At Cheers, everybody knew your name.
On "Friends" they know each other's names, coffee preference and seemingly everything else. And do they love to talk about it!
Rachel to Phoebe: "I can't believe he hasn't kissed you yet. I mean, by my sixth date with Paolo he had already named both of my breasts." Then to the entire group: "Oh ... did I just share too much?"
A little racy? A little rude? Relax. It's just talk, bandied among the sitcom world's sexiest sextet. Also, its most prudish. Befitting an 11th-place ranking for the season to date, "Friends" is full of pretty funny talk.
Ross: "She said she's looking for a relationship with someone exactly like me."
Joey: "She really said that?"
Ross: "Well, I added the 'exactly like me' part."
Phoebe (peevish): "Why would you want to ask out my sister?"
Joey (exasperated): "So that if we went out on a date, she'd be there!"
But there's one thing more important to a sitcom audience than laughs: comfort level.
Just as with "Cheers" and its bar, "Taxi" and its garage, or scores of other sitcom successes, "Friends" invites your vicarious involvement with a family of friends as they cocoon in each others' living rooms or at the Central Perk, a living-room-like coffee bar.
Bottom line: Who wouldn't want to join them in their floating kaffeeklatsch?
Monica ("Family Ties' " Courteney Cox) is a detail-obsessed chef at a Greenwich Village restaurant. Her rich-girl roomie is Rachel ("The Edge's" Jennifer Aniston), who abandoned her husband at the altar. Ross ("NYPD Blue's' David Schwimmer) is Monica's hangdog older brother whose wife has left him for another woman.
Joey ("Vinnie & Bobby's" Matt LeBlanc) is a hunky would-be actor and Chandler ("Sydney's" Mathew Perry) is a wisecracking data processor who discovers to his dismay that some women think he's gay.
Finally, Phoebe is a waifish, aura-cleansing folk singer (played by Lisa Kudrow, who also portrays Phoebe's twin sister Ursula, the out-to-lunch waitress on "Mad About You").
In sum, the "Friends" family consists of six twentysomethings, all of whom are good-looking, wholesome, perky and thin (is this a hit sitcom or Up With People?).
What they aren't is getting it on with one another.
"Friends," then, is the perfect sitcom for the '90s. The hormones flow in sheets along with the talk, while the show celebrates a grateful respite from sex, the fast track and material success, all within the chaste refuge of friendship.
As the cloying theme song goes, "Your job's a joke, you're broke, your love life's D.O.A., but I'll be there for you."
It's not Irving Berlin, but it gets the point across. It also sums up the storylines, which deal with pressing matters like dinner with the 'rents, giving up cigarettes, ditching a guy your friends are crazy about, or having to fire an assistant you want to date.
Of course, "Friends" has its shortcomings.
If you count this as one, the show, despite its emphatically New York City setting, is decidedly un-New Yorky. Indeed, the coffee bar seems better suited to a small college town or a suburban mall. Is this friendship so strong it provides a hermetic seal against Manhattan's oddities and mean streets?
Meanwhile, the caffeine-pumped pacing, while it may keep channel surfers at bay, sometimes undercuts the comedy. For instance, during a Lamaze class, Ross, in the absence of his pregnant ex-wife, is forced to pinch hit as the expectant mother while his ex-wife's lesbian lover claims the father's coaching role. The scene had potential, but after the setup, it bailed out. The whole thing was over in 90 seconds.
But a recent episode that centered on a boys vs. girls poker faceoff was charming, and pointed up "Friends"' essential truth: At least when you're young, there's nothing better than being in the dumps with other fun-loving people.
Let Monica speak for all her friends, not to mention the premise behind their show: "Welcome to the real world! It sucks! You're gonna love it."