In 2019—15 years after the show went out in a blaze of “No, god, don’t get back together with Ross”-ian glory—Friends is held up as one of the great TV success stories of the last generation, a ratings draw so potent that NBC went deep into its own pockets to convince the cast to come back for one last season and stave off the drought years just a little longer. But this rosy network reputation was not always the case, something made very clear in a retrospective interview given to Variety’s Elizabeth Wagmeister this week by creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane. Among the arguments about the show’s credits sequence—“Too hip,” apparently, a stance history’s opinion of carefree fountain dancers does not appear to have vindicated—and the non-ability to say “penis” or show condoms on-screen, one incident right at the show’s beginning appears to have rankled them the most: The question of whether Courtney Cox’s Monica was too much of a “slut” in the series’ pilot.
That’s in the phrasing of an unnamed NBC executive—although given that Kauffman labels him as “the head of NBC” at the time, there’s a decent chance she’s referring to then-network president Warren Littlefield—who expressed repeated concerns that Monica’s decision to sleep with a guy on the first date in the show’s first episode made her a “slut” or “whore.” (The executive did not seem to be bothered by the fact that Monica has sex with Paul The Wine Guy only after he tells her a lie about his inability to perform. Hey, consent!) It was apparently a dire enough issue that the unnamed executive ordered a survey to be conducted, polling viewers of the pilot about whether the decision made Monica too unlikable. (No one minded, whatsoever.)
And look: There have been gallons of ink spilled about the ways Friends fails to live up to various standards of inclusivity and non-harmful speech. (You could write a book on Ross’ attitudes toward homosexuality alone.) But sex negativity isn’t generally one of its sins, and the thought of a network that was simultaneously airing Seinfeld getting all bothered because a female character had sex with a guy she liked is legitimately baffling. (Said executive presumably had no such complaints about Joey’s attempts to fuck his way through half of New York, either.)
Anyway, take it as an inspirational story, perhaps: Even the greatest of success stories can begin with a powerful idiot throwing said power around to slut-shame women. Hurrah?