The Friends studio audience blocked NBC from slut-shaming Monica in the pilot. The famed sitcom ended 15 years ago, and yet, due to syndication and a spot on the Netflix roster, Friends has been able to maintain a degree of popularity that continues even today.
The world was indeed a different place when Friends first kicked off in 1994, and the manner in which television portrayed women was still in need of some adjustment. This wasn’t to say that showrunners and industry creatives weren’t making an effort to get stronger and more realistic female characters on TV screens, but rather, the studios and networks were still very reluctant to take chances on issues that they deemed too problematic for audiences to handle. Netflix and the subscription streaming concept were still well over a decade away, and the #MeToo movement wasn’t set to awaken any consciences for another 23 years. Indeed, in 1994, Friends was aiming for some groundbreaking territory.
This being the case, then, it isn’t all so surprising to learn that the head of NBC in 1994, Don Meyer, had some definite reservations about the Friends pilot. Thanks to an EW interview with series co-creator David Crane, we know that Meyer wasn’t pleased about the idea of Monica having sex with Paul the wine guy on their first date. Meyer believed the audience would hate Monica for her decision. Instead, the audience ended up liking Monica all the same and Crane gave the pilot the OK. However, despite this victory, Meyer still proved himself out of touch. Said Crane:
“The network gave the audience a questionnaire that was so skewed. It basically said: ‘When she does this, is she a trollop? Is she a slut? The audience all came back with, ‘No, we still like her.’ Then Don got on board because he said, ‘Well I’m okay with it because she gets what she deserves when the guy sort of screws her over.' I could see the steam coming out of [co-creator] Marta’s [Kauffman] nose, and I’m tap-dancing going, ‘But you’re okay with it! So if you’re okay with it then we’re good, let’s move on, yay!'”
Obviously, despite an entire audience’s assurances they didn’t see Monica as a slut for having sex on a first date, Meyer was not prepared to relinquish highly outdated notions of women and dating. Ultimately, Friends did have the last laugh, as the show forged ahead and helped to create space for future female positive programming such as Gilmore Girls, Sex and the City and Girls.
Today, Friends is still being discovered by a new generation of fans who fall in love with the sitcom despite its age. Perhaps this is due to the program’s desire to push into areas that were still being considered as taboo by network executives. Or, maybe it has to do with audiences knowing a good thing when they see it. Either way, the popularity of Friends isn’t likely to die out any time soon, and that in itself is an indication of a sitcom that was ahead of its time, and which remains completely comfortable in a new era.