Ken Tucker on the enduring appeal of ''Friends''
First, let's acknowledge something rarely noted when a TV series lasts for a decade: ''Friends'' and everyone involved in it are really, really lucky.
I'm not discounting talent -- each of the six cast members became a more deft, subtle performer as the series proceeded; creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane, with exec producer Kevin Bright, knew how to guide the show through its rough patches and maintain a steady appeal; and pilot (and occasional episode) director James Burrows is a flat-out genius. But luck plays a big part in why the departure of Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox Arquette, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer from Thursday nights at eight is going to be a wrench for so many. Consider the fact that most of this sextet had, pre-''Friends,'' been in TV shows that bombed. Sitcom flops don't dovetail with quality -- just ask Andy Richter -- but that's the point: Over the years, thousands of talented performers have been in shows that didn't last a season, let alone 10. Fewer still were part of an ensemble of unknowns that permitted each member to shine with equal wattage.
Rarer still -- i.e., evidence of even more luck -- is the series that can maintain popularity after its characters hook up, break up, or reconnect. Romance and light-comedy chemistry are a volatile mixture that's likely to blow up. But the chances taken by everyone involved in teasing out the 10-year push-pull between Schwimmer's Ross and Aniston's Rachel really paid off emotionally over the course of this last season. (One note: I write this without the benefit of seeing the final episode in advance.) Then there were the unexpected, ongoing pleasures of ''Friends,'' chief among them the way the characters deepened while the series remained smoothly amusing. Two brief examples: LeBlanc's Joey grew up (what could have remained a tedious Fonzie-on-the-make character instead became an average Joe in the most admirable sense, a guy who fretted over and celebrated his acting career, his luck with the ladies, and his responsibilities to his chums); and Perry's Chandler calmed down. He was gradually written to be much less of a neurotic joke machine -- and he matured enough to make a suitable husband for Cox Arquette's marvelously twitchy Monica.
Now we've turned the corner, into the stuff that's not luck. The behind-the-scenes united front the Friends presented in everything from salary disputes to publicity enhanced our enjoyment of them as on-screen characters: When you watch a show, you bring all you know about the actor to it, and I believe ''Friends'' generated enormous public goodwill from the cast's unity.
On the creative side, everyone has their favorite non sequitur, a joke-form at which ''Friends'' excelled. Kudrow's eccentric Phoebe was the mistress of this, which she proved right off the bat in the pilot: ''Ooh, I just pulled out four eyelashes,'' she said, apropos of absolutely nothing. ''That can't be good.'' And everyone has their favorite story line; mine may be the surprisingly poignant little arc in season 4 when Chandler found himself attracted to Joey's girlfriend, Kathy (Paget Brewster). This was possibly the first time we'd seen Chandler's intelligence deployed for more than lightning zingers. Not wanting to betray his best buddy, he hid his affection for Kathy, to the point of suggesting Joey give her an early edition of ''The Velveteen Rabbit,'' a book he knew she loved. The capper was a moving, truly romantic scene in which Kathy told Chandler she knew he'd chosen the book, and fretted about hurting Joey. Yet, in typical ''Friends'' fashion, that didn't stop them from hooking up.
If this final season has elicited fewer laughs and more wistful awwws as each milestone pushes the pals further apart (marriage, suburbs, new job opportunities), well, that's okay. Sometimes friends get a little mushy with each other. But in this regard we're lucky: We get to revisit them in reruns, where Joey can be Al Pacino's ''butt double,'' and Monica can get that crazed, disbelieving look when she and Rachel lose their apartment to Joey and Chandler in a trivia contest. And we realize once again that sometimes the trivial brings out the best in ''Friends.''