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"Friends" Reflected Change in American Society, Among First TV Shows to Portray "Youth on Their Own," says UB Pop-Culture Expert

Release Date: April 16, 2004

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The sitcom "Friends," which is ending its 10-year run on TV next month, will be remembered as one of those rare shows that marked a change in American culture, according to a pop-culture expert at the University at Buffalo.

"'Friends,' stands out as a sign that we are now living in a culture where youth rules, where the image of youth has become the dominant image of our culture," says Elayne Rapping, Ph.D., professor of American studies in the UB College of Arts and Sciences.

"'Friends' will be remembered as the show that made America aware that being in your 20s is really being in the prime of life," Rapping adds.

Other cultural landmarks from TV-land include the Mary Tyler Moor Show, for its depiction of the single working woman, and the O.J. Simpson trial for the way it exposed race and class tensions in this country, says Rapping who teaches a course on "Television and Society" and is author of "Law and Justice as Seen on TV."

"Friends" and "Beverly Hills 90210," according to Rapping, were among the first shows to depict young people who were very much on their own, without significant parental interaction. Prior sitcoms were almost always centered on the lives of nuclear families, where father and mother knew best, Rapping says.

"The characters in 'Friends' and '90210' pretty much were running their own lives and looked to each other for moral guidance," Rapping says. "They constructed their own family among each other.

"This became a dominant theme on many sitcoms, and reflected a mainstream trend in our society," she says.

This theme, according to Rapping, grew partly from an awareness that, for the first time in American history, a generation of young people would not be better off than its parents.

"And so you had sitcoms like 'Friends' and 'Seinfeld,' where the characters lived in apartments, not in houses, where the characters were not upwardly mobile, and where they had the same friends forever and never grew up," Rapping points out.

The premise of these shows, Rapping says, often centered on trivial matters in the characters' lives -- sending the message that it's okay to not be serious about anything because nothing really bad is likely to happen in a young person's life.

Since 9/11 -- and with the country's current economic problems -- that attitude has changed, which may be one reason why sitcoms like "Friends" are not in style anymore and are in decline as a major ratings draw, Rapping says.

"What we are seeing now instead is the immense popularity of TV reality shows, with their depictions of corporate, cut-throat values, whose characters are concerned solely with competing and getting ahead of other people.

"That's the opposite of what 'Friends' was about," she says.

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dellacon@buffalo.edu
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