Why TV show casts being friends in real life is weirdly comforting right now

By Sophie Parsons

02.11.20

It’s ok to be obsessed with Marianne and Connell hanging out IRL.

We’re undoubtedly facing the most difficult era our generation has ever had to face. None of us 20-somethings know whether we’re going to be made redundant tomorrow, there is a distinct sense that politicians are feeding us fictional stories to hide grim truths and we could get sick from hugging the people we love the most. It’s no surprise that our hunger for fiction is peaking. Us Brits have spent 40 per cent of our waking hours in lockdown this year, and our voyueristic appetite for the off-screen lives of our favourite TV actors has only grown more fervent as a result. Whether it’s the cast of Friends going for dinners or doing Zooms together, or Normal People’s Marianne, Connell and the gang hanging out IRL in London, we’ve all gone a little bit mad for fictional friendships blurring into real life. I decided to explore where this fascination is coming from.

One explanation for us all losing our minds over Jenifer Anniston’s debut Instagram post is simply nostalgia. Actor Josh Gad recently hit the nail on the head when he said, “we are all hoping for something to connect with that reminds us of better times”. This is certainly partly why I’ve found myself joining the gang at Central Perk more often than pre-Covid and investing in their light-hearted problem management. The Times’ William Sutcliffe also delves into our tendency to revisit shows like Friends again and again (and again and again), and finds that young people are harbouring a yearning for a simpler time, pre-Internet, pre-Smart phones, and pre...well...pandemic. I can see the logic. I would take “PIVOT”-ing a sofa that is too big for the stairwell over the basic daily struggles of COVID-19 any day, particularly knowing that even if that sofa ends up “cut in half” and a huge waste of money, the episode will still end with laughs, warmth, cut to credits. 

So, why is our hunger for nostalgia spilling over into real life now more than ever, and how does this explain our obsessions with the cast of newer shows?

I’ve always searched for cast gossip behind-the-scenes of TV shows I’ve loved, feeling most content when on-screen relationships turned out to mirror real life ones. You can imagine my delight upon discovering, aged 10, that Fred and Daphne from the Scooby Doo movies were also a real-life couple, or how delighted I was at the happy, convivial return of Gavin & Stacey this Christmas after spending years totally devastated about the rumoured feud between Matthew Horne and James Corden. 

More recently, after getting totally hooked on Normal People (I mean, who wasn’t?) I read every morsel I could find on the relationship between Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, who play Marianne and Connell. Although they aren’t in a romantic relationship, Daisy described her friendship with Paul as “a wonderful thing” in an interview with Elizabeth Day, while Paul told Sunday Times Style that one of the best things about filming Normal People was “meeting some of my best pals that I’m hopefully going to have for the rest of my life”. When I found out he had moved in with India Mullen and Fionn O’Shea, who play Peggy and Jamie in the series, it was Fred and Daphne take-two. 

Reaching out to other 20-somethings over WhatsApp proved (thankfully) I am not alone in feeling so strongly about cast relationships IRL.

Half of those I spoke to felt they got more out of a show knowing that positive relationships existed behind the scenes. “It makes me happy,” one of my friends said, “I feel like I want to know celebs, and it gives me an insight into their actual friendships.” She paused before adding, “which is likely bollocks.” Some gave examples of their own obsessions. “Sense and Sensibility comes to mind,” one friend said, “it’s got Emma Thomson and Hugh Lawrie in it. Their characters don’t have much interaction in the film, but they respect each other. The actors went to university together and I think you can tell they like each other.” 

Another person agreed, saying she watched and read interviews about films she really loved to extend the viewing experience, describing actors’ real-life friendships as “good extra content”. Some did say that the actors’ real life relationships wouldn’t impact their overall enjoyment or opinion of the show, but all survey participants agreed that if the actors have good chemistry in real life, they were more likely to engage in media surrounding the work. In short, it’s not just me. Lots of us 20-somethings want that sense of comfort we get from the on-screen world to extend into the one we, ourselves, inhabit. 

Maybe there are some attachment issues going on. Especially when it comes to shows we’ve grown up with. 

For over 15 years, Friends was a regular point of reference in many of our lives. I know I frequently compare life experiences of my own friends to those of the characters in the show. Their friendships have provided inspiration for my own. I aspire to be living my twenties surrounded by people close enough to wander in and out of my flat 24/7 and to merge my own life with my friends’ lives. My feelings for these characters run so deep that I simply cannot face the idea that they don’t feel the same about each other in real life. Perhaps that’s to do with a need to believe that I, myself, can build a similar sort of reality for my life. 

Maybe I’m just irresistibly attracted to the idea that, if fictional relationships can lead to real ones, I have the power to make my life at least a little bit like a TV show.

After extensive research, you may be as delighted as I was to learn that the cast of Friends do largely share the bond of their characters on the show. Upon reading comments detailing the casts’ cosy dinners and crazy parties from “inside sources”, I could breathe a sigh of relief. The Instagram posts by each of the core cast members of the gang reunited bring me surprising (inappropriate) levels of joy.

Against the grim backdrop of reality, where uncertainty and mistrust in the real world goes on, I will continue to find comfort in Monica, Rachel, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler and Ross’s bond (both acted and real).

Perhaps that’s the only proof I need right now that the real world we live in can still bear some resemblance to the fictional one that brings me such pleasure. Perhaps it’s the encouragement I need to seek out such intimacy in my own relationships, from my WhatsApp groups filled with old friends, to the colleagues I can cry over coffee with when work is a bit shit. And perhaps that’s the only comfort I need that in real life, too, there can and will still be happy endings.

Image from Friends (TV show).