If Netflix has changed TV, why is ‘Friends’ still so popular?

Donald Clarke: The 21st-century viewer wants to sink soothingly into a world they already know

Friends: stuck in second gear forever and ever and ...

If we know anything about popular culture we know that young people don't watch television any more. They are watching Dutch maniacs unboxing Bluetooth speakers on YouTube. They are illegally savouring pornographic Korean animations on spankrod.com. And they are watching Netflix. The streaming services – and that one in particular – have captured the mainstream.

None of those companies releases viewing figures. The failure to recommission Baz Luhrmann's The Get Down seemed to confirm that nobody was watching Netflix's gruesomely misconceived hip-hop epic. The willingness to spend a sum equivalent to the GNP of Bolivia on season two of the same company's The Crown appeared to substantiate suspicions that the Windsor soap was a smash. But we don't know for sure.

Some clarification came this week with a report from Ofcom, the UK's TV watchdog, concerning the most-viewed shows on subscription streaming services. The results should give us some insights into what the coming generation is really watching. You're betting on Bojack Horseman with a side of Orange Is the New Black. Or is Orange old hat? After all, it premiered back in 2013, when the word "orange" could be used without people immediately thinking of Donald Trump.

Nope. The answer is: Friends. That doesn't quite cover it. The answer is FRIENDS! After surveying 2,500 UK viewers, Ofcom found the series was streamed around twice as much as its nearest rival. There was some scoffing when, at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, Netflix fanfared the arrival of the entire show to the service. It seems the hoopla was justified. Viewers have been watching little else since.



Those of us who always found the thing smug, bourgeois, fatuous, monocultural and anti-intellectual – remember how they all laughed at Ross's job in academia – will know not to bother yelling into the wind one more time. Friends means less to the generation born around the same time as the stars (that's me) than it means to those who were teenagers when it was in its pomp. It's not really a late-Generation X thing. It's more a mid-Millennial thing. A large portion of those folk, rewatching on the couch as they approach Rachel's age in season five, have contributed to the triumph in the Ofsted chart. But it's not all down to them. The figures are so enormous we must assume that large bits of every age group are eager to re-endure a show that finished a yawning 14 years ago.

Fair enough. Maybe it's the novelty of the series arriving on Netflix relatively recently. There are sure to be shows about talking horses and female convicts elsewhere in the top 10. Not so much. In second place, we find Amazon's famously expensive automotive extravaganza The Grand Tour. This is the show in which Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May drive about the world and … Hang on. Why am I wasting valuable keystrokes? The Grand Tour is Top Gear. It's what happened to Top Gear after Clarkson finally exhausted the BBC's patience by punching a bloke called Oisín. So the second-most-watched series is, to all intents and purposes, a car show that was first broadcast in 1977 before undergoing a Clarksonian reboot around the millennium (when Friends was at its most popular).

When new is old

The third most popular series is The Crown: sepia-tinged curtsey to the British royal family in their postwar glory. At No 4 we find the baffling orgy of 1980s retro-horror that opens to sub-Spielbergian chords and the words Stranger Things written as if on the cover of a Stephen King novel. Thank God for Peaky Blinders at No 5. Yes, the series is set in the past, but the 1920s are too long ago for any viewer to work up nostalgia. It features fresh characters. It dares to suggest that the olden days might have been frightful.

In his excellent 2011 book Retromania, the music writer Simon Reynolds argued that popular culture – and, in particular, music – had become so eaten up with its history that the future would forever be different versions of the past. Recent TV series such as Stranger Things and films such as Ready Player One look to be confirming his prescience.

Reynolds, writing as streaming was just beginning its dominance of audiovisual culture, suggested that whirlwinds of choice were sweeping bewildered listeners towards sheltered valleys of familiarity. The same is happening to viewers. It took a while before I realised that “Netflix and chill” was actually a synonym for sex, but that gag worked because the surface meaning also chimed with viewers. Freed from broadcasters’ tyrannical scheduling, unfettered by the whims of video store proprietors, the 21st-century punter can now brush away complicated innovation and sink soothingly into a world they already know.

I know what I'm talking about. I've watched Mad Men three times.