Farewell to old 'Friends'

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In bowing out, sitcom characters can shed tears but they can't stint on laughs. Chandler Bing's banter last week suggests that Friends will say goodbye tonight with appropriate wackiness.

Chandler (Matthew Perry) summed up his pain at seeing Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston) leave for Paris.

"It feels like when Melrose Place got canceled," Chandler said, surprising his male buddies. "Aw, forget it," he added, refusing to apologize. "I miss Melrose Place."

Chandler was prepping the country for a far bigger loss in prime time. The finale of Friends culminates a potent, 10-year run; shakes NBC's no-longer-must-see Thursday lineup; and robs the enfeebled sitcom format of its highest-rated show.

A big sendoff is mandatory, and that's what NBC is providing: an hour retrospective at 8, the hourlong finale at 9. The actors will appear on The Tonight Show at 11:35, all on WESH-Channel 2.

This sitcom's unique nature makes the farewell especially difficult. In sitcom history, nearly every classic show centers on one star, from Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason to Kelsey Grammer and Sarah Jessica Parker.

Friends spread the good dialogue and funny situations among six gifted actors. Creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane wanted it that way from the start.

"No one had ever done a true ensemble, where all the characters are absolutely equal," Crane says.

The series never played favorites, which bolstered its long-term health. Everybody doesn't love Raymond, but it was nearly impossible not to like at least one friend. The little-known actors seized the roles in 1994 and blossomed into television favorites.

Emmy-winner Aniston took Rachel from air-headed, runaway bride to capable career woman. David Schwimmer made infatuation with her a national pastime as Ross Geller, the neurotic paleontologist.

As Monica, Ross' elegant sister, Courteney Cox Arquette proved that control freaks can be lovable. Monica's surprising affair with Chandler, played by the irrepressible Perry, jolted the show to a new level of joy. Was there a lovelier moment than Chandler's declaration of love for Monica?

Friends fielded two of the greatest goofballs in sitcom history: Lisa Kudrow as flaky guitarist Phoebe Buffay and Matt LeBlanc as dense actor Joey Tribbiani. She won an Emmy. He graduates to his own NBC show, Joey, in the fall.

All for 1, 1 for all

The sitcom was a miracle of casting, and then something more remarkable happened in ego-crazed Hollywood. The six actors saw themselves as equals and negotiated their contracts as a team. Their on-screen chemistry reflected their off-screen camaraderie. The beauty of Friends was that the friendship came naturally.

"We just liked each other from the beginning," Schwimmer says. "Sometimes you have jobs where you don't get along with everyone. We were just lucky."

The creators were lucky to have them. The stars carried the show over uneven seasons and over recent complaints that Friends has lasted too long. The actors also elevated racy material that would have been merely lewd on other sitcoms.

Kauffman and Crane came to Friends from the more risque world of HBO's Dream On. On Friends, they tackled sex with openness from the start. In the pilot, Ross whined that his wife had left him for a woman, and Monica spent the night with a cad.

Although the network's censors raised objections, the series' tone remained unusually frisky over the 10-year run. Because the actors played the characters so sweetly, Friends could get away with adult content in the old family hour.

For a deceptively simple show, Friends was surprisingly sturdy. It survived merchandising crazes and inept knockoffs. The sitcom launched new hairstyles and ways of speaking.

In the frightening weeks after the terrorist attacks of 2001, viewers turned to the reassuring sitcom, making it the No. 1 show that season.

People simply wanted to see the gang of six interact or hang out in the Central Perk coffeehouse. The creators learned that they didn't necessarily have to write situations that were dramatic.

"In this show, it was always better when you put the six of them together and they talked about something than if you saw it," Kauffman says. "It had to do with the chemistry."

The show drew such big-name guest stars as Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, Aniston spouse Brad Pitt and Tom Selleck, who appeared as Monica's boyfriend Richard Burke. Selleck offers his own theory about why Friends remained popular so long.

"Any time you do a show that not only can make people laugh but can make them cry, you hit a home run," he says. "That's very rare. It's the investment in the characters that the audience has."

Chance to say goodbye

Tonight, the creators hope to make good on that investment with the farewell. Kauffman and Crane have studied other finales and say they aim to leave their characters in a good place.

"You want to tell a satisfying story," Crane says. "You want to tell a surprising story. Balancing those two things was really difficult."

The biggest piece of unfinished business seems to be the Ross-Rachel relationship and whether she goes to work in Paris. Monica and Chandler will head to the suburbs with the adopted child that is to be born. Phoebe is content in a new marriage to Mike (Paul Rudd). Joey will move to Los Angeles and star in his own adventures.

Kauffman and Crane have been stunned by the finale hoopla and coverage of the show's cultural significance, but they're flattered that people are making a fuss over a beloved show. Kauffman says she felt the same way when M*A*S*H and The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended their runs.

"I wanted the opportunity to say goodbye, and to watch them go away, and to be part of it rather than them just disappearing off the landscape," she says. "It's just giving people a chance to say goodbye."

But they won't ever disappear. Thanks to reruns and DVDs, this beautiful friendship never has to end.

Hal Boedeker can be reached at hboedeker@orlandosentinel.com or407-420-5756.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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