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''Friends''

Long Prelude to a Kiss

Our take on the second-to-last episode: Monica's anal! Joey's dumb! Ross and Rachel kiss! Could they BE any more predictable? asks Josh Wolk

Friends | THE LONG GOODBYE The pals gather in Mon and Chandler's kitchen to bid adieu to Rachel
THE LONG GOODBYE The pals gather in Mon and Chandler's kitchen to bid adieu to Rachel

Here's our take on the second-to-last episode

As if anticipating our separation anxiety from ''Friends,'' the opening bit of the penultimate episode gave us a condensed, three-minute look at most of the characters' basic traits, allowing us to gorge on them in their waning days. Joey acted dumb (losing the ''Heads I win/tails you lose'' coin-flip game), Monica ran around being anal, Chandler was a wiseass, and Rachel was an irresponsible ditz. Granted, her losing her passport turned out to be faux ditziness, since Chandler actually had hidden it, but much like a desperate alcoholic will drink cold medicine when there's no vodka around, mournful ''Friends'' addicts won't quibble as to the purity of their go-to gags.

Throughout the whole episode the entire sextet acted exactly the way we'd come to expect them to act after 10 years. Which was kind of the problem. ''Friends'' has been treading the same ground for so long, that seeing them do it one last time doesn't feel special. Yes, it's TECHNICALLY momentous that Monica and Chandler are moving out to the suburbs, but if all that entails is Monica anally giving packing orders to everyone, then they might as well just be helping her clean the apartment or prepare for a party, as they've done countless times before. And undoubtedly she'll find things to be anal about when Erica has the baby, just as she did when Rachel and Phoebe gave birth. She doesn't even get the chance to tidy up her own placenta.

And then there's Ross and Rachel. We all know they're gonna end up together: The past eight years of ''will they get back together'' bobbing and weaving has just been a dog and pony show to keep viewers occupied until they'd find true love at the series' end. Consider those years of flirtation and hesitation like the balloon-animal guy who keeps the kids distracted at a birthday party while the parents get the candles lit on the birthday cake.

The producers wisely learned from the second season that when Ross and Rachel are happily dating, Ross becomes insufferably goopy and mopey, so getting them together would have to be the last thing they did before turning off the lights for good. Everyone would feel all happy inside, and yet without that queasy aftertaste that comes from emasculating devotion.

(Granted, I've not seen the final episode, so I suppose there's a CHANCE Rachel could leave for Paris and the two wouldn't end up together. But this would be one of the all-time most treasonous TV moments, since the producers have been teasing their eventual reunion for years. That kind of red herring may be forgivable in reality TV, but when things are scripted, you damn well better make with the happy ending.)

All of this said, there's something vaguely anticlimactic about watching Ross and Rachel finally get together. They've had so many close calls over the years that it's long since stopped making sense: When Ross didn't propose to her after she had their baby just because of an easily straightened out mixup with Joey, I gave up, saying, ''Fine. Wake me when you finally get married.''

Over the years, the writers, thinking of closer and closer calls toward reconciliation that they could then yank the couple back from, got to the point where they had them get married and have a baby, only to then see other people. Had ''Friends'' gone on one season longer, what would be left? A kooky subplot about Ross and Rachel accidentally gluing their private parts together?

Anticipating Ross and Rachel's potential marriage has been like having somebody point a rubber band at your head for eight years. You flinch, and then look and see they haven't fired, and you flinch again, and soon your body enters a permanent state of unbearable flinching. But after a while, you defeatedly relax, just wishing they'd let the damn thing go already. Sure, it'll sting, but who gives a damn, because then you can get on with your life already.

You could tell the studio audience felt the same way: when Ross and Rachel kissed at the end of the episode after the whole ''Wait, does Rachel really not care about Ross?'' mislead, there wasn't a mass, ''Awwwwwww!'' as there's been for every one of their other smooches. There was probably just a lot of relief: Good, they kissed, now they can get married, and we can all go home and get ready for ''Joey'' next fall. Hopefully if he gets a girlfriend, he'll have the decency to either get married or move on. I can't take another 10 years of this.

Originally posted Apr 30, 2004