TV 101: How Friends caused the current financial crisis (OR: Say it ain't so, Joe the Actor)
We're on an economic roller coaster right now, and I don't mean a reputable roller coaster like at Six Flags. We're talking one of those death-trap coasters that even the carnies won't ride. The depressing thing is that the whole bag of crap we're in right now just seemed to come out of nowhere, like the last season of Roseanne. How did we get here? Why is this all happening now?
You might be tempted to blame the usual suspects: the president, the congress, the Stone-Cutters. But you'd be wrong. The real culprit behind this whole problems is Friends.
First, a little economic history (and before your start criticizing the accuracy of this information, please understand that I spent three months as an Economics major at a New Jersey state school, so I think it's pretty obvious I know what I'm talking about).
Some time during the late nineties, our economy, built for much of the last twenty years on the shaky foundation of credit-fueled consumer spending, accelerated from light-speed to ludicrous speed:
-- Families that were stretched thin financially in a 2000 square foot house suddenly, inexplicably, decided that they needed a 5000 square foot McMansion.
-- Part-time adult book store booth-scrubbers were given eleven million dollar mortgages.
-- A college student would, by his 19th birthday, own, on average, sixty iPods, twenty-two MacBooks, and three Mac Pros.
-- It was commonplace by 2005 for the standard four bedroom family home to have a basement completely covered in fur.
And the list goes on.
To fund this spending, banks set up increasingly easy-to-obtain credit. The requirements for a line of credit went from "having a steady job and a good credit history" to "the ability to sign your name" to "having DNA." Some banks went so far as to give everyone who opened a new account a million dollar adjustable rate mortgage.
The money flew in just about the time the sense flew out.
Getting stupid stuff we don't need with money that we don't have is as American as buying a $40 Martha Stewart branded apple pie. As the late 90s became the early 00's, however, we took this idea to its final, most ridiculous extreme.
The great big American balloon is now deflating faster than the ratings for Heroes.
There are probably several reasons why all these terrible things happened. Those of you who studied economics for longer than three months at a slightly more respectable school will probably post something about (anyone?) something d-o-o economics ..."Voodoo" economics that I won't understand (but will read out loud in a Ben Stein voice ). Those of you who studied politics will call me a typical lefty elitist (or a right-wing tool), talk about why this is all your least favorite politician's fault, then fall into a boring argument with people who have differing views.
Since I only really understand pop culture, I'm going to put it in terms that make sense to me: Friends caused the current financial crisis because it sent the message to impressionable young Americans that you can lead an upper-Middle class lifestyle without having any visible means of income.
It was by following Friends' example that led the people of my generation to purchase sixty thousand dollars' worth of Sharper Image electric CD organizers with our credit cards even though we were still working at the milk-bottle booth on a Jersey Shore boardwalk. Or, more to the point, led us to buy houses we couldn't afford with money we didn't have.
It's right about now that you'll start screaming at me. "But Jay! TV is an idealized reflection of our lives. It doesn't show us the bad things! It's a magical land where good looking people don't worry about things like money (like the parties, Jay, you were never invited to in high school). How can you blame Friends for something that every TV show does?"
I would argue that, at least where money was concerned, the TV of the '60s, '70s, and '80s, dealt with the idea of class and the restrictions of having very little money in a much more realistic way than did the free spenders on Friends. It was a simple equation on those shows: if you had money, you could do certain things, if you didn't, you couldn't. There was a reason why the set of All in the Family looked so much different than the set of the Jeffersons -- George Jefferson was rich, Archie Bunker wasn't.
Even the lily white suburban Pleasantville-type shows of the 50s at least gave explanations for why their characters lived so much better than you did. All the fathers wore really sharp grey sack suits and went and worked in places that looked like the offices of Sterling Cooper. The money came from somewhere.
Now, let's think about Friends.
In the early years of the show, Monica is a barely-working chef and Rachel is a coffee shop waitress. Joey is an out of work actor. Phoebe is essentially a crazy bag lady. They're typical 20-somethings just coming up in the world, trying to make it in New York City. Their apartments, clothes, and attitudes toward money should remind us of Lucky Louie or Good Times.
Instead, they live in apartments that would cost, without resorting to hyperbole, four hundred quadrillion dollars per month. They don't just wear nice clothes, they're fashion trendsetters. They do things no normal people in their 20s would do (seriously, if one of your friends tried to get you to come to a destination wedding in England, like Ross did in the fourth season, you'd punch them repeatedly in the face, wouldn't you?)
Though money issues were touched on briefly in the show's very early going -- I'm thinking about the episode where they go to a restaurant that's out of the price range of some of them -- by the end of the second season the characters on Friends treated money with the same half-hearted magical realism of The Simpsons: it always seemed to appear when it was needed, and then it was never worried about again.
Just like -- wait for it -- the $800 billion Wall Street bailout. If that isn't cartoon money, I don't know what is. (Did you hear that? That was my "Webby award for most insane leap of logic on a blog" being engraved).
Even if you could prove that Friends wasn't the first show to ignore the incongruity between what its characters earned and what they were able to purchase, you'd have to admit it was certainly the most influential.
For those of us born in the '70s -- the people, incidentally, most at fault for all the stupid spending of the last ten years -- Friends was a defining show of our generation. It was a big, bright, contemporary show about twenty-somethings that we watched just as we were entering our twenties. Further, with the divorce rate in the '80s running at something like 113%, and our parents ignoring us in favor of their Jane Fonda Betamax aerobics tapes, we were abandoned in front of the TV earlier and with more vigor than any generation up to that point. Our brains were therefore soft and receptive to the message Friends was sending us.
And that message? No matter what your income, you can live an upper-middle class lifestyle. Where does the money come from? Who cares, let's listen to the Rembrandts!
Is it any wonder that we're in the mess we're in right now?
Just a brief note: TV 101 in its previous incarnation was a column that I wrote with the same regularity as a pre-oatmeal eating Wilford Brimley. That is to say, not very regular at all.
Joel Keller, our fearless leader and tough but fair disciplinarian (he spanks, but never hard enough to make me cry), asked me to revive the column on a semi-monthly basis. His innovative use of forward thinking Web 2.0 philosophies like "deadlines" and "getting things done when you say you will" and also "finishing columns by a certain time and date" have inspired me to undo the previous irregularity of the old column. Look for these adventures in strained (but hopefully interesting) logic to appear every other Wednesday starting today.
(Jay Black is writer and comedian who spends much of his time devoted to perfecting his home-built artificial hearts. If you're inclined to see him perform live, check out his website www.jayblackcomedy.com.)