Goodbye old 'Friends,' goodbye sitcoms?

Central Perk is closing. Frasier is signing off. So where are the comedies to fill their slots?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The couch is scuffed, the little frame around the door's peephole is slightly askew, and the famously purple walls of one of the most-scrutinized apartments on TV could use a touch-up. But no one's calling the painters. The curtain is about to fall on the No. 1-rated sitcom.

As it does, the cast and writing staff of "Friends" gather on the set to deconstruct the show's success.

"It's one thing becoming a success, it's another to maintain it," says Jennifer Aniston, perched in a director's chair on the fake wood parquet floor of the "Friends" set. "[The writers] didn't get lazy and sort of sit back and go, 'Well, we're the biggest hottest thing on television' and get sloppy."

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No word on the title for the finale yet, but here's one suggestion: The One Where People Quit Sitcoms. Over the next calendar year, some seven veteran sitcoms will be turning off the laugh track for good. In addition to "Friends," this year marks the end of "Frasier," "The Drew Carey Show," and HBO's "Sex and the City." By next May, industry experts expect the lights to go out at CBS's "Everybody Loves Raymond," Fox's "That '70s Show," and "Malcolm in the Middle." And so far, newer laugh factories are having trouble churning out mass chuckles. While shows such as "Scrubs" and "Arrested Development" have garnered critical kudos, they lack the high ratings and buzz of "Friends" and "Raymond."

"The sitcom isn't dead," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York. But "we're in an arid period for sitcoms right now. The unscripted show is in a flourishing period and like it or not, it's still in its infancy."

As with every new genre, he says, the best of each iteration is fresh and engaging. Like "Friends" in its heyday, says Thompson, " 'The Apprentice' is what people are talking about."

Indeed, until a certain poufy-haired New York businessman popped up to save NBC's real estate, the network's top brass were worried that their Thursday lineup was about to become "Must-Flee TV."

Interestingly, says Matt McAllister, professor of communications at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, some of what made "Friends" a water cooler hit also has driven the prominence of the unscripted shows: They appeal to the young viewers, who networks are most desperate to attract - and who watch less network TV than ever before.

While it's now a truism that advertisers will pay much more to reach the 18-to-34 age group, professor McCallister says that "Friends" was one of the first shows to turn advertisers' interest to that narrow demographic. (Before, 18- to 49-year-olds had held most-favored status.) In fact, in the early days, "Friends" had to fend off pressure to broaden its potential audience by adding grandparents or kids.

He cites two ABC shows, "Alias" and "Judging Amy" as examples. " 'Alias' gets lots less people watching," he says, of the No. 74-ranked show, "but is much more expensive to advertise on than 'Amy' [No. 24] because of the ages of the audience."

"I can see why [TV] writers would be worried," says McAllister, "because things that make money for the networks, like prominent product placement, are much easier in these reality shows." "The Apprentice" winner took home a shiny new car, he says, adding, "that entire show is nothing but a giant marketing initiative for Trump Enterprises."

Veterans such as "Friends" cocreator David Crane acknowledge that times are bad for writers.

Like everything, Mr. Crane says, TV has its trends. "Sitcoms are always cyclical. For a while, newsmagazines were hot, then they went out of fashion." But this slump is the worst he's ever seen. "We're at a point where scripted TV is at an all-point low, and for people who write comedies it's a scary time."

Nobody knows exactly what it will take to resurrect the genre, says "Frasier" producer David Lee. "Certain shows just connect to the zeitgeist," he says. "If you aren't just what happens to be what the world is looking for now, you can work and work and work, and it's not going to happen."

Fellow "Friends" creator, Marta Kaufman says that she and Crane didn't set out to create a No. 1 comedy, just to write what they knew.

"When we were in our 20s, we were in New York," says Ms. Kauffman. "We were in a group of friends and we set out to capture that [experience] fondly."

In the process, the success of "Friends" may have contributed to the genre's current slump. NBC and other networks churned out dozens of wan copycats, turning off audiences. And the stars' much-publicized salaries - at more than $1 million an episode - helped contribute to the wage inflation that have made sitcoms a far more expensive option for networks than, say, a reality series.

While the unscripted fare has the momentary spotlight, McAllister points out that the genre has some glaring shortcomings. Perhaps most important, the surprise factor in so many of them makes them poor candidates for reruns or long-term syndication.

"Once you know Bill [Rancic] won 'The Apprentice,' there's not much interest in the series," he says. But he adds, unscripted shows lend themselves really well to what networks have always done well: imitation.

"Networks try to copy sitcoms without much success because there are so many elements - good writing and casting - that go into making a hit.... It's really simple to copy the premise for an unscripted series. You just bring in new contestants or participants and you're off. It's the concept that counts."

And in the end, the best sitcoms reinvigorated the form, rather than reinventing it. The sitcom concept remains easily recognizable after decades of hits from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" to "The Cosby Show."

"In the end, they have to churn this stuff out on a mass production line," says Thompson, more like Chevys than poems. "The form of the sitcom is consistently militating against it ever being any good, so it's a miracle we ever have any good ones."

As his show winds down, over on the "Frasier" set star Kelsey Grammer is philosophical about the future of the sitcom. "The arrival of the home video camera convinced every person who is now watching television ... that they are the most interesting thing to watch," he says of the reality shows. "And that may be a problem."

Nonetheless, he believes scripted material is still the most satisfying form of entertainment. "It offers the best avenue to explore the relationships that are significant to us in this day. And when you explore it, you're probably doing something that's creatively rewarding and also significant socially."

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