FRIENDS: The One With the Parasocial Relationships

12 minutes to read
Marijn van Engelen

On October 28th, the world received the sad news of Matthew Perry's passing. The actor, born in 1969, was best known for his portrayal of Chandler Bing in the hit TV show Friends, which ran from 1994 until 2004. Throughout the weeks that followed his death, his fellow cast members publicly shared emotional tributes on social media, showing their appreciation for their late friend. But it was not only them who openly mourned the death of the star:thousands of fans honoured him as well. Although they never met Perry, Friends fans wrote that he, and in particular his character Chandler, felt like a true friend to them. With his sarcasm, witty jokes and awkwardness, he managed to uplift them whenever they felt down. “Chandler Bing was my friend when I didn’t feel like I [had] any,” an X user wrote. But how has the audience formed this emotional bond with him and the other Friends?

Figure 1. X user showing appreciation for Perry's character Chandler Bing


Fans' Attachment to the Friends

Not only have fans fostered a deeper connection with Chandler, but all six main characters—including Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, and Ross—have become special to the show’s regular viewers. Together they form the well-loved friend group that viewers follow, watching the six New Yorkers navigate their way through early adulthood. We saw them discover their identities, fall in love and break up, find work and get fired—all highly relatable topics for many. And it is precisely this relatability that plays a key role in the show’s lasting popularity: it encapsulates that familiar feeling of being young and uncertain about the future. Throughout ten seasons, fans become involved in the lives of the characters on their screens, identifying with them in various ways and coming to feel like they know them. This feeling of closeness, this enduring one-sided attachment to a fictional character, is called a parasocial relationship.

Although this notion of forming emotional connections to non-existing people might seem strange, it has contributed strongly to the success of Friends among both past and present audiences. In fact, this connection is what the creators wanted the viewers to feel (Lauer, 2004; Jicha, 2004)—and they succeeded, but how? What aspects of the show create this sense of intimacy? In this paper, I will investigate how various elements of Friends contribute to fostering a feeling of intimacy between the audience and the fictional characters. In doing so, I will use Horton & Wohl’s (1956) concept of parasociality and use it as a lens to analyse aspects of the show like its characters, style, and longevity. Finally, I will highlight how the fans’ intimate feelings towards the characters were carefully cultivated behind the scenes, underlining the creators’ intention for the show to be relatable for everyone.


What is Parasociality?

First introducing the term ‘parasocial relationship’ in 1956, Horton & Wohl described it as a one-sided form of social interaction between an audience and a media figure that becomes evident through the consumption of media content. It occurs, for instance, when listening to the radio and feeling a sense of intimacy with the radio persona—as if they are talking to you as a friend. Although such interactions lack mutuality and are controlled by the performer, the audience can still feel towards the figure a sense of closeness, identification, or emotional attachment. If this connection endures over time and has come to involve a deeper psychological attachment, we speak of a ‘parasocial relationship’. So, whereas parasocial interaction can only occur during media reception, parasocial relationships extend beyond these circumstances, leading to a cross-situational connection (Liebers & Schramm, 2019). In short, as stated by Horton & Wohl (1956), a parasocial relationship is “the seeming face-to-face relationship between spectator and performer.” (p. 215).

Although parasocial interactions lack mutuality and are controlled by the performer, the audience can still feel towards the figure a sense of closeness, identification, or emotional attachment.

Though Horton & Wohl focused on radio and television (the popular forms of mass media in the 1950s) to introduce parasociality, the concept has come to encompass much more in modern society. The digital age has brought us a wide range of media: we can watch shows and movies on streaming platforms, access the news through various online sources, and listen to music and podcasts on demand. Especially with the rise of social media, we encounter thousands of figures such as celebrities, fictional characters, or any other public personas, all of whom we can interact with parasocially. When doing so, as Giles (2011) writes, we treat the media figure as if it were another human being: “We don’t need to say anything, or behave overtly in any particular way, but we need to respond, albeit in a purely cognitive fashion, to the figure as we might respond to a human in an ordinary social encounter.” (p. 455). This results in a feeling of intimacy that, if sustained, provides the foundation of a parasocial relationship.


Identification with Characters and Storylines

Having discussed the definition of parasociality, how can we recognize the concept in the case of Friends? Firstly, let us explore the relatability of the show. Think of the characters, for example, with their diverse personalities in which viewers can recognize themselves: fashionable and driven Rachel, organized and caring Monica, quirky and free-spirited Phoebe, witty and insecure Chandler, charming and simple-minded Joey, and intelligent and awkward Ross. Or consider the characters’ individual life stories: all six navigate their careers and relationships differently and have their own way of dealing with personal struggles like financial concerns, family dynamics, and self-discovery. Moreover, the show covers the general topic of life transitions: we watch the characters gradually evolve over the years, growing out of that post-college phase and into competent adults, whatever that may entail for each of them. In other words, Friends portrays the experience of being in your 20s and 30s and having no idea what the future holds. And it is exactly that feeling, of the future being more of a question mark, that creator Martha Kauffman was inspired by: “[We were] looking at that question mark and going: that’s interesting. Everybody knows that feeling.” (Lauer, 2004). Additionally, creator David Crane stated they did not only want the show to exclusively portray the experiences of Generation X (to which the six main characters belong), but also wanted it to speak to other age groups (Jicha, 2004). So, before even the pilot was written, the creators intended the show to be relatable for a wide audience, which explains why viewers can so easily recognize personal traits and experiences in the characters despite their being fictional. And if not their own traits—or even their desired traits—the six friends can remind them of people they know (Todd, 2011). This identification factor causes fans to personally relate to one or more characters in Friends, fostering a sense of closeness and allowing a parasocial relationship to form.

Before even the pilot was written, the creators intended the show to be relatable for a wide audience, which explains why viewers can so easily recognize personal traits and experiences in the characters despite their being fictional.

Secondly, implied by the title ‘Friends’, the closeness between the six is a key part of the show. As included in the creators’ original studio pitch, it is “about friendship because when you’re single and in the city, your friends are your family” (Lauer, 2004). However, the fictional characters are not only portrayed as real friends to each other but also to the audience. In other words, the on-screen intimacy extends to the viewers. Consequently, viewers can relate to the characters as they would to real friends, incorporating this connection into their lives in the form of a parasocial relationship (Todd, 2011). “Friends fans engage the show as their own experience,” Todd (2011) concludes, “they do experience it by watching it, and they extend that experience by living out these relationships.” (p. 867)


On-Screen Representation and Lack Thereof

Though it might be hard to imagine now, when Friends was first aired more than 25 years ago, it was considered ahead of its time, as it addressed contemporary issues and societal challenges. It was the first show to feature a lesbian wedding, for example, and it covered themes like surrogacy, adoption, and toxic masculinity — topics that were not commonly depicted on mainstream television at the time. Normalizing such experiences allowed the audience to connect more deeply with the characters since they might relate to these stories on an intimate level. However, returning to the 2020s, Friends has received due criticism over the past few years. The creators were accused of writing homophobic, fatphobic, and sexist jokes, and criticized for the serious lack of on-screen diversity — especially considering the story is set in multicultural New York City (Van Belzen, 2023). This reveals that a show about six cis, straight, white people does not sit well with contemporary audiences, underlining the fact that Friends might not be all that relatable for people from minority groups. Therefore, since they may experience trouble recognizing themselves on screen, underrepresented groups might form less — or less strong — parasocial bonds with these "friends". Yet, the casting choice was not a misunderstanding: the creators are white themselves and wanted to write a relatable show about their lives after college. But despite this initially intended relatability, it has served that purpose only for a predominantly straight, white audience, depriving other groups of the opportunity to create deeper parasocial connections with the characters.


Cosy and Inviting Set Design

Besides the characters and storylines, the style and set of Friends also play a crucial role in fostering a sense of closeness with its viewers. Although the idea of a show about relationships and careers in a big city sounds grand, its style is very laid back. We mostly just watch the six friends hang out: they chill in their apartments and talk at the coffee house—so much even, that the show became famous for it, introducing the TV subgenre of the ‘hangout comedy’. What makes Friends special, however, is that these scenes create the effect of hanging out with the characters (NYFA, 2014). Knowing this, it becomes hard to imagine that the sets were not designed with the purpose of intimacy in mind. “It’s easy to turn on and watch an episode of Friends,” said production designer John Shaffner, who described the experience as a comfortable feeling of visiting with the characters (Great Big Story, 2018). Consider, for example, his set design of Central Perk, the coffee house that posed as the friends’ second home. Its interior is filled with mismatched vintage furniture, wooden tables, and stacked cupboards, giving it a warm and welcoming ambience. Add the famous orange couch that is invitingly positioned facing the camera, and the viewer instantly feels part of the group. Or think of Monica and Rachel’s apartment, with its vibrant colours, quirky decorations, and overall homely interior. All friends could always walk in and find someone there, just like the fans can always tune in to an episode of Friends and spend time with the familiar faces on screen. 

Figure 2. The six Friends characters hanging out at Central Perk


The Show’s Ten-Year Run

Lastly, an essential element of Friends that fosters parasocial connections is its longevity. The show ran for ten seasons, from 1994 until 2004. During each season, fans could tune in weekly on Thursday night to watch the six New Yorkers for half an hour. As described above, the show’s identification factor and hangout style resulted in viewers not merely watching the characters, but feeling as if they were spending time with them as real friends—as if they were living through the group’s experiences. Following the plot developments each week for years, fans thus became intimately involved in the fictional characters’ day-to-day lives and their dramatic highs and lows (Todd, 2011). This fostered an even stronger emotional attachment to the on-screen friends, as if the audience and characters have a history together. Furthermore, the show’s regularity sustained the parasocial interactions fans had with the characters and extended them over ten years, resulting in long-term connections. In other words, the longevity of Friends preserved the parasocial relationships that had formed between the audience and fictional characters.

The show’s regularity sustained the parasocial interactions fans had with the characters and extended them over ten years, resulting in long-term connections.

Besides reruns being broadcast regularly on certain television channels, Friends is currently available on demand on streaming platform HBO Max. Despite its finale airing nearly 20 years ago, it remains highly popular among contemporary audiences, ranking #29 in IMDb’s top 100 most-watched television shows of all time (IMDb, 2022). However, the switch from weekly episodes to on-demand streaming has changed the way people interact parasocially with the characters. Weekly new episodes made way for binge-able material that is always accessible. We can now watch Friends whenever we want and for how long we want—the possibility of spending time with the characters is just a few clicks away. In today’s digitized society, there has thus been a shift in the way parasocial connections are maintained. Rather than being sustained by the show’s decade-long run, it is now also sustained by its accessibility: whenever you want to spend time with your fictional friends, they will be there for you.



In short, this paper explored how various elements of the hit TV show Friends allow its fans to create an intimate connection with the fictional characters. Considering the theory on parasocial relationships by Horton & Wohl (1956), I analysed the show’s relatability and representation, its style and design, and its longevity. Essentially, this case study has shown that, from the very beginning, the writers of Friends intended to create a show that is relatable. They wanted to write about their post-college experiences so that everyone could somehow identify with the characters and storylines. Their idea was a success; the show became a huge hit and received immense praise for its relatability, at least from those who saw themselves represented on screen. Consequently, it did not take long before fans of different generations started to foster a parasocial connection with the characters, relating to them as real friends. Reasons for this were not only the relatable personalities and storylines but also the style of the show: the familiar set and casual atmosphere invited the viewer to join the group in their hangout sessions. Additionally, its ten-season run deepened the connection with the ever-evolving characters even further over time, sustaining the parasocial bond.

The fans’ attachment to the characters was not an unexpected development — it was the entire premise of the show.

Besides arguing for Friends as a perennial parasocial favourite, this paper also demonstrates that the fans’ attachment to the characters is not an unexpected development — it is the entire premise of the show. It is what inspired creators Kauffman and Crane to write it and what has spurred its enormous success. In other words, parasociality is what drives Friends. In that sense, though parasocial relationships are always one-sided, the creators played a crucial role in cultivating them. The intimate bond the audience experiences with the fictional friends was carefully crafted behind the scenes, where the cast and crew did all they could to make the characters feel as real as possible. They laid the groundwork in the studio, and the fans did exactly what they were expected to: identify with and connect to their parasocial Friends.



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