There is a New York where Sept. 11 never happened, a place where terrorists never crashed jumbo jets full of passengers into the World Trade Center. And millions of us have been going there every Thursday night this fall.
It's the New York of NBC's Friends -- that mythical place where characters live safe lives, make love and have babies instead of seeing loved ones die.
Conventional wisdom says it's too early to decipher the ways in which the attacks are registering on the national psyche. But after screening tonight's episode of Friends, which features a Thanksgiving dinner among the six regulars and a guest appearance by Brad Pitt, it was impossible not to see connections between Sept. 11 and the incredible resurgence of the series' popularity.
The ratings for Friends -- which many critics thought was creatively exhausted last winter when CBS tried to blow it out of the water with Survivor -- are staggering this fall. Every week, it has ranked first or second in the Nielsen ratings among all primetime series. Last week, it had an audience of 27 million, or one out of every three people between the ages of 18 and 49 who were watching television. Friends almost doubled the audience for Survivor among that key demographic.
I will be very surprised if Friends doesn't do even bigger numbers tonight, hitting on the added pop culture cylinders of television as holiday ritual, celebrity, and the People-magazine knowledge we all have of Pitt and Jennifer Aniston as husband and wife.
For many of us, watching our favorite sitcom characters celebrate the holidays has become almost as much a part of the festivities as our own celebrations. That may be even truer this year, because fewer people are expected to travel to be with their families.
Pitt is about as big a celebrity guest star as any sitcom gets, and he's used cleverly, playing a former high school classmate whom Monica (Courteney Cox Arquette) invites to Thanksgiving dinner. He's changed since high school, having lost 150 pounds for a start. But one thing has remained constant: his dislike for Rachel (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; Pitt and Aniston are a delight as their characters spar over the turkey. His description of "Queen Rachel, doing whatever she wants in her little Rachel Land," ends with a dead-on mimicry of a Rachel-Aniston hair flip. It's a moment of romantic comedy worthy of Cary Grant.
There's so much smart stuff going on in this 22 minutes of comedy (minus commercials). Another subplot involves Joey (Matt LeBlanc) trying to eat a 19-pound turkey himself after a bet he made with Monica. Compared to the Aniston-Pitt-Schwimmer badinage, this falls at the lower end of the comic spectrum. But it's also a fable of abundance, a depiction of America as the land of plenty in a time of layoffs, recession and war.
Friends has been criticized over the years for its non-realistic depiction of New York, often for the predominantly white makeup of the world in which the six central characters live vs. the diversity of the real city. But this fall, we are learning that not every show must -- or perhaps should -- correspond to social reality.
"The New York that Friends was set in was never the real, physical New York that sits on Manhattan Island. It was a New York that could as well have been sitting on Neptune for all its documentary connections to reality," said Dr. Robert J. Thompson, founder of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
"It was a New York where you could have these huge apartments on not very much money, and nobody ever got mugged on the way to visit Phoebe [Lisa Kudrow]. This was a New York, of course, where people didn't crash planes into the landmarks."
The New York in which Friends is set is an imaginary place in the American psyche where some of our fundamental mythologies intersect. One of the most resonant features New York as a place where young people who might not feel comfortable in their hometowns find community and blossom just like these sitcom characters. As the song, "New York, New York" puts it, it's a place where they can lose their "little town blues."
"It's the diametric opposite of New York as gridlock, crime, racial inequality, and now terrorist attacks," Thompson said.
"Friends was always like 1950s television in being an anesthetic to reality. That's what we liked about it in the first place. And after Sept. 11, we liked it even better. There was something so comforting and nostalgic about going back a mere month after the attacks had happened and finding this world on Friends completely unchanged. That's the great thing about Friends: This nightmare never happened."