3rd Rock From the Sun was funnier. Mad About You was sweeter. Will & Grace was smarter. Seinfeld was funnier, smarter and sweeter… well, not so much sweeter. But Friends had a solid fan base and the show does deserve to be mentioned as one of the decade’s finest. The reason? Well, mostly because of the characters and those wonderful actors who breathed life into them.
It’s like a casting agent’s wet dream. In the early 1990s, six young actors realized that the TV biz could be very rough indeed. They had all starred in various shows and watched them go down in flames. In 1994, when they all signed on for a new show about six best friends in New York, something happened. They all connected in the most marvelous sense and TV viewers could see that these were people who actually got along in real life as well. There was not one single main character on the show, there were six of them. This fact was not lost on the actors who eventually would come to fight as one to get an equal pay raise.
The friends who used to gather at the Central Perk, the local café (where the best seats always seemed to be reserved for them), included Joey, the not-so-successful actor who was basically a big child but also popular with the ladies; his roommate Chandler who could never resist cracking sarcastic jokes; Ross, the nerdy paleontologist with a few mental issues; his sister Monica who was a fabulous cook but also obsessed with cleaning; her roommate Rachel who had a wealthy father but now tried to make it on her own. There was also Phoebe, a quirky folk singer who essentially grew up in the streets. Stories revolved mostly around relationships; one of the ingredients that attracted fans of Friends was the unlikely love affair between Ross and Rachel, which developed into quite an engaging on-and-off relationship (the couple arguing over whether they were on a break or not at a specific point was particularly amusing). The writers eventually tried to recapture that magic with Chandler and Monica discovering, to their great surprise one should add, that they had the hots for each other. This stunt actually worked really well and revived a show that was otherwise beginning to show its age.
Working wonders with less than perfect scripts
Friends ran for ten years but should have been canceled after, say, seven seasons. The remaining three years had creative moments, and the stars never disappointed their audience, but there was something odd about these people who spent all their time together and never seemed able to move on with their lives. As the actors grew older it became less believable that this singles clan would continue to exist like that forever. It was as if these friends led fictitious lives, and that became especially apparent in the wake of 9/11 – somehow, a terror attack killing 3,000 New Yorkers didn’t seem to affect the world’s most beloved Manhattanites at all. Nevertheless, we stayed tuned.
But what exactly made Friends such a spectacularly successful show? There were times when it was hilarious, but the most important thing was that its showrunners had an uncanny ability of tuning into the minds of a young audience. They had help from an unbeatable cast that worked wonders with scripts that were less than perfect.
Everyone has a favorite character from the show. Mine is Chandler Bing, the fellow with little control of his limbs and an urgent need to make bad jokes in awkward situations. He also had a funny habit of stressing the wrong word in a sentence. Could he and his friends be any more welcome in your living room?
Friends 1994-2004:U.S. Made for TV. 238 episodes. Color. Created by Marta Kauffman, David Crane. Theme: ”I’ll Be There For You” (performed by The Rembrandts). Cast: Jennifer Aniston (Rachel Green), Courteney Cox (Monica Geller), Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe Buffay), Matt LeBlanc (Joey Tribbiani), Matthew Perry (Chandler Bing), David Schwimmer (Ross Geller).
Trivia: Followed by a spin-off series, Joey (2004-2006).
Emmys: Outstanding Comedy Series 01-02; Directing 95-96; Actress (Aniston) 01-02; Supporting Actress (Kudrow) 97-98; Guest Actor (Bruce Willis) 99-00; Guest Actress (Christina Applegate) 02-03. Golden Globe: Best Actress (Aniston) 03.
Quote: “Sometimes I wish I was a lesbian… Did I say that out loud?” (Perry)
Last word: “There are many kinds of showrunners… It was always very important to me and David [Crane] that people in our room felt heard and [that it was] democratic. We said we were comedy whores – we would take an idea from anyone. We would make the final decision, but people with the most passion and strongest opinions would win.” (Kauffman, The Script Lab)