The Legacy of Friends — Or Lack Thereof

Beginning February 9 at 9:30 p.m., something will happen on TV that hasn’t in nearly seven years: three of the Friends actors will be on the air at the same time. Courtney Cox has finally found success on Cougar Town, while this Sunday is the premiere of Matt LeBlanc’s new Showtime series, Episodes. A month later, Mr. Sunshine airs on ABC, starring Matthew Perry.

Like the so-called “Seinfeld Curse,” the six Friends have had a hard time finding a role that will make viewers think of them not as Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Chandler, Joey, and Ross, but as Jennifer, Courtney, Lisa, Matthew, Matt, and David. Here’s where they’ve been up to:

Jennifer Aniston — She’s the biggest name of the bunch, but not because of her work; it’s due to the messy divorce from Brad Pitt, and his subsequent relationship with Angelina Jolie. She hasn’t been in a good movie since 2006’s Friends with Money, instead choosing roles in films like Love Happens and The Bounty Hunter.

Courtney Cox — After the misguided Dirt was cancelled, she showed up on Scrubs for three episodes, then did something no other Friend has (remember, we don’t know how well Mr. Sunshine and Episodes will do yet): found another successful show. Cougar Town is bringing in solid ratings and even better reviews. Cox was also nominated for a Golden Globe. She’s got Scream 4 soon, too.

Lisa KudrowThe Comeback was a brilliant, short-lived about a D-List celebrity named Valerie being filmed for a reality show, also called The Comeback (got it?). Sadly, it was cancelled after 13 episodes, and she now seems settled into roles playing a mom.

Matthew Perry — As documented here, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was not meant to be, and outside of the TV movie The Ron Clark Story and playing an older version of Zac Efron in 17 Again, he hasn’t done much. Let’s see how Mr. Sunshine, about a man going through a real-life crisis, does.

Matt LeBlancJoey. ‘Nuff said. Thankfully, Episodes looks like it could have potential, and it’s co-created by David Crane, half of the team that brought us Friends.

David Schwimmer —He’s played himself on Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and voiced Melman in the two Madagascar films, but he seems quite content on working in the world of theater, including directing the play, Fault Lines, in 2008.

So, with the exception of Courtney Cox, the sextet, who earned $1 MILLION PER EPISODE by the end of Friends’ run, hasn’t really done much since the show went off the air on May 6, 2004. Is that why the show’s lost almost all of its cultural impact?

When Friends first aired in 1994, it was an immediate hit, finishing #8 in the Nielsen ratings, with 24.8 million viewers. From seasons 2-10, the show never finished with less than 20 million viewers, and never finished out of the top five. It was also a huge cultural hit, from hairdos (“The Rachel”) to catchphrases (“Could I BE any more…?”) to Billboard-charting songs (“I’ll Be There for You” by the Rembrandts).

It was an odd time for comedy on television. In 1996, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Roseanne, and NewsRadio were all humming, but Caroline in the City, Grace Under Fire, Home Improvement, and even The Single Guy were all big hits — and, of course, Friends. But, oddly, none of those five shows have much sense of importance in today’s culture. Unlike previous sitcom megahits, like Diff’rent Strokes and Growing Pains, to choose two very different shows, no one’s still quoting or even the slightest bit nostalgic for Tool Time or Richard Burke.

Looking at the current Nielsen charts, where Friends should have the biggest impact, you don’t see its legacy anywhere: Two and a Half Men is a Chuck Lorre show through and through; Mike & Molly touches on subjects that Friends only brought up when making jokes about Monica being fat as a teenager; Modern Family can be charming sweet and funny at the same time, something Friends never really mastered; and Glee, well, unless Rachel sings “Smelly Cat” never the twain shall meet.

Most other current critically acclaimed comedies, on both network and broadcast channels, have a gimmick, like the mockumentary style for The Office and Parks and Recreation, the answer of who’s the mother on How I Met Your Mother, the pop culture gags of 30 Rock, the “fake” news of The Daily Show and Colbert Report, the Louie playing Louie on Louie. Friends’ gimmick was that it was a show about a bunch of pals hanging out in a coffee shop (“they’re just like us!”), and we’ve grown tired of that trope over the past decade.

The closest we see to Friends on air today are two shows that vaguely use its blueprint of a group of pals hanging out in a public setting, in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Community. But even then, with Sunny, they own the bar, and Dennis, Mac, Charlie, Dee, and Frank are too crass for the Central Perk types, anyway. As for the students of Greendale, well, there’s seven of them, not six, and they’re a bit too, um, non-white for Friends (I’m not accusing the show of being racist, per se, but its depiction of New York City wasn’t very diverse; ditto Seinfeld). They also go far deeper into whimsical meta territory than Friends would ever dare.

Friends worked and became a huge hit because it was a relatively amusing sitcom that played it straight with safe, non-threatening characters. But now, even the worst/most popular shows are taking risks: Two and a Half Men is about a sex addict, Mike & Molly about fat people, $#*! My Dad Says came from a Twitter account, The Big Bang Theory is about nerds, etc. I’m not saying they’re any good, but I’d rather see a crappy show do something different than I would a mediocre one play it by the books, which Friends mostly did.

Let’s remember: most people didn’t actually like the last two seasons of the shows; the only reason the episodes did so well was because of the Joey/Rachel/Ross love triangle. By episode #236 (“The Last One”), the world was tired of its Friends, which is probably the reason Joey bombed so hard — and why, outside of Cox and The Comeback, the rest of the group has struggled so much, too. Joey’s humor wasn’t that different from the material LeBlanc got on Friends, but outside of the confines of the rest of the gang, everyone realized at that maybe Joey wasn’t all that funny of a character in the first place. They really aren’t strong enough comedic actors to make it on their own.

I do think Friends could be pretty funny at times, especially in seasons two-four with episodes like “The One Where No One’s Ready” (a bottle episode) and “The One with the Embroyos” (where we find out that Joey and Chandler’s TV Guide is addressed to “Miss Chanandler Bong”), but there’s nothing particularly special about it any more, outside of the show giving millions of impressionable Midwesterners an impression of the city that didn’t exist then and definitely doesn’t exist now. Monica’s rent-controlled apartment? Good luck with that. The lack of crime? In 1994, there were 2,016 murders in New York City…The only time I can distinctly remember Friends tackling crime is when we find out in season eight that Phoebe once mugged Ross. Like Sex and the City, Friends has probably done more harm than good for NYC, especially Manhattan.

Also, did they ever go to Brooklyn?

Whether it’s because the subject material or just the way it’s presented (handheld cameras), we should be happy to live in a time where comedy feels more “real.” Friends in the ‘90s was billed as a show where you could imagine hanging out with these people in real life; a decade and a half later, the episodes feel like relics from a different time.

Josh Kurp will be there for you, too.

The Legacy of Friends — Or Lack Thereof