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''Friends'' is in danger of becoming Must Avoid TV

The talented stars of NBC’s long running sitcom have outgrown their roles, says Ken Tucker

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”Friends” is in danger of becoming Must Avoid TV

Did you watch those back to back new episodes of ”Friends” last Thursday? Did it seem as if the air had been let out of this sitcom? I’ve laughed long and occasionally hard at this show since ”Friends” premiered in 1994, but boy, do these kids and their situations suddenly seem old.

The premiere acknowledged this by having Matt LeBlanc’s Joey, an actor, auditioning for a role as a 19 year old and being reduced to babbling ”Whassup?” and ”That’s wack,” but the jokes rang too true to be very amusing. This series was originally predicated upon the notion of a group of moderately indigent young chums hanging out and finding their futures in New York City.

But in the fall 2000, the ”Friends” cast are seasoned pros who look it — Jennifer Aniston, for example, is less her nuttily neurotic Rachel character than she is the sort of classily coiffed, mature siren who can knock the socks off the likes of Brad Pitt. It ain’t Aniston’s fault — she’s just outgrown her role.

Ditto Lisa Kudrow, whose feature film career has made the now predictable dumb jokes and goofy songs she must deliver as Phoebe seem like an obligation rather than a fully inhabited character. As for Matthew Perry — give this intelligent, wittily dry man a break: He can’t keep on doing the de riguer double takes Chandler is assigned; in fact, he now looks like the sort of prosperous fellow who’d be collecting Chandler Bing’s rent.

Maybe my abrupt disaffection for ”Friends” won’t endure as the season progresses, but the plot mechanisms that are keeping this show moving sure are getting rusty. Once Chandler and Courteney Cox Arquette’s Monica get hitched during May sweeps, and Phoebe moves in with David Schwimmer’s Ross (as platonic — but wacky — roommates), I fear ”Friends” will ossify into the sort of sitcom it never used to be: predictable, pat, piffle. I think I may start watching the best network competition — the WB’s nifty ”Gilmore Girls” — before I lose respect for my ”Friends.”