FRIENDS (1994)

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The cast of Friends

No one -not even its creators- thought that the world would care about the interwoven lives, loves and tribulations of a close-knit group of impossibly attractive and witty twenty something New Yorkers. But there's no doubt 'Friends' became more than just a successful situation comedy-it established itself as arguably one of the last great television phenomenon's of the last century. Along the way, it made its half-dozen lead actors household names; sparked trends in clothing and fashion; helped save the television theme song from extinction; and became the "Must" in "Must-See TV" for the NBC network in the USA.

Chronicling the strong, near self contained friendship between a disparate group of three men and three women who frequently gather at each other's apartments and at Greenwich Village's Central Perk coffee-house, Friends (originally to be called "Friends Like Us"; then "Six Of One", "Across The Hall" or "Insomnia Cafe") was created by television producers David Crane and Marta Kauffman (who came up with the surrealistic sitcom Dream On for Home Box Office). In 1993, the pair met producer Kevin S. Bright; the three became partners and got a deal to produce a new comedy for Warner Brothers. What they came up with was based on Crane and Kauffman's after college years, where pals hung out at the local coffee house and involved themselves into every aspect of their lives.

It didn't take long for viewers to make friends with Friends Slotted between Seinfeld and new hospital drama ER on NBC's Thursday line-up, the sitcom quickly became a top ten hit. (It didn't reach Britain until the following year). Critics loved it as well; "Entertainment Weekly" said the show "operates like a Broadway farce, complete with slamming doors, twisty plots and intricately strung together jokes....Friends is pretty irresistible."

Before long, the show became so hot that women flocked to beauty parlours to copy Jennifer Aniston's shag-like hairdo (which became known as the "Rachel"). And not since the days of Miami Vice had a television theme song been such a success with the public. The song's success helped save the television theme song. An ABC executive was ready to order very short music intros on his network's shows, thinking that viewers would hit the remote as soon as the opening credits rolled. But he forgot that the TV theme sets the mood for a series and provides the show with its own unique signature. The success of the Friends theme led the ABC executive to change his mind - clickers or not, the TV theme song would stay.

When Friends began in September 1994, the focus was on Monica Geller (Courteney Cox Arquette), the "den mother" of the group who was a chef with a fabulously large apartment and an obsession for neatness and order in her life. Monica was single and looking for "Mr. Right". Her brother, nerdish drippy palaeontologist Ross (David Schwimmer) was also newly single; having just divorced his wife, Carol, when she announced that she was leaving him for another woman. Living across from Monica was perpetually wisecracking data processor Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry), whose sarcasm could cut like a knife or fall flat on his face - and dim, self-absorbed, but loveable wannabe actor, Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc). A typical self-styled Italian stud, Joey was not the brightest light bulb in the package, but his sweetness and quasi-innocence endeared him to the gang. Also part of the Friends set-up was Monica's ex-roommate Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow), a '90's styled "new age" masseuse who occasionally sang her own compositions (about such topics as smelly cats) at the coffee house. Ever the optimist and always looking to do a good deed for others, Phoebe even went so far as to give birth to triplets as a surrogate mother for her half-brother and his wife. Sexy yet down to earth, Phoebe is the most eclectic of a rather varied group. Enter into the mix Rachel Green (Jennifer Anniston), a Jewish American Princess who lived on her daddy's charge account until she her left dentist fiancé at the altar and moved in with Monica; the gang encouraged Rachel to break away from her past and stand on her own two feet by getting a (gasp!) job. Rachel's already-confused life took a strange turn when Ross - who had had an unrequited crush on her since college - tried to kindle romantic sparks. Rachel remained oblivious to Ross' feelings until episode 23 after Chandler let the secret slip during a party.

A major criticism about Friends centred on the show's use of sexually charged themes in a timeslot when many children watched. In the USA, the conservative "Parents Television Council" has called it "one of the raciest sitcoms in prime time...All six regulars have been sexually active and dialogue has contained vulgar language and explicitly sexual content.... sexual promiscuity, Monica's endorsement of Chandler's fondness for porn and Joey's many, many sexual partners has served as joke fodder". The PTC has called Friends one of the worst shows in US prime time (for sexual situations and language; the show was applauded for its lack of violence). This didn't stop just about every star in Hollywood wanting to be a guest-star on the series; among those who made the cut are Elliot Gould, Julia Roberts, Charlie Sheen, Tom Selleck, Susan Sarandon, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Helen Hunt, Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt (not long after he became Jennifer Aniston's husband), and Jeff Goldblum.

You couldn't fault the casting of Friends Jennifer Aniston was doing short-lived comedies such as Ferris Beuller and Molloy before her breakthrough role as Rachel. Courteney Cox Arquette first came to prominence in Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing In The Dark" video (she was the gal The Boss pulled from the audience). Lisa Kudrow was an occasional actress on Mad About You (she was the sorry excuse for a waitress); that waitress became Phoebe's evil twin Ursula) and was briefly cast as producer Roz Doyle on Frasier; after one week, the producers replaced her with Peri Gilpin. David Schwimmer was also a sitcom veteran, but his breakthrough pre-Friends role was as a semi-regular during the first season of NYPD Blue. Matthew Perry appeared in a number of shows, including Growing Pains and Beverly Hills, 90210; he was also a regular on the short-lived comedies Boys Will Be Boys and Sidney. And Matt LeBlanc first gained notice on Fox's short-lived Over The Top, a spin-off of the network's hit Married With Children.

The six actors seemed to get along very well behind the cameras; they have consistently stood together during contract renegotiations. That strategy paid off many times over. In 1999, NBC agreed to pay studio Warner Brothers $5 million an episode to keep Friends on the air until the spring of 2002. The six co-stars received a salary bump as well; each now made $250,000 an episode. A year later, the cast decided to hold out for a million dollars an episode. The network played hardball and offered them just $750,000 each an episode through 2002; the actors took the cash. During the 2001-02 season, Friends became the highest-rated series on US television--a first for the long-running sitcom. And in September 2002, Friends finally won an Emmy for Best Comedy Series--another first. Meanwhile, NBC programmers could not come up with a new hit comedy. So the network went back to the negotiating table. The result: Each of the cast members got a $1 million payday for every episode of the 2002-03 season--again thought to be the last for Friends The producers were actually working on a series finale when NBC asked (begged?) the cast and studio for yet another season.

The network got what it wanted--at a price. It agreed to pay $10 million an episode for the 2003-04 season, which the last. In addition, the studio would make only 18 new episodes versus the usual 22 to 24 episodes. (No raise for the actors this time around, but then, they didn't need one). There's no doubt about its television legacy. In sitcom popularity and audience appeal what M*A*S*H was to the seventies and Cheers was to the eighties so Friends was undoubtedly to the nineties and the early years of the new century. Slick, assured, expertly written and knowingly played, and spawning a merchandising industry which would be the envy of many a big budget movie franchise, Friends remains a prime example of a modern day US sitcom that is both hugely entertaining television and nothing short of a genuine latter day social phenomena.

Review: Mike Spadoni, Laurence Marcus and Stephen R. Hulse. 2003