Transatlantic Friendship

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 09.04.2021

If nothing else, the pandemic has done wonders for my TV and movie education. I may be gradually forgetting who my friends are and how to eat anywhere but the sofa, but in exchange I’ve been living several lifetimes per week in the televised universe. Last year my partner and I watched 110 movies and – I perhaps luckily don’t have the corresponding statistic – a whole spate of TV shows. Besides detective dramas and fantasy epics, we threw back every episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Friends, Seinfeld, and Modern Family.

Watching those shows triggered a memory from my first days living in Europe: namely, my surprise that American sitcoms were popular here. Serious movies have a more universal artistic or narrative appeal, but humor relies so much on cultural subtext that I’d doubted it would travel well.

I was completely wrong, of course: Friends has a cultish hold over tons of Luxembourgers, with its imitators How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory being likewise popular alongside newer hits like Modern Family and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. At the same time, however, there is very little fervor around Seinfeld, the classic rival of Friends back in the USA, or its darker successor Curb Your Enthusiasm. Also largely ignored in Europe are Arrested Development, The Office, 30 Rock, and Parks and Recreation. How strange!

In the USA, Friends and Seinfeld are the ur-sitcoms for ’90s kids like me, but they perform different work in their homeland versus in Europe. Back in early-2000s suburban Detroit, Friends was, to my admittedly judgy adolescent self, entirely mainstream. I didn’t see much angst or irony in the show. It depicts kindhearted, competent, lightly flawed people who find love, have babies, and get their dream jobs, while comedy happens in the form of zany mix-ups along the way. Every plotline revolves around the basically good morals of the characters: Phoebe gets booted from performing at Central Perk by a more skilled musician, which only helps her recognize the unimpeachable value of her own wonky style; Chandler guiltily repents for chasing a girl that Joey has a crush on; Ross and Rachel spend ten seasons following their hearts as honestly as possible despite endless circumstantial obstacles to their happily-ever-after. My (probably unfair) impression of Friends fans was that they had a similarly conservative sense of rightness and destiny about themselves. They tended to be profiting systemically already – cheerleaders, homecoming royalty, football players, etc. – and their hardships were but comedic moments en route to a charmed future. What I’m trying to say is: they were the popular kids.

Seinfeld, despite also following several friends living in improbably priced apartments in New York, is much the opposite. Its characters are not talented or necessarily good-looking. They don’t believe they deserve happiness and, broadly speaking, they’re right. Famously, the show’s nihilistic meta-narrative insists that it is “a show about nothing,” and indeed as the episodes go on they relish in increasingly trivial plots: a yappy dog keeps Elaine up all night; George thinks (too late) of a great comeback to a colleague’s gibe and tries to reengineer the same scene so he can deliver it; a man who runs a soup café withholds soup after Elaine flaunts his rules. The show was a smash hit so I can’t exactly claim that liking it was “edgy,” but Seinfeld fans were far more likely to entertain anarchic tendencies and to at least sympathize with elements of counterculture.

You can read in these takes that, of the two, I found Seinfeld fans a little more interesting, yet my prejudices haven’t held up outside the USA. Luxembourgish Friends-watchers won’t settle down anywhere on my theoretical spectrum. I think they get something different out of it. For a simple start, it’s foreign: New York fashions oppose those of Europe while the iconic yellow taxis, gridded streets, and American products – jumbo boxes of cereal, etc. – present the texture of the unfamiliar. A small point, but for us suburban Detroiters these details are broadly invisible. Furthermore, Luxembourgers may find the genuineness of the characters assertive of culture: Americans are reputationally gushy, dramatic, and sincere, an image reinforced by the Friends friends. Also invisible to us suburban Detroiters, this angle amounts to a horizon-stretching peek at a well-crafted and surprisingly frank depiction of American identity that is, charmingly, unaware of itself. That unawareness, or resistance to metanarrative, makes the show accessible – at least compared to Seinfeld’s dialoguing with subtexted American values, 30 Rock’s deadpan references to domestic celebrities, or Arrested Development’s absurdist regional wordplay. But the unironic tone also, especially without cultural interference, foregrounds the jokes themselves. I haven’t found a “type” of Luxembourger who likes the show, and I haven’t met a single one who watches Seinfeld – besides my by-now-USA-savvy partner – but rewatching the combined 408 episodes with a Europeanized perspective certainly shone new light on everything. All without leaving my sofa..

Jeffrey Palms
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