I'll be there for you
F.O.B.L.O (Fear Of Being Left Out)
Unless you’ve been living under some rock, you must know the much anticipated Friends reunion episode was released last week. I won’t spoil it, but I highly recommend any fellow Friends fan to get their hands on it because it was excellent. (there’s nothing like an hour and a half of pure nostalgia to make the hypersensitive in me lose it *crying emoji*)
It felt surreal to see the cast and the creators of the show reunite and reminisce over a decade of television that marked more than one generation. It was all the more surreal to witness this moment, because the very idea of a Friends reunion had been dismissed for so long, and for good reasons as Lisa Kudrow explains in this special (have I mentioned how much I hated the Gilmore Girls revival series?).
Indeed, for 17 years, fans had been requesting a sequel to this iconic show, and had become quite good at creating fan fiction trailers and spreading very convincing rumours over the internet. So much so that in 2013 they got Lisa Kudrow to believe there was going to be a reunion episode, but that she hadn’t been asked to be a part of it. In an interview with Conan O’Brien about this, she explains all the anxious thoughts that went through her head as she believed she had been left out.
Her feeling left out reminds us of that moment when her character, Phoebe, feels isolated when the crew returns from London, at the start of season 5, and have all this banter about the time they spent there, which she can’t be a part of. While people often talk about FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), I believe this moment in the show, and Lisa’s reaction back in 2013 to the rumours there was going to be a reunion episode without her, illustrate a different type of social anxiety which I call “FOBLO”: Fear Of Being Left Out.
While FOMO is more of a self-aware anxiety as the subject worries they might miss out on an experience for themself, I think FOBLO is a much deeper insecurity (I’ve personally suffered from it), one of needing to exist within a group, thus depending not just on how the group perceives you but also on how much they consider you and want to include you.
As the creators put it, Friends is about “that time in your life where your friends are your family”, which conflates the type of group where one must build and maintain relationships, with the type of group one is born into and will always be a part of. Friendship in Friends was thus framed in very unrealistic terms from the get go.
This family-like bond however is challenged throughout the show, and the characters do find themselves feeling “FOBLO”. When Ross and Rachel break up, Rachel worries she’s going to be “phased out” of the group. When Emily insists Ross never sees Rachel again, it entails he must grow apart from the five others. When Chandler moves to Tulsa for work, Phoebe is bothered by the fact “they all haven’t been together the six of [them] in such a long time”. These instances reflect the characters’ awareness that their place in the group isn’t innate but despite those insecure episodes, the six of them remain very close throughout all ten seasons.
Friends maintains the “group” ideal because the idea of being accepted by others and being able to depend on them is obviously appealing (just like the concept of living in a large two bedroom flat in Greenwich Village in your twenties): “I’ll be there for you / ‘Cause you’re there for me too”. I think many of us turned to Friends to experience vicariously though the characters some form of comfort because of how much less comforting our own friendship groups and/or families in real life felt compared to the friendships portrayed in the show.
Perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve personally had a long lasting struggle with the friendship group dynamic. We’ve all found ourselves in Rachel’s shoes at some point, when arriving into a new place (school, job, city, etc.) and needing to meet new people. However, history has shown that looking for my own “magic beans” has been a huge set up for disappointment, even despair at times, when I found myself isolated, not because I had no one, but because I was set aside by groups I thought had formerly welcomed me in.
The anxiety doesn’t come from the loneliness, but the lingering thoughts going through my head: “Why didn’t they ask me to join? Why did they forget about me? Did I do something wrong? Do they hate me?”. My first reflex is always to doubt myself, which is even more unsettling considering all my best efforts to integrate the group. Like Monica, I’m a people pleaser, and I often fall for the fallacy that if I put candy out for the neighbours, of course it’ll make them like me. And so I’ve historically taken on group initiatives, so that I, like Monica, could be perceived as the “glue” keeping the group together, in an attempt to be clearly identified as a part of it. How desperate does this sound? Very. Which in hindsight is what makes FOBLO anxiety that much worse: it adds on top of crushing self-doubt, a bitter layer of self-loathing.
Unlike the implausibly affordable flat rent (which Chandler conveniently explains in the last five minutes of the show), the writing in Friends is fully aware that the group dynamic lays many toxic traps, and points to them very early on in season 1: the fact the group is so closed is the premise of the third episode in which as always, Monica is scared to introduce her boyfriend to her friends, and comedy emerges when for once, the situation is reversed and they end up loving Allan, who can’t stand them; Phoebe dates a shrink who bashes the friends’ “co-dependance” when she breaks up with him because the group “hates that guy”. In both instances, the writers are openly playing with the toxic potential of the group.
The outsider failing to integrate the group through a relationship with one of its members is a great source of jokes and laughter, as well as a pattern in Friends: think about Richard, David, or the resilient Janice. Meanwhile, the only long lasting romantic relationships are “inbred”, except for the one between Phoebe and Mike which was originally killed in season 9 but then resurrected by season 10 because it was the end of the show and Phoebe deserved a “happy ending” (something Joey was on the contrary deprived of) – on that note, Paul Rudd has described feeling awkwardly out of place during the emotional last hours of the show because he wasn’t part of the Friends core crew.
In reality, the reason outside relationships are doomed to fail isn’t that the group is so closed and incestuous, but that the writing must make them fail: Friends is about six people living in New York City, not six plus one or two. In order to go on, the story needs Richard to not want children with Monica, it needs Kathy to cheat on Chandler or Kate to end things with Joey because she has to move to LA. But it’s very plausible that in real life, more than one of those relationships would have worked out, but would have also damaged the integrity of the group.
Additionally, the writing in Friends loves to play with the balance within the group: in season 7, Monica is very careful about the way she handles the “who will be my bridesmaid” question so that everyone feels equally considered, but Phoebe doesn’t share the same concerns when being very open about picking Rachel over Monica if they had to be in a romantic relationship. Impacting the balance of the group is also what keeps Chandler and Monica from revealing their relationship to the others for such a long time. Obviously, these and many other similar moments in the show end up producing great comedy.
The writers play with the characters’ relationships, and have them tip-toe around very common friendship anxieties because it will feel relatable to the audience and thus have comedic potential. But such situations are only funny because they’re dealt with so that their outcome never actually disrupts the balance and the integrity of the group, for the sake of the narrative (think of season 8 when Rachel tells Joey her boss wants to buy her baby so that they can talk again after he confessed his love to her *laughing emoji*). If they happened in real life, many of these situations wouldn’t be funny but actually quite fatal to friendship (“I thought I was your best friend” is indeed a much more awkward conversation than the way it is presented in the show).
The friendship group in Friends is both a narrative and a comedic device. It isn’t more real than Monica’s implausible flat or the amount of free time the characters have to hang out at Central Perk. But the success of Friends lies in the way the writers and the chemistry of its cast were able to build such a believable friendship myth, one that is so comforting that we, the audience, completely overlook its unrealistic standards. It’s this great timeless myth that makes us all watch this show, over and over, thus both perpetuating our longing for a strong friendship group, and filling the very void it creates at the same time.
I still love Friends, but enough time and bad experiences have made me outgrow the expectations this show had previously set when it comes to friendship groups, and I now try to have an approach that doesn’t make me an insecure satellite orbiting around a core group. I now view groups as an opportunity to meet various people, in the hope that things will click with individuals and we can build our own bonds, rather than try to force myself into ones that won’t fit, no matter how hard I try. But every now and then, I slip back into my Rachel shoes and get seduced by the prospects of integrating a great group of people, and so I can’t help but let that FOBLO creep in a little because of how great a myth Friends has created.
“You fell *asleep*?!” I hope not. Don’t worry, my newsletters are never as long as 18 pages, front and back. So if you’re not already signed up, make sure to leave me your email:
Images credit: Friends (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc)