Still 'Friends' at end of fifth season
May 13, 1999
From Sherri Sylvester
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- When viewers tune in for the two-part season finale of NBC's smash sitcom "Friends," they'll see less than an hour of prime-time TV that's been months in the making.
"You have a story, it doesn't work, you throw it out, and you have to come up with another story in the same week. That goes away and you have to find a third story," says David Crane, the show's executive producer, about the process of doing a regular 22-minute episode -- let alone a season-ender. "Every night you're coming up with a whole new idea."
The ideas seem to work so far. NBC says "Friends" has been the top-rated 8 p.m. Thursday show for the past three seasons.
In 1994, NBC debuted a cute little sitcom about six good-looking friends who bicker, cuddle and consume profuse quantities of coffee at a neighboring coffee shop. There's Monica (Courteney Cox), a control-freak chef; Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), a trendy clotheshorse; Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), a new-age masseuse; Ross (David Schwimmer), a paleontologist; Joey (Matt LeBlanc), an aspiring actor; and Chandler (Matthew Perry), a smart-aleck office worker.
After "Seinfeld" stopped production in 1998, "Friends" served as NBC's anchor for its self-described "Must See TV" lineup on Thursday nights. Members of the cast say the quality has always been there, even if critics haven't.
"When something becomes successful, people love to just trash it and rip it down from the pedestal that they themselves have put you on," says Aniston.
"And then, if you survive that, they love you again," says Kudrow.
"So maybe we're just getting our pat on the back for surviving the backlash," Aniston concludes.
The show has more than merely survived. NBC says about 25 million viewers tune in to "Friends" each week. And the actors say their enthusiasm hasn't flagged, five seasons later.
"It's all fun, truthfully," says Aniston.
"I look at it as something I'll look back on my whole life and how we all kicked butt," says Perry.
Secret season finale
The season closer is scheduled to play out over the next two weeks' shows. What's known is that it involves a Las Vegas road-trip cliffhanger.
Putting the finale together is the subject of hot debate between the writers, producers and Crane. But for the team behind the show, it's standard operating procedure.
"We talk about this stuff for hours and hours and hours," says a writer.
"Ninety percent of the stuff we come up with is thrown away," adds another.
The team pitches around ideas, bantering and discussing each possible plot twist.
"Our season finale arguments are legendary," says one writer.
"The blackjack thing is just a bit."
"So Joey's goal is to get the money?"
"Oh, I buy 100 bucks."
"I buy Chandler pitching it to Joey."
"That's so 'Austin Powers.'"
"But do we really want to do one of the friends goes to Vegas and hits it big? No."
New idea every night
Some viewers might not consider that each episode requires three story lines involving six leads. In the May 13 episode, for example, Joey gets the lead in a film being shot in Vegas. And Rachel has an eye infection.
Rewrites continue even as an episode is taped.
The tweaking continues just off camera. Sometimes a joke comes down to a vote. At other times, an idea like bringing Monica and Chandler together depends on nothing more than precise timing. The whole plot line was only a glimmer in a writer's eye before audience response validated it.
"We were hoping that the audience was going to be happy about it and not like, 'What they are doing?'" says Cox. "So when we got a good response, we were really excited. This is my favorite year so far."
"Friends" has won no fewer than 14 Emmy and three Golden Globe nominations. The cast took home a Screen Actors Guild award in 1996 for outstanding ensemble work in a sitcom.
And the show has enhanced the film careers of several cast members. Aniston starred in "The Object of My Affection" and "Picture Perfect." Cox is a fixture in all three slasher "Scream" films. Schwimmer appeared in last year's "Six Days Seven Nights" alongside Harrison Ford and Anne Heche.
Of course, it also helps that after settling their 1996 salary dispute, the stars have gotten a raise each year. Daily Variety says the next bump is slated to pay them each $120,000 per episode, and they're signed through the 1999-2000 season.
"Everyone is just as committed and focused as they were the first season," says LeBlanc.
"We really do feel like we're working as a team," says Schwimmer.
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