Era of smiles fading away

Sun Television Critic

In: The Donald.

Out: Joey, Monica, Phoebe, Ross, Rachel and Chandler.

In: Being mean.

Out: Making nice.

In: Relationships of convenience.

Out: Friends.

There is an unmistakable symmetry in NBC's decision to replace Friends next fall with The Apprentice as the new star of its Thursday night lineup of "must-see" TV.

The Friends finale, which airs this Thursday, marks more than the departure of one of the longest-running and most successful sitcoms in television history. Passing with it from center stage in American popular culture is one of the most enduring and uplifting themes that prime-time TV has ever offered: the celebration of community.

Situated at the heart of hundreds of series during the last half-century was the guarantee to young adults that there is a community of like-minded people out there somewhere with whom they can find fulfillment. But that message, sounded consistently on network TV since the 1950s, has been replaced with its virtual opposite.

The new message is part of a meaner, narcissistic, prime-time vision that says fulfillment is found only in winning the game and making more money than anyone else. Forget community, everyone is on his own, and anyone who doesn't know that is begging to be hustled. In the new world of prime-time television, people don't even try to make friends any more. Instead, they form alliances week to week in hopes of not being voted off the island.

No series showcases this new vision better than Donald Trump's The Apprentice, the mega-hit reality series of the television year. Talk about a changing of the guard: At its peak in 2001, Friends had an audience of 28 million viewers (including one out of every three young adults) a week. That is exactly the size of the audience that tuned in for the finale of The Apprentice last month.

And it isn't simply a matter of genre, with reality TV inherently offering different messages than sitcoms or dramas. The same dark vision at the heart of The Apprentice or CBS' Survivor can also be found in the medium's finest drama, HBO's The Sopranos.

To stay on top, not only does Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) have to ruthlessly police his crew to guard against informers, he also has to diligently monitor his own family. Remember when his mother (now dead) was talking to his uncle about having him killed at the end of the first season? Tony is the ultimate survivor, willing to kill to keep his seat at the tribal council.

'Just nice people'

"Narcissistic meanness" is the term Dr. Lawrence E. Mintz, professor of popular culture at the University of Maryland, uses to describe the vision that defines the Nielsen Top 20 these days. "And it is such a big change from the messages of community, friendship and people simply being nice to one another found in the tradition to which a show like Friends belongs," he says.

Matthew Perry, who plays Chandler Bing, located Friends in that tradition when he tried to explain the appeal of the show by saying, "Basically, they are just nice people that you want to be around."

David Crane, the co-creator of Friends, took it a step further, saying, "Friends is about that time in your life when your friends are your family. There's a lot of heart in that idea."

It's hard to miss the echo in Crane's words of the closing speech by Mary Richards in the teary-eyed, 1977 finale of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS). Remember how new management was brought in to revamp WJM-TV, the Minneapolis station at which Mary worked, and how everyone was fired except Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), the incompetent and narcissistic anchorman? In the wake of the takeover, Mary and the gang gather together in the newsroom to say goodbye.

"I tell myself the people I work with are just the people I work with - and not my family," Mary begins. "But last night, I thought, 'What is a family anyway? They're just people who make you feel less alone and really loved.' And that's what you've done for me. Thank you for being my family."

Martha Kauffman, the other co-creator of Friends, said the writing team for Thursday's finale watched the final episodes of three series as they prepared to write their swan song: Newhart (CBS), The Larry Sanders Show (HBO) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

"That's the gold standard," she said of The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

The Friends episode that best articulates the notions of community and friends-as-family aired on Thanksgiving of 2001. After a season of slumping ratings, as well as critics complaining that the series was creatively exhausted, Friends shot back up to its highest ratings ever in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Thanksgiving episode featured guest star Brad Pitt joining the six friends for holiday dinner. It was the highest-rated show on TV that week.

There are a number of reasons for the size of that audience, ranging from the way it tapped into our use of television as holiday ritual, to the power of celebrity and our People magazine knowledge of Pitt and Aniston as real-life husband and wife. The episode itself was a delight, with Pitt showing a deft touch for comedy in his role as a former high school classmate whom Monica (Courteney Cox Arquette) invites to dinner without telling the others. Pitt's character has changed considerably since high school, having lost 150 pounds for starters.

But one thing has remained constant: his intense dislike for Rachel Green (Aniston). In fact, he co-founded the "I Hate Rachel Green Club" in high school. His co-founder, we find out at dinner, was Ross (David Schwimmer), the father of the child Rachel is carrying. Happy Thanksgiving.

It's handled with a wonderfully light touch, and, of course, everything works out more than all right around that holiday table, right down to Joey (Matt LeBlanc) somehow managing to finish a 19-pound turkey mostly by himself - a fable of abundance if ever there was one. But the narrative of the outsider finding a moment of community among these friends goes beyond sitcom laughter.

Imaginary New York

The New York City within which Friends was set is an imaginary place in the American psyche where some of our most powerful mythologies intersect. One of the most resonant myths features New York as a place where young people who might not feel comfortable in their home towns can find community and blossom, just like these sitcom characters. As the song "New York, New York" says, it's a place where they can lose their "little-town blues."

As much as the series has been criticized for its lack of social reality in terms of diversity, cost of living, crime and gridlock, it was that very lack of reality, along with its promise of safe harbor among friends, that gave it a second life after 9/11. This was a New York where people loved each other and made babies, not a New York where hate-filled zealots crashed planes into towers.

Perhaps Friends was too safe and nice to ever be considered a great sitcom. But it captured the promise of community as well as any series in TV history, stretching back from Seinfeld (NBC), Cheers (NBC) and M*A*S*H (CBS) to Our Miss Brooks (CBS), a pioneering 1950s sitcom staring Eve Arden as a high school teacher. And just as Mary Tyler Moore did it for baby boomers, so did Friends do it for Generation X.

As Friends comes to an end, that is what makes the change in the core message of Top 20 TV series from community-nice to narcissistic-mean so striking. What does it say about changes in the culture out of which it grows?

The shift onscreen is a reflection of what's happening in the larger society, says Mintz. "We're living in an age of narcissistic meanness. I know that's a big generalization, but this extends beyond prime-time television series. The end of Friends is part of something larger."

For example, the shift from the kind of vision offered by Friends to the one featured on shows like The Apprentice is also apparent in commercials, according to Mintz.

"Remember when the beer commercials used to be the guys lugging a cooler of beer together and then sharing it on the beach? Now the commercials are about how to screw your roommate out of getting a beer - placing a bodyguard in front of the refrigerator to deny access, or tunneling through the wall to steal beer out of a refrigerator in another apartment," he says, ticking off half a dozen commercials with the same theme.

Soft drinks ads have changed in a similar way. Compare the Coca-Cola commercials of an earlier era that were built around the hope of teaching "the world to sing in perfect harmony" with the current one that features a young man eating the dinner and drinking the Coke that had been left for his roommate by the roommate's mother.

Sense of community

Like the TV series, most of these commercials are directed primarily at young adults. What hit prime-time TV series will preach community to them after Friends is gone - particularly those of college age who are in the process of shaping world views that will guide their adult lives?

Even in series that have contestants living together during the course of the show - such as Survivor or The Apprentice - they never form a true community based on friendship or trust (despite the fact that two or more of them often decide to have sexual relationships with each other). It is always about being the winner, the last one standing, the one who gets the prize. Those who trust or help others in the TV household are defined as losers.

"We are living in a culture where the stuff that is aimed at young people is very confrontational, in-your-face and nasty," Mintz says, tracking the theme in other realms of American life, from rap music to presidential rhetoric.

"It's not like saying everybody in the country has turned nasty. But a very significant portion of the culture, particularly in the younger age groups, has really come to value meanness, toughness, looking out for number one, and winning is everything.

"Those things have been around forever. They're not new inventions. But I think they are more prominently displayed in our popular culture than ever before - to the exclusion of messages about friendship, community and caring about each other."

That is something worth mourning as we come to the end of Friends.

Tuning out

What: A one-hour retrospective, followed by the finale of Friends.

When: Thursday, 9 to 11 p.m.

Where: WBAL (Channel 11)

In brief: Prime time becomes a less friendly place as the Thursday night hit ends its 10-year run.

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