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Scott Larson

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A tale of two sitcoms I

This month, not one but two long-running American television situation comedies will call it quits. Between the two of them, they will have been on the air for a combined total of 21 seasons. Coincidentally, they are both on NBC, and they both have one-word titles beginning with “F.”

So much for the trivia. When a television series survives that long, it tells us something about television itself and, more to the point, about those of us who watch it. The series in question are, of course, Friends and Frasier. The Friends finale is by far getting most of the attention, as the series finally bows out, even though Frasier has been on the air longer and its star Kelsey Grammer has tied James Arness’s record of playing the same TV character for 20 years. In an age of ever-shrinking attention spans, it is no small achievement in television to last as long as these two series. Few enough others have done it.

Less noticed is the fact that ABC has a show that will be ending a nine-year run this summer. That’s only one year less than Friends. But the final episodes of The Drew Carey Show are more or less being shrugged off by ABC, which seems to have the figurative head of its entertainment division up a certain figurative orifice. It’s not surprising to me that ABC’s TV fortunes have waned. I firmly believe they are paying for the bad karma they racked up in 1971 when the network cancelled Dark Shadows.

But while I may have been (eventually) prescient about ABC’s fortunes, I did not, as is often the case, foresee the popularity of Friends. I saw the first episode when it aired in 1994 and thought to myself, “Okay, it’s the morally-challenged-group-of-friends-in-Manhattan Seinfeld-type thing, except that it’s not quite as edgy and there are more attractive actors.” And I didn’t watch any more episodes. Until the buzz for the series got so strong that I decided to give it another try. (I am nothing if not a slave to popular opinion.) For the next decade, I had a pattern of watching, then getting tired of it, then coming back to it, and then not watching again. I mean, you can only watch the whole will-Ross-and-Rachel-or-won’t-they? thing so long before you just get tired of it. Fortunately, keeping up with the series has never been a problem. Since it has been in syndication, it is possible to watch it every night of the week, not only on US stations but also on British and Irish channels. In fact, I have been waiting for RTÉ’s Network Two to officially adopt the slogan “All Friends All the Time.”

I still think that my initial instinct was at least partially correct, that Friends was a spiritual spin-off of Seinfeld. Once Seinfield peaked in its popularity, the whole concept of the antics and quips of a bunch of friends became very popular. How many people remember that when Ellen DeGeneres’s sitcom debuted, the same year as Friends, that it was originally titled These Friends of Mine, before it was re-christened simply Ellen? But while Seinfeld was fairly subversive within the situation comedy genre, Friends on the other hand unabashedly embraced sitcom conventions even while appropriating some of Seinfeld’s New York-style edginess. It clearly caught on because of good writing, an attractive cast and a premise that allowed the audience to see itself. Arguably, situation comedies have always been about family, and Friends, like Cheers before it, recognized the fact that, for many people in the latter 20th century, networks of friends were playing the role that families once did. Indeed, you can more or less trace the progress of American family life down the years by viewing the country’s TV comedies. From the domestic travails of I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners in the early 1950s to the domestic bliss of Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best to the more sophisticated marital relationship of The Dick Van Dyke Show and the political/cultural division of All in the Family in the 1970s. Also in the 1970s, sitcoms reflected more and more the fact that, for many people, friends and work colleagues were becoming surrogate families, as exemplified by The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

In the 1980s, your surrogate urban family didn’t even have to be found at work. It could be at your local bar. For some reason, people really took to the idea of a group of friends hanging out in a bar together. You could hear a wistfulness in people’s voices when they quoted the refrain in the theme song about a “place where everybody knows your name.” I think Cheers was as much about wish fulfillment in a largely anonymous urban culture as it was about making informal families among friends. The funny thing is that the Cheers gang weren’t even that warm and fuzzy. There was an awful lot of insulting and putting down and downright meanness going on. But then I guess that is what a lot of real families are like. In the 1990s, the corner bar was replaced by the funky café serving espresso drinks. Central Perk replaced Cheers as the virtual living room for the new urban virtual family. “Where everybody knows your name” was updated to the even more comforting “I’ll be there for you.” In the end, Friends may be even more of a spiritual spin-off to Cheers than that series’s actual spin-off, Frasier. It’s no minor detail that, for all the years, the gang on Friends have always spent Thanksgiving with each other rather than with their own biological families. And just as with real families (at least in movies and on television), it has always ended in disaster.

In ensemble comedies, it has long been a convention that one of the characters must be wackily dim. This goes back to Gracie Allen (and probably farther) and has been personified down the years by Norton on The Honeymooners, Edith on All in the Family, Ted on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Coach (and then Woody) on Cheers. The designated wackily dim character on Friends was Joey, but something was different this time. Only half of the six characters are what you might call brainy. And those ones all have notable personality disorders. Monica is obsessive-compulsive, Chandler is heavily into avoidance, and I still haven’t figured out all of Ross’s issues. On the other side, Rachel is dim but has potential plus the more-than-compensating fact that she is attractive and dresses and grooms herself well. Phoebe is the “kooky” one, who may be crazy like a fox (or maybe not). And Joey is just dim, although he (again) compensates by being attractive and even more promiscuous than the rest of the crowd. While there is a bit of satire going on here, I’m not sure the audience actually gets it. Just as the reactionary bigot Archie Bunker was meant to be ridiculed in All the Family but wound up being admired by a lot of viewers, I think a lot of the frequently vacuous Rachel’s and outright dim Joey’s superficial values are taken at face value by Friends fans, and these two characters are respected, admired, and even envied.

If I had to pick one character that I would be interested in following in a spin-off, it probably wouldn’t be Joey. And, of course, he is the very one to be getting his own series next season. But don’t pay any attention to me. I don’t exactly have a great record for predicting the success of these things. For instance, I would never have picked the Frasier character for the most likely successful spin-off of Cheers. And speaking of Frasier, I will attempt to psychoanalyze him next week.

-S.L., 6 May 2004

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