Friends (NBC)

There was a moment right near the end of the Friends finale wherein Ross, having returned home from the airport where he had rushed to profess his eternal love for Rachel, listens to an answering machine message from Rachel (calling from the plane) wherein she reciprocated the emotion. For a split second, I was certain that they were going to kill Rachel in a plane crash. How cool would that have been?!

This shows how divergent my sensibility is from that of Friends, which is really as innocuous, comfortable, and non-boatrocking as the polo shirts and khaki pants of 99% of my corporate day-job coworkers (99% of whom love Friends).

I don't hate the show – how could you? It's generally smartly written, the cast is totally first-rate for this kind of show, the characters are endearing, and any given episode, even in the lamer later years, will give me a surprised chuckle or two.

It's more what Friends represents – conformity, loyalty, resistance to change, and mind-boggling self-absorption – that causes me to not go out of my way to watch it. That isn't easy, as it seems to always be on somewhere on my cable system – but frankly, in situations where people start riffing on favorite Friends lines or episodes, I'd prefer to be in the dark. Knowing full well what people are referring to only makes me more irritated that they're so clichéd in the way they reminisce about it.

This is one of my central points of fallout from Friends: it gave America the fallacious idea that everyone is capable of witty situational "riffing." The Friends ensemble had the benefit of pretty good writers to put zingers in their mouths, but left to my SUV-driving, babymaking cohorts in corporate purgatory, this knack is executed with all the subtlety and mastery of, like, Applebee's. Before Friends, only the talented tenth would endeavor to play the wag in a social situation, delivering clever observations with polish and poise. Nowadays, the concept of "riffing" has become apparent to people for whom this talent is a foreign thing, so everyone will throw in their attempt at a "riff." This results in situations all the time wherein the funniest punchline, the perfect capping remark, occurs maybe third in a series of fifteen riffs, by which time the best joke has been obliterated, and everyone is simply laughing in conditioned response to "riffing." It's the worst.

Perhaps I just need to quit my day job and find a place where I can make good money and not be around people who watch television. But either way, the sad fact is that Friends has done us more harm than good. Though on its own merits, it's fine enough, it has left a legacy of shit behind it. Friends is to blame for the glut of Friends-style shows that persists on TV even now, showcasing attractive people with invisible jobs but loads of disposable income, as they navigate the shallow waters of urban dating and comedic family drama, never reaching any real insight about why they do the things they do or why they are so unhappy. As long as they have their friends, it's best not to think about anything darker than, like, a breakup.

Matt LeBlanc, who is genuinely a master of comic timing (especially the double-take and the switch from pure ignorance to total awareness), is the only element of the show that I actually find myself looking forward to. I don't dislike the others, as they are all very attractive and pretty stylish. But LeBlanc is the only one who's been great from the beginning.

For a few years, the show had some real dramatic momentum with quite unexpected comedic payoffs, and dependably unique writing. But, like all shows that stay on the air for more than about four years, the characterizations all became caricatures after awhile. Chandler went from vulnerable and sarcastic to openly and bitterly hostile (blame the painkiller addiction for that phase), and finally into total la-la land as his character was supposed to adjust to being a husband and father. Ross stammered more and more, becoming unreasonably irate or depressed at every little thing. Monica became cartoonishly obsessive and selfish. Phoebe more diagnostically mentally ill, making weirder statements that everyone seemed to just brush off. Rachel grew more disconnected and ditzy.

In real life, these folks would have drifted apart well within ten years, relegated to appearances on each other's Christmas card list and the occasional funeral. But despite their glaring differences as they grew apart, they clung to each other fiercely, rarely venturing outside the boundaries of their tiny circle, even for sex. The writing was still alright, but nothing special, and with increasing frequency, actually corny.

At some point they brought in a Black chick to spice things up, but surely no one bought any of that. And the finale was simply ridiculous … despite the fact that none of them was moving more than five miles away from any of the others, they still felt the need for a tearful farewell. I should start doing that every time I leave work, just to see how people react.

It is with no sadness that I watch Friends come to an end. The impact on my life will be minimal, or perhaps even beneficial, especially if people start losing the impulse to "riff" and to feel the need to discuss the show in public, or use its stories for purposes of analogy.

Incidentally, why did they all have answering machines? Everyone I know has voice mail.

Review by La Fée © 2004