By Tom Jicha
May 6, 2004
"We don't want people to be disappointed but we wanted to make ourselves happy," said Marta Kauffman, one of the creators and executive producers of the Emmy-winning sitcom, which leaves NBC tonight with an hourlong finale. (The show airs out of pattern at 9 p.m., after a one-hour retrospective in the series' regular 8 p.m. slot.)
The farewell will be a special episode, but it won't be one of those "very special episodes" that litter sweeps months. Most of all, Kauffman said, the emphasis was on making it a typical episode of Friends with plenty of laughs: "We didn't want some gimmick superimposed." The priority, Kauffman said, was to leave the audience feeling that as the characters embark on a new phase of their lives, they are going to be OK.
"Of course," added co-creator and executive producer David Crane, "people's definition of `OK' might be different."
There's really only one significant loose end to be tied. Courteney Cox Arquette's Monica and Matthew Perry's Chandler are married and awaiting a baby. Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) is married. Matt LeBlanc's Joey, everyone knows, is heading to Los Angeles -- alone -- for a spinoff. This leaves only the unconventional relationship between Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) unresolved.
Ross has been in love with Rachel, his sister Monica's best friend, since high school, an infatuation he admitted in the pilot. Like Britney Spears, he and Rachel once got married on the spur of a madcap moment in Las Vegas and got unmarried just as quickly. They also had a child together. Despite being married to two other women during the show's decadelong run, Ross' ardor for Rachel never really cooled.
Will the relationship acknowledged in the first episode reach fruition in the last? The answer will probably go a long way toward determining how OK fans are with tonight's show.
The episode has been kept under wraps with no review copies released. However, Schwimmer offered what might be a reassuring hint for romantics. "I can't divulge where we're going but it's exactly what I had hoped." Then he reinforced what Crane had said. "We all end up with a sense of a new beginning. The audience will have a sense that it's a new chapter for all of these characters in their lives, a positive one, a good step forward."
Schwimmer closely identifies with his character. "There was a certain kind of geeky scientist guy that's me. I still watch the Discovery Channel. I'm just still that guy to a big degree. I love the sciences, I'm a hopeless romantic and take family and responsibility very seriously." There's probably only one resolution a hopeless romantic who feels strongly about family would consider a good step forward.
This doesn't necessarily mean Friends will end with a wedding, as many series do. In fact, Crane warned it might be expecting too much to assume there will be a wedding. On the other hand, he could have been merely trying to maintain the secret.
Even if Ross and Rachel do wind up together, there is a question of where it will be. Rachel is headed toward an alluring high-fashion job offer in Paris. Earlier this season, the City of Light figured prominently in the finale of another Emmy-winning comedy, Sex and the City.
"We didn't know Sex and the City was going there," Crane said. "We needed a fashion capital where Rachel could live happily. When Sex and the City did it, it wasn't our best day. But you go, `Oh, well.'"
Sex and the City's Carrie wound up forsaking Paris for New York, her friends and her lover, Big, with whom she had a sporadic relationship. It would be an interesting coincidence if something similar happens with Rachel and Ross.
Like Schwimmer, Perry also feels a kinship to his character. "I remember saying [at the beginning of the series] that I would try to fill any silence or any kind of discomfort with humor. That became like a great excuse for the character to be funny."
Chandler was not intended to be more than a wise-cracker and comic relief, but the producers recognized Perry's range and allowed the character to grow. "We didn't see Chandler as a leading man. He was there for the jokes," Crane said. "Even when we put [Chandler and Monica] in bed together, we didn't see them being the big love of each other's lives. We said, `Let's see how long this works.'" As it turns out, their love will endure for TV infinity in syndicated reruns.
This kind of flexibility was crucial to Friends' popularity and longevity, Crane feels. "I think in a lot of sitcoms, you're locked into a thing. After a couple of years, you're really telling the same stories and the same jokes over and over again. Because the [Friends] characters could really grow and go to new places, it kept the show fresher."'
Ratings indicate the audience recognizes this. Friends leaves the air as TV's most popular comedy. Its reruns rank with Seinfeld in broadcast and cable syndication. Tonight's episode is expected to be the highest-rated scripted program of the season.
The success of the series has made mega-stars of its ensemble, who were second-tier players without noteworthy credits when Friends premiered on Sept. 22, 1994. Perry is appreciative. "We've been given this great gift, everybody in this lineup, where we don't have to do crappy movies" -- some critics might file a dissenting opinion -- "we can hold out and do stuff that we like, theater or movies or TV or anything like that."
The stars can thank the writers, Aniston says. "It's one thing becoming the success that Friends was. It's another to maintain it and keep it going as long as these writers have. They didn't get lazy and sit back and go, `Well, we're the biggest, hottest show on television,' and get sloppy. It made them work even harder."
LeBlanc says amen to that. "We have an incredible writing staff that doesn't get the credit it deserves. They're the best in the business. They work endless hours and really care. On show night, we'd do a first pass of a scene and if something didn't pop really great, they'd all huddle together, rack their brains and take as much time as it took to come up with something that scores better or makes more sense or drives the story better."
LeBlanc will inherit some of those writers for his spinoff. Perry kidded that the others might not have seen them for the last time, either. Teasing about what will happen in the Friends finale, he quipped, "Maybe it's just a setup for the reunion show."
Tom Jicha can be reached at email@example.com.
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