Late bloomers set to steal the show

Changing relationships have kept 'Friends' fresh

In fall 2001, after seven hit seasons, some critics grumbled that “Friends” — the anchor of NBC’s Must See TV Thursday night — was becoming Musty TV. But then a funny thing happened — actually, a lot of funny things happened.

“I hate to put down the previous seven years, because I think we did some really good work then, too,” says “Friends”‘ co-creator and exec producer David Crane. “But I’m really proud of the show in the last two years.” So were Emmy voters, who last year awarded the show its first trophy for outstanding comedy series.

How has “Friends” stayed on track without resorting to such sitcom desperation plays as trips to Las Vegas or a visit from a space alien? Exec producer and frequent director Kevin S. Bright attributes it to none of the principal cast having left for greener pastures (though finding more green than $1 million an episode would be hard).

Also key, he says, has been having the creative team — including himself, Crane and co-creator/exec producer Marta Kauffman — remain largely intact. “At this point in a show’s lifespan, it’s unusual that the creators are still with it on every single episode.”

Increased scrutiny

Bright, though, doesn’t necessarily regard this past season, No. 8, as the peak of the series. “I think some of that attention came as a result of the microscope put on the time period when ‘Survivor’ came in (on CBS) and our audience was growing, and there were stories after 9/11 that put more focus on these last two seasons,” he says. “But I wouldn’t say unequivocally that the last years were the best years ever.”

Certainly the creative process for the show hasn’t changed, except that, in Crane’s words, “we have a better idea how to do it.” The core of “Friends” remains the relationships between six people, even though many of those relationships have altered over the years.

“Because there are so many different kinds of relationships — brother/sister, best friends, boyfriend/girlfriend, now husband and wife — it’s given us a lot of options with the original franchise of the show,” Crane says.

Friend management

Those changes have been organic ones, Crane says, adding that having the character of Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) become a mother will not pull focus from the six leads.

“We never intended the baby to become the seventh friend,” Crane says. “We’re treating the baby like we’ve treated a lot of the love interests on the show — we have some fun with them, then we move away from them, then we do some more with them.”

“Friends” isn’t the only long-running sitcom to experience winning seasons at a time when most series are gasping for air. Fox’s animated 6-season-old “King of the Hill,” which quietly entered the record books this season by becoming the second-longest-running primetime animated show in history, behind “The Simpsons,” has in its past two seasons racked up Writers Guild of America Award and American Comedy Award nominations, in addition to its nearly annual Emmy mention for outstanding animated program (it won in 1999).

Series co-creator Mike Judge admits the show did begin to stray in the middle seasons, but says a deliberate attempt was made to bring it back to its small-stories roots. “I think the best seasons of ‘King of the Hill’ were probably the second and this one. There’s endless material in everyday life.”

Adds “King” co-creator Greg Daniels: “I think we’ve been very good about not getting really broad or changing the characters too much. We’ve managed to find a lot of good stories without creating an alien buddy.”

For “King of the Hill,” the horizon is still open. For “Friends,” however, its 10th and shortened (only 18 episodes) season will definitely be its last. “We can’t creatively go through the process again of thinking it’s the end and planning in that direction, and then have to turn it around, which we had to do this year,” Bright says.

Will that tempt the staff to bring in the shark tank a little because they can?

Perish the thought.

“Part of what we’ve learned over the years is what makes the show work,” Crane says. “The more episodes we do with just the six of them in a room being true to themselves, that’s when the show is best.”