Television and Radio: Friends 'Til the End

It's not good-bye but see you later as sitcom ends

The cast of Friends signs off Thursday but will stay with us for a long time.

The end of a beloved television series is always an event, even though ratings for such episodes have trailed off in the past 20 years. It's highly unlikely we'll ever see 50 million people watch a series finale like they did in 1983 when M*A*S*H left the airwaves. Still, the end of Friends Thursday warrants notice. The loss of a great show, even when its time has come, is a bit distressing.

Friends will go out the way most shows want to, still producing high-quality television. TV history is filled with shows that went too soon like WKRP in Cincinnati and Taxi. Then there were the shows that died slow and painful deaths, like Roseanne.

Friends debuted on NBC in 1994. On paper, the show never should have become such a huge hit. Its creators, Marta Kauffman and David Crane, had three years earlier given us the failed sitcom Sunday Dinner on CBS, which lasted only one month.

They then did The Powers That Be for NBC, about the life of a U.S. senator (featuring a pre-Frasier David Hyde Pierce) in 1992, but it was gone by the spring of '93.

Then came Family Album on CBS, which went under after just two months.

Previous to their broadcast network efforts, Kauffman and Crane had created and produced the serviceable and critically acclaimed HBO dramedy (as such shows were called then) Dream On.

Their fourth at-bat in the "big leagues" was a show about six twenty-somethings living in New York City. The cast were all unknowns, save for Courtney Cox. The rest had a string of guest shots and/or cancelled shows on their résumés. But Kauffman and Crane, along with director Kevin S. Bright, crushed this one into the outfield seats.

It certainly helped that the cast decided to becomes friends in real life, but many more things came together for the show, like great writing and direction. Unfortunately, the Kauffman, Crane and Bright team couldn't catch lightning in a bottle again, serving up Veronica's Closet (starring Kirsty Alley) in 1997 and Jesse (featuring Christina Applegate) the following fall.

Friends hit a few bumps at this point as its producers were distracted, but it still finished at the top of the ratings.

A few months ago, Entertainment Weekly made an astute observation in an article about the future of sitcoms: "Stars don't make sitcoms; sitcoms make stars." The producers of Friends proved that beyond a doubt.

Friends worked remarkably well in an unremarkable setting. Clearly it was a team effort of writers creating great characters and actors giving them life.

Joey (Matt LeBlanc) is the best example. When the show began, he was little more than the stock dumb-guy, Tony Banta (Taxi) for the post-grunge generation. But LeBlanc brought a humanity to the character that made you root for him and not just laugh at his lack of smarts.

USA Today TV critic Robert Bianco, always a big supporter of the show, wrote a few months back that Friends might not be considered one of the all-time great sitcoms because it didn't deal with "issues." What a preposterous notion!

What issues did The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show or I Love Lucy deal with?

The fact that Friends didn't deal with issues is what will help make the series timeless. The only time the show got even remotely political was when the girls accidentally got a pizza intended for former Clinton White House adviser George Stephanopulos.

It's this lack of current events savvy that attracted people to the program after Sept. 11, 2001. At that time a lot was written about TV as "comfort food," and as trite as that sounded — and still sounds — it's essentially true. After following that horrific event so closely for so long, one needed to visit a world where the biggest issue was whether or not Ross and Rachel would get back together. For the past decade, in good times and bad, we had our Friends.

Seasons one through seven are currently available on DVD, and of course the show is running in syndication locally on Fox 19 and on cable/satellite on WTBS. So our Friends will always be with us.

Enjoy the Arts/START hosts a FRIENDS WATCHING PARTY at 5:30-9 p.m. Thursday at Neon's, 208 E. 12th St., Over-the-Rhine. A $5 donation to START gets you food from Wild Oats, happy hour drink prices, live music and the show.

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