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The entire Friends story finally explained

A quarter-century after it started, people are still talking about Friends. The NBC sitcom, which began in 1994 and lasted ten seasons, comes up constantly as one of the most popular shows in the era of streaming content. What is it that makes Friends so special? For one thing, it kept the same central cast for its entire run, which most long-running series fail to do. It started with Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Joey, and Phoebe, and they were all still there when it ended. 

The behind-the-scenes story of Friends has been discussed elsewhere, but we want to talk about the fictional story instead. Who are these six characters, where did they come from, and how did they fit together so well? Their life stories were revealed slowly over the course of those ten seasons, so let's piece it together, character by character, and examine the full story of Friends.

Ross Geller

Friends is very much an ensemble show, without one singular protagonist. That said, if there is one protagonist (at least at the beginning of the series), it's definitely Ross Geller (David Schwimmer). After all, much of the show revolves around one central romance (more on that later), and Ross begins the show as the one who's pining away. Like a lot of hapless romantic protagonists with unrequited love in their hearts, Ross is a bit of a nerd. He's not a caricature, however, like a Steve Urkel or even the Lone Gunmen on The X-Files — he's an adult who knows how to dress himself and talk to people. He's just too brainy for his own good and a bit awkward much of the time.

Ross grew up on Long Island with his parents, Jack (Eliott Gould) and Judy (Christina Pickles), and his younger sister, Monica (Courtney Cox). In high school, he had a crush on Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston), but she was out of his league and nothing came of it. In college, he became best friends with his roommate, Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry), and studied science, eventually becoming a doctor of paleontology.

He married his college girlfriend, Carol Willick (Jane Sibbett), and got a job at the New York Museum of Prehistoric History, a fictionalized version of the Museum of Natural History. Carol became a teacher, and they planned their future together. Unfortunately for Ross, Carol ultimately realized that she was a lesbian and couldn't be with him. In fact, by the time she admitted this to him, she had been having an affair with her friend Susan Bunch (Jessica Hecht). Even worse, Carol was pregnant with Ross' son at the time. By the time we meet Ross at the beginning of the series, their marriage has ended, sending him into a spiral of depression and leaving him paranoid about love.

Monica Geller

Monica Geller is two years younger than her brother Ross, and grew up with him on Long Island, where they were raised Jewish. Their parents, especially mother Judy, always showed an unmistakable preference for Ross, to Monica's understandable chagrin. She was overweight in high school and had low self-esteem as a result, although she was best friends throughout with the much more popular Rachel Green. At Thanksgiving in 1987, she met Ross' college roommate Chandler Bing, and was attracted to him but hurt when she overheard him make a comment about her weight.

Although very bright, she was never as academically oriented as Ross, and grew up to become a professional chef. Like most creative professions, being a chef involves a lot of ups and downs, and over the course of the show Monica finds herself going from restaurants with names like Iridium and Café des Artistes to spending time working at a diner and as a test chef for a company making artificial food products.

Monica inherited her grandmother's rent-controlled apartment, and became friends with her roommate Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow). However, Monica had an obsession with cleanliness that Phoebe did not share, so Phoebe secretly moved out without telling Monica. Even after Monica realized Phoebe had moved out, they remained close friends.

Rachel Green

Rachel Green also grew up on Long Island, with her parents, Leonard (Ron Leibman) and Sandra (Marlo Thomas), and sisters Amy (Christina Applegate) and Jill (Reese Witherspoon). The Greens were quite wealthy, and all three daughters were rather spoiled. Rachel became best friends with Monica Geller when they were both six years old, and their friendship survived high school, where Rachel was quite popular and Monica was not. Monica's brother Ross had a crush on Rachel, which she knew about but never acknowledged. Instead, she dated a popular but callow and unreliable boy named Chip Matthews (Dan Gauthier).

After high school, as Rachel was involved in high society while Monica struggled as a young chef, the two grew apart and didn't speak for years. During this time, Rachel's new best friend was Mindy Hunter (Jennifer Grey), and she began a romance with a dentist named Barry Farber (Mitchell Whitfield). Rachel and Barry made plans to marry, although he was cheating on her with Mindy. Despite not knowing that, Rachel came to realize that she didn't love Barry, and ultimately left him at the altar. That act blew up Rachel's life as she knew it, and brought her back together with her childhood best friend, Monica Geller. 

The Friends pilot finds Rachel reconnecting with Monica, leading to a reunion with her old admirer Ross. Monica needs a new roommate since Phoebe has moved out, and Rachel decides to move in and build a new life. That becomes more of a challenge when her father cuts her off financially and she has to get job at the local coffee house, Central Perk. Over the course of the show, however, she makes her way into the fashion industry, working as a buyer for Bloomingdale's and then as the women's wear coordinator at Ralph Lauren.

Chandler Bing

Chandler Bing was the only son of Nora (Morgan Fairchild) and Charles Bing (Kathleen Turner), who split up when Chandler was nine because Charles was sleeping with the pool boy and had decided to come out and live openly as gay. Charles moved to Vegas and became a drag queen named Helena Handbasket, eventually transitioning to living full time as a woman. All of this left young Chandler with a fraught relationship with sexuality and gender performance, as well as a cynical view of relationships. As he grew up, he coped with his insecurities by becoming "the funny one" in every situation.

In college, Chandler became best friends with his roommate Ross Geller, and as an adult he ended up living across the hall from Ross' sister Monica, who he'd met a few times years earlier. Chandler's first roommate in that apartment was named Kip, but after Kip had an unsuccessful relationship with Monica, he left the friend group and the apartment. Chandler's new roommate, Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc) soon became close with Chandler and all of his other friends.

In the series, Chandler is the only one of his friend group to work a boring office job. At various points throughout the show, he is described as a Data Processor and said to work in the field of Statistical Analysis and Data Reconfiguration. Eventually he gets fed up with that job, and becomes a copywriter at an advertising firm.

Although many people mistake him for gay, Chandler has many relationships with women over the course of the show. For years, the most significant is an on-again, off-again romance with Janice Hosenstein (Maggie Wheeler), whose nasal voice and braying laugh make her unpopular with his friends. Over time, however, his friendship with Monica Geller grows into true love.

Phoebe Buffay

Phoebe Buffay had a much rougher childhood than any of her friends. She and her twin sister Ursula (also Lisa Kudrow) were conceived in a threesome between Phoebe Abbott (Teri Garr), Frank Buffay (Bob Balaban), and Lily Buffay. Abbott was the one who got pregnant, but she wasn't ready to have children, so she left the twins with the Buffays. Unfortunately, Frank left Lily and the girls not long after that. She remarried, but her second husband went to prison for an unspecified crime, and Lily committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. The twins were put into the foster care system, but Phoebe ran away and was living on the streets by the age of 14.

Phoebe never went to high school, but learned a lot on her own, which accounts for her strange mix of wisdom and ditziness, scattered knowledge of how the world works mixed with strange beliefs. She spent her 16th birthday running from a mentally ill man who'd promised to murder her. She also once stabbed a police officer, but claims that he stabbed her first. However, thanks to her natural resourcefulness, she eventually pulled her life together and became a massage therapist. She also learned to play guitar, and took up a regular role playing her weird songs at Central Perk.

She once married a gay Canadian ice dancer named Duncan so that he could get a green card, although she was secretly in love with him. Years later, when he comes to her seeking a divorce, he reveals he isn't gay after all, but doesn't return her feelings.

She briefly shared an apartment with Monica Geller, but moved out secretly after realizing that Monica's obsession with cleanliness would eventually make her hate Phoebe. So Phoebe moved her possessions to her grandmother's apartment a few at a time, but kept hanging out with Monica and their other friends.

Joey Tribbiani

Joey Tribbiani Jr. grew up as the only boy out of eight children in an Italian family in Queens. His father, Joey Sr., had a pipe-fitting business, and his mother, Gloria (Brenda Vaccaro), was once written about in a medical journal because every one of her pregnancies came immediately after the previous birth, with only nine months between each of her eight children.

Joey was never the smartest, but he was extremely handsome and grew up to become a working actor. His career brings the show some of its most memorably surreal plot threads — his biggest role is as Dr. Drake Ramoray on the soap opera Days of Our Lives, although he later stars in a short-lived sci-fi cop show called Mac and C.H.E.E.S.E. He plays Mac Machiavelli, a cop who finds himself partnered with a robot named C.H.E.E.S.E., which stands for Computerized Humanoid Electronically Enhanced Secret Enforcer.

Joey only met Chandler Bing because he needed a place to live in the city and Chandler needed a roommate, but the two soon became very close friends, and Joey became friends with Chandler's friends in time.

The Ross and Rachel story

Although Ross Geller had some feelings for Rachel Green when they were teenagers, they never had a real relationship until Ross was divorced from Carol and Rachel had run out on her wedding to Barry. Even then, Ross' awkwardness and post-marriage unease keep him from expressing his feelings to Rachel for months. Eventually, in fact, Chandler persuades Ross to give up on Rachel and move on. Chandler also accidentally reveals Ross' feelings to Rachel, but by then Ross has taken Chandler's advice and begun dating someone else.

Eventually, Ross and Rachel do get together as a couple, but Ross' paranoia and jealousy create problems when Rachel becomes friends with a coworker named Mark (Steven Eckholdt). After their arguments lead Rachel to declare that they should "take a break," Ross becomes convinced that Rachel is sleeping with Mark, and he sleeps with a woman named Chloe (Angela Featherstone). Rachel, who really hasn't slept with Mark, finds out about Chloe and breaks up with Ross.

For the rest of the show, Ross and Rachel have a very messy relationship that's off as much as it is on, with both of them finding it hard to trust each other in the wake of everything that's gone before. Ross even marries Emily Waltham (Helen Baxendale), but screws it up from the beginning by accidentally calling her "Rachel" in his vows.

Late in the series, Ross and Rachel drunkenly get married in Vegas, and have a child named Emma from a one-night stand. But it's only in the series finale that they finally commit to each other, declaring that this time it will be for real.

The Monica and Chandler story

Unlike Ross and Rachel, the romance between Chandler and Monica wasn't even hinted at when the series began. The first hint comes at the end of the first season, when Chandler suggests that they should get married if they're both still single when they turn 40. They first sleep together on the eve of Ross' disastrous wedding to Emily, although they both try to act like it's no big deal the next day.

Monica and Chandler keep sleeping together, but try to act like they're just fooling around. Eventually, they realize they don't want to date anyone but each other, and become a committed couple. At first, they try to keep their relationship a secret from their friends, but it soon proves impossible. Ross is the last to find out, and is initially angry at his best friend for sleeping with his sister, until Chandler makes it clear that he deeply cares for Monica and is taking this relationship seriously.

If Ross and Rachel's relationship is messy and chaotic, Chandler and Monica's grows ever more stable with the passage of time. After dating for a year, they move in together, and a year after that, they get engaged and begin planning their wedding. After getting married, they try to have a baby but fail to conceive, eventually leading them to adopt twin babies named Jack and Erica.

Where Phoebe ended up

While four of the six titular friends paired up into two couples, Phoebe and Joey never did, although they flirted a bit over the years. Phoebe dates several men over the course of the show, but her first really serious relationship is with David (Hank Azaria), a physicist who she meets at Central Perk. It starts when she gets mad that he's talking to his friend during her performance, only to find out he was talking about how beautiful she was. Their relationship ends with he leaves the country to study in Minsk.

Years later, Phoebe and Joey promise to set each other up on blind dates with their friends. Joey forgets to arrange this, and tells Phoebe he's setting her up with his friend Mike, despite not knowing a Mike. Fortunately, when he goes into Central Perk and shouts, "Mike!" the man who responds is Mike Hannigan (Paul Rudd), a lawyer-turned-pianist who's just weird enough to be a perfect match for Phoebe. Mike grew up rich, but isn't interested in that lifestyle. He also already has an unsuccessful marriage behind him, which makes him reluctant to marry again.

However, David returns from Minsk, ready to marry Phoebe. Phoebe wants to be with Mike, however, and the experience makes Mike realize he's up for marrying Phoebe. Eventually, they do get married, and are talking about having kids by the time the series ends.

Where Joey ended up

Unlike his five friends, Joey never found true love over the course of the series. Fortunately for him, he'd have more time. After Friends ended, Matt LeBlanc starred in the spinoff sitcom Joey, in which the title character moves from New York to Los Angeles to pursue his acting career. His sister Gina (Drea de Matteo) finds him an apartment, and her 20-year-old son Michael (Paulo Costanzo) becomes his roommate. 

The show was cancelled before the end of the second season, but by then Joey was in a serious relationship with his landlord, a somewhat scatterbrained lawyer named Alex Garrett (Andrea Anders). She's married when they first meet, but pursues Joey after separating from and then divorcing her husband. Joey also has a close relationship with his agent, Bobbie Morganstern (Jennifer Coolidge), and eventually finds a new best friend in fellow actor Zach Miller (Miguel A. Núñez Jr.). 

The show never became more than a footnote in the story of Friends, but at least it let fans see what became of Joey Tribbiani, who had been the least settled of the gang in New York.

Conclusion of series

Friends is a show that's had a surprisingly long afterlife, and even a bit of a renaissance, as it has proven shockingly popular in the streaming era, finding an audience with a generation that wasn't necessarily even born yet when it premiered. It may not be a realistic show (just look at the size of those apartments), but it's a comfortable one, centering as it does around a group of people who love and accept each other. It's a show about being young and not quite ready for the adulthood you're already living, which is something Millennials and the oldest Gen Z-ers can definitely identify with. 

It's also about the intersection between birth family and found family, and the importance of having people around you when you don't quite know who you are yet. On top of all that, it's a longform rom com, which ends with a positive, pro-love message after plenty of dramatic bumps along the way. At the end of the day, it's a show that people want to watch, and it seems it will continue to stand the test of time.