When `Friends' became family

Television: The popular show captured a generation and changed the messages of prime time.

May 06, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

THE SHOW — NBC's Friends was neither a great nor groundbreaking television series, but - almost in spite of itself - the 10-year-old sitcom about six handsome and self-absorbed, 20-something pals has had a significant impact on the kinds of messages sounded by prime-time television.

The show - really a kinder, gentler version of Seinfeld, NBC's earlier comedy featuring a group of 30-somethings living on New York's Upper West Side - airs its final episode tonight at 9, awash in a sea of publicity and $2 million, 30-second advertisement spots. A series retrospective, the Friends Finale Clip Show, will be broadcast at 8 p.m.

Derivative or not, Friends commanded for a decade a weekly audience of up to 28 million viewers (not including the millions who watched the seemingly limitless reruns), and with those numbers comes cultural clout.

"We never set out to try and capture a generation or anything like that," said co-creator Martha Kauffman. "[David Crane] and I, when we were in our 20s, lived in New York with a group of friends, and we just tried to fondly capture that feeling or time of your life when your friends are your family."

Friends did capture life in the 1990s as it was being lived by many members of Generation X. Without shocking or dazzling viewers, the show cemented among its core audience of young adults the idea of relying upon peers - not blood ties - as family or community. And bit by bit, it normalized sexual behavior - the casual relations now routinely depicted on shows such as CBS' Two and a Half Men -previously considered off-limits by the networks.

Forging family from friends was not an altogether new concept on prime-time television when the series made its 1994 debut. Seventeen years earlier, The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended its acclaimed run on CBS with Mary Richards saying to co-workers: "Thanks for being my family."

But the Mary Tyler Moore community was drawn from a traditional institution - the workplace. It was not until 1990 that Seinfeld first articulated the notion of community based on a group of young adults sharing only an urban neighborhood - with seemingly no authority figures (parents or bosses) present to spoil the fun.

"Seinfeld was the innovator, Friends the imitator when it comes to television and the urban tribe," said Robert J. Thompson, founder of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "But as more and more people in their 20s delayed marriage and traditional families during the 1990s, Friends was the one that best reflected and celebrated that lifestyle - offering a utopian version of it. Friends spoke to Generation X the way Mary Tyler Moore did to their baby boomer parents."

Friends reflected and shaped American life in other important ways. The series played a leading role in changing attitudes toward sex - and in doing so, put to final rest the concept of television's nightly family hour, a period from 8 to 9 during which programming deemed appropriate for children was traditionally aired.

Though hardly innovative, Friends became in 1996, an election year, a target for conservatives, who claimed that it was coarsening American culture. In one episode that season, Monica (Courteney Cox Arquette) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) fought over the last condom in the apartment they shared. Ironically, what was intended by the producers to be a message about safe sex was criticized by some for mentioning the subject at all.

"More depressing than what Friends considers wit, which rises only from the cretinous to the sophomoric, is the fact that the program transmits to teen-agers the message that such shallow sexuality is not only acceptable, it is expected of them," columnist George Will wrote in a 1996 piece about an episode in which Rachel and Ross (David Schwimmer) slept together for the first time.

While such feelings were never widespread among viewers, Hollywood has always been hypersensitive to Washington in election years.

"We went through a very difficult reactionary period when the V-chip [a device that can be programmed to block specific shows] was being discussed, and we couldn't talk about certain kinds of sex or show certain things," Kauffman said. "And we just tried to fight it tooth and nail."

Compared to the national controversy surrounding the television character Murphy Brown's (Candice Bergen) having a baby out of wedlock in 1992, the response to Rachel doing the same on Friends a decade later was barely a ripple.

"We were concerned initially that people were going to say, "Hey, what kind of a role model is that?" Crane said. "But that didn't happen. And I think it's because there is so much love between the characters on the show and this baby is so loved - with Ross [the father] still in the picture. But we never got one letter."

Kauffman and Crane say they are proud to think of Friends as a show that "brought the culture together," and would like to believe the message of community will linger after tonight's finale. But they acknowledge that the landscape is changing.

These days, people are still standing around water coolers and chatting, Crane said. But "it's mostly about reality shows - Omarosa [a vilified contestant on The Apprentice] and who got kicked off American Idol last night."

A last `Friends'

Tonight: A series retrospective airs at 8 followed by the one-hour finale at 9 on NBC.

More inside: The show's stamp on popular culture. Page 1E

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