Monday, January 7, 2013

Friends: TV's Last Classic Sitcom

 There was a time when everyone watched Friends. Then a backlash began during the latter seasons, which often happens with any television series, or movie, or song that achieves a particularly substantial level of popularity. The remnants of that backlash have yet to subside. 

Today, when lists are made of the greatest sitcoms of all time, they include the usual titles from the 1950s through the 1980s, but among shows from the past 10-15 years it’s usually Seinfeld that is singled out, along with cult series like Arrested Development. Friends, it seems, has become a victim of its own mass-market appeal. Once the cool kids realized that everybody liked the show, they quickly moved on to something less mainstream.

But for me, Friends was the last true classic television situation comedy. That doesn't mean it was the last television comedy to achieve greatness, but it was the last to do so with the ubiquitous level of viewer enthusiasm that TV once took for granted. 

What’s more impressive is how Friends (1994-2004) reached this mass appeal in the cable era, when many homes suddenly had hundreds of channels to choose from. This was also when network television found itself in competition with shows like HBO’s Sex and the City, which enjoyed much broader latitude in content.

Seinfeld achieved this as well. But that series was too subversive to be considered an heir to situation comedies from generations past. Its objective was not to function within that format, but to undermine it with a cynical self-awareness. That it did so brilliantly cannot be denied. But as Seinfeld was more of an anti-sitcom, it belongs in a separate category. If you wished to create an unbroken chain of traditional television sitcoms that spans the history of the medium, the first link in that chain would be I Love Lucy, and the last link belongs to Friends.

Jennifer Aniston has made so many forgettable movies over the past decade, it’s easy to forget that she once earned an Emmy Award and comparisons to Lucille Ball for her portrayal of Rachel Green. Sure, her hairstyle was more famous than she was for awhile, but as the Ross-Rachel romance evolved she and David Schwimmer created characters viewers genuinely cared about. Similarly, Matthew Perry’s repeated and failed attempts at headlining another series have obscured the realization that he was once the funniest actor on television. 

But it was more than individual performances, or the fact that you could mix and match any combination of the series’ six leads and get something memorable. Friends is the last classic sitcom because it’s the last series to create moments that were widely discussed around office water coolers and in high school classrooms the next morning. You didn’t have to ask someone if they watched Friends last night – you knew they had, so you could go right to reviewing the particulars of the latest episode.

During ten years and more than 250 episodes, they gave us plenty to discuss – the trip to London, where Ross said Rachel’s name as he was marrying someone else; Phoebe’s songs at Central Perk; Monica and Ross dancing on Dick Clark’s New Years Rockin’ Eve; the boys vs. the girls trivia challenge with apartments on the line; the Thanksgiving episodes; the incredibly poignant moment when Rachel discovers how long Ross has loved her, when they watch their high school prom video. 

These scenes now have a permanent residence in the sitcom pantheon, with Bob Hartley ordering Chinese food, Lucy and Viv installing a shower, and Mary Richards at the funeral of Chuckles the Clown.

Television no longer occupies the same central place in the leisure time of those 30 and younger that it did in generations past, so the chance of any series achieving Friends-level status is infinitesimal. Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother are all long-running, critically acclaimed shows. Do an informal survey and ask the next ten people you meet if they watch them. You’ll be lucky to get 3 “yes” responses. That’s the difference. 

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