As we all know, “Friends” is coming to an end this season after 10 years of being there for us.
We know, too, that filming wrapped last month, and that its finale will air in May with the accompanying hype of the Olympics and the Super Bowl combined.
And we know that, despite reruns of “Friends” airing daily on many local stations and on cable’s TBS, we will be poorer for its absence from NBC Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET. As will be poor NBC, which could face deep trouble without this ratings blockbuster on the schedule next fall.
(MSNBC is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)
Even so, I have a modest proposal. I’d like to suggest that not only isn’t “Friends” the “best comedy ever” (as NBC claimed before wisely recanting) ... it isn’t even close.
Fastidiously crafted fluff, yes. A trusty laughter-delivery device, sure.
But “Friends” doesn’t hold a candle to the sitcom greats, which range through TV history from the pioneering “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners” to current classics like “Frasier” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
To be fair, “Friends” broke new ground in one notable way. It defied the sitcom custom of one or more stars backed by a supporting cast. On “Friends,” the six “friends” (like the actors who vaulted to superstardom playing them) have always been coequals.
Both on the screen and behind the scenes, “Friends” is all about maintaining a united front — “I’ll be there for you,” goes that icky song — with none of the characters more important or more lovable than any other.
In September 1994, when “Friends” premiered as an instant hit, such egalitarianism was unprecedented on a sitcom, and has seldom been tried since (one futile attempt: last fall’s smutty “Friends” ripoff, “Coupling”).
For good reason. It’s hard to administer six characters in equal measure within a 22-minute narrative. Somehow “Friends” has managed this balancing act, week after week, maintaining equilibrium inside its private universe. But at a cost: serious inbreeding.
No nagging flawsWe all know the original concept for the series: Six attractive twentysomething singles congregated in a Greenwich Village apartment building anchored by a coffee bar too cutely named the Central Perk.
Monica (Courteney Cox Arquette) was a lovely control freak. Her brother was the marginally nerdy Ross (David Schwimmer), and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) her cutie of a childhood friend. Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) was a New Agey folk singer, Joey (Matt LeBlanc) a happy-go-lucky dunce trying to make it as an actor, and Chandler (Matthew Perry) an accountant with a fine-tuned sense of irony.
Over the years, the friends have suffered the occasional setback. For instance, Ross has failed with marriage and Joey’s career hasn’t exactly taken off.
But “Friends” trades on the notion that any problem can be neutralized by the company we keep. The privilege of membership is satisfaction — that’s the reassuring message “Friends” hands us.
Meanwhile, the friends are smothering in one another’s embrace. Despite the best efforts of the actors who portray them, they are stuck in second gear (that song again!) as little more than broad-stroke variations on a theme.
In comedy no less than drama, the best characters have nagging flaws they must contend with. Think of Archie Bunker’s bigotry, or the addictive personality of Sam Malone, a recovering alcoholic and dogged womanizer.
And what about the glorious losers of “Seinfeld”! They are fated to sabotage themselves in everything they do thanks to the chronic self-involvement that unites them.
Where, then, are the demons on “Friends”? Monica slayed hers — teenage obesity — before the series even began. Chandler, fond of cracking wise about his failure with women, nonetheless went on to woo and wed the delectable Monica. Go figure!
Throughout sitcom history, the best characters are forever reaching for a goal just beyond their grasp. Hawkeye Pierce wants to get home from Korea in one piece. Deputy Barney Fife wants to prove his valor as a lawman to the citizens of Mayberry. Mary Richards wants to show the world she can make it, after all.
But what of the tight little sextet of “Friends”? They just want to be loved by one another, and they are. They just want to hang out with their friends, and they do. So their mission was accomplished in the series’ first week. After that? More and more icing on the cake.