‘Friends’ So White It Hurt To Watch
Mike Seate, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, May 13
Tonight will be an evening of withdrawal across the nation.
For nine television seasons, millions of viewers have spent their Thursday evenings immersed in a fantasy world where everyone is cute, thin, witty and more than a little quirky. Oh yeah, and white.
That was the New York City seen in the beloved situation comedy “Friends,” which ended in a virtual whiteout last week. Obviously, few people cared that the show’s New York looked like a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Mississippi circa 1962. About 52.5 million viewers tuned in to the “Friends” finale, prompting one question: Whose friends, particularly in a place as diverse as New York, look like this, anyway?
It doesn’t take a course in White Folks’ TV Fantasies 101 to understand some of the appeal of the show that managed to include only one substantial African-American character in 236 episodes. It’s sort of like the old racist joke about the animated series “The Jetsons” that ends by asking a viewer to name the black character on the show. Answer: There isn’t one — meaning that the future, as represented on “The Jetsons,” is bright because it’s white.
We can forgive George, Jane, Judy and Elroy their segregated ‘hood. It’s a cartoon, after all. “Friends,” on the other hand, is set in Manhattan, one of the most racially diverse areas on the planet.
TV shows used to seduce viewers with fantasies involving perfect suburban communities (“Leave it to Beaver”), wealth (“Dallas”) and getting away with keeping an attractive female slave who possesses supernatural powers (“I Dream of Jeannie”). The creators of “Friends” waved their magic racial wand and made all of New York’s Dominicans, its Hmong, its Portuguese, its Asians and its Latinos disappear faster than you can say Aryan ratings sweep.
Even with the enormous talents of the Hollywood special effects machine, that’s no easy task, especially if you study the Big Apple’s latest census. The 2000 U.S. Census shows that 24.5 percent of New York’s 8,008,278 residents are black, 35 percent are Hispanic and 10 percent are divided among other minority backgrounds.
Somehow, the folks at NBC were able to air a show for a decade where seldom, if ever, did the cast meet, do business with, take a cab ride from or even buy a barbecued chicken, egg roll or tortilla from an actor or actress representing that nearly 70 percent of New York’s population.
No one is suggesting that the program’s lousy casting makes the tens of millions of Americans who watched it racist. Some of the viewers, I’m told, are minorities.
Whoever they are, they apparently expected very little from TV.
Mike Seate is a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.