Thursday night’s “Friends” season opener proved once again that the Peacock mainstay is so familiar, “funny” isn’t relevant anymore. By virtue of the show’s duration, Ross, Rachel, Joey, Phoebe, Chandler and Monica have worn out their comic welcome; nothing they do surprises, shocks or excites auds like it used to. It’s hardly unique — there are plenty of sex jokes — while the structure is still the same. Yet 34 million people tuned in for a reason, and, funny be damned, the NBC laffer known as much over the years for contract squabbles as for its Central Perk cafe still provides a comfort level like no other title has since its debut in 1994.
With “Friends” having just taken home a best comedy Emmy that many view as a lifetime achievement award, its biggest testament to staying power is the current plotline involving newborn Emma. If anyone needs a reminder just what the arrival of a toddler signifies for a sitcom, just remember the fate of “Mad About You,” a fellow must-see series that caught baby fever and passed out — for good. But critics have actually proclaimed this arc as one of the show’s best; Rachel got pregnant as America was recovering from Sept. 11, and everyone felt at ease.
For all of its hype, little transpired last week: The love triangle sputtered, Phoebe is still a ditz (her flightiness has become a detrimental feature), Joey freaked out over breastfeeding, and the Bings did it in a hospital closet. Debut, directed by Kevin Bright and written by Sherry Bilsing-Graham and Ellen Plummer, was actually a dud.
And speaking of sex, “Friends” has had more free passes than any other skein when it comes to content; it’s 8 p.m. timeslot isn’t an appropriate place for its massive collection of hump humor. Monica’s father, Jack (Elliott Gould), actually saw his daughter and Chandler engaged in some rather curious positions that he proceeded to discuss at length.
But even that hasn’t mattered. “Friends,” like “The Simpsons,” “Married … With Children” and “Seinfeld” before it, still draws ’em in because everything has been the same for a decade: its lead characters, its theme song, its sked spot and its composition. NBC, Warner Bros. and exec producers Bright, Marta Kauffman and David Crane have seen to it that their collection of stars stayed intact, and whatever clicks is done over and over and over again.
And so it goes: The most popular isn’t always the best, and the overall impact often outweighs the specific execution. “Friends” has clearly been the vital half-hour for matters economic, and it has had much more influence on television history than it gets credit for.
Here’s hoping that the final run — if this is really it — bows out with the class it owes its aud and the sass it used to have.