Tuesday, May 6, 2014

This Day in TV History (‘Friends’ Ends 10-Year Run)

May 6, 2004—After 10 years and 238 episodes, Friends aired its last first-run episode by pulling out all the stops, as the half-hour situation comedy ran first 60 minutes of past clips, followed by a two-part conclusion.

Ultimately, 50 million people watched the series finale (the appropriately titled “The Last One”), the result of anticipation as great as for its onetime Thursday night “Must-See TV” partner, Seinfeld. But most viewers were far more satisfied with how the six “friends” went out than the sour manner that Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer signed off.

The show's creators, David Crane and Marta Kauffman, had watched the furious reaction to the end of Seinfeld and had drawn their own lesson from it: “Having seen the Seinfeld finale and knowing when you depart from who you are it doesn’t make the audience happy, let’s deliver to the audience what they want and what they’ve earned,” Crane recalled in Vanity Fair’s oral history of the show two years ago.

An argument can be made, however, that the two New York-based sitcoms were merely being true in their send-offs to their overall character arcs. I used to think that George Bernard Shaw was being perverse in Pygmalion when he did not have Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle get together at the end, as its musical adaptation, My Fair Lady, did. When I saw the play, however—and could see with my own eyes how childish and bullying Higgins really was—I became convinced that Shaw had created the only realistic, humane ending in having Eliza take up with Freddy rather than the professor of linguistics.

Similarly, given how relentlessly Seinfeld showrunner Larry David had enforced his “no hugging, no learning” edict in overseeing scripts, the show went out on a note true to its characters’ natures by putting them in jail. (This, after all, was a show in which George’s fiancée famously died after licking too many envelopes—and he makes a pass at another woman while Susan’s body is still warm.) If the Seinfeld ending angered people, it was because viewers now had to face the fact that, despite an intricate brilliance rivaling that of a Swiss watch, the sitcom remained fundamentally heartless.

Friends would have none of that. It started with the fact that episode to episode, season to season, the sextet at the heart of the show changed, and in ways more than physical. Crane and Kauffman also had considered carefully their favorite sitcom finales—Newhart, M*A*S*H, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. They might not have been able to pull off the delightful surprise of the funny moments of Newhart, but they could achieve the heart-warming, all-loose-ends-tied-up feel of the other two shows. And so, what the audience wanted—Ross and Rachel uniting for good—came to pass.  

In the Vanity Fair oral history, Matt LeBlanc described a well of emotions so intense during the two weeks of filming the final episode that he had resumed smoking after four years. For viewers as much as cast members, the sadness was surely as palpable.

Believe it or not, however, not everyone was shedding tears about the departure of the three males and three females who had advanced before a nation’s eyes from their twenties to their thirties—and the brink of forming their own long-term relationships and families. Over the years, at least three thinly veiled accounts of the show have appeared:

*In 1996, in its 12th and final season, Murder, She Wrote aired an episode, “Murder Among Friends,” featuring a cast member who gets bumped off a hot situation comedy starring attractive youthful actors, Buds. The script of the long-running Angela Lansbury series was a not-very-subtle form of revenge against a show that had murdered it in the ratings.

*In 2006, Nancy Balbirer offered a public reading about a onetime roommate, the daughter of a soap actor who, after a nose job and weight loss, had gone on to land a role on a sitcom about a group of friends in Greenwich Village. Critics had been quick to notice the resemblances between the reading’s sitcom star, “Jane,” and another famous sitcom actress with a first name beginning with “J.”

*The following year, onetime ‘70s star (and, later, prolific TV director) Robby Benson wrote a roman a clef, Who Stole the Funny?, about a director’s stint on the megahit sitcom I Love My Urban Buddies. One of the show’s male stars has a Vicodin problem; one of the female stars is a ditz. All of the cast members were depicted as self-absorbed. Not many people were in doubt about who they could be.

In countless interviews over the years, Crane and Kauffman have been adamant that there will not be a Friends reunion. Kauffman offers the best possible rationale in an Entertainment Weekly interview: “What was at the heart of the show is done. And let’s be honest, it’s 20 years later. Nobody looks like they did then. And you’re going to spend the whole time going, ‘Wow, he’s aged. Or she’s…’”

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