David Crane and Marta Kauffman began developing a show about people in their in 1993. Basing the show on their own experience of the time after college when they lived in New York. With production partner Kevin Bright they pitched the idea for "Insomnia Cafe" to NBC. Warren Littlefield, then-president of NBC was looking for a comedy centred around young people living together and so Friends debuted in September 1994.
The show was a big hit debuting on NBC's successful Thursday lineup after Mad About You and before Seinfeld. The total audience for the show was between fourteen and seventeen million during the first five seasons. The numbers actually went up to around twenty million for the last five including a notable uptick after the September 11th terrorist attacks.
Friends was unique amongst sit coms for spreading its focus over six different characters rather than focusing on two more than the others. The show also brought elements of soap opera more directly into the sit com format with cliff hanger endings and season long storylines built around romantic relationships. The show was also the first major mainstream sit com built around the lives of twenty somethings and the concerns of their generation.
The first four seasons saw the show as a cutting edge sit com combining wit and punch line with character development. By then the characters had become beloved figures and the last six seasons saw each of them exaggerate their established traits for comic effect and perpetuate predictable "will they or won't they" relationships. The season finale was watched by over fifty million Americans, putting it behind only Cheers, Seinfeld and M*A*S*H in terms of most watched season finales.
I think the first two seasons of Friends are the best American comedy made in my viewing life time. The writing and acting are as sharp as anything around but the show makes the characters seem real and forces you to care for them. Those two seasons capture all that is great about the American sit com model and set Friends up for another eight seasons of gentle decline critically and massive success commercially.
Friends was probably the first adult American comedy that I was exposed to. At the time it seemed like comedy was easy with Frasier, The Simpsons, Spin City and British shows Red Dwarf, Black Adder and Men Behaving Badly leaving me clutching my stomach. Those were not the only shows I was watching and of course what was happening was the moulding of my mind for my future TV critic work. In those few years I was exposed to practically every variation of every kind of joke that a sit com could make.Â
Later in life it has made me a harsh critic of jokes that I have seen and heard before. That harshness was very much in evidence as Friends began its decline from best comedy I had ever seen to silly exaggerated version of itself. My best friend George and I spent many a conversation discussing why the show was no longer what it had once been. For me the movement away from reality toward exaggeration was the primary reason and that remains my guiding philosophy on discussing any kind of scripted television show.
In 2004 as the show ended I got the idea to write an episode guide which would chart and help explain the show's movement from great to not so great. I had always loved the episode guides which came with magazines like British Science Fiction mag SFX. Seeing someone else's analysis on an episode by episode basis fascinated me whether I agreed or disagreed with their assessment. I began to review Friends in my spare time and wrote a review after each one. This is when I developed my score out of 100 and "The Good" and "The Bad" structure. I had always imagined the reviews would end up in a physical format as an actual guide. However once it was complete and I showed my friends it was 2007 and it seemed obvious that the internet would be the form where it would live if it went anywhere. By then Lost was in full swing and soon I decided to begin reviewing other shows and try to do this on a more permanent basis.
After a couple of years being The TV Critic I realised that my reviews had been too harsh on Friends. Watching mediocre comedies week after week my scores out of 100 began to settle down into a predictable range. The less good episodes of Friends would have received much higher scores from me if they had aired in 2010 rather than on rewatch when they did. It's important to keep this in mind when looking at the later season scores and perhaps some of the earlier ones too. I'm pretty happy with seasons one and two though where the 70s, 80s and 90s I dished out remain thoroughly deserved. My reviews are also a lot shorter, again owing to the fact that in my mind they would be printed all together. I didn't go to lengths to explain my criteria for what made things good or bad television either as I have strived to do since starting the website.
Friends popularised sit coms about young people and soon a myriad of others appeared. The romantic cliff hanger had of course been present in other sit coms (prominently Cheers) but it became a staple after Friends as did sit coms with multiple lead characters. Spinoff Joey had two seasons and ended in 2006.
Perhaps the biggest legacy in the short term was what didn't happen after Friends. There has yet to be another comedy hit on quite the same scale. While CBS' Two and a Half Men has been a very consistent and highly rated hit in the years following it doesn't have the same cultural or international appeal. The end of Friends saw sit coms go in a different direction. There was a distinct move away from multi-camera comedies and toward single camera shows. The Office appeared in 2005 and captured some of the buzz and apparent edge that Friends had had a decade earlier.
However no sit com since Friends has touched it for comedy or cultural impact. The wait continues.