Sitting all day in a chair shaves years off your life. To claw back some of that time, I try to walk to work — a 2.2 mile, 45-minute jaunt — most days. Usually, I descend from Capitol Hill into Freeway Park, emerging on Sixth Avenue and Seneca Street, which is not too far from our offices. Thus, when I switched it up and went straight down Pine Street last week, I was surprised to stumble across “The FRIENDS Experience.”
I was also, unfortunately, intrigued. As a kid, I spent far, far too many hours in my dad’s crummy basement apartment watching “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “Mad About You” and the whole gamut of mid-90s shows about people hanging out in apartments and occasionally coffee shops.
Undoubtedly, I absorbed a lot of ideas about what kinds of living situations, relationships and viewpoints were normal. I’m optimistic that I’ve rid myself of most of them by now, but the fact remains that “Friends” was, for better or worse, a major part of my formative years. Somewhat disconcertingly, as I walked the rest of the way to work, I realized I couldn’t remember a single thing about the show.
Mind you, I’d spent literal days in front of that old RCA set — my dad had it on constantly in the evenings, and I didn’t have TV at my mom’s house so I was pretty much glued to it. Statistically speaking, there is no way I didn’t see at least some of the touchstone episodes. But no, the only gag I could remember, even after spending the rest of the day thinking about it, was that Joey and Chandler, who are roommates on the show, buy a TV console that is slightly too wide for both of them to open their bedroom doors at once. Truly side-splitting stuff.
Obviously, I had to go, if not for any special memories (although they did have that girthy TV console) then for the sake of journalism. What better way to find out what “Friends” was all about and why anyone would pay $50 to “experience” it than to climb into the belly of the beast? Or the Barnes & Noble, rather, as the exhibit occupies the bottom floor of the former bookstore space in Pacific Place’s southeast corner.
What was it like?
William Davies, writing on the “reaction economy” for the LRB, wrote,
“[A]nyone who has visited a famous landmark or picturesque beach in recent years will be familiar with a phenomenon that’s no less strange [than trolling]: photographs meticulously staged for posting on Instagram. The time and effort that goes into the production of these images (including costume, hair and makeup) is unlike anything that took place in the age of the analogue photo album, and is only explicable in terms of the feverish hunt for online reaction. The status of photography in everyday life has undergone a profound transformation as a result of this reciprocal interaction between photographer and viewer. In turn, the design of public landmarks and home interiors has changed, with the aim of producing more engaging visual content.”
“The FRIENDS Experience” is essentially what you would make if you really, really wanted to prove Davies’ broader point, which is that instant, constant feedback has reshaped our society and not exactly for the better.
Calling it an “experience” is a stretch, as it is really a series of photo ops.
The staff, who were, if not enthusiastic, generally great sports about the whole thing, are constantly being handed phones and cameras. At certain special sets, like the infamous orange couch in front of the fountain that features in the show’s introduction, there are fixed cameras set up to sell you prints on your way out, like the shots on the descent of a rollercoaster at a theme park. Being made for Instagram, which is itself one giant advertisement, the exhibit is exceedingly, overweeningly commercial. You enter AND exit through the gift shop, and a single print is $20. Admission for two, even with the secret discount trick that our greeter guided us to, was $67.72. This being Seattle, one of the escalators was, of course, not working.
If you’ve read this far in anticipation of a play-by-play description of what’s in there, I recommend you put this paper down and go find Nathalie Graham’s review of it in the Seattle Times, a pretty thorough blow-by-blow account of the adventure from someone who hasn’t seen a single episode. But while she covered what, exactly, “The FRIENDS Experience” is — a thing “people do only for the photo,” in keeping with Davies’ assessment — I want to know why.
Why does something like this exist? Why were there so many genuinely excited, paying customers there? What does that say about the state of culture in this country?
As an answer to the first two questions, this quote from Mark Fisher’s “Capitalist Realism” fits nicely:
“On the one hand, this is a culture that privileges only the present and the immediate — the extirpation of the long term extends backwards as well as forwards in time (for example, media stories monopolize attention for a week or so then are instantly forgotten); on the other hand, it is a culture that is excessively nostalgic, given over to retrospection, incapable of generating any authentic novelty.”
He’s arguing that the “end of history,” a state Francis Fukuyama gloatingly proclaimed into existence after the fall of the USSR, was also the end of any novel or interesting cultural output. The more miserable and exploited we become under capitalism, the more we retreat into the past.
“It wouldn't be surprising if profound social and economic instability resulted in a craving for familiar cultural forms,” Fisher concludes, which pretty much sums up “The FRIENDS Experience”’s raison d’être.
But what about that third question? What is the nutritional value of this comfort food? In the case of “Friends,” it’s pretty much nonexistent. Walking through the exhibits, I was reminded of what the show’s worldview was. It is about straight people and their love lives, which is fine, I guess. Less fine is the blatant transphobia (Chandler’s cross-dressing parent), homophobia (the really awful subplot about Ross’ ex-wife moving on to be with a woman), fatphobia (Monica, Courtney Cox’s character, spends almost a quarter of a season in a fat suit) and a complete lack of non-white regular characters. In being a show about normal people doing slightly abnormal, slightly silly things, it sold an idea of what normal is that, upon review, sucks.
What also sucks is that, apparently, we can convert an empty Barnes & Nobles into an elaborate recreation of TV sets from the ’90s at a moment’s notice, one that includes several pretty genuine mock-ups of residential units, but in order to convert empty office buildings into desperately needed affordable housing, we have to wade through a million task forces and design competitions and other delay tactics. But that bureaucratic hellscape is exactly the thing shows like FRIENDS were designed to distract us from, presenting instead a cheery, quirky vision of twentysomething life. Spending time in that fake world, made out of fake apartments in a city with too few real ones, is a pretty stupid thing to do.
However, for one very expensive half hour, I chose to. Lesson learned.
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the April 12-18, 2023 issue.