Jerry, Elaine, George, Kramer…Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, Charlotte… Rachel, Ross, Monica, Chandler, Joey, Phoebe…that you immediately recognize these names as (television) friends of yours and not as a random guest list for my next dinner party demonstrates how beloved and familiar these folks are. Big buzz surrounds the Seinfeld not-a-reunion on Curb Your Enthusiasm ; eager crowds gather in Manhattan as Sex and the City films its second movie; and Friends , of course, remains sacredly syndicated.
Why do we love them so much? What did these friends teach us in their heyday? Well, they taught us how to dress (Carrie's pink tutu) and how not to (Jerry's puffy shirt). They taught us how to wear our hair (er, do we say thank you for "The Rachel"?) and how not to (George's "hair hat"). They even gave us a new lexicon, from "yadda yadda" to "he's just not that into you" to being "on a break." These characters still speak to us, beyond those past lessons of fashion and phrases.
They are reliably familiar: We can count on George being obnoxious, Samantha being slutty and Phoebe being ditzy. Even when they're acting outrageously, they're comfortingly predictable. In contrast, today's reality docu-soaps that have supplanted many of these scripted comedies show real people behaving unpredictably. Whereas an episode of Friends or Seinfeld is basically a self-contained story, The Real Housewives franchise thrives on cliffhangers: Whom might Atlanta 's NeNe throttle next? Will New Jersey 's Teresa and her "bubbies" flip another table? When reality stars behave deplorably, they become more provocative…but not more lovable.
We love relating to the characters: "You're such a Miranda!" Half the women who watched Sex and the City —married suburban moms—looked at it as a fantasy life, the road not taken. The other half—cosmopolitan single women—looked at it aspirationally, as a promise or validation of their life choices. We all know someone who's neat-freakish and competitive like Monica. As one Seinfeld writer I talked to put it, "George is that classic annoying loser that you stay friends with because you were friends with him in the third grade. Kramer is that guy in your building who you hang out with because he lives there, but you think might actually kill you at some point."
Perhaps more instructive than recognizing why we love them is understanding how they love each other . Despite Larry David's stated show motto, "No hugging, no learning," their relationships, albeit played for laughs, have real lessons to offer.
Loyalty Okay, so it may have been the $1 million paychecks keeping the actors on these shows, but pure loyalty keeps these characters together. When Miranda moves to Brooklyn and has a baby, she doesn't go AWOL using the dubiously noble "I have a family now" excuse (ahem, sound familiar?). Rachel and Ross repeatedly hook up or go "on a break"; but they remain close and don't demand that their friends take sides. When Kramer becomes too busy with his fake job and Elaine toys with joining her "bizarro friends," Jerry exclaims, "The whole system's breaking down!" But it doesn't. They teach us that friends stick together, no matter who else enters or leaves their lives.
Communication I had two girlfriends—best girlfriends! bridesmaids-in-my-wedding girlfriends!—who decided that they didn't like the way I was handling my separation from my husband. I didn't like the way I was handling it either—it was a sad, desperate, confusing, scary time and I was fallibly doing the best I could. These women abruptly stopped talking to me—like cold turkey, not returning my e-mails, texts or calls. Now, this would never happen with our television friends, not least because it's just about the most unfunny, uncompelling story arc ever. No, on Sex and the City there would be some kind of come-to-Jesus moment involving brunch, tears and shoes. Remember the "Low Talker" on Seinfeld ? Well, my friends would be called the "No Talkers." On Curb , we'd all scream at each other, they'd call me a moron and then we'd simply meet for dinner. And on Friends, it all would hilariously resolve in a single episode entitled, "The One Where Faith's Friends Freeze Her Out."
These characters are always screwing up, unintentionally or self-righteously. And their friends invariably call them on it. We should take a page from their scripts. How liberating to pull a Chandler when that friend who always demands splitting the bill after you order an appetizer and he orders the steak and a bottle of wine, by saying, "Could you be any cheaper?!" You might not be cushioned by a laugh track, but you'll open up the lines of communication.
Forgiveness So after these characters identify a transgression, name it, parse it and mock it…they forgive it. Ross kisses Chandler's mom. Miranda tells Big that marriage ruins everything the night before Big and Carrie's wedding. Jerry sleeps with George's girlfriend who used to be Jerry's girlfriend. Larry promises to donate his kidney to his friend Richard Lewis and then changes his mind. Their friends forgive them.
And what's underneath forgiveness? Love. A word that would make Larry David cringe. But the reason Larry reunites the cast of Seinfeld on his current show is love…he wants to win back his ex-wife by casting her on the reunion show-within-a-show to make her happy. Sigh. That's so not "a show about nothing."
Faith Salie is a writer, actor and humorist who contributes to O, The Oprah Magazine 's ethics column. She is a television commentator and a former public radio host.