By Neil S. Friedman
"Friends" Was Nothing More Than Casual Acquaintance
Tonight’s the night! The final episode of the long-running situation comedy "Friends" will air then permanently settle in Rerun Land, where it’s been in syndication for several years.
It’s time to say, "au revoir," (and not a moment too soon) to Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Joey and Phoebe. The saturation media coverage for this finale is unprecedented and unnecessary. It easily surpasses that of "Seinfeld," which seems like eons ago, but is a mere six years. An NBC product, the network is milking every last drop from tonight’s last original episode with the show’s actors making countless promotional appearances on several of the network’s other programs, in addition to showing up on rival networks.
"Ho hum!" Not that I won’t tune in to see some or most of the finale. This is, after all, television history. I’ve been a television enthusiast since Howdy Doody mesmerized me in the ‘50s, but I was never that enthused by "Friends."
As it exits, the comedy series, which debuted in September, 1994, continues to garner critical acclaim, is the number 5 show overall and reigns as television’s number-one rated sitcom in the desirable advertising category, whose 18-49 year olds relate to or who are envious of the characters’ relationships.
In case you’ve been in a coma for a decade or consider network television beneath your cultural standards, the sitcom focuses on the post-adolescent friendships of three handsome men and three comely women who hang out at one of the group’s apartments or at a neighborhood coffee shop. In the beginning, only three had full-time jobs. As it ends, all are immersed in satisfying careers. At the onset, the sextet’s relationships were purely platonic, though each yearned for an ideal mate, but by series’ end several characters have had at least one heterosexual physical encounter with each other — except for siblings Monica and Ross — two are married to each other and two had an out-of-wedlock child. Now that’s what I call friends!
"Friends" was a tolerable, more often than not satisfying television comedy that entertained tens of millions every Thursday night for ten years. Nothing more, nothing less. I certainly won’t remember it as one of television’s all-time best sitcoms, on par with "M*A*S*H," "Cheers," "All In the Family," "The Honeymooners," "I Love Lucy," "Cosby," "The Dick Van Dyke Show," and, of course, "Seinfeld." Those shows were more cleverly written and, in some instances, more sophisticated.
As a matter of fact, "Friends" probably achieved its lofty status after "Seinfeld" ended its "Must See TV" run, because it reigned distinctive amongst a dearth of competition.
Though "Friends" is leaving with lots of hype, two other long-running sitcoms, "Frasier" (11 years) and "The Drew Carey Show" (9 years) are departing with little or no fanfare.
The quality television sitcom seems to be a dying species. The current TV season, which ends later this month, only had five sitcoms regularly ranked in the Top 20, which for years was saturated with the genre.
Come the fall, the veteran — and still funny — comedy series "Everybody Loves Raymond" should rule the waning sitcom roost, mostly because the competition is deficient. Regrettably, cheaply produced reality television shows now dominate the network prime time television schedule. That regrettable trend will expand when the new season kicks off in Sep-tember.
The "Friends" finale will set a record for advertising dollars (reportedly $2 million for more than a dozen 30-second spots) but not for viewers (estimated to be in the 40-50 million range), which is extraordinary by today’s standards, considering the choice of programs is markedly higher than it was 21 years ago for the final episode of "M*A*S*H" that drew 106 million viewers or even when "Cheers" signed off with 80 million watching in 1993.
Regardless of what one thinks of its quality quotient, "Friends" has had an obvious cultural influence. It’s six stars were virtually unknown a decade ago, except for Courtney Cox, who gained recognition as the girl plucked from the audience in a Bruce Springsteen video, which led to a semi-regular role on the "Family Ties" sitcom opposite Michael J. Fox. In the years since the first episode of "Friends," the actors have become wealthy as starting five figure salaries climbed to the current seven figures, and each has attained pop celebrity status. The "Friends" set has inspired home decorating alterations and the characters’ clothing and hairstyles became derigueur for many faithful viewers.
Farewell, "Friends." I wasn’t there (consistently) for you, nor will I seek the show in reruns like I often do for "Seinfeld" or "M*A*S*H." In other words, my personal relationship with "Friends" was nothing more than a casual acquaintance.