Because the show looks and behaves like so many other sitcoms, the originality at the center of Friends (NBC, Thursdays, 8:30- 9 p.m.) comes as something of a surprise. If I tell you that it's a show about a bunch of attractive yuppies sitting around talking, what do you think of? thirtysomething, Seinfeld, Mad About You, yadda-yadda-yadda.
Well, not in quite this way. At its best, Friends operates like a first-rate Broadway farce, complete with slamming doors, twisty plots, and intricately strung together jokes. And even when it's not at its best, the crack acting and piquant punchlines give Friends a momentum and charm that win you over even if you're not laughing.
At the same time, there's something almost abstract about Friends; even after a few weeks, I'm still not clear about where each of the characters lives and what relationships they have with one another. As best I can figure out, it goes something like this:
Monica (Courteney Cox) is our primary character because well, because Courteney Cox is the biggest name-brand star in this show. Monica is an assistant chef in a Manhattan restaurant, has a sunny nature, and radiates common sense; she's the solid center in a circle of wacky pals. Among these is Monica's roommate, Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), who is a scatterbrained waitress at the coffeehouse where all the friends hang out. Across the hall from Monica and Rachel's apartment live Chandler (Matthew Perry) and Joey (Matt LeBlanc): nice, macho, dumb guys. Then there's Ross, Monica's brother, played by David Schwimmer, best known as the doomed ''4B'' on last season's NYPD Blue. I don't know where Ross lives. In fact, it took me two weeks to figure out that he was Monica's brother and not her lover. (Speaking on behalf of other, possibly equally baffled viewers, I'd suggest to Schwimmer that he resist the thoroughly understandable temptation to hug Cox in quite so passionate a manner.) And finally, there is Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) again, who knows where she's from, but she's even more scatterbrained than Rachel, and, as if I weren't confused enough, is just a variation on the ditsy-waitress character Kudrow continues to play on Mad About You. Excuse me while I catch my breath.
The vagueness of these characters is similar to the lack of concrete detail that makes many other sitcoms a headache-inducing bore. With Friends, however, this barely matters. Created by writers Marta Kauffman and David Crane (Dream On, The Powers That Be), Friends bulldozes past its confusions and clichés on the power of its zippy dialogue. Kauffman and Crane can take an utterly standard sitcom scene a discussion among the chums about whether foreplay is more important to women than to men and turn it into a tensely funny playlet with a beginning, middle, and end, all before the opening credits.
Friends is also the best-cast show of the new season. Aniston, who was frequently brilliant in Fox's foolishly cut short sketch-comedy show The Edge last year, brings the same prickly intelligence to her role here. LeBlanc is a rarity a hunk with a gift for deadpan comedy while Perry, the most complex lummox on television, manages to find layer after subtle layer in Chandler's denseness. Schwimmer makes hangdog depression seem like a new notion in comedy, and Kudrow is a cross between Goldie Hawn and Teri Garr with, I dunno, substance. As for Cox, she plays straight woman to this bunch with alluring modesty and possesses the most prominent, um, biceps yeah, that's the ticket, biceps in prime time.
It's just another sitcom, but even so, Friends is pretty irresistible. A-