Originally created 05/06/04

'Friends,' counting down to its last one, is one of a kind

NEW YORK -- Among all the coverage of the "Friends" finale, call this article The One That Explains What Makes "Friends" Unique.

Many things set it apart from other hugely successful sitcoms like "Cheers," "Seinfeld" and "The Cosby Show." Or from "M*A*S*H," "All in the Family" and "Mary Tyler Moore."

But "Friends" is unique, and the reason can be boiled down to a pair of words: Six and Equal.

As a final display of this splendid alchemy, the series' hour-long conclusion airs Thursday on NBC (WAGT-TV, Channel 26) at 9 p.m. (preceded by an hour-long retrospective). With that, a fine-tuned, never-fail comedy machine will be dismantled for its principals to go their separate ways.

Joey (Matt LeBlanc) will be heading to L.A., to pursue his acting career next season as the title character of an NBC "Friends" spinoff.

Monica and Chandler (Courteney Cox Arquette and Matthew Perry) are likely to flee for the suburbs with their adopted babe in arms (the mother was going into labor at the end of last week's episode).

The real nail-biter: Will Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) really take the glamorous fashion job and move to Paris with the child she had with Ross (David Schwimmer)? Will Ross, in love with her since high school, be left heartbroken in Manhattan?

As for Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), already rewarded with her happy ending when she was married - outside the Friends flock - to Mike, could there be a last-minute twist? Say, for instance: We discover to our shock that she's actually an equities broker in Seattle who once went out with Frasier Crane! The past "Friends" decade has all been Phoebe's dream!

When "Friends" premiered on Sept. 22, 1994, its break-from-the-pack success was the stuff dreams are made of. Its first week it ranked a robust 15th place, it was tied for eighth place for the 1994-95 season, and has been a top 10 show ever since, claiming the top spot for the 2001-02 season.

A show about six people! A breath of fresh air, "Friends" had arrived during a rash of sitcoms that showcased, however tortuously, established standup comics. Consider the top five hits of the 1993-94 season: After first-place newsmagazine "60 Minutes," they were the Tim Allen sitcom "Home Improvement," "Seinfeld," "Roseanne" and Brett Butler's "Grace Under Fire." And only six months earlier, Ellen DeGeneres, yet another standup, had arrived with her signature sitcom.

Before "Friends," there had never been a sitcom that showcased an ensemble of co-equals both in billing and by narrative design, and maintained that equilibrium throughout the show's run. "Friends" did it for 10 hit seasons.

Also worth noting: Despite TV's time-honored habit of ripping off hit formulas, no "Friends" clone has ever caught on. It's hard to even think of any flopped attempts (maybe the closest approximation: "It's Like, You Know," which had a brief run on ABC in 1999).

"A show with six people given equal weight, all equally involved in story lines - that was a key part of the show's conception," says David Crane, who created "Friends" with fellow executive producer Marta Kauffman.

"I don't think we thought of it as radical," he says of that balancing act. "It was only when we got into it, we realized: There really is no lead! No one character whose point of view you were supposed to be following, no single character you're supposed to be going through this journey with."

The advantage: "If the characters are interesting enough, you can go on six different journeys."

But there was also a downside. Writing the scripts, says Crane, entailed "a lot of mechanics. Every week we're telling three stories, and at least one of them has to have an emotional component."

One example, "The One With the Birth Mother": Chandler and Monica meet with the expectant mother whose child they hope to adopt, but she almost backs out. Chandler makes a moving speech and saves the day. Meanwhile, Rachel and Phoebe help Ross dress for a date, but he looks nerdier than ever. And Phoebe sends Joey on a blind date, who at dinner proves perfect in all ways except - for Joey, a cardinal sin - she eats off his plate.

"There's a lot of interweaving, a lot of juggling," says Crane. "One character is the go-to person in another character's story. Then, next time, you have to shift it around."

Of course, the magic of "Friends" wasn't simply its sitcom sextet, but also the magic little world they shared, observes Syracuse University television scholar Robert Thompson.

Most sitcoms rely on an authority figure: a parent, a boss, a domineering spouse or even a bossy pal. But "Friends" took place in a realm free of authority figures, says Thompson, likening it to "The Brady Bunch," of all things, "if Mike and Carol had walked around the corner for a pack of smokes and never come back.

"The theme song says 'Always stuck in second gear,' and they were: In their 20s, between adolescence and adulthood," he says. "And that, of course, is the dream of everyone: To maintain the ethos of life in a college dorm, beyond college."

Another distinguishing factor of "Friends": lack of conflict between the characters.

Where the plots and humor on most sitcoms depend on characters butting heads (or at least zinging each other with put-downs), the "Friends" friends "really care about each other, and act like it," says David Bushman, a curator at the Museum of Television and Radio.

Most of what goes on between these six, says Bushman, is friendship demonstrated in funny or touching ways. In place of conflict is something more subtle, but just as powerful: a subtext of sexual tension pushing and pulling at these three red-blooded guys and three lovely gals who, as the song pledges, will "be there for you."

Sometimes it's more than a subtext. Besides the courtship and marriage of Chandler and Monica, and the Ross-and-Rachel romance, Joey had a fling with Phoebe (although he thought she was her twin sister, Ursula) and made a play for Rachel, among other connections. Turns out, staying just friends isn't easy. (For the record: Siblings Ross and Monica maintained proper decorum with each other.)

No reports ever surfaced of actual romance among the six "Friends" stars. Nonetheless, their real-life friendship clearly stayed in synch with that of their characters. And lucratively so, especially at contract negotiation time, when their unified front won them most recently a reported deal of $1 million per episode and a piece of the show's syndication profits.

"With their collective bargaining," says Thompson with a laugh, "they had the most effective union of the last decade."

"Certainly the renegotiation periods were hard," admits Crane, "but besides the fact that their unity was a powerful negotiating tool, it created a very healthy working environment. They knew no one was going to sell them out. So we never had to deal with any sense of mistrust.

"Even more important than the fact that they might sometimes hang out together away from the show is that, as actors, there were generous with each other."

Detractors of "Friends" (and they do exist) call the series shallow, contrived and too cute by half. But no one disputes the co-stars' chemistry, or their skill for giving their characters an authenticity that flourished far beyond the bounds of the show's basic formula.

Look no further than quick-witted, self-deprecating Chandler. "He could have been just a comic device," says Crane, "but we had Matthew in the role, so we could eventually turn Chandler into a leading man."

The casting process was onerous, Crane recalls. No way could one character fade into the woodwork, or vanish from the show altogether, if the star didn't work out. Nor could any one of them overwhelm the others. The pressure to get the right six actors was huge.

"We saw everybody! Hundreds of actors!" says Crane, sounding weary at the memory. "Then we cast them individually, so we never saw them all together."

But when the Chosen Six rehearsed the pilot for the first time, "you had the feeling that these were people who had been acting together for years. It was like Season Three of the show!"

Thursday night, Season 10 comes to a close as "Friends" takes its place in TV annals for its popularity and endurance.

But in between the tears and hype, "Friends" invites a game of what-if:

What if one of the stars, or one of the characters, had been a dud? What if a feud among the cast had led to someone's defection? What if one of the actors had exited along the way in pursuit of even greater stardom, as several of them were tempted to do? What then?

"Would we have introduced a new 'sixth friend'? The answer is no," says Crane emphatically. No need. "The other five would have been so strong. Besides, I don't know if there's any magic in the number six."

Maybe not. Except this time.

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