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Holiday episodes showed how ‘love can completely escape the gravitational pull of biological ties,’ expert says

There are many memorable and iconic moments from Friends, but the popular series is perhaps best known for its Thanksgiving episodes — all 10 of them. Creators dedicated one episode to the holiday in each of the Emmy-winning show’s 10 seasons, many of which became instant classics.

“We associate Friends with that holiday more than we did any other show that was going on at the time. I mean, Friends was right up there with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and football as things we watched on Thanksgiving,” Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson, the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture and a trustee professor at Newhouse School of Public Communication, tells Yahoo.

“[Producers] consciously decided to stake out that territory, just like the Pilgrims,” he continues. “Roseanne had done it with Halloween episodes, but Friends really decided that Thanksgiving was going to be their holiday.”

And it worked.

Who can forget when Monica put a turkey on her head in “The One With All the Thanksgivings” (Season 5) to apologize for accidentally cutting off Chandler’s toe. (To be fair, he did call her fat, viewers learn in a flashback.) There was also “The One With Chandler in a Box” as Matthew Perry‘s character is punished for kissing Joey’s girlfriend in Season 4. Even Brad Pitt made a guest appearance in Season 8’s Thanksgiving episode where its revealed he and Ross (David Schwimmer) had an “I Hate Rachel” club in high school.

When Schwimmer posted his touching tribute to Perry, who died unexpectedly on Oct. 28, he shared a photo from “The One With Thanksgiving Flashbacks,” calling it one of his “favorite memories” with the late actor.

Even after Perry’s unexpected death one month ago, Thompson says the show offers a warm and comfortable experience.

“There’s been a burst in Friends watching after Matthew Perry’s death,” Thompson explains. “People were comparing the death of the first ‘Friend’ to the death of the first Beatle, which seemed to have absurd to me when I first heard it. But I guess that was my own generational prejudice. I talk to people and this was something that was very important in their lives, and not only for the 10 seasons, but after.”

“Thanksgiving really became, I think, a central kind of metaphor, a central theme for what was most appealing about that show…. this idea that family, and closeness, and love can completely escape the gravitational pull of biological ties,” Thompson explains.

FRIENDS -- FRIENDS --

Brad Pitt as Will Colbert, Courteney Cox as Monica Geller-Bing, Matthew Perry as Chandler Bing, Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe Buffay, Jennifer Aniston as Rachel Green, David Schwimmer as Ross Geller in Friends. ( Danny Feld/NBCU Photo Bank) (NBC via Getty Images)

“Thanksgiving was always about coming over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house. It was about, and still is about, family coming together. But Thanksgiving is also the idea [that family can be] chosen,” Thompson adds, noting how that is one of the main takeaways of Friends. “In the end, these [characters] would much rather be with each other than with the dysfunctional families that they come out of biologically.”

Thompson believes the Friends Thanksgiving episodes were so important because they served big purposes creatively, too.

“[Writers] used those episodes for some really important moments… Ross and Rachel have one of their first fights in [“The One With the List”]. The last one is when we first hear that Monica and Chandler are gonna get a baby, that’s a big plot issue,” Thompson says, adding that the Thanksgiving episodes “progressed those relationships in significant ways.”

Thompson also points out that the Thanksgiving episodes are still a feel-good piece of media as they aren’t “depressing like so many Thanksgiving movies could be now.”

“Practically every Thanksgiving movie that is made today is not about the warm, fuzzy feeling of Thanksgiving. It’s about trauma… that Thanksgiving is something that has to be survived,” Thompson explains. “Friends managed to thread that needle and didn’t go that far. They had all their own problematic family members that were blood relatives. They much would prefer this found family that they had created on their own, but they didn’t dismiss — it wasn’t depressing like so many Thanksgiving movies could be now. I think that was cleverly done.”

In 2019, WarnerMedia bought the streaming rights to Friends for a whopping $425 million. In 2020, Max said Friends was the “No. 1 performing show” on the platform to date. It hit No. 1 on the streaming chart earlier this month after Perry’s death.

“Among my students in the 20-year-old range, there is practically nothing on television or film that I can find that all 100 [people] in my class have all seen except Friends,” Thompson shares. (And The Lion King, for what it’s worth.)

As for why Friends is still so popular and relevant almost 20 years after it went off the air, Thompson points to three reasons: the show was actually good, it gives all the nostalgic feels and was made for “pretty much everybody.”

“The cast was really perfect,” Thompson says. “It was also funny. We do cringe at times — there’s mild homophobia in that show and body-shaming — so there’s some things about it that haven’t aged well. But by and large, it holds up really, really well. It’s user friendly. You can pop into the middle of an episode and know exactly what’s going on. So the obvious answer is that it was a good show.”

“Secondly, I think that this program is playing at a time before the big digital revolution. There’s no cellphones on Friends,” he notes. “Friends is kind of this last generation of people interacting in real time and space.” Thompson believes “that nostalgic factor was really powerful” in the fact the show takes place in a “pre-social media, pre-digital era.”

Lastly, Friends stands the test of time because “it is something that was still made for everybody. Streaming services are made for specific audiences.”

Thompson thinks people can watch the Thanksgiving episodes and appreciate Perry’s comedic performance more.

“It isn’t depressing,” he says, but rather, it can be [seen as] more celebratory,” he says.

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