Thanks to the abundance of streaming services these days, we're able to watch (and re-watch, and re-watch) our favorite TV shows, regardless of how long they've been off the air. Aside from making us feel all warm and fuzzy inside, being able to watch shows from the past also gives us a glimpse into what life was like during its original run. Pressing play on a classic show can be like opening up a time capsule—especially when it comes to technology.
A show like Friends, that aired from 1994 until 2004, is an excellent example of TV reminding us how our gadgets have progressed. Think of all the people being exposed to Friends for the first time, watching Rachel look for a new apartment or Joey looking for work in a newspaper. And how many storylines amped up the conflict with a regrettable message left on—gasp—a landline answering machine?
But if you're watching Friends in the context of today's technology, not everything feels so dated. In fact, there were instances on the show where the tech was very forward-thinking. And in the case of season three's "The One with Ross's Thing," almost eerily so.
As you may recall, Monica (Courteney Cox) starts dating millionaire Pete Becker (Jon Favreau), and while Pete's out of town, she brings her pals over to his apartment. The gang is amazed by the ability to turn on lights with a voice command, the video phone in Pete's living room, and the fact that Pete Becker has the nicest kitchen on the planet—no seriously, Phoebe tells them, the refrigerator tells her to have a great day.
Essentially, Pete is living in a smart house. But the episode aired in 1997—how is this even possible? Did the Friends writers room conjure up future tech like Alexa and FaceTime from thin air? Were they comedic geniuses with technological foresight?
Well, not exactly. Almost a decade earlier, Back to the Future II (1989) gave us a look into a 2015 home that operated by voice commands and phones that existed inside a pair of glasses. And the actual first appearance of a phone with video capacity popped up in a German sci-fi film called Metropolis, way back in 1927 (the film takes place in 2026). So the idea of a smart home and phones that worked as more than audio devices had been swirling around for a while. In fact, about a year after Alexander Graham Bell patented his telephone in 1876, rumors spread that Bell was already experimenting with sending images across phone lines. But it wasn't until 1927 that a video call was made from AT&T's own lab.
The technology for video phones and machines assisting us in the household, that is so ubiquitous today, has been around and evolving for a while. But back in 1997, the tech wasn't exactly the most practical, and only the upper echelon of society, like millionaire-turned-failed UFC fighter Pete Becker would actually have it functioning within his home.
The Friends writers may not have invented the technology, but they were savvy enough to realize some of the problems that relying on tech in the home would have: After the gang wrongly assumes Pete is going to propose to Monica, Ross excitedly tells his sister to "call mom." Pete's video phone hears the command and all of a sudden, Pete's mom pops up on the screen.
So even if the tech was fairly new to the everyday user, it was still obvious that things could easily get very, very awkward.