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‘Friends’ reunion: Why the Arab world can’t get enough of hit show

The cast has now reunited for a special behind-the-scenes show that has fans across the world clearing their schedule on May 27 and stocking up on popcorn. (Screengrab)
The cast has now reunited for a special behind-the-scenes show that has fans across the world clearing their schedule on May 27 and stocking up on popcorn. (Screengrab)
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26 May 2021 02:05:31 GMT9
26 May 2021 02:05:31 GMT9

Arab News

Almost 27 years ago, viewers got their first glimpse of a show that would go on to dominate viewing figures, watercooler chat, and tabloids for the next decade: “Friends.” Now, the cast has reunited for a special behind-the-scenes show that has fans across the world clearing their schedule on May 27 and stocking up on popcorn. 

“I am very excited. It is lovely to see them look back at their old selves and recreate some of their famous lines. The trailer seems very thrilling and I can’t wait to get together with my friends to watch the episode,” said UAE-based fan Hana Saleh of the upcoming reunion show, which will see the cast get back together in the original studio, testing their trivia knowledge of the show, revisiting key sets, re-reading their lines, and joining TV host James Corden for a joint sit-down interview in front of a live audience.

“I grew up watching ‘Friends’ with my own family, so it will be a really nice experience to reminisce all the memories during the reunion episode along with them,” Egyptian fan Kareem Nagy added. 

It’s doubtful that even the most optimistic of TV executives would have dreamed of the stratospheric success that the sitcom — which followed the life of six 20-something friends (three men, three women — all white, all good-looking) living in New York — would go on to enjoy.

The writers’ great trick was to make the six characters broad and accessible, but (just) variable enough to have some depth and become more than two-dimensional stereotypes. So, everyone recognized themselves or a friend in dim, kind-hearted womanizer and struggling actor Joey; or in uptight, anxious Ross; or bossy-but-well-meaning Monica; ditzy, privileged Rachel; sarcastic, insecure Chandler; or in kooky, but often insightful, free spirit Phoebe.

The show’s 238 episodes made superstars of its six relatively unknown leads, earned 63 Emmy nominations (and six wins), spawned “The Rachel” (reportedly the most-requested hairstyle of all time), and were seen all around the world countless times on syndication (which the six savvy stars still earn a percentage of, netting around $20 million a year each, according to USA Today). Its popularity was — and remains — staggering. Thanks to its ubiquity on international networks, “Friends” is probably into its third generation of fans.

The show’s 238 episodes made superstars of its six relatively unknown leads, earned 63 Emmy nominations (and six wins). (AFP)

And the Middle East is far from immune to its charms. Arab News spoke to several regional fans from different generations who praised the show’s universality. 

“I’ve been watching the show for over 10 years and I never seem to get bored of it, it gets funnier and funnier the more I watch it,” said 22-year-old Palestinian fan Sarah Khader. 

Meanwhile, Souhail Halwani, who is in his 40s, said “Friends” has been a constant companion for more than half his life in a  previous interview with Arab News.

“I used to wait for each DVD to come out and I would buy it (straight away),” he said. “I still watch it. When I have time, I’ll play it on Netflix.

In series 4, episode 15 Chandler takes an unplanned trip to Yemen. Scroll down to watch the hilarious clip. (YouTube)

“Me and people from my generation, we used to watch a lot of other sitcoms that lasted for a while, but I no longer watch any of the others. With ‘Friends,’ you can relate to the cast — you can relate to the day-to-day things that happen to them: The fun side of it, the sarcasm and the funny way they (made light of) a bad situation,” he continued. “Even knowing what happens — I know almost all the scenes — I still laugh. Like, I know Ross’s reactions, but I’ll be waiting for it and I will laugh every time.”

Not everyone agreed, of course. Talla Al-Khafaji, 31, felt the show has dated badly in a previous interview with Arab News: “For starters, they always use the fact that Monica used to be overweight as a punch line — as if being overweight is comical. Also, there are no people of color on the show, despite the fact that it’s New York, (which is) full of diverse ethnicities. Additionally, there have been various occasions where Ross and Chandler, who are super-misogynistic, have made jokes about being attracted to teenagers, and that’s problematic.”

In one of the show’s few references to Arab food and culture, Ross threatens Rachel’s sister Amy with a falafel ban. Scroll down to watch the comical clip. (YouTube)

For his part, 27-year-old Daoud Tabibzada told Arab News this week that he “definitely loved Friends when I was growing up and I have re-watched it multiple times. However, the more I grow older, the more I see the apparent character flaws in the show. So many questions start to arise when re-watching that it actually gets you upset. Why did Joey become this big ‘man child’… He was legitimately the best character in the show, but the writers decided to dumb him down for comedic relief which was such a poor decision. Do not get me started with Ross, why was he so unlikeable?… They were all also terrible friends to each other and to other people. A lot of backstabbing and lying.”

“All in all, ‘Friends’ is the perfect background noise while you scroll through your social media apps. Other than that, re-watching the series unironically in this day and age will have you wanting to scream at the TV,” Tabibzada added.

Certainly, it’s reasonable to say that — by today’s social standards — “Friends” has issues. But it’s also reasonable to question if a sitcom from an era when “The Benny Hill Show” was still considered by many to be wholesome family fun should really be held to those standards. The majority of its fans would likely say not. Yes, there was little-to-no representation of ethnic diversity (Arabs barely got a look in, except for a falafel salesman whom Rachel’s sister mistakes for Ross, and a crowd of Yemenis at the airport in the episode where Chandler claims he’s been reassigned to “15 Yemen Road, Yemen” in an effort to break up with his girlfriend, Janice), but the immaculate writing and performances, it seems, are enough to make up for that. 

And for industry insiders, including Mazen Hayek, who was group director of commercial, PR and CSR at MBC (which screened “Friends” in the region for many years with Arabic subtitles, although it was never dubbed) at the time of this interview conducted to celebrate the show’s 25th anniversary in 2019, the show is a shining example of television’s potential for mass appeal.

“The series embodies the best of the comedy genre,” Hayek said. “It’s light and funny, entertaining, insightful, tackles real societal issues, appeals to all family members and is — mostly — fit to be viewed any time, anywhere, by a global audience.”

John Korounis, a spokesman for the official Warner Bros. Studio tour in Hollywood, agreed. “It’s all about the friends. It’s not about current events, so none of the show really hinges on what’s happening in the world,” he said. “It’s about their dynamic. It’s about their bubble. So it’s almost timeless, because the jokes are about them and the situations that they’re in.”

Hayek praised the show’s leading actors, but added, “The scriptwriters made the difference in making ‘Friends’ such an all-time classic.” Of the show’s ageless appeal in the Middle East, he said: “Human insights have no boundaries. People — especially youth — relate to the same kind of issues, aspirations, and jokes.”

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