality.
Seinfeld’s characters were indeed preoccupied with sex; the satisfaction of sexual desire freed from all of the human complications is the last residue of the American dream in the Seinfeld’s world. But, like all other dreams of happiness and satisfaction in Seinfeld, this, too, is an illusion. In a world where the desire for pleasure cannot be ordered by anything outside itself, sex becomes a matter of cold, calculative self-interest. Romance is dead. When Elaine’s favorite contraceptive device, the sponge, goes off the market, she must ration her remaining products and introduces a complicated screening process to determine whether potential mates are “sponge-worthy.” When Jerry expresses a preference for walking dates because there’s not a lot of “face to face,” Elaine observes, “It’s almost as good as being alone.”
Like the Seinfeld characters, the characters on Friends are obsessed with sex, although Seinfeld was much more creative and more indirect in its discussion of sex. In one of the last episodes, the cleaning out of a Monica’s closet in the apartment she inherited from her grandmother uncovers handcuffs. Monica soon discovers pictures that reveal the owner of the cuffs. “Nana liked it rough!” Monica gushes. Friends gives us a much sunnier picture of the satisfaction of sexual appetite, of its easy compatibility with other things we want and desire.
Going into the final episode, the big unresolved issue was whether Rachel and her baby would leave for Paris or remain in New York and thus continue the hope of a reunion with Ross, the child’s father. It is instructive that amid all of Rachel’s “should I stay or should I go?” deliberations and Ross’s conniving to keep her from going, the baby is barely even mentioned. After they sleep together on the eve of her departure, the question is: “What did it mean?” For Rachel, it was the perfect way to say goodbye, but Ross sees it as a sign of a reunion that ought to be. Still, no mention of the baby. The audience is too busy oohing and aahing over Chandler and Monica’s newly adopted twins to notice the absence of the other child or the way the child never figures in their declarations of love for one another.
Of course, the predictable occurs and the characters all have their desires satisfied. In the logic of the world of Friends, no good thing can be denied to attractive, nice people. They get it all: sex, friendship, and–the crowning possession–children.