Welcome to the Hanspostcard TV Draft. The remaining 7 rounds will be posted here. I hope you will enjoy it! Today’s post was written by Dave from https://soundday.wordpress.com/
Some of our other participants have picked highly excellent, but “boutique” shows. Ones which are brilliant, and critically-praised, but not hugely viewed, often due to appearing on pay cable stations or obscure streaming services. This is actually great because it’s giving some of us insight into shows we’ve heard about but not seen. But for my second pick, I’ll stick with the 1990s and stick with a show of mass appeal…more mass appeal now than back then, one might guess: Friends. It was a show I sometimes watched, and quite liked back in the day but have watched a good deal more and come to enjoy more in the years since it ended. (In that it was somewhat like one of its companion shows on NBC, Seinfeld, looked at by Music City Mike already.)
NBC’s Thursday night lineup in the ’90s was a TV equivalent to baseball’s ’61 Yankees… a seemingly unstoppable powerhouse that kept throwing superstar after superstar at you. By 1993, it was already a juggernaut in the ratings and with critics with the combo of Seinfeld and Frasier. But they needed something to keep the momentum throughout the night and had had some difficulty finding another prime-time comedy to keep viewers on the Peacock network. Enter Marta Kauffman and David Crane,a couple of, well, friends who were writers. Struggling ones at that.
“We wanted to write something we would watch,” Kauffman said. They were in their early-30s and Crane says “not long before, we’d been living in New York, not doing TV. We’d been living it.” So they set upon the idea of a group of people like themselves who were out on their own but single, starting to find their way in the world with little but their close friends to help them through.
They came up with the basic idea and a few test scripts and pitched it to Fox, who said “it’s funny, but it’s not Fox funny. Can you make it more adult?” Instead, they landed at NBC, who saw some potential with it. Which was prescient of them, since like so many shows, the pilot was…well, not great. It was OK, but only hinted at the depth of the characters and the laughs that it would soon create. It might have been unwatchable if Rachel had stayed the spoiled princess, Ross the always sadsack downer or Joey the macho stud. Happily the characters and dialog evolved and quickly found their stride only a few weeks in.
As most know, the show revolved around a main cast of six “friends”…an unusually large ensemble for a sitcom that didn’t have one main star, ala say Bill Cosby on his eponymous show. There were the guys – Joey, the proudly Italian ladies-man and struggling actor; Chandler, the sarcastic and oft-frustrated office “suit” and Ross, the nerdy and awkward professor – and the girls. They were Monica, Ross’ sister, a compulsive neat freak and talented cook; Phoebe, the artsy-fartsy ’60s throwback hippie singer, and Rachel, the rich fashionista cut off from her family money and learning life lessons. With a “heart of gold” would be a modifier applied to all six. Through ten seasons, 1994- 2004, and 236 episodes they struggled with ordinary problems like so many of their fans – finding romantic partners, or at least dates, getting a good job, trying to keep afloat financially, and the like. All the while talking a lot and hanging out at the Central Perk, a local coffee shop. (Jennfier Aniston, “Rachel” once commented that it would be impossible to set it in the present day because it would now just be six people sitting staring at their phones.) At times they’d fight, but in the end, like the famous Rembrandts theme song (“I’ll Be There For You”) suggests, they were always there for each other.
Time magazine noted “the well-hidden secret of the show was that it was called ‘Friends’ and was really about family.” Or to put it another way, that when you get to be an adult, your friends can be your family, the rock you can rely on. In that it rather duplicated Seinfeld, or Frasier’s predecessor, Cheers. And like those shows, a good deal of the appeal was how perfect the actors chosen were for the roles. Unlike those two, by a few episodes in you were always rooting for those characters. It seemed like lightning struck in the casting. The creators had written the Ross part specifically with David Schwimmer in mind… they actually figured he would be the break-out star of the series. The others all came about by chance. They envisioned Courteney Cox to be Rachel, not Monica, but she liked the other role better. They liked Jennifer Aniston, but she was under contract to another, thankfully short-lived show at the time so they figured she wouldn’t be available. She was. Nancy McKeon was their first choice for Monica, but that fell through, and so on and so on. Now it seems impossible to think of Monica being anyone but Courteney, or anyone but Matt Leblanc being Joey, etc. And Jennifer Aniston? So intertwined with her character was she that her haircut swept the nation and was called “the Rachel.”
All six of the characters were flawed, and often not good at their jobs. The only thing as bad as Phoebe’s singing might be Joey’s on-stage acting chops or Ross’ attempt to win over students by speaking in a fake British accent. But their flaws made them seem like people we all knew and loved…or maybe, like ourselves. As years went by, they became our friends. We wanted Joey to keep that role on Days of Our Lives, we wanted Chandler to find a way not to be transferred to Tulsa, and of course, we wanted Ross and Rachel to figure out that they were in love with each other and just get together! I mean, come on – Ross said Rachel’s name instead of the girl he was supposed to be marrying (Emily) during his wedding vows!
Interestingly, just before Season 8 was about to begin, the world was shaken by 9/11. This posed a dilemma for the series, set in Manhattan. They didn’t know how to approach it. Finally, NBC decided “9/11 did happen in the World of Friends, but it would be acknowledged only by visual clues”… Joey sometimes wore an “NYFD” t-shirt, newspapers appeared on tables, the etch-a-sketch on Joey and Chandler’s door had more patriotic images on it but “no one would want to see ‘the one with the terrorist attack.’” It hit the actors hard, like everybody else, and they had to reconcile their job with the reality of the world. Lisa Kudrow, “Phoebe,” said “we’re not curing cancer. It’s not a big deal. But you know what? When you can offer people a break from some such a devastating reality, that is a big deal.” Aniston echoed, “this was the one place in the world it was still OK to laugh.” It was a big deal. The show, already a top 10 ratings hit, became the most-watched on television that season (the last sitcom to earn that distinction) and won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy. The series finale, in which yes, Rachel didn’t get on the plane (and leave for France, rather, coming back to be with Ross) was the most-viewed regular TV episode of this century so far.
Like I said, I watched it at times then but appreciate it more now. Actually, thinking back, I was often too busy living my own version of Friends when it was on to tune in. Hanging out with buddies, looking for a lasting love, working late in the store, you name it. When I was fortunate enough to find my lasting love, it turned out Friends was one of her all-time favorite shows. She used to tell people back then not to call on Thursday until after 7:30 (it aired at 7PM in Central time, 8 in the East where I was watching) because she was tied up…with “friends”. We love watching reruns together, and when it left Netflix, I got her the set of DVDS. Or got us the set. I laugh at Ross’s consternation at his boss eating his Moist-maker sandwich or barista Gunther’s longing for Rachel (I guess I could relate to Gunther on that one!) as much as my sweetie does. If grilled cheese sandwiches might be a “comfort food”, Friends is “comfort watching” to us.
A couple of parting thoughts about Friends. First, to me it seems rather like most sitcoms these days have a tendency to copy it, but not as successfully. Groups of funny, inseparable friends. How I Met Your Mother… group of late-20-something friends who hang out together in a neighborhood bar and have little to do with their biological families. The at times cloying Big Bang Theory? Don’t get me started. Friends who are family to themselves, the nerdy professorial type destined to be with the super-sexy but sweet blonde (who like Rachel struggles as a waitress but finally finds success in a professional career), guys with no musical talent but abundant arrogance playing in the comic book store (much like both Ross and his keyboards and Phoebe’s bad songwriting)… they even stole the story of the male character who tried to get a spray on tan to impress a woman and ended up bright orange by accident.
And secondly, the show got back together in the right way. That is to say, by not regrouping. As much as they were being pressured to do a reunion, like so many other comedies from Will and Grace to Gilmore Girls had done, Friends decided to leave things as they were. There was the much-hyped reunion show last year,of course, but it was dealt with smartly… the six actors got back together and reminisced, showed a few classic clips and talked about what it was like back then. Brilliant restraint, because the magic of Friends was the characters remain forever young, and then left on high notes …they were happy, moving away from their New York apartment building to start new lives, full of love and optimism. Just as NBC realized we didn’t need “the one with the terrorist attack”, the cast understood we didn’t want “the one where Ross needs viagra now” or “the one with Gunther’s funeral.” They knew not to overstay their welcome, and leave us laughing.