Sunday, 02 May 2004
The one about the Friends finale - THE COMMENTARY
By Joseph Planta
VANCOUVER - The hype machine has been at it, and not just for the past year, but for a couple of years now, ever since the possibility that Friends could have gone off the air last season. We've wondered, guessed and hoped for another season, we got this truncated one and now it all comes down to this, this Thursday night, a super-sized Friends where ten years of sitcom hilarity ends with a finale that but a few people know just what will unfold for Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Pheobe and Joey, and even Gunther.
James Poniewozik, in a delightful piece in Time magazine last month, broke it down nicely. Friends was not a grandiose sitcom that courted controversy like All in the Family, or that documented social progress like The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It was not satirical as M*A*S*H was, or about nothing like Seinfeld. Friends was about friends, who lived, loved and laughed in the city. It was simple yet direct, telling as well as vague. It was wholly New York, yet Tucson, Arizona could still relate (Vancouver, Canada, for that matter). September 11th was hinted at, and paid the proper homage ever so subtly, such as when Joey wore a FDNY shirt. It was real life, yet it still skimmed the surface of the absurd, where Joey could think that his dead agent was calling him on the phone.
The thesis that Poniewozik fronts is that ever since the 1970s and the pioneering work of Norman Lear, sitcoms didn't just have to be sitcoms. Rather, they would have to court controversy if they were to have any meaning for the culture. Think of two prominent sitcoms that were on when Friends hit the air in the mid 1990s: Murphy Brown and Ellen. When Murphy Brown dealt with single parenthood, the storyline managed to get a sitting Vice President involved, whose public pronouncements regarding "wholesome family values" became fodder for the fictional program. When Ellen's lead character came out of the closet, it caused many to ponder the power of television to not only entertain, but also to illuminate, inspire and offend. At face value, you look at the entirety of Friends's run and you don't see the Central Perk six at the forefront of cultural change at the popular level. However, look deeply and you'll see that the characters on Friends grew to accept norms that affected change on the cultural landscape, by showing its audience how to accept such forays into modernity. During its run, Friends dealt with lesbianism, and before Ellen Morgan came out. Phoebe had her brother's baby, while Chandler's father was a transvestite, not to mention the nuclear family was in forever altered with characters having children through surrogates or out of wedlock. Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Joey and Phoebe may not come to mind when thinking of pioneering television personalities like Archie Bunker, Mary Richards or Cliff Huxtable, because their changing of society was ever so subtle. But change society they did.
Friends was about gags that worked, gags that made the viewer laugh. There's a lot of Three's Company in Friends, in terms of the sexual innuendo and double entendre. There are also those elements of Cheers and Frasier, where character development was so strong that we readily understand the vaguest of references. We never saw Norm's Vera on Cheers, or Niles's Maris on Frasier, but their impact on the characters we did see were endless. On Friends, we never saw Ross seduce aged librarians or Phoebe the murderess, but it's all part of the humour, that even the casual of viewer could pick up.
Poniewozik makes a very good point that goes to the core of the program. Just after Rachel had Ross's baby, Ross's father says, "My first grandchild!" Ross demands, "What about Ben?" "Well, of course Ben, I meant my first granddaughter," feigns the grandfather. Poniewozik claims that though it's farfetched that a man could forget his own grandson, the gag worked because the audience has often forgotten about Ben. Like growing old with characters in your own family, those that once played a primary focus, like Ben who figured prominently during the show's first two seasons, they often fade into the background eventually. Not so much for our own families, but definitely for sitcom characters that we know but often need reminding as to why we hate or love them so.
Candidly, I would not consider Friends amongst the greatest of ensemble acting casts. Taxi and Newsradio had arguably better ensembles. Neither was Friends ingenious nor thought provoking, one would watch The Simpsons or Maude instead. What Friends was though was safe, harmless comedy, where for 30-minutes every week (not to mention endless reruns) the comedy of six was something that any one person could relate. Poniewozik charges, "If, as the headlines keep screaming, the culture war is not over, for half an hour a week over ten years, we were able to forget it existed."
Friends portrayed a park-your-brains-at-the-door world, where occasional glimpses to relatable pathos could resonate, however rare. It was subtle, and often sublime. It had its rough spots, and it hit a creative lull from time to time. However, like the reality it attempted to create, embellish or mock, the totality of its run marks a significant chunk of time with which, like the characters on the show, we grew old, grew up (hopefully), or just stayed the same. Friends didn't change the world, but it sure as hell tried and perhaps in some small measure down the line, we'll realise it did.
Questions and comments may be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org
An archive of Joseph Planta's previous columns can be found by clicking HERE .