A 'family' sitcom for Gen X - 'Friends' cast a new TV mold

Even for the closest of friends, it was exceptional: a decade of enduring popularity, harmonious living situations, constant laughter, marriages, and divorces that left little bitterness, but six babies.

As NBC airs its two-hour finale of "Friends" Thursday night, after a 10-season run, a show that has garnered rabid fans, fierce critics, and 44 Emmy nominations joins the ranks of "M*A*S*H" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" as an American classic.

In an age when the average US household has 100 TV channels and some critics predict the demise of the sitcom, "Friends" stands as an icon of its age - a show that captured a generation's angst and ambition, fluid notions of family, and America's cult of youth.

The series struck a particular chord with Generation X, as a drifting, soul-searching ensemble "always stuck in second gear," as the theme song goes, struggled with changing jobs and goals and evolving notions of the ideal relationship. Where a more earnest baby boomer generation took on life-or-death topics - as epitomized on shows like the 1980s hit "Thirtysomething" - this group probed their own identities and the quandaries of single life in the '90s.

Indeed, the show's era may have been critical to its success, says David Bushman, television curator at New York's Museum of Television & Radio. "The Clinton years were pretty prosperous and safe. We were not at war, the economy was doing pretty well - and I think it was a time where a show like 'Friends' was sort of perfect."

One part of the formula, say experts, was the focus on a wildly idealized age, characters wrestling with the exhilaration and angst of their 20s. "There has always been a certain fascination with being young, on your own, in the big city, and having all this freedom," continues Mr. Bushman. "Back to the days of Thomas Wolfe [who wrote 'You Can't Go Home Again'], there's always something about starting out on your own in a city.... It wasn't a hard-hitting topical show, but that kind of suited its time."

If it wasn't topical, it did plumb contemporary topics: surrogate motherhood, adoption, infidelity, out-of-wedlock births, lesbian parenting, interracial dating, premarital sex, even impotence. Amid America's changing sense of family and talk of dysfunction and divorce, a drifting group of friends forged their own family, one of unflappable devotion and support with the theme-song mantra of "I'll be there for you."

Though not a family sitcom in the purest sense, the series paved the way for a new TV focus on friendship shorn of mean- spiritedness, a contrast to shows like "Seinfeld," in which "neurotic characters ... nourished each other's anxieties," says Bushman. It was a change, too, from shows centering on workplace buddies (think "Cheers" and "Mary Tyler Moore"), the quirks of coupledom, and the poignant circus of family life.

Yet many criticized the cast for forging a mini-union to demand $1 million per episode. Others blasted "Friends" as a "Seinfeld" knockoff and a shallow, contrived fantasy of 20-something life: adventures in a mythical Gotham of tree-lined streets, clean sidewalks, and a coffee shop where the cushiest couches were always available, the endless espresso seemed free, and a witty, articulate, beautiful sextet - all of whom were white - had infinite free time.

In years to come, says Lawrence Lichty, a professor in Northwestern University's Radio/Television/Film department, this ideal world may communicate a sense of simplicity similar to that criticized - or longed for - in 1950s classics like "Ozzie and Harriet and "Father Knows Best." "'Leave it to Beaver,' looking back on it now, was no more naive than 'Friends,'" he says. "But we all like to idealize our particular time."

To 20-something viewers, that idealization was both enticing and offensive. "In high school, I remember really wanting to be those people," says Owen Ellickson, a 25-year-old writer in Los Angeles. "I identified with all three guys at various times. And they had a good handle on romantic subtleties. It was sort of the first popular show with men and women being friends in a normal way." As for the fantasy element, he says, "It's obviously people who acted silly. But it still looked like a glamorous, beautiful position to be in."

Yet the flip side of glamour was, to many, an unlikely scene. "I thought it was ridiculous," says one 26-year-old lawyer in Washington, who nonetheless tuned into reruns through college and law school. "It was a bunch of kids who lived off their parents, had an amazing apartment, and just celebrated this culture I found annoying." The nostalgia for the show, she says, "is just becoming kind of sad."

Beyond its glamour, "Friends" is widely lauded as the first true "ensemble" show - a series with no clear star or center, a cast of equals with no authority figure in sight. And the model launched countless spinoffs. The ensemble aims are clear even in the series' title, a marked contrast to shows like "Seinfeld," "The Cosby Show," and "I Love Lucy."

Like any durable sitcom, says Dr. Lichty, "Friends" steered clear of politics and current events - a critical component for a series' "timelessness" and appeal through endless reruns and historical flux. In an apartment blocks away from the World Trade Center, there was no mention of terror or hijacked planes - and after Sept. 11, ratings soared as viewers flocked to a world unchanged. Once dismissed as tired, the series drew an audience of 27 million in 2001 - one out of every three TV viewers in the coveted audience of ages 18 to 49.

And beyond its import for ratings and commercials, says one sociolinguist, that demographic is critical culturally, perhaps down to the evolution of language. "Friends" emerges as a harbinger of the vernacular to come, says Sali Tagliamonte, a linguistics professor at the University of Toronto, who's just completed a study of conversation on the show.

Analyzing 10,000 adjectives of 10 seasons of "Friends," Dr. Tagliamonte found that characters used an adjectival "so" far more often than other intensifiers, such as "very" and "really." That preference has already worked its way into the American vernacular, but usage on the show, she thinks, may accelerate the change - a testament to the series' unparalleled influence.

From words to wit to prosperity, "Aren't these the kind of friends we'd all like to have?" asks Lichty. The answer, for 10 seasons - despite cries of silliness, naiveté, and depiction of a lily-white New York - was an emphatic "yes." Tonight, tens of millions will tune in again to the six friends muddling through, flaws, folly, fantasy, and all.

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