FRIENDS (1994)

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' has become more than just a successful situation comedy--it has established itself as arguably one of the last great television phenomenon's of the last century. Along the way, it has made its half-dozen lead actors household names; sparked trends in clothing and fashion; helped save the television theme song from extinction; and has become 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. But Ross, having decided by this time to move on, went to China for a museum trip and brought back to New York a new girlfriend, Julie. With the tables firmly spun it became Rachel's turn to be the one on the outside looking in. The situation was finally resolved when, in a fit of anger, Rachel left a drunken message on Ross' answering machine, saying she was over him. (ROSS TO RACHEL: You're over me? When...when were you...under me?) The pretence ended when the two kissed in a plot development fans had waited 30 episodes for.

One of the keys to Friends' success has been the evolution of both the characters and the dynamics of the core relationships over the years. That's especially true in the on-going saga of Ross and Rachel's relationship--from Ross' infatuation to a full-blown relationship to a break-up in Season 3. Along the way, Ross met an attractive English woman named Emily (Helen Cold Feet Baxendale) and proposed to her but the wedding turned into a disaster when Ross mistakenly said "Rachel" and not "Emily" while taking his vows. The pair divorced, making it Ross' second failed marriage. Not long after, Ross and Rachel get drunk in Las Vegas and had a quick wedding; the marriage was eventually annulled. (Ross' third marriage, if you're keeping count.)

But the Ross-Rachel relationship was renewed by the end of Season 7, when Monica and Phoebe discovered a positive home pregnancy test in the bathroom trashcan; the mother-to-be was Rachel. (Of course, the father was Ross; the pair had sex after Rachel seduced him in an act that was caught on videotape!) The baby (a girl--Emma Geller Green) arrived at the end of Season 8; but the clueless Joey seemingly tried to propose to Rachel so she would not have to care for the baby alone. Ross apparently had the same idea in Rachel's hospital room. (Not surprisingly, Rachel didn't marry either man.) But the Ross-Rachel relationship wasn't the only Friends dynamic. A surprise to many fans was the eventual pairing of the commitment shy Chandler with the insecurely obsessive Monica (the two finally married in May 2001.)

A major criticism about 'Friends' centred on the show's use of sexually charged themes in a timeslot when many children watched. 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 hasn't stopped 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 at the restaurant Paul and Jamie Buckman frequented; 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 IS expected to be the last (as this is written). 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.)

How the show will finally wrap up its loose ends is unclear, but 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