By Tathagata Banerjee
Why do we keep going back to Friends, when ideally, we should’ve outgrown it already? In an age of The Good Place or Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the ’90s sitcom is clearly the product of a bygone era, and riddled with problematic elements. The answer would be complicated, and arguably a bit beyond my reach. To oversimplify it, Friends delivers a sense of comfort in a turbulent world like none other. It tells a story of exactly the people its title promises. The friendships that we’d never have, the show is a celebration of a bonding of such magnitude. It’s characters remain household names, the lines and references intermingled in our everyday conversation. And this juggernaut of a phenomenon would not be created without any one of those core six. But the transponster, as Rachel would call him, might be arguably the best of the batch.
We first meet Chandler in a coffee shop that the world would eventually fall in love with. He’s street smart, always cracking up others with a decidedly darker sense of humor than the show’s overall tone, and unabashedly sharp with his sarcastic wit. There’s more to his story than it meets the eye, and even before he himself confesses it in later seasons, we’ve worked out that his sense of humor is his defence mechanism. He’s the boy next door, quite literally. He’s all of us. He’s the guy with a job he didn’t like. A guy who is bad at sports, who messes up on dates, who has to pretend to like a horrible boss. And even when the regressive tone of the show fails him, with transphobic or sexist or racist overtones, in a Barthesean reading, Chandler moves beyond that.
Roland Barthes, in his famous ‘The Death of The Author’, propounded an iconic theory. He said that any creative product doesn’t have the meaning that only its creator gave it. Whichever way the audience receives the product, whatever they interpret the meaning to be, that is the true meaning of the creation. All of the different meanings… they are all true; even if the interpreted meaning goes beyond the intended meaning of the creator.
This kind of Reader Response Theory is a way personally to navigate the complicated pathway of Friends. The show’s failures are there, but its characters find meaning which they might not be even assigned to by the writers. It’s a show full of patriarchal overtones, and yet Monica or Phoebe or Rachel become such an absolute celebration of women finding their own agency in a misogynist society in such a brilliant way that they’ve come to be recognised by some as feminist icons. The characters defy the show, and in a Barthesean way, find new meanings through new interpretations. They become bigger than the show. It works with Chandler too.
There’s a nuanced story to be told about a parent coming out as trans and divorcing the other, but the show plays it for laughs. There are many such problematic association with Chandler’s character. But beyond the intended meaning even, he finds the roots in the relatablity of his character and the audience. He’s the best of the lot, because he’s so much like us. He’s a guy who doesn’t conform to the toxic masculinity – he’s emotional when Ross buys the bike for Phoebe, he cries when he proposes to Monica. He’s snarky, falling apart easily when faced with the realisation that a lonely life is probably awaiting him. The gang laughs at him, the show laughs at him, the writing laughs at him. We laugh with him, everytime he drops a truth-bomb with a laid-back cunning remark.
The show wants desperately to believe he’s the guy who’s bad with advices, and wants to know if we’re interested in a sarcastic comment? We are, no doubt, but we’re also tearing up as the guy softly promises a departed Mr. Heckles that they’d try to keep the sound down. We’re falling in love with him as he reiterates to Kathy that Joey is his bestfriend – Matthew Perry is especially sublime in this scene when he plays Chandler intentionally repressing the palpable romantic tension between him and her as they both are conflicted because they care for Joey. Could he be any cooler?
Long before the show puts Chandler in that iconic scene where he has a monologue with Erica, we’ve realised he’s more than sarcastic. He’s more than the funny guy. He’s the guy who’d support his wife’s career choices and work out maintaining a long distance relationship. Mondler, as the couple is lovingly called, remains iconic because they work for their relationship. It’s not a done deal, as Monica observes, marriage is a hard work. And Chan-chan man excells there, too.
The show mellows down Chandler as it progresses, and even the show itself becomes more and more conformist. In a Barthesean way, he towers over others with his brilliance, his empathy, his wit, and simply because the guy can deliver lines which range from insulting someone as ‘you big tree‘ to telling the love of his life, ‘you make me happier than I ever thought I’d be.’ (And in the same episode, regarding the same storyline, no less!) He’s a father who freaks out, he’s a friend who messes up, he’s the guy next door who knows the heavy weight that parental expectation has, and the cost one has to pay in order to question its legitimacy. 25+ years later, he’s – like the show – perfection.