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'Friends' to the End

It was the monkey that did it.

I scoffed at Friends when it was announced. Another plastic sitcom with plastic twentysomething people. And yet, one night there was this monkey, and I was hooked.

I agree with Phil -- Friends really had nothing to say about us as a culture, nor did it tinker with the sitcom format in any meaningful way. Just as Pete Rose became baseball's all-time hit king because of a unique mixture of skill and longevity, Friends has lasted and had the impact it's had because of a few unique factors.

First, the casting. A show lives and dies by its casting. Just look at the Coupling, an excellent show inspired by Friends. The UK version is one of the best things on TV; the U.S. version didn't make it to a fifth episode. The big difference between the two? Casting! The UK cast of Coupling is lightning in a bottle; likewise, the group of unknown actors (hey, isn't that the girl from Family Ties and that Bruce Springsteen video?) starring in Friends were perfectly chosen. And more importantly, they stayed together for their show's entire run, eschewing the awkward, added-on character who invariably straggles in at the end of a long-running show.

Second, the humor. Friends is far from unique in being a funny sitcom. They aren't quite a dime a dozen -- as most of Friends' companions on Thursday night over the years have proven -- but they are out there. No, the impressive thing with Friends is that the humor has been consistent, almost throughout the 10-year run. At some point round about year five, the show stumbled, and it looked like it was the beginning of the end. But -- here's the Pete Rose part -- it righted itself. Last season was one of the show's best.

This year hasn't been quite as good, but it's still going out with rare characteristic #3: its dignity, intact. At least, I suppose, until we see Joey.


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