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Big hug to goodbye 'Friends' — and maybe to sitcoms

WashPost: Reality shows, proliferation of cable crowding out once mighty genre. By Tom Shales
Was there any doubt that Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) would get back together in the conclusion of "Friends"?
Was there any doubt that Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) would get back together in the conclusion of "Friends"?Warner Bros.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

With the predictable excess of hugs, kisses and warm fuzzy moments, "Friends" finished its 10-year run on NBC last night and, some industry observers think, ended the era of the Almighty Sitcom as well. NBC aired the final hour-long episode of the series about six Manhattan yuppies, preceded by an hour's worth of clips from the show's long run.

NBC had ballyhooed the event with all the shamelessly schmaltzy overkill the network could muster. Last night's finale was preceded by weeks of hype and, on Wednesday, by a three-hour celebration of the show that included an entire edition of NBC's so-called "news" magazine "Dateline" devoted to contemplating its wonderfulness.

Poking gentle fun at the show and the attendant brouhaha, NBC's "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" — the network's oasis of comic brilliance -- included a sketch Wednesday in which an actor planted in the audience shouted at O'Brien, "I've had it up to here with all you NBC whores talking about 'Friends!' "

Speaking of which, Katie Couric and Matt Lauer supplemented their roles as "Today" hosts to act as network shills on "Dateline," marveling at the series and interviewing its stars; Lauer looked spellbound by their every golden word. Those stars are six middling actors who in 1994 stumbled into a nearly bottomless gold mine when cast for the show by NBC and Warner Bros., the producers. Each happy little friend could eventually earn upward of $100 million from the show, counting their 10 years of multimillion-dollar salaries and their profit participation in syndicated "Friends" reruns.

As the final episode began, Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) and Ross (David Schwimmer) woke up in bed together after a night of lovemaking. They'd been lovers before — the cast paired off in nearly every conceivable geometric combination over the years — but had separated. "You've learned some new moves," Rachel told Ross leeringly. Ross realized he Really Loved Her after all and spent much of the final episode trying to tell her and prevent her from leaving on a planned move to Paris.

"Friends" really was a soap opera disguised as a comedy so as to be palatable to the proverbial hip, cool, upscale audience NBC tries to woo. In promos for the final episode, "Friends" looked in fact like a drama and not a comedy, with shots of the actors hugging and kissing and welling up with tears, tears, tears.

While Rachel and Ross moved closer to each other's embrace, an unwed mother was giving birth to twins who would become the adopted children of Monica (Courteney Cox Arquette, who was just Courteney Cox when the series started) and Chandler (Matthew Perry). They expected only one baby, not two, but were tickled pink and blue when they got one girl and one boy instead. It was all as cuddly and cozy as a cartful of kittens.

Or as a duckling and a baby chick, the two gifts bought for them by their friend Joey (Matt LeBlanc), the lovable dopey guy. Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), the show's lovable dopey girl, didn't have a subplot of her own but did end up frantically driving Ross to JFK Airport and then to Newark Airport in an attempt to lure Rachel off the plane. Jokes about Rachel scaring the other passengers with the news that her friend Phoebe said there was "something wrong with the plane" were too creepy to be funny and in questionable taste.

But, for the record, and probably to no loyal viewer's surprise, Rachel got off the plane and came back to Ross.

A profitable franchise
The final show was written by series creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman, who are so rich now that Warren Buffett might hit them up for a loan. Even Oprah's fortune may look less preposterous in comparison to the profits from a hit sitcom that goes into perpetual syndication, as "Friends" — like the far superior "Seinfeld" — is likely to do.

Even as all this money is being made or anticipated, TV fans in and out of the business worry that the era of the hot hit sitcom is fading into history. Sitcoms were long the backbone of network prime-time schedules, but that was in the pre-cable era. They faded from popularity in the early '80s but Bill Cosby's triumphant "Cosby Show" brought the genre back with class and great success. Cosby routinely drew much bigger audiences than "Friends" has, but the networks didn't have to share the national viewership with 100 or more cable networks then.

Now, "scripted" TV shows seem to be falling out of favor as so-called "reality" shows that feature real people in allegedly unrehearsed situations proliferate. NBC promoted its own tasteless reality entry, "Fear Factor," during the "Friends" finale; shots from next Monday's show featured girls in bikinis being covered with bugs and worms and then locked in coffins. Real quality stuff from NBC's ruthless, try-anything boss Jeff Zucker.

Zucker's smudgy fingerprints seemed to be all over the "Friends" finale and the relentless and deafening drum-beating that preceded it. Meanwhile, NBC punctuated the "Friends" goodbye with promos for another sitcom about to expire, "Frasier," which goes out — apparently with yet more hugs and kisses and tears — next Tuesday.

And yes, "Dateline" has managed to snare the stars of that show for another exhaustive testimonial! What luck! One of the interviews, NBC promised, would be "a Katie Couric exclusive." Imagine the journalistic enterprise it must have taken Couric to land a member of the "Frasier" cast for a sit-down chitty-chat.

The final "Friends" probably satisfied longtime fans of the show and probably baffled those who haven't seen it for a few years, or ever. It seems unlikely to equal the ratings of the last "Seinfeld" episode, but then one never knows. All that shouting from the rooftops may have drawn a huge crowd. The crowd may have been witnessing a funeral for the sitcom as well as a memorial service for this one particular sitcom — but trends in television are nothing if not cyclical. Presumably the audience will at some future point tire of seeing girls in bikinis covered in worms and bugs.

With all the "friends" accounted for — and LeBlanc set to have his own spinoff, "Joey," in the fall — "Friends" faded away, with the camera panning the now-empty apartment where so many shenanigans (and, literally, monkeyshines) took place — finally settling on the framed peephole that became one of the show's iconic images. Those who think they can't face life without the surrogate friends provided them by "Friends" for 10 years can rest assured that the syndicated reruns will be playing for years and years to come.

Will another "Friends" come along to replace this one? There hasn't been another "Seinfeld" or, for that matter, another "Cosby Show" either. At the once-mighty networks, and for the viewing nation, too, this is truly no laughing matter.