Friends flexed such cultural muscle in the 1990s that it led to the popularity of ‘The Rachel haircut’ and snowballed into the rise of coffee culture (as opposed to tea) in North India.
Circa 1998, Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, was discovering just how nasty the UK tabloid press could be. A couple of years ago, Ferguson had divorced Prince Andrew, and since then, she had suffered increasingly negative, mean-spirited coverage — her lifestyle, her romantic life post the divorce, anything was up for the taking, really.
And then in 1998, Ferguson made a cameo appearance as herself in the fourth season finale of Friends, shot in London. By then, Friends had become a smash hit in the UK: cast members were routinely mobbed during shooting, there was a beeline to be part of the live audience, and the show was a bona fide sensation. During her cameo, Ferguson runs into Joey (Matt LeBlanc) in the middle of a London tour. Wearing a Union Jack top hat, Joey asks Ferguson directions to (where else?) Buckingham Palace, and records a message for Chandler. “Hi Chandler,” she says, “Joey says you don’t really like his hat, but I think it’s kind of dashing.”
The cameo proved to be a PR masterstroke. The coverage around Ferguson began to improve noticeably. The public liked her for being a sport, a rare quality among the usually ‘discreet’ royals (the Queen was reportedly none too pleased at the cameo, as Ferguson’s memoirs revealed years later). The tabloids, populists to the core, fell in line accordingly.
Such was the cultural muscle flexed by Friends in the late ’90s — the most popular sitcom in the world at the height of its popularity.
Ahead of the much-awaited Reunion special on 27 May on HBO Max, it is worth remembering just how many non-TV realms Friends influenced during its decade-long run.
One of the most visible areas was fashion — in the late ’90s, ‘The Rachel’ was a wildly popular haircut among young women, especially in the US and the UK. In her 2015 book I’ll Be There For You: The One About Friends, American journalist Kelsey Miller wrote about the phenomenon, recalling the time she got her own hair styled after Rachel Green, Jennifer Aniston’s character from the show.
“I was hardly a pioneer. It was 1997, and The Rachel was inescapable. In 2010, a UK study conducted by hair-care company Goody reported that in Britain alone, approximately 11 million women had gotten the signature cut, and it was still the most requested hairstyle in salons. There are no formal estimates on how many women in the US (not to mention the dozens of other countries in which Friends aired) walked into hair appointments with a page torn out of People, and walked out with a top-heavy mop of choppy layers. One can only assume that’s because they all did. Fine, we all did.”
Later in the book, Miller also describes how coffee culture received a worldwide boost thanks to Friends — the six central characters routinely hang out over coffee at an establishment called Central Perk. In the wake of the success of the show, cafés across North America began to style themselves after Central Perk, complete with big, blown-up images of steaming coffee cups on the outside.
In other parts of the world, the impact was even more remarkable. The UK, “a country that hung out at the pub, not at the café,” became the site for chains like Coffee Republic. Miller also cites a 2014 article by journalist Shoaib Daniyal to talk about how Friends contributed to coffee ‘replacing’ tea for young Indians living in North Indian cities.
“In India, Café Coffee Day launched in 1996, and quickly expanded to over a thousand locations. Until then, coffee was only common in certain southern regions, and tea had been the country’s staple beverage since the days of British rule. Now, another great force from the West was coming in through India’s television screens.”
Now that it is 17 years since the show stopped airing, we have evidence to suggest that the show influenced the English language too. A 2012 survey conducted by Kaplan International Colleges found that 26 percent of respondents (international students of English) confirmed that they had used Friends to pick up spoken English. Even among native English speakers, speech patterns began to change. According to a study conducted by Sali Tagliamonte, a linguistics professor at the University of Toronto, the practice of choosing “so” as an adjective over alternatives like “really” and “very” increased sharply in the US after Friends (Rachel and Monica make this particular linguistic choice routinely).
Earlier this year, we saw the Marvel series WandaVision make a big statement about the cultural impact of American TV. Wanda Maximoff, the super-powered protagonist of the show, learned English in her native Sokovia (a fictional European country bordering Slovakia) through watching DVDs of old sitcoms like Bewitched and The Dick Van Dyke Show. The warmth and the emotional security Wanda feels while watching these shows are a huge plot point in WandaVision, key to understanding her actions, really.
Friends has earned a similar sort of goodwill globally, even if latter-day critical reassessments of the show have dimmed the aura somewhat. And when the six principal cast members revisit the iconic apartment set during the reunion (as the trailer has teased), I bet there will not be too many dry eyes among fans and cynics alike.
Friends: The Reunion will premiere in India on ZEE5 simultaneously with the US and rest of the world on Thursday at 12:32 pm.