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Six attractive, barely employed but financially comfortable Manhattanites in their twenties constituted the eponymous core of Friends, the TV sitcom that burst onto NBC for the first time during the 1994-1995 season, and rocketed to instant, "must-see" popularity. Single young viewers, bored with sitcoms about family life, latched enthusiastically onto this group of pals in cute clothes and trendy haircuts, who spend much of their time sitting around in a coffee bar conversing and exchanging banter, and who treat each other like family. Friends is an ensemble show that appeared to have been directly modeled after the Fox sitcom Living Single, which began its run a year earlier and featured an almost identical premise except that the cast was African American.

Created by Marta Kauffman and David Crane, the group of friends is divided equally between the sexes. The girls are Monica Geller (Courteney Cox), a chef and a neatness freak, her old high school friend and roommate Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston), and the flighty Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow). Phoebe is Monica's college friend and a massage therapist and guitarist who plays at the coffee bar/hangout Central Perk. (her signature song is "Smelly Cat"). Rachel began the series by leaving her daddy's financial support and her dentist fiancé at the altar to make it on her own. Monica's slightly older brother Ross (David Schwimmer) is a well-meaning paleontologist whose wife divorced him upon realizing that she's a lesbian; Ross' college pal Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry) lives across the hall from Monica and is the smart-ass of the group, while his roommate Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc) is a none-too-bright aspiring actor who completes the sextet.

The show's theme song, The Rembrandts' Beatle-esque "I'll Be There For You," is insidiously infectious, a suitable metaphor for the show itself. Each week, this clique of attractive idlers discusses life in general and relationships in particular, with the on-again, off-again romance between Ross and Rachel a recurrent theme, and an almost constant cliffhanger. Ross is wild about Rachel; so much so that, even at the altar about to marry Emily (Helen Baxendale) in 1998, Ross said, "I, Ross, take thee Rachel."

The best known cast member when the show started was Courteney Cox, who had made a few movies and was on Family Ties for a season as Michael J. Fox's girlfriend. She no doubt felt immediately at home with Matthew Perry's Chandler, whose comic timing and delivery is heavily reminiscent of Fox. And Lisa Kudrow's Phoebe appears to have borrowed most of her mannerisms from Teri Garr, who was brought on to play Phoebe's long lost mother briefly in 1997.

Cox, Aniston, Perry, LeBlanc, Kudrow, and Schwimmer all became household names as a result of Friends. Not only are they a beguiling and talented assembly, but the show has the weight of an incomparable publicity machine behind it, and these six people, together and separately, have appeared on the cover of almost every entertainment magazine in the United States. All have tried to cultivate movie careers, with Aniston, by the late 1990s, having had the most success with big-screen ventures.

All the episode titles of Friends start with "The One with… " as in, "The One with the Embryos" and "The One with George Stephanopolous." Many critics might well name the whole series "The One with the Hairdos." No television show has influenced hairstyles as much as Friends has done, with variations on "the Rachel" still in evidence four years after the show premiered. The enormous popularity of the series spawned dozens of imitator shows in the 1990s, all of which featured attractive, witty young men and women hanging out together, but Friends had outlasted them all by the end of the decade. This can mostly be credited to the high standard of witty, imaginative and well-constructed scripts, which have helped garner critical acclaim and ratings success for a series that, by 1999, had received 14 Emmy nominations.

Notwithstanding its popularity and success, the series does have its share of vehement detractors. Certainly, not much happens on the show and the charm of its stars, along with the witty one-liners, is what carries it. For those who fail to find the Friends charming, there isn't much reason to tune in (but the same could be said of Seinfeld). Critics have maintained that the show bears no resemblance to reality, from the trouble these gorgeous people have finding love interests (so much so that they seem to be turning to each other), to the one-dimensional nature of the characters, to the fact that no one ever seems to be working, and those who do, don't do it much. The fans answer that there are plenty of workplace comedies out there, but this show is about hanging out with your friends. And that's what the characters do—hang out with their friends.

—Karen Lurie

Further Reading:

Brooks, Tim, and Marsh, Earle. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946-present. New York, Ballantine Books, 1995.

McNeil, Alex. Total Television. New York, Penguin, 1996.

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