Era Of Smiles Fading Away

As 'Friends' bows out, competition, meanness become new themes for television -- and for the country


May 02, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

In: The Donald.

Out: Joey, Monica, Phoebe, Ross, Rachel and Chandler.

In: Being mean.

Out: Making nice.

In: Relationships of convenience.

Out: Friends.

There is an unmistakable symmetry in NBC's decision to replace Friends next fall with The Apprentice as the new star of its Thursday night lineup of "must-see" TV.

The Friends finale, which airs this Thursday, marks more than the departure of one of the longest-running and most successful sitcoms in television history. Passing with it from center stage in American popular culture is one of the most enduring and uplifting themes that prime-time TV has ever offered: the celebration of community.

Situated at the heart of hundreds of series during the last half-century was the guarantee to young adults that there is a community of like-minded people out there somewhere with whom they can find fulfillment. But that message, sounded consistently on network TV since the 1950s, has been replaced with its virtual opposite.

The new message is part of a meaner, narcissistic, prime-time vision that says fulfillment is found only in winning the game and making more money than anyone else. Forget community, everyone is on his own, and anyone who doesn't know that is begging to be hustled. In the new world of prime-time television, people don't even try to make friends any more. Instead, they form alliances week to week in hopes of not being voted off the island.

No series showcases this new vision better than Donald Trump's The Apprentice, the mega-hit reality series of the television year. Talk about a changing of the guard: At its peak in 2001, Friends had an audience of 28 million viewers (including one out of every three young adults) a week. That is exactly the size of the audience that tuned in for the finale of The Apprentice last month.

And it isn't simply a matter of genre, with reality TV inherently offering different messages than sitcoms or dramas. The same dark vision at the heart of The Apprentice or CBS' Survivor can also be found in the medium's finest drama, HBO's The Sopranos.

To stay on top, not only does Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) have to ruthlessly police his crew to guard against informers, he also has to diligently monitor his own family. Remember when his mother (now dead) was talking to his uncle about having him killed at the end of the first season? Tony is the ultimate survivor, willing to kill to keep his seat at the tribal council.

'Just nice people'

"Narcissistic meanness" is the term Lawrence E. Mintz, professor of popular culture at the University of Maryland, uses to describe the vision that defines the Nielsen Top 20 these days. "And it is such a big change from the messages of community, friendship and people simply being nice to one another found in the tradition to which a show like Friends belongs," he says.

Matthew Perry, who plays Chandler Bing, located Friends in that tradition when he tried to explain the appeal of the show by saying, "Basically, they are just nice people that you want to be around."

David Crane, the co-creator of Friends, took it a step further, saying, "Friends is about that time in your life when your friends are your family. There's a lot of heart in that idea."

It's hard to miss the echo in Crane's words of the closing speech by Mary Richards in the teary-eyed, 1977 finale of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS). Remember how new management was brought in to revamp WJM-TV, the Minneapolis station at which Mary worked, and how everyone was fired except Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), the incompetent and narcissistic anchorman? In the wake of the takeover, Mary and the gang gather together in the newsroom to say goodbye.

"I tell myself the people I work with are just the people I work with -- and not my family," Mary begins. "But last night, I thought, 'What is a family anyway? They're just people who make you feel less alone and really loved.' And that's what you've done for me. Thank you for being my family."

Martha Kauffman, the other co-creator of Friends, said the writing team for Thursday's finale watched the final episodes of three series as they prepared to write their swan song: Newhart (CBS), The Larry Sanders Show (HBO) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

"That's the gold standard," she said of The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

The Friends episode that best articulates the notions of community and friends-as-family aired on Thanksgiving of 2001. After a season of slumping ratings, as well as critics complaining that the series was creatively exhausted, Friends shot back up to its highest ratings ever in the wake of the 9 / 11 terrorist attacks. The Thanksgiving episode featured guest star Brad Pitt joining the six friends for holiday dinner. It was the highest-rated show on TV that week.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.