Some cultural milestones make me feel old, but others do not. It doesn’t really bother me all that much to know that Star Wars is nearing 40 years old. But the fact that Friends first aired twenty years ago today? Now that hits me.
We didn’t catch onto Friends immediately. It was about halfway through that first season, maybe a little less, when we discovered it, because it wasn’t even on at 8:00 at that point. NBC’s major sitcoms at the time were Mad About You and Seinfeld, and Friends got sandwiched in between those two, at 8:30. I suspect we missed it initially because it was new and therefore we weren’t terribly interested in it, and Thursday nights were our night to go hang out at the local bar and have chicken wings. I’d set the VCR to record Mad About You and Seinfeld and ER, but it took a while for us to clue in that Friends was a decent show, too.
Once we did, though, I never looked back. To this day Friends is one of my favorite shows ever.
Here are a few random thoughts on Friends:
:: Obviously cast chemistry is important, and Friends caught that lightning in a bottle that eludes most ensemble shows. Maybe none of the actors are “great” performers, but there was chemistry between each and every one of them, and more as a group. It was so magical that the show could literally pair off any of its characters for some story or other. There were episodes that stuck Ross and Phoebe together, or Chandler and Rachel, or Joey and Ross, or Rachel and Phoebe, or…well, every permutation was explored and it always worked.
:: Friends did comedic misdirection better than just about anything I know. The best example of this is probably Ross’s famous wrong-name-at-the-altar moment, when after we’ve been made to believe that he’s really marrying Emily, that the door is finally and bittersweetly closed between him and Rachel, he says, “I, Ross, take thee Rachel….” That moment was an absolute stunner, and it was nearly equaled half an hour earlier in the same episode when Monica turned up in Chandler’s bed, or a year later, when Chandler and Monica, unsure of where they were in their relationship, find themselves impulsively at a wedding chapel in Vegas, ready to take the plunge, when the previous wedding lets out — and a very drunk Ross and Rachel, newly married, come bursting out. At its very best, Friends managed to make the punchline a delightful surprise.
:: Yes, Friends went on too long, but really, I didn’t care. It ended a season after it probably should have, with an ending that was somewhat bittersweet but still confirmed the sense that these six people continue being a part of each others’ lives, just someplace else, and that we weren’t watching anymore.
:: I saw somewhere recently — I don’t recall who or where, sorry — the question, “Why didn’t Joey succeed?” Joey was the spinoff show, after Friends, which actually debuted to good reviews and strong ratings but quickly withered on the vine and has now taken on a reputation not unlike AfterMASH. Frasier pulled off what Joey didn’t: take a single character from a just-ended, long-running ensemble show, move him all the way across the country, and tell stories about him in a new setting. Why didn’t Joey work?
Well, I don’t recall the same sense of being done with the whole concept when Cheers ended that was in place when Friends drew to a close, so there’s that — Frasier didn’t feel like so much an attempt to keep the notion alive that Joey did. Also, Frasier put Frasier Crane into a new job, talk radio, which allowed new types of stories to be told, where Joey was still a struggling (albeit less-so) actor. And then there’s the fact that Frasier was simply brilliantly written, and Joey wasn’t. Frasier created another brilliant ensemble, where Joey was just Joey-and-some-other-folks. Yes, Joey started off well, but it quickly petered out.
I do remember one very nice moment on Joey that was equal to anything on Friends. Joey lands two gigs at the same time: he’s the lead in Shakespeare’s Richard III, and the host of a musical cowboy revue. Joey worries and frets the whole episode, certain that he’s going to screw up the Shakespearean dialogue, certain that he has no place at all doing The Bard. But then, he takes the stage, and he nails that opening monologue, “Now is the winter of our discontent….”. He’s done it. Joey can do Shakespeare…and then the curtain rises to reveal the cowboy musical revue starting up behind him. He’s done the wrong role at the wrong place.
:: Yes, Chandler’s proposal to Monica made me cry.
:: Friends created a lot of wonderful recurring characters, from Janice and Gunther to Ron Glass as Ross’s divorce attorney, who was flummoxed to get so much business from a single client.
:: Friends had my single favorite Christmas-themed episode of all time, when Ross dresses up as the “Holiday Armadillo”.
:: My favorite Friend? Chandler. Or Ross. Maybe Phoebe, or Rachel. Oh, and Joey. And Monica! But seriously, Chandler. I think.
Here are some of my favorite Friends moments. I could watch some of these all day.
Joey didn't succeed because it never developed any characters I cared about. AfterMASH failed because MASH should have quit after Radar went home.
Frasier succeeded because it had sme great characters in Roz and his family, especially Niles.
Frasier was good BUT just imagine had Ed Asner played his father….
Frasier was the only character in the Cheers ensemble that was complicated enough to warrant their own show. Joey was too one dimensional. Chandler and Monica could have had a successful show.
Joey thinking he had to drive on the left side of the road in California was hilarious. Too bad those jokes were too few and far between.
So many of our daily quotes to each other are from Friends, I cannot believe it's been 20 years since the premiere. Yikes.
I only watched an episode or two of Joey, but loved Frasier.