I’ve never liked Friends all that much, but I’ve never really hated it, either. Any given episode delivered with admirable reliability the following: Jennifer Aniston’s supernatural beauty and lithe comedic gifts, Matthew Perry’s off-kilter snarkiness, Matt LeBlanc’s implausible dopiness interspersed with the occasional good line, Courteney Cox’s utter lack of talent of any kind, Lisa Kudrow’s grating stupidity (early) or genuinely funny mysticism (later), and David Schwimmer’s underdog charm (also early) or unbearable whininess (also later). A mixed bag to be sure, but it typically elicited a good belly laugh, which is more than I can say for most anything else on network television short of The Simpsons.
But aside from being funny, Friends had a compelling and long-running romantic conflict between Schwimmer’s Ross and Aniston’s Rachel. It was hardly novel, of course, to have the loveable loser pursuing and occasionally catching his gorgeous friend. And though Schwimmer eventually grew so irritating that it seemed to matter less and less whether or not he ever got the girl, Aniston was nearly pitch-perfect from the start to the finish of the series. She combined loveliness, shallowness, and a sensitivity that made her beauty seem accessible even to a dope like Ross or, more importantly, the average viewer of the show.
Unlike most sitcoms, Friends was willing to tease out the inevitable happy ending over its entire decade of existence. It wove in and out of its expected trajectory, leaving its central relationship unresolved for seasons at a time, even venturing so far from the anticipated resolution near the end of its life that it threw some doubt into a situation that should have been pure predictability.
It was this gall more than anything else that made me tune in for the Friends finale. You had the feeling that there was no way they wouldn’t leave Rachel in Ross’ arms, but how could they close all the romantic distance between them in time? It turned out to be remarkably simple. They realize they love each other (one first, then the other), as he races to catch a plane that takes Rachel away forever. In the background is a wacky childbirth sequence that provides Chandler (Perry) with the opportunity to crack wise and a guest actress to scream crazy things like pregnant women on TV always do.
This all climaxes with a false sad ending that dovetails into a happy one. Rachel gets off the plane after boarding and appears in Ross’ doorway to announce her everlasting love for him. The series was, finally, nice and neat after many years of eschewing those very qualities, and at the close of the finale, I felt relieved.
Relief, though, is not the same thing as satisfaction. My own empty feeling had little to do with R&R, although I might have minded less if their happy ending had been less clichéd or had been gestured toward rather than finished. No, the disappointing thing was that the series had always seemed more willing to face up to itself than it eventually was. Friends was less about Ross and Rachel than it was about the adjoining apartments that were two of the three main sets for the show. Everyone seemed to live there, even though, at most, only four at a time ever did.
The other two, usually Ross and Phoebe (Kudrow), dropped by just as regularly as the others, popping in unannounced and always welcome. They shared a noteworthy lack of privacy, and little formality. No one ever called anyone else to see if they wanted to do something; they would just pop in. Along with the coffee shop, these lax boundaries made the world of Friends nearly indistinguishable from a dorm, complete with dormcestuous relationships. No one acted much more mature than a college student, even with jobs and children making occasional intrusions into a world defined mostly by free time spent hanging out with the titular friends.
Still, Friends did break, in part, from sitcom conventions. Characters changed at least slightly, and plotlines developed over the course of seasons rather than getting wrapped up in a half-hour. This innovation came up against the series’ commitment to a static universe, where you could be 22 forever, playing foosball, getting coffee together, hugging and crying a lot. Ten years in a collegiate environment gets a little pathetic.
Much as when it happens to individuals who have remained in the goof-off phase of their lives for too long, the question about what these men and women were going to do with themselves grew too big to ignore. Friends didn’t deal with this question especially well. The characters had kids, but their lives changed little, if at all. Rachel and Ross’ child barely appeared after she was born. More often, the characters’ aging was revealed in the desperation of their plots. When Monica (Cox) walked in on Chandler preparing to masturbate, she noticed his TV was turned to a shark show on the Discovery Channel. Rather than ask about it, she behaved as if it were a foregone conclusion that her husband had a fish fetish (whatever that is), only broaching the subject with him at the end of the episode, after dragging the thin gag through 20 painful minutes.
These and the other plot contrivances trotted out in the show’s autumn seasons were beneath it, and one hoped against all odds that the finale would restore the elements that made Friends exceptional in its youth. But Friends chickened out. It would have been daring to leave Rachel and Ross split up, perhaps realizing that they were not right for each other, but it could also have been difficult for the sake of being difficult. The real conflict the show left unresolved — the loose end it most needed to tie up — was how these six people were going to deal with the inevitable dissolution of the womb they had inhabited from the beginning.
The resolution was ordained before the finale, more or less. Chandler and Monica were having a kid and moving outside the city. Phoebe was married off to an outsider. Rachel and Ross would wind up united, of course, but maybe that would be in Paris with Rachel’s new job. All this pairing off left Joey as the central focus in the series’ last moments. His sense of loss poignantly paralleled that facing the Friends audience. We knew from talk of his spin-off, Joey (it barely seems premature to call it “ill-fated”), that he would leave for L.A. But it didn’t work out that way. Ross pulled Rachel away from Paris, rather her pulling him away, since it’s apparently unthinkable for a man to leave a job for his woman, while vice versa is only natural.
With Phoebe still hanging around, this meant that the Friends diaspora only spread as far as the ‘burbs. There was no reason for Joey to leave and, amazingly, he didn’t. The move to California was left for Joey, leaving the sad ending of Friends not that sad at all. The only event suggesting as much is when Joey and Chandler have Monica dismantle their foosball table to rescue the baby chick and duck stuck inside it.
Even the kiss that cemented Ross and Rachel couldn’t disguise the show’s larger anti-climax, a cop-out from the logical conclusions of the show’s premise, conclusions it began to acknowledge only to ultimately deny their existence. In a way, the show didn’t really end at all; it merely stopped production. None of the limits of the friends’ mode of existence were portrayed in any meaningful way, thus retroactively denying the show as a whole its credibility. What should have been depicted as a passing phase in life was passed off as life itself. Could that be any more lame?