Friends (TV Series)

A Chummy Comedy

Year(s): 1994 – 2004
Network: NBC
Creator: David Crane and Marta Kauffman
Principal cast: Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, David Schwimmer
Celebrity cameos: Alec Baldwin, George Clooney, Morgan Fairchild, Jon Favreau, Elle Macpherson, Gary Oldman, Sean Penn, Tom Selleck, Kathleen Turner, Bruce Willis, Reese Witherspoon

Summary: Six friends live, love and grow up together in New York City.

In the mid-1980s, NBC started advertising its Thursday-night lineup as “Must See TV”. During its ten-year run, Friends was one of the shows that, judging by its popularity, truly deserved the label.

Besides attracting huge audiences for NBC, Friends also made stars out of its small-screen cast, with Aniston enjoying the most success and attention. All this from a show that, when it comes right down to it, is about friends hanging out, sharing stories, arguing, making up, and falling in and out of love.

A cast of characters

Maybe there’s something in the water in NYC sitcoms, but the main characters on Friends, just as on Seinfeld, form a very tight-knit group. Chandler (Matthew Perry), a cubicle-dweller and the designated smarty-pants, shares an apartment with hunky, aspiring actor Joey (Matt LeBlanc). They live across the hall from Monica (Courteney Cox), a cook who likes to keep everything — absolutely everything — in order, and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), who took up waitressing at the local cafe after leaving someone at the altar. Rounding out the sextet are Ross (David Schwimmer), Monica’s older brother, who has a passion for science and a crush on Rachel, and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), a ditsy masseuse/folksinger and Monica’s ex-roommate.

Sitcoms about twentysomethings tend to make them so quirky they’re unwatchable, so gorgeous they’re unbelievable, or so one-dimensional they’re not worth caring about. One reason Friends lasted as long as they did was that the actors and writers made none of those mistakes. Chandler, Ross, Joey, Monica, Rachel and Phoebe don’t behave and sound like the creations of some TV numbers-cruncher, but like people you might see taking in a ballgame or hanging out at the local cafe — where they’ve probably taken up all the sofas.

So what do they spend all that time talking about, anyway?

Relationship stuff, much of the time. The turbulent Ross-Rachel relationship was a storyline from the very start, and all of the other characters have had their share (in Joey’s case, more than his share) of romantic entanglements. The number and prevalence of sexual jokes offended at least one former Friends transcriber, who claimed in a lawsuit that the writers’ jokes made during creative sessions constituted sexual harassment. (The California Supreme Court ruled against her, saying that the jokes were part of the work required for an adult sitcom.)

Unlike other single-in-the-city shows, though, the characters do more than go on dates and talk about them. All of the characters have careers (some of them changing jobs over the course of the series), and all deal with family issues. And just like their real-world counterparts, they argue about household chores, play games of one-upmanship, and sometimes make fun of each other just because they can.

A true ensemble show

Another reason Friends worked so well was the quality of its cast. Whatever you can say about their individual talents, Aniston, Cox, Kudrow, LeBlanc, Perry and Schwimmer made a great team. My favorite remains Kudrow, who often said silly things with the utmost seriousness (and thus was the funniest), but all of them showed great comic timing and ability to play off one another. They were also just so comfortable together (from hanging out offscreen as well as off) that you believe these six people do manage to stay friends — not just in touch, but good friends — for a decade.

Also helping the ensemble atmosphere was that the fact that, by and large, the show tried to give all six equal treatment. In one of my favorite episodes, The One with the Baby on the Bus, Ross has a bad reaction to Monica’s cooking, Chandler and Joey lose Ross’s son on the bus, and Phoebe finds herself supplanted by someone who actually knows how to sing. Even in the episodes that seem lifted from The Ross and Rachel Show (or, later, The Chandler and Monica Show), the other characters usually have their own subplots.

To sum up, I find Friends to be a very likeable, believable comedy with appealing characters. There’s only one thing that doesn’t ring true for me — the huge apartment where the friends hang out much of the time. I don’t know a lot about NYC real estate, but if the prices are anything what they’re like in Boston, there’s no way Monica and Rachel should’ve been able to afford that place. That’s a minor flaw, though, in an otherwise excellent show.

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