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."
The lessons we've learned about loyalty, communication and forgiveness