The long-running sitcom ended sweetly, says Ken Tucker, and each Friend got to shine in the finale

By Ken Tucker
May 06, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
Friends: Warner Bros.
  • TV Show

Can you believe it’s over?! What’d you think?

So ”Friends” finished the way it began: As an impeccably written, cast, and directed joke machine, not timid about getting all huggy-sentimental, defiant only in the sense of not being defiant: unironic (unlike ”Seinfeld”), apolitical (unlike ”M*A*S*H”), never breaking new ground (unlike ”All In The Family”). Classic? Oh, at this point, I think, as Phoebe might say, ”Classic schmassic — who cares?” It was a very solid hour of comedy, and few sitcoms can double in length and stay funny for the full 60.

This the ”Friends” finale certainly did. Overseen by the show’s creators — the final episode was written by Marta Kaufman and David Crane, directed by Kevin S. Bright — this ”Friends” didn’t need the hour-long clip show that preceded it, because it hit all the key points, and many of the trademark phrases, that the series had accumulated over 10 years.

The new episode even added to the show’s trivia lore in a wittily knowing way when, toward its conclusion, Monica revealed that Ross had once spent a summer in Manhattan living with their grandmother, trying to make it as a dancer. ”We almost made it 10 years without that coming out,” said Ross with perfect sourness, and you know this: Even as he said it, that Ross bio bit was being added to the thousands of ”Friends” websites throughout the country (and eventually the world).

More additions to the ”Friends” canon last night: Chandler and Monica’s surrogate mother birthed them a boy/girl set of twins, Ross professed his love to Rachel and was rewarded with love returned (Paris, Schmaris!), and — let’s be crass; ”Friends” made it safe for the 8 p.m. ”family hour” and being on at 9 last night only egged them on — we learned Rachel’s bra size, because she used it as a mnemonic device to remember her airline seat number: 32-C.

If this show never engaged commentators with disputations over its essence, its fundamental theme, the way ”Seinfeld” did (that ”it’s a show about nothing” thing was always a dodge: Jerry and Larry David knew their message was misanthropy-made-meaningful), ”Friends” announced its core value right in its title: an exploration of the permutations of friendship, that lasted a decade. And if the series always leant itself more to Trivial Pursuit than doctoral theses, that doesn’t mean its pleasures were any less satisfying.

”Friends” was always a comforting show, even when Monica was shrilly neurotic or Phoebe was certifiably loony or Ross was clinically depressed. Comfort was doled out liberally last night. The studio audience did more than laugh. The screams of delight and awwwws of affection over the twin births, Ross’ declaration before racing off to snag Rachel — ”I’m gonna go after her!” — the yells and screams when Rachel appeared in Ross’ apartment doorway: This was what fans wanted, and Kaufman, Crane, and Bright have always respected the desires of the fans. There’s nothing cynical or cheap about that when it’s done at the level of quality executed here — gratifying a huge mass audience is what pop culture is all about.

From my seat on the sofa, the best unexpected moment was the scene between coffee-shop romantic Gunther and Rachel. He clearly articulated his love for her, and she gave him some (friend-ly, not romantic) reciprocation. And when Ross moped that even Gunther did a better job of expressing emotion than he did, his remark prompted the evening’s stellar player, Phoebe, to snap with superlatively ditzy blitheness, ”How can you compare yourself to Gunther? Sure, he’s more sexy in an obvious way?” Then she topped it by referring to Paris as ”a city of Gunthers!”

Last night as much as at any time in 10 years, I really loved Lisa Kudrow’s total commitment to making Phoebe a passionate loony; she really sold those jokes, alternating subtlety with wacky abandon. Her delight in racing across New York City in her cab (I’m sorry, I’m not enough of a ”Friends”-fanatic: Phoebe owned a cab??), was pure bliss.

Which is not to downplay the skills of Matthew Perry, Courteney Cox Arquette, David Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston, and Matt LeBlanc. (After Phoebe, I thought Cox Arquette’s Monica had the second-funniest, and truest to character, line of the night, when she looked down at her new baby boy and said, ”I’m gonna love you so much that no woman is ever gonna be good enough for you!”) The cast had the goods, even during the rare weak story lines or lulling seasons.

And I admit to achieving the final-season-”Friends” reaction — laughter mingled with goose-pimple regret — when the pals filed out of the purple apartment and each of them realized they had a key to the place (which ”because of rent control was a friggin’ steal!” exulted Chandler, addressing the longstanding complaint among Manhattan fault-finders about the show). They left the keys and left the building and headed for Central Perk. We at home had already been treated to our double-dose of caffeine, thanks to all involved in this friendliest of sitcoms. Ever.