By Ken Tucker
January 30, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST
  • TV Show

Given the usual arc of hit-sitcom television, Friends ought to be a dreadful little half hour by now. When it premiered in the fall of ’94, it was a smash right from the start. The show’s smart, zippy take on a half-dozen twentysomethings living in Manhattan summed up its Gen-X pop-cultural moment as precisely as — well, as the terms Gen-X or twentysomething. The show made instant stars of its cast: Courteney Cox (rescued from the Trivial Pursuit Hell of being known primarily as Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” partner), David Schwimmer (previously known only to NYPD Blue fans as the doomed nerdy apartment dweller “4B”), Jennifer Aniston (whose original hairstyle soon had a career of its own), Lisa Kudrow (portraying a dim bulb so definitively the producers got the previous generation’s ultimate dim-bulb artist, Teri Garr, to play her mother), Matthew Perry (raising the wisecracking-sidekick stereotype to new levels of clever snideness), and Matt LeBlanc (who made stupid blank stares witty).

Friends idealized white urban young adults in the mid-’90s — that’s what put it on magazine covers and inspired backlashes like The Official I Hate Friends Website. That’s also what will almost certainly prevent it from getting the reward it deserves: to replace Seinfeld on Thursdays at nine after Jerry and the gang take their last stab at nothingness. Friends has survived its move to a too-early, 8 p.m. time period without incident, and the show is consistently funnier than 3rd Rock From the Sun and — c’mon, admit it — Frasier have been so far this season. But Friends has had its pop-culture moment, and NBC is looking for a show with some buzz around it; it’s unlikely that even an upcoming stunt — a February sweeps episode set in London which may include marrying off a friend — will rebuzzify it sufficiently.

Just Shoot Me comes closest to fitting the bill and looks to be the front-runner — that is, if NBC West Coast prez Don Ohlmeyer doesn’t get it into his head that David Spade isn’t funny and needs firing. But though Shoot Me is clever, its cast has yet to jell into a compelling ensemble, à la the Friends crew. Furthermore, the characters on the latter show have only gotten more interesting as they’ve aged. While I would never go so far as to suggest that Friends has depth (if nothing else, that would be antithetical to the show’s weekly critique of the sextet’s assiduously shallow lives), the best episodes this season have deepened our understanding of those hemmed-in, hedonistic characters.

I’m thinking of the exquisitely excruciating breakup of Ross (Schwimmer) and Rachel (Aniston), which did a surprisingly subtle job of sketching an unrequited-love relationship that had taken so long to start it struck both parties as disappointing almost as soon as it finally began. And the series of shows about Chandler (Perry) falling in love with a woman that Joey (LeBlanc) was dating achieved some lovely farcical moments. (It also brought enough attention to the woman, beguilingly played by wry, husky-voiced Paget Brewster, to land the actress a development deal for her own sitcom for Twentieth Century Fox TV.)

Friends‘ current continuing story line finally gives Phoebe (Kudrow) something substantial: She’s carrying a baby for her brother (the nicely squirrelly Giovanni Ribisi) and his wife (Debra Jo Rupp); as Phoebe puts it, “They’re putting all their eggs in my basket.” It’s a plot whipped up to accomodate Kudrow’s real-life pregnancy, but it couldn’t come at a better time, since it permits Phoebe to be more than just a dizzy dame — a role that had become tiresome. The newly pregnant Phoebe is a little more thoughtful, grounded, and thus, revitalized.

Friends might easily have burned out and faded away as a trend whose time had passed. Certainly, its cast has tried to transcend the series by taking stabs at movie careers. But with the exception of Cox’s Scream flicks, they’ve been box office and/or critical duds. For such a determinedly lightweight show, there’s something solid, even indomitable, about Friends; to paraphrase that insufferable song, it’s there for us. A-