Maverick Life

THE CONVERSATION

The enduring appeal of Friends, and why so many of us feel we’ve lost a personal friend in Matthew Perry

The enduring appeal of Friends, and why so many of us feel we’ve lost a personal friend in Matthew Perry
Matthew Perry attends the GQ Men of the Year Party 2022 at The West Hollywood EDITION on November 17, 2022 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for GQ)

The death of Matthew Perry has seen old and new fans reflect on the legacy of a television classic.

The death of Matthew Perry, best known for his role as Chandler Bing in the television series Friends, has seen an outpouring of grief from fans and the Hollywood community. His passing at age 54 has shocked both those who admired his acting work, as well as those who followed his efforts to bring awareness to the pains of addiction.

Tributes to Perry have understandably focused on his star-making turn on the incredibly popular television sitcom. Scenes, catchphrases, and his character’s lines have been lovingly repurposed across the internet to memorialise the gifted actor.

@cskinsedits rest in peace Matthew Perry. #matthewperry #friends #chandlerbing ♬ original sound – cskins

Meanwhile, many viewers have situated their recollections of Perry and the series within the context of their own experiences.

Viewers who came of age, or were the characters’ ages during the show’s original run, have reminisced about what the work of Perry and his co-stars meant to them at formative times in their lives. Newer viewers have similarly shared how important the series has been to them – their relationship with the show often beginning long after production ended.

For many, Friends was the television equivalent of the soundtrack to their lives.

To appreciate the staying power of the series for original and newer viewers alike almost 30 years after it debuted, we need to consider what functions television viewing serves and the bonds we form with its characters.

Enduring appeal

Part of Friends’ popularity lies in its timing. The show premiered in 1994, a period when network television was still dominant. By its end a decade later, while the power of the big television networks had eroded, the series had maintained an average of more than 20 million viewers each season.

The 2004 finale brought in a record-breaking 52.5 million viewers in the United States. The series then entered repeats around the world. It hasn’t left our screens since. The late 90s and early 2000s have sometimes been referred to as the end of monoculture. While a contested and controversial idea because of, among other concerns, who was included and excluded on our screens, monoculture meant we watched many of the same things.

LOS ANGELES - MAY 6: (L-R) In this handout photo provided by NBC, the cast of "Friends", actors Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, Courteney Cox-Arquette, David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston sat down with Jay Leno for a special "Tonight Show," on the set of Central Perk on May 6, 2004 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBC via Getty Images)

The cast of “Friends”, actors Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, Courteney Cox-Arquette, David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston sat down with Jay Leno for a special “Tonight Show,” on the set of Central Perk on May 6, 2004 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBC via Getty Images)

Actors David Schwimmer, Matthew Perry and Matt LeBlanc sat down with Jay Leno for a special “Tonight Show,” on the set of Central Perk on May 6, 2004 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBC via Getty Images)

UNDATED PHOTO: Actors Courteney Cox Arquette (L), Jennifer Aniston (C) and Matthew Perry are shown in a scene from the NBC series "Friends". The series received 11 Emmy nominations, including outstanding comedy series, by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences July 18, 2002 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Warner Bros. Television/Getty Images)

Actors Courteney Cox Arquette (L), Jennifer Aniston (C) and Matthew Perry are shown in a scene from the NBC series “Friends”. (Photo by Warner Bros. Television/Getty Images)

LOM04-19980327-LONDON: American actor Matthew Perry (L), who plays Chandler in the American show 'Friends', trips during filming at the Tower of London watched by Matt Le Blanc (C) who plays Joey and Virgin airline boss Richard Branson (R), who plays a souvenir seller, 27 March. The hit American show is in Britain to film the cliffhanger final episode of the current series in which actor David Schwimmer's character Ross is due to marry Emily, played by British star Helen Baxendale. EPA PHOTO Gerry PENNY

American actor Matthew Perry (L), who plays Chandler in the American show ‘Friends’, trips during filming at the Tower of London watched by Matt Le Blanc (C) who plays Joey and Virgin airline boss Richard Branson (R), who plays a souvenir seller, 27 March. The hit American show is in Britain to film the cliffhanger final episode of the current series in which actor David Schwimmer’s character Ross is due to marry Emily, played by British star Helen Baxendale. Image: EPA PHOTO Gerry PENNY

One of the most popular shows of its era, Friends brought people together. It was a show we watched with our families or friends, and spoke about the next day with colleagues, and it provided a common connection. It allowed bonding with real friends as much as with fictional ones.

Friends did not only reflect the style of the time; it also frequently created it. Jennifer Aniston’s haircut, coined “The Rachel”, or Perry’s lovable smart-alecky cadence, typified with Chandler’s catchphrase of “Could I be any more…”, were endlessly imitated. I know I attempted to replicate Chandler’s sweater vests and light blue denim look. Participation provided viewers with a sense of identity.

As people enter their 30s and 40s, they often gravitate towards the memories made during their formative adolescent and young adult years. So perhaps it’s no surprise Friends endures for original viewers as it represents – and was a part of – their lives at this important time.

Likeable characters

Television and other fictional media meet our needs for both pleasure and extracting meaning. We get excited, entertained, and moved by television. As part of this, we bond with fictional characters. We cannot help but empathise with them. A series like Friends with its characters and their combinations of breakups, makeups and other mishaps allowed us to safely use our empathy muscles to cheer on and sometimes commiserate with the group of six. It helped that each character was flawed but inherently likeable.

Fictional characters also allow us to experience lifestyles we might not otherwise. In the case of Friends, who didn’t want to live in a rent-controlled apartment like Monica’s, or regularly meet their supportive and funny pals for coffee at Central Perk? As a teen, I imagined such a world for myself in the not-too-distant future.

Younger generations might be more aware of how out-of-reach that lifestyle was, or find the show’s humour sometimes dated. But the idea of what the friends’ lifestyle represented – possibility, freedom, a chosen family – evidently still holds appeal.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 22: Matthew Perry appears on stage at the 2023 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at the University of Southern California on April 22, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)

Matthew Perry appears on stage at the 2023 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at the University of Southern California on April 22, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)

epa10950966 People gather at a memorial of flowers and notes left in memory of late actor Matthew Perry in front of the building used as an exterior in the sitcom 'Friends' in New York, New York, USA, 31 October 2023. Perry, who is best known for his role a Chandler Bing in the television show 'Friends,' was found unresponsive in his hot tub at his Los Angeles, California, home on 28 October 2023. EPA-EFE/JUSTIN LANE

People gather at a memorial of flowers and notes left in memory of late actor Matthew Perry in front of the building used as an exterior in the sitcom ‘Friends’ in New York, New York, USA, 31 October 2023. Perry, who is best known for his role as Chandler Bing in the television show ‘Friends,’ was found unresponsive in his hot tub at his Los Angeles, California, home on 28 October 2023. EPA-EFE/JUSTIN LANE

Fictional relationships, but real sadness

In forming relationships with fictional characters, we form bonds with the performers who bring them to life. The lines between character and creator become blurry, both because of the knowledge about actors’ lives celebrity culture affords us, but also because their characters seem so real. When the actors pass away, we feel real grief.

It’s important for fans of Matthew Perry to acknowledge their loss. Even though his character is fictional, and you didn’t know him personally, you can still feel sad. Watching the series may be difficult right now. With time, it will become easier.

Matthew Perry wanted his legacy to be awareness of addiction and the help he provided to people struggling with this disorder. Hopefully what will be felt now, alongside collective sadness, is an empathy for those facing addiction. That may be the power of television, and of a character named Chandler, and the actor who brought him to life, who many considered their friend. DM 

This story was first published in The Conversation. 

Adam Gerace is a Senior Lecturer and Head of Course – Positive Psychology, CQUniversity Australia.

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • cunninghamcvb says:

    Amongst all the tributes and references to Perry’s life and filmography, I’m bemused that I’ve yet to see reference to what I’d class as a critical movie he made, “NUMB”, in which he portrays himself, and his family, and his counsellors remarkably well. There’s remarkable redemption in the end, and some delightful, if rather adult humour.
    Not to be confused with the movie also titled Numb about Canadians in the frozen North, dying of cold while trying to conceal their discovery of a treasure trove.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options