Jess Cagle
June 04, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Careful what you say to a woman dating Brad Pitt.

The cast of Friends has gathered in Matt LeBlanc’s dressing room between rehearsals, and Jennifer Aniston is asked what she thinks of ”this marriage.” Her eyes grow wide.

”What marriage?” she asks.

The reporter says he’s not referring to her much-speculated-on real-life relationship, but to the show’s doozy of a season finale (being shot today) in which Aniston’s Rachel and David Schwimmer’s Ross appear to tie the knot in an impromptu Las Vegas wedding.

Aniston laughs, relieved, and her Friends laugh with her.

”Oh,” she says. ”Well, I think it’s a great cliff-hanger.”

She’s careful not to say too much more, even though the reporter says he won’t reveal the details before the episode airs.

”Did you sign something?” demands LeBlanc.

Ah, our Friends are wary of those bearing tape recorders and notepads.

Since the show began five years ago, they’ve been stalked by photographers and jeered in print for their movies. They’ve been called greedy for demanding $100,000 an episode in 1996. The poor things can’t get a haircut without the world weighing in on it.

Well, then, on behalf of all media, we apologize. We apologize because we know that Mad About You‘s Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser were making $1 million an episode — and in fact, we think that the Friends should ask for another raise. We apologize for making fun of the movies (except maybe Ed, but only because it had a monkey in it), since we’ve seen Lisa Kudrow in The Opposite of Sex and have been reminded what a remarkable reservoir of comic talent the series has wrought.

But most of all, we apologize simply because we enjoyed this past season so damn much. A shining half hour in an otherwise dim season for comedy, Friends seemed re-reborn in — of all things — its fifth season, a time when most shows begin looking for cemetery plots (or worse, getting bad face-lifts). The cast and 12 writers made the show pop like a minefield of creativity: Boom! Phoebe gives birth to triplets. Bang! The secret affair between Monica and Chandler goes public. Kablooey! Ross and Rachel stumble drunk from a Vegas wedding chapel. Friends is the best, and that’s official: With the passing of Seinfeld, NBC’s sitcom is now the nation’s top-rated.

Most delightful to fans, critics, and cast members alike has been the rocky affair of Chandler and Monica, which allowed Matthew Perry and Courteney Cox to plumb new depths of their characters’ neuroses. And while Ross and Rachel’s surprise trip to the altar gave the season ender its oomph, the waffling of Chandler and Monica at the brink of the altar is a sure and encouraging sign that their affair will continue into the fall. Friends of Friends should know, however, that the relationship was almost very different.

The show’s producers planted the seeds for the Ross-Rachel romance in the pilot, but had always planned for another affair to blossom among the characters. This ”dark horse” romance (as David Crane, one of the show’s creators, calls it) originally involved not Monica and Chandler, but Monica and Joey (LeBlanc). ”This was before we cast the show,” says Crane, who had conceived of Monica as the group’s caretaker — a slightly cynical young woman whose good sense would prove combustible with Joey, originally designed as a heartless womanizer.

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