Riding the coattails of the ‘Friends’ frenzy

LET’S ALL TAKE a deep breath as we near the end of a long national nightmare — namely, the obsessive, maddening, media-hyped build-up to Thursday’s final “Friends.”

For once, NBC mostly draws a pass here. Yes, “Jimmy Kimmel Live” captured the maudlin tone of its promos with a spoof that featured a woman putting a gun to her head. Yet it’s understandable that the network would wring every last tear, eyeball and dollar out of its big May sendoffs, because, well, that’s what networks (and NBC in particular) do.

No, the fault lies with the rest of the media, which have exhibited a desperate yearning for a piece of the action by clutching the show’s coattails — even if that requires hyperbolizing a pretty good comedy into a one-for-the-ages classic. Even Oprah — who could dismiss the stars’ famous $1 million-an-episode salaries as “lunch money” — caught the fever, billing her cast reunion as possibly “the last time you see them together.” At this point, we can only hope.

“Could we be any sadder?” began TV Guide’s tribute, reminding us how little sadness must come into the lives of folks over there — “sadness” being a theme that also found its way into Entertainment Weekly’s coverage. We’ve lost sitcoms before, the former continued, “but this time, it feels like we’re losing, for lack of a better word, friends.”

Oh puh-leeze.

WHAT’S MOST ANNOYING is the inherent dishonesty of it all, inasmuch as “Friends” has always proved more significant for its commercial accomplishments than creative ones. Although a funny show, it’s hardly the best comedy of this era, much less one of the greatest ever. (Such hosannas rightfully apply to “Frasier,” whose own historic run wraps up next week.)

Rather, “Friends” carved out a niche thanks to its highly marketable and magazine-friendly stars as well as their novel “All for one, one for all” approach of bargaining in unison, which made everyone in America an instant expert on their contracts.

(By the way, I always perversely fantasized about NBC and Warner Bros. adopting a “divide and conquer” negotiating strategy, exploiting the weak links of whichever cast members had just starred in the biggest movie flops — otherwise known as “The ‘Ed’ effect.” I’m still convinced such hardball tactics would have saved them millions.)

In addition, the show’s dead-on appeal to the young-adult demographic that media buyers covet (and for the most part, reside in themselves) propelled along that age bracket’s overriding importance, while simultaneously giving birth to a host of pallid imitators.

Finally, as the cast relented and agreed to additional seasons, with each new stay of execution came the reminder of the gaping hole “Friends” would inevitably leave in NBC’s lineup. The hallowed “Must-See TV” marketing pitch, after all, becomes something of a misnomer once “Might-see, if nothing better is on” defines the audience’s level of commitment.

WEIGHING THESE FACTORS, the “Friends” story has always been most suited to the business pages, which hasn’t prevented over-eager print and TV assignment editors from blowing its cultural and artistic significance out of proportion. Suddenly, folks who couldn’t pick Lisa Kudrow out of a lineup and wouldn’t know “Friends” from Fellini’s “Satyricon” are pressing to examine how we’ll ever get by without it.

Such are the excesses of the modern media age, which immerse viewers in a particular event and then must describe said event in the kind of sweeping, effusive terms that would justify such inordinate attention. It’s this tendency that, out of necessity, transforms a pathetic, 40-something one-time idol who thinks it’s fine to bed down with kids into a present-tense “pop star” and a super-rich lifestyle diva into a miscast symbol for corporate greed.

So farewell, “Friends,” as you prepare for that long, lucrative and ageless eternity of syndication. On the plus side, after “Entertainment Tonight,” “Access Hollywood” and People magazine finish picking the meat off the bones you can rest undisturbed — until this fall, anyway, which will bring renewed speculation as to whether NBC’s ratings are going to slide into the ocean the way California did in “10.5.”

The news media might have its faults, but a milestone like “Friends” signing off reminds us that thinking outside the box is seldom one of them. I mean, could we be any more predictable?

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