Chandler Bing and the fiction of forever friends

“We are all so utterly devastated by the loss of Matthew,” read a joint statement written in the wake of Matthew Perry’s death last weekend by Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, David Schwimmer and Matt LeBlanc. “We were more than just castmates. We are a family. There is so much to say, but right now we’re going to take a moment to grieve and process this unfathomable loss.”

The death of Matthew Perry, at 54, who was found unresponsive in a hot tub at home in Los Angeles, was the sad culmination of a troubled life. As he revealed in a memoir published last year, he was alcoholic from the age of 14, had attended 6,000 AA meetings and couldn’t remember whole seasons of his TV career owing to his addictions to drink and opioid prescription pills.

Despite his personal history, however, his portrayal of Chandler Bing on Friends was an expression of young adulthood to which many would aspire. As the snarky roommate of the sweeter, dumber Joey, Chandler was proof that you could be obnoxious, single, professionally successful (he claimed a regular salary from somewhere) and still be loveable. Chandler’s world-weary rumpledness was always superseded by his goofy lust for life.  

Friends, which launched in 1994 on network television in the US, was the apotheosis of the friends-can-be-your-family moment, in which the gang of twentysomethings was being culturally fetishised. Friends, with its six kidult members navigating early career setbacks and romantic disappointments, was the most successful expression of a genre which suggested the brutalities of adult life would be forever cushioned by unique platonic bonds. Friends came after a raft of films — The Big Chill, St Elmo’s Fire etc — in which these new friendships were enshrined. Seinfeld, with its same New York apartment-life dynamic, was already halfway through its nine-year lifespan: another comedy in which the highs of romance or professional accomplishment were always treated as inferior to having lunch with your best friend. 

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In the UK, Richard Curtis’s first blockbuster comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral set another template for the same six-plus-person, tight-knit squad: but where the Friends were wholesome, articulate and well coiffured, its British equivalents were stammering, more sloppy than snappy dressers and invariably Oxbridge-educated toffs. 

As a young person, studying at university in the mid-1990s, being part of a gang took on a tiresome urgency. Having a nest of besties around you was part of an undergraduate ritual in which you tried to build an alternate kin. “Where are my Peter’s Friends?” my college flatmate would say plaintively, referring to the 1992 film directed by Kenneth Branagh in which a group of friends gather 10 years after graduation, starring Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry.

We lived in the neurotic grip of the conviction that, unless we established a core group of buddies in our early twenties, we would die miserable, bitter and alone. The phenomenon was exemplified by the burgeoning brunch culture in which it was fashionable to go and sit on enormous leather sofas, drink Bloody Marys and flop supplements between one’s peers. Sex and the City (which arrived in 1998) then shifted this aspiration to women-only gaggles, cosmopolitans and one-night stands. The genre offered endless permutations of the theory that you can’t choose your family but you can curate your friends.

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Created in the era in which Post-it notes and answerphones could still be used as major plot points, it now seems the relic of a bygone age. The fetishisation of the friendship group reflected a changing culture in which people remained single for far longer, and shared homes with other singles owing to escalating rental costs. Friends was the perfect fiction for young people who lacked direction: look, it reassured us, no one has a plan. 

Its greatest fiction, however, was the assumption that one’s friends are cast in aspic, and that a tight-knit group of strangers can ever be a substitute for a family. The friendships that one clings to in one’s twenties must necessarily evolve: best friends marry partners who don’t like you, they move too far away for brunches, are struck by illness, or are required to care for actual family instead. The possessiveness and exclusivism that govern our relationships as young adults become eroded as time passes and other, more efficient support groups start to emerge. Our friendship groups become school-parent networks, dog-walking quartets, colleagues and, increasingly, strangers you don’t much know but with whom you share a weird intimacy on Instagram. 

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Matthew Perry was an icon of congeniality for millions: initial postmortem results have found the cause of death “inconclusive”, and while he was beloved, he was ultimately alone. Even the tightest and most familial friendships offer scant protection from the vicissitudes of life. Friendship is a state of interaction, of being curious — it’s not a number around a sofa, or a members’ club to which one gets a lifetime pass. Besides, in the event of a real emergency, you most likely won’t need the person with whom you shared a dorm at college, but the neighbour with whom you may or may not have exchanged names. 

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