Bruce Fretts
May 11, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Why ”Friends”’ guest star mania must stop

One question weighs heavily on the minds of 20 million ”Friends” fans: What’s the deal with Phoebe’s frumpy new hairstyle? But seriously, everyone wants to know if the hit sitcom will return for a seventh season, as contract negotiations with the six stars come down to the proverbial wire (advertisers must see NBC’s fall lineup on May 15).

I’m not losing any sleep over it. The net needs ”Friends” as a tent pole to shore up its still-strong (but starting to sag) Thursday night lineup, so I’m sure the Peacock will cough up as much chicken scratch as it takes to keep the sextet securely in the NBC flock.

I’m more concerned that the creative team behind ”Friends” doesn’t seem to have learned from their creative mistakes — namely, booking big-name guests whose star power overwhelms the estimable ensemble’s. This was the fumble that ”Friends” committed in its comedically shaky second season, when the show was so white-hot that everybody who was anybody in Hollywood wanted to make a ”special” appearance.

As a result, we got a whole lotta Tom Selleck (as Monica’s old man), whose shtick skills weren’t up to those of the weakest cast member — at that time, Matt LeBlanc, although he’s improved remarkably since. And we got what remains the single worst ”Friends” episode ever: the post-Super Bowl stink bomb, with lame cameos from Julia Roberts (she dated Matthew Perry off screen too, remember?), Brooke Shields (who landed ”Suddenly Susan” as a result — thanks a lot!), and funnyman Jean-Claude Van Damme.

The script would’ve had us believe that the normally rational Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) and Monica (Courteney Cox) would melt at the sight of the oily Brussels muscleman. Now the sitcom is repeating its past sins by bringing in Bruce Willis (Perry’s ”The Whole Nine Yards” costar) and having Rachel fall head-over-high-heels for him.

Reality check: In actual life, Aniston dates Brad Pitt (Willis’ ”12 Monkeys” costar), so why would we believe she’d go for a middle-aged guy with a just-okay toupee? Because he’s Bruce Willis! True, he started on the small screen in ”Moonlighting,” but his movie-star presence detracts from the six regulars — who are the reason most people watch the show.

I’m not saying ”Friends” should never feature guest stars. You need fresh blood to pump life into a show, and smaller-sized names like Jon Favreau, Adam Goldberg, and Michael Rapaport have scored in recurring gigs. But if and when you come back next fall, my dear ”Friends,” please promise you won’t cast Arnold Schwarzenegger as Phoebe’s new beau.

Maybe then I’ll forgive you for bringing back Tom Selleck in next week’s one-hour season finale.

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