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As we bid a farewell, 'Friends' was true to the end

Published May 7, 2004

Fans see 'Friends' off with parties, smiles

Finally, it's over.

The Foosball table has been shattered. Chandler and Monica have moved everything from their fabulously spacious, rent-controlled apartment to their fabulously spacious suburban home. And all the farewell commercials, cast interviews and retrospective clips shows have been put to bed. (Well, almost; more on that later).

Oh yeah, and Ross finally wound up with Rachel.

In the end, Thursday's Friends finale played out much like producers promised it would - no special dreams, cross-country trips or show trials involved. Also, no guest stars, cameo appearances (unless you count coffee guy Gunther's 11th hour admission of a crush on Rachel) or blasts from the past.

Instead, Thursday's finale was all about the six Friends we've come to love and appreciate over 10 seasons of mostly crackling comedy. Comfortable as a college buddy and reliable as your favorite pet, Friends went out with the same mix of quirky comedy and personal melodrama that has made it TV's most-watched sitcom for years.

Only the minds who created this show could have figured out how to keep us guessing about David Schwimmer's Ross Geller and Jennifer Aniston's Rachel Green, long after NBC's criminally revealing promotional spots told us they'd be facing a final goodbye in an airport.

First Ross is at JFK airport and Rachel's at Newark; then she faces a lovestruck Ross in the boarding area only to tell him she's headed to Paris anyway; then she leaves an answering machine message to let him (and us!) know she's coming back after all. Do these guys know how to write a head fake or what?

Also as promised, each character has wound up in a positive place. Flower child Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) and her husband hint at starting a family, while once-committment-phobic Chandler (Matthew Perry) steps up to the reality of moving to the suburbs with a wife and two adopted kids.

And though it wasn't mentioned in the show, every fan worth their salt knows Joey (Matt LeBlanc) is headed to California for his own spin-off.

Expanded to an hour (and scheduled from 8:59 to 9:59 p.m. for reasons only network TV suits really understand), Thursday's finale wasn't a string of signature lines or snappy punch lines suitable for repeating around the water cooler.

Of course, there were concerns early in the show. As a dutiful fan, I was always a little disturbed at how cavalierly Rachel treated her baby with Ross and the tot's possible need to see her dad; more disturbing than her snap decision to head for Paris was Ross' total lack of concern over the fact that he might only get to see his daughter a few times a year.

But Friends has always been the province of fantasy. So when Rachel had a baby, she barely missed a step hanging out with her buddies. Most of us may have found it hard enough to keep a job and raise a baby as a single parent, but Rachel's baby Emma was seen so little after her birth she might as well have been in the witness protection program (to say nothing of Ross' first son, Ben, who disappeared from the show years ago).

So, lucky for us that the two stayed together after all.

Given the huge audience expected, it was no surprise that the finale was also crowded with advertisements - from splashy ads for summer movies such as Spider Man 2 and Van Helsing to weepy promos for NBC's next big goodbye, next Thursday's Frasier finale.

Those commercials also revealed that, much as we might have hoped to see an end to all the Friends goodbyes, there's yet another one planned, with the last full cast interview planned for today's Oprah (4 p.m. WFLA-Ch. 8).

Friends producers kept another promise, refusing to set up Matt LeBlanc's new spin-off Joey inside the storyline for Thursdays finale. But a commercial for the show revealed enough footage to show that expectations of another Frasier-style transition may be overly optimistic (New York Joey in a California deck chair? Sitting next to Drea de Matteo from The Sopranos? I can feel the agita rising already.)

It was a painful truth first revealed during the hourlong clip show that preceded Thursday's finale: When it comes to the success of Friends, NBC tapped lightning in a bottle, somehow melding a perfectly matched cast with incredibly well drawn scripts and a near-perfect balance of sex, personal drama and eye-catching quirkiness.

Whether it was Ross and Chandler in their matching Miami Vice outfits or Courteney Cox's Monica looking back on her days as an, um, plus-size person, these were actors whose onstage chemistry was far greater than the sum of their parts offstage (just ask anyone who paid good money to see Perry's latest film disaster, The Whole Ten Yards).

Indeed, so comfortable was Thursday's finale that it didn't really feel like a goodbye. Grounded in all the things that made the show great, it left us feeling like we could expect to turn on the TV at 8 p.m. next Thursday and see our televised buddies waiting for us.

Like all great breakups, this loss will take a while to set in. And for a show whose hallmark has always been an effortless, easy comedy appeal, that may be the most lasting tribute of all.

[Last modified May 7, 2004, 01:06:11]

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