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To end ‘Friends,’ break them up

There will be as many opinions about the right way to end “Friends” as there have been failed attempts to copy its success. Unfortunately, the right answers may be hiding where no one is looking. By Linda Holmes
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

There will be as many opinions about the right way to end “Friends” as there have been failed attempts to copy its success. Unfortunately, the right answers may be hiding where no one is looking. “Friends” best shot at success in its last season may be walking away from some of the patterns it started in its first.

Much of the charm of the early days, of course, lay in Ross’s unrequited love for the oblivious Rachel. He mumbled and fretted, a coiled spring of twitchy energy; she grinned and served coffee and dallied with her Italian hottie and her pasty ex-fiancé. When they kissed woozily in a doorway during the second season, it felt like a moment fans had earned.

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But once they weathered the “break,” the copy shop girl, and the seventeen-page letter (“Front and back!”), it emerged that while they were an entertaining couple, they were a more entertaining ex-couple. For the purposes of both comedy and character possibilities, their happy canoodling couldn’t compete with their later attempts to wrestle with their acrimonious history.

Reuniting them for the close of the show is not a good idea. To anyone who’s listened to more than five minutes of Dr. Phil, their occasional ill-fated reunions have looked less like fulfillments of destiny than outbreaks of joint insanity.

Flying across the Atlantic Ocean to interrupt a wedding is pathological, not passionate, and parents who have sat through The Wiggles will tell you that unplanned pregnancies aren’t actually all that romantic.

Ross and Rachel have shown, in short, a great flair for getting together and no flair at all for staying together, so hooking them up at the last minute can never really satisfy.

Today’s reunion, no matter how sincerely felt it may appear, would lead to tomorrow’s vicious breakup, complete with yelling, insults, and a refreshed realization on their part that they don’t actually want to be together — something they’ve learned again and again.

The fact that they have a child can only raise the stakes and make it all feel even sadder.

In order to provide a satisfying conclusion for the characters and to allow them to play out their story in the way they’ve done best, the show needs to have the guts to leave them where they belong — as a highly entertaining ex-couple who should never, never make out again.

BABY MINE
As for the show’s other couple, marriage has not always been kind to Monica and Chandler. Monica was presented in the first season as compulsive and neurotic, struggling not to devote all her time to plumping the pillows and making elaborate French desserts.

But over time, as is so often the case, what worked in moderation became insufferable in excess. In the last few seasons, Monica has blown past neat freak to nag, past overachiever to petty praise hound, and past picky to shrill and demanding.

Worse yet, Chandler and Monica will reportedly be pursuing adoption this season, and if Monica’s snappish, controlling attitude is extended to her quest for parenthood, her desire for a baby will look competitive and self-involved, and the story won’t be touching — it will be creepy. The best hope is for the show to step back from those old-style neuroses that she had in the early days, and to refrain from steeping her in them until she drowns. If nothing else, she needs to find her sense of humor again.

Chandler, on the other hand, has never lacked for yuks. Matthew Perry’s brand of goofy, frustrated energy has been one of the show’s most reliable assets even though, like Cox, he has suffered as a result of missteps in the Monica/Chandler dynamic.

The picture of Chandler as a commitment-phobic bumbler was funny when he was single, but now that he’s married, when Monica gets overly sharp with him and he cringes miserably, he can seem cowed and baffled, just as he was by Janice in his bachelor days. This couple is not the Ropers; audiences don’t want to see them reach a point where they don’t seem to like each other, especially if they’re trying to start a family. It would be more fun to see Chandler nervous about parenthood (though admittedly, the show has visited that territory before with Ross) than to see him so nervous about his wife.

PHOEBE THE BRIDE?

And what of the characters who didn’t fall into romances with each other? The Phoebe of 1994 was a jumble of New Age gibberish and near-incoherence. She found thumbs in cans of soda, she made up words like “floopy,” and she got a tranquilizer dart in the behind.

Lisa Kudrow has fared surprisingly well over the life of the series, probably exactly because she never got entangled in any of the long melodramatic arcs. She has been particularly good, though, as that strangest of all comedy inventions: a character utterly without cynicism.

Kudrow is so cheerful and appealing that she gets away with giddiness that would be nauseating in the hands of a lesser actress, and aside from Cox’s work with Tom Selleck, she is the only cast member to make outside love interests work. Her romances with David the Scientist Guy (Hank Azaria) and more recently the offbeat Mike (Paul Rudd) were charming and lovely, and the promise of more of Rudd this season can only be a good thing. Phoebe, to put it plainly, deserves a decent boyfriend to justify all that faith in humanity that she’s been hanging onto.

Does this mean Phoebe should get married? Sadly, this show has overdone marriage as a plot point. They’ve featured wedding after wedding — Carol and Susan’s then-edgy same-sex ceremony, Ross’s tempest in an Earl Grey teapot with Emily in London, Ross and Rachel’s boozy collision in Vegas, and Monica and Chandler’s more conventional vows. It’s a wonder they don’t have a florist on retainer.

That doesn’t even count the motley marriage-related plots that have been uncorked over the years, like Steve Zahn as Phoebe’s gay ice dancer husband, Rachel’s dumping of her fiancé at the altar, the fiancé’s later marriage to Rachel’s erstwhile maid of honor, and Joey’s accidental quasi-proposal to Rachel when she had just given birth.

Unfortunately, the well has just about run dry by now. There cannot possibly be a wedding dress joke, a caterer joke, or an invitation joke from which the writers haven’t already gotten the maximum mileage. Knowing, however, that at least one wedding is probably in the cards for the season, it would be better to see Phoebe put her unique stamp on bridal behavior to marry a guy she really loves than to see Ross and Rachel going another tiresome round.

PAYOFF FOR JOEY

Without question, the biggest surprise over the last nine seasons has been Joey, originally drawn as the clueless cad and now knocking it out of the park every week as the show’s big, mushy, pounding heart.

Matt LeBlanc has one of the funniest faces in television, and he manages to keep Joey dopey without ever making him boring, which is the line that’s most difficult for pretty-boy actors to walk.

It’s hard not to root for Joey to get what he wants — which is currently Rachel — but the chemistry is just not there. Their big kiss in the Barbados finale was thrilling because Joey has been so noble for so long, and the two have made adorable friends, as they did when they played “Tequila” on the drums and when he found a dirty book in her bedroom.

Ultimately, though, they have never been a convincing romantic couple. Combining this with the fact that LeBlanc will be heading out of town for a spin-off we know doesn’t involve Rachel, it’s evident that this relationship is going nowhere.

It would be better to wrap it up as soon as possible, because there needs to be time to give Joey the payoff that he deserves after nine years of watching everyone else’s life play out — other people’s weddings, other people’s babies, other people’s transfers to Tulsa.

The ideal ending would give him a job and a ticket to L.A. Preferably, a ticket to somewhere with good writers, a great supporting cast, and possibly the odd sweeps-week cameo by someone he once knew back when he lived in New York.

But maybe the most important thing “Friends” can do as it heads into its final season is not to try too hard. They’ve mined gold from poker and Twister, from lasagna and onion tartlets, from bras and bracelets and “Baywatch.”

What matters most is a funny, well-written, reasonably relaxed final season — one that doesn’t steam single-mindedly like a freight train toward the inevitably overhyped finale. Because that finale is coming, like one of Monica’s vacuuming sprees, whether you want it or not.

Linda Holmes is a freelance writer living in Bloomington, Minn.