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Commentary: Final 'Friends' end of era

Show's characters mirrored lives of many

By Joshua Levs

The "Friends": (top row) Lisa Kudrow, David Schwimmer, Courteney Cox Arquette; (bottom row) Matthew Perry, Jennifer Aniston, Matt LeBlanc.
Entertainment (general)

(CNN) -- I remember the day I found out Ross and Rachel were going to kiss. It was two days before the episode, and I was at lunch with some friends. The word was: Don't miss this week's show.

I know how strange that may sound. It certainly wasn't one of the more significant events of the past 10 years, and it was, you know, fictional. But every decade has its defining pop culture moments, and for millions of us who were 20-somethings in the 1990s, that was one.

From the moment "Friends" first appeared on our screens in 1994, it stood out. The six characters were friends of mine from college, friends from high school, peers from just being a middle-class, white American entering the post-college world.

It was a rare Hollywood product that seemed close to home, with its finger on the pulse of -- at least a slice of -- our culture.

I always felt "Friends" respected me -- and my intelligence. Mostly because the show never seemed to be trying to make the audience laugh. It was more like the characters were laughing with us -- and, better yet, they usually weren't laughing at all.

"Friends" helped restore the "situation" in "situation comedy," because the humor rarely came from jokes -- and almost always came from situations that the characters themselves didn't realize were funny.

To me, that's always been one of the greatest strengths of the show's writing, and has put so many other comedies to shame.

Sitcom drama

And the kiss. Yes, as TV critics have frequently pointed out, "Friends" has its soap opera elements, with intertwining love stories and lengthy character arcs. But that stuff has never -- well, barely ever -- felt forced.

The truth is, "Friends" has given us some of the purest TV drama of the past decade. Ross and Rachel coming together spoke to that part of all of us that roots for "true love" to succeed, and their breakup was the most realistic I'd ever seen. Phoebe's tearing up after saying goodbye to the triplets she carried to term was heart wrenching. The scene in which Joey opened his heart to Rachel, and she carefully rejected him, brought some of the best sitcom acting in recent memory.

Still, "Friends' " serious side was never there to manipulate us into watching. It was there because that stuff is part of growing up. These six characters have grown with me, picking up life lessons along the way.

Through all of it, the show has made us laugh. These writers, who should have even more Emmys than they do, can make anything hilarious.

When Rachel had two birthday parties across the hall from each other, my wife and I nearly fell off the sofa laughing. When Chandler and Phoebe competed to get each other to admit knowing that the other knew that the other knew about a secret relationship (no kidding), a bunch of us talked about it at work all the next day. When they all gave up each other's secrets at Thanksgiving, leading to Phoebe's own admission "I love Jacques Cousteau!" I watched it three times. That night.

Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox Arquette, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer make lines jump off the page. If there had been a weak link in the cast, the show would never have been No. 1, and never lasted this long.

There's also no question that their public solidarity -- sticking together in contract negotiations, saying only good things about each other -- deserves much of the credit for the show's longevity.

No regrets

The group has been in and out of romantic scrapes, but always stuck together.

It's always struck me that most successful sitcoms say great things about America. So many top network dramas feel maddeningly contrived, but top sitcoms have generally been smart and savvy. They're joint, national experiences that help create a sense of community in our atomized lives, and bring laughter at the end of the day. The good shows deserve our time.

After 10 years, according to my math, I've spent more than 85 hours of my life watching "Friends." (And that's before you factor in the endlessly syndicated repeats.) And I don't regret a second.

Whenever newspapers and magazines have written about the "Friends" phenomenon, they've inevitably followed up with some perplexing letters to the editor. People write in decrying the "untalented cast" or calling the show a "waste of time." I've never gotten the backlash. If you don't like the show, don't watch it.

Of course, some of the complaints do touch on truths. Yes, "Friends" isn't actual reality, has taken pains to avoid anything remotely controversial -- no real talk about politics or religion -- and has had a notable paucity of racial diversity. It's not a complete picture of anything in the real world, and it's not supposed to be.

But it has successfully captured a slice of life. And if, decades from now, people look back on this show -- among other things, of course -- to get some insight into the pop culture zeitgeist of 1994-2004, that's fine by me.

So now I say goodbye to the program that's achieved so much. It's sad, but not because I'll miss the show. It really is time for it to end. It's sad because the end of "Friends" means, in this one little way, the end of an era. Basically, it's a reminder that my friends and I are growing up. We're not 20-somethings in coffee shops anymore.

I'll give the spinoff, "Joey," a shot, but with few expectations. The ride is over.

As long as it ends well -- which I say had better include Ross and Rachel finally achieving lasting couplehood -- I'll be satisfied. And to everybody who helped put it together -- all those names that scroll by during the tag -- I say thanks. As Chandler would put it, could I be any more grateful?

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