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Hedgehogs & Foxes

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A serious law professor would not write an article about the TV show Friends, but having just written a book and an article, I’m on a “break.” Besides, I’m not that serious a law professor. And Friends is as good a topic as any. For those of us of a certain age—too young to have watched M.A.S.H. when it came out and old enough to remember watching broadcast TV and not just through a streaming service on a device—Friends was and is a big deal. It both captured a particular moment in history and helped make that moment.

Looking back can be a fraught exercise, filled with both judgment and nostalgia. Some of the plot lines and jokes in Friends have not aged well. From our perspective today, it is too homophobic (but in complicated ways), too white (not in a complicated way at all), and overly reliant on stereotyped characters. On the other hand, many of the jokes are timeless and the characters, with time, acquired a depth that seems to defy the limits of the sit-com format. Smug superiority and quirkiness propelled Seinfeld (and later shows like Colbert and Schitt’s Creek) forward, but Friends relied on a different formula, one that took relationships incredibly seriously.

Conveyed through humor and infused throughout the show’s endless parade of “joke, joke, joke, joke,” Friends put forth a complicated vision of social interaction. Complete with an intricate system of rewards and punishments, the Friends universe can be seen as a moral tale that touches on nearly every aspect of both law and human relations. Just as Robert Ellickson’s Order without Law famously described how cattle farmers and their neighbors relied principally on informal norms rather than legal rules to resolve disputes, the law of Friends is similarly informal, but no less significant in the lives of characters.

This article takes Friends (semi-)seriously. It tries to build a “law of Friends” out of the jokes and relationship dynamics as they develop over the show’s ten seasons and 236 episodes. What sort of behavior is seen as wrong? When someone does something wrong, how should they be punished and under what conditions are they forgiven? What is the role of formal law? What are the show’s moral lessons and what behavioral norms does it uplift as well as reject? The hope is that readers of this article will join me in taking Friends, and the place of Friends in our society, somewhat seriously, will help build out the legal theory of Friends, and will also approach this piece with levity that “Friends”-scholarship invites. To those who do not want to join in this undertaking or question whether a tenured professor should spend time on such a topic, I can only say “vafanopi!”



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