Category: sitcoms

Timeline: Rich and poor on TV

From Fred Sanford’s junk shop to the overwhelming excess of the “Real Housewives,” television is constantly changing how it depicts personal wealth. Here’s a look at some of the highlights.

Originally published on April 13, 2010. Read the complete article.

Why I won’t miss ‘Friends’

For a decade, “Friends” has been there for me, and for the most part I’ve been there for it too, one of the millions who made it a regular Thursday-night ritual. But when it goes off the air May 6, I’ll probably barely notice it’s gone.

Though the show occasionally toyed with edgy ideas, time and time again it opted to pursue safe, bland chuckles, and made the characters safe, bland, teeth-achingly mainstream people.

For example, Ross’ lesbian ex-wife, Susan, and Ben, the son he shares with her, have only the most minor role in the series, despite having been part of the storyline since the pilot episode. (On the other hand, the flashback episode with Rachel’s college fling with lesbianism — with Winona Ryder, no less — was a shameless, pandering stunt of the worst kind.) And the series’ lack of racial diversity has been widely noted.

I don’t think there was any single moment that made me dislike “Friends” — the show never jumped the shark, as the saying goes. The things that I found irritating were part of the show from the beginning, and coexisted alongside the parts of the show that I genuinely found funny and endearing. If forced me to choose between “Friends”and any reality show, I’d tune in to Friends. I’ve laughed, I’ve choked up, I’ve gotten caught up in the drawn-out soap-opera that was Ross and Rachel.

The Friends love Hootie, not Nirvana
The writing was reliably amusing, but never brilliant. Though “Friends” did well at balancing six simultaneous lead roles, it too often reduced the characters to their most obvious and irritating quirks: Monica is competitive, Joey is stupid.

The scene where Joey gets his head stuck in a turkey isn’t even original — it’s a direct ripoff of one of the most well-known bits from Rowan Atkinson’s “Mr. Bean.” Indeed, I can’t think of a single moment when the humor on “Friends” was truly groundbreaking, whereas “Seinfeld” kept expanding the boundaries of the format even in its final season.

Some writers have complained about “Friends” less-than-total realism, but that never bothered me that much. It’s supposed to be fun to watch; escapism is sort of the point of a sitcom. It’s not that big a deal, for instance, that the Friends live in apartments that would be way out of their price range in the real world.

But while the rise of “Friends” mirrored the rise of the 1990s dotcom boom, the show made no acknowledgement of changing times when the economy turned sour. “Friends” could have been mainstream TV’s voice of my generation, but while half my real friends were losing their jobs, the Friends’ prospects were still going up: Joey got back on his soap opera, Monica’s chef career was cooking, Rachel lucked into her dream job. Even flaky Phoebe met a rich guy to marry. The connection to reality was more and more tenuous.

The biggest disconnect was when Chandler, appearing to have no idea that the job market is shaky these days, quit his boring job to find a more creative career. Twisting the knife, after a few episodes to mull it over, he didn’t choose painting or novel-writing or anything like that, but … advertising. Gauguin and Baudelaire spun in their graves.

There were times when the show was so whitebread and milquetoast it made a viewer cringe. The one where the Friends go absolutely gaga over getting to go backstage at a Hootie and the Blowfish concert is not one of the show’s prouder moments; it made them look embarrassingly unhip even during the episode’s first broadcast, when Hootie still had some measure of popularity. Seeing it in repeats now is a time capsule from hell, like having to be reminded by “The Brady Bunch” that we all wore those polyester trousers in the 1970s.

When the 10th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide came around recently, I was struck by the realization that this icon of ’90s indie-rock credibility may have never, even if he’d wanted to, seen an episode of “Friends”. The converse also seems to be true: None of the Friends ever cranked up “Nevermind.”

Flaws, minus the satire
This insistence on keeping the characters blandly likable to the widest possible audience was pervasive, but also a clumsy fit with the comedic need for the characters to have flaws, since perfect people aren’t funny. A friend of mine pointed out to me that “Friends” took the “Seinfeld” premise of a group of flawed characters constantly screwing up their lives, but removed the “no hugs, no learning” principle that gave Seinfeld its satiric edge.

“Friends” tried to split the difference between “Mad About You’s” cloying likabilty and “Seinfeld’s” self-hostility, and often fell flat on its face in the middle. To take a recent example: Phoebe and her rich fiance took the large amount of money earmarked for their wedding and gave it to charity instead — but then Phoebe succumbs to materialism, changes her mind, and has the gall to ask for her check back because “I deserve a real celebration.” Because charity is all about her.

Watching it, you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and for Phoebe to either do right or be punished for doing wrong. But beyond a few sarcastic words from a charity worker, she gets away with it. To reiterate: Phoebe selfishly wheedles her way out of a donation to a charity, to spend on herself, and the producers of the show still expect you to like her. This is something George on “Seinfeld” might try, but that show wouldn’t expect you to think this was cute and endearing. “Friends” always did.

Same thing happened when Ross blurted out Rachel’s name while at the altar to marry someone else — and instead of calling off the wedding then and there, marries the wrong girl pretty much knowing how it will turn out. (Divorce No. 2.)

Yet even while Ross’ behavior makes him a cad, he’s a pale shadow of the supreme cad, “Seinfeld’s” George Constanza. What “Seinfeld” did to end George’s unwanted impending marriage — killing his fiance as an accidental result of George’s cheapness — was far edgier, and a much more pointed satirical statement. And George was in for further humiliations that befitted his status as a small-souled man locked in the hell of his own personality.

Since “Friends” wouldn’t admit its characters had done something that made them truly unlikeable, Ross pretty much gets away with this one too, unless you consider being stuck with Rachel to be punishment enough.

Originally published May 4, 2004 on Read the complete article.

The one with the best of ‘Friends’: Writers share their favorite episodes

We asked staff members and freelance writers to share memories of a favorite episode.

Rest in peace, Mr. Heckles
In the early second-season show “The One Where Heckles Dies,” the cantankerous old man below Monica and Rachel has a heart attack after one too many sessions of broom-banging his ceiling to get the women to be quiet. Surprisingly, in his will he bequeaths everything he has to them.

As the Friends go through his belongings, Chandler finds Heckles’ old yearbook and is stunned to discover that Heckles was the class clown when he was younger, just like Chandler. Chandler suddenly sees himself turning inevitably into a cantankerous hermit, dying alone and unloved. He freaks out, and calls his infamously nasal-voiced ex, Janice. This episode was a fine bit of character development for Chandler, maybe the most complicated member of the sextet and certainly my favorite of the group.

The “Heckles” episode helped raise him from being just the sarcastic one to a person with deep-seated fears that, over the rest of the series, he’d overcome. Meanwhile, Ross is aghast to discover that Phoebe doesn’t believe in evolution, and becomes desperate to convince her of his way of thinking. Though I’m a little disquieted by the way the subplot was resolved, it’s a great example of the series’ ability to get mileage out of the conflict between two Friends’ personalities — in this case, Ross’ driving need to be smarter than the others, and Phoebe’s one-two combination of superficial ditziness masking a tricky, even slightly cruel, steel-trap mind beneath. —Christopher Bahn

Originally published May 3, 2004 on Read the complete article.

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