Friday, February 6, 2004 by

At first glance, it would appear that Friends and Gimme, Gimme, Gimme make for uncomfortable bedfellows. However, no two sitcoms of recent times have received quite the same level of vitriolic abuse and bitter, undiluted contempt from critics (both amateur and professional) than these mismatched partners. Yet, both are undeniably funny, intelligent and – tellingly – brilliantly acted slices of situation comedy that compare favourably in the cold light of day with their peers. Both capture the flavour of the moment without actually defining it in any sense and that, essentially, is the essence of great comedy. Well, that and making you laugh.

The imminent and simultaneous demise of Friends, along with Frasier and Sex and the City from our screens is, and will be continue to be, well documented. The schedules on Channel 4 have hinged on the concept of Friday night being comedy night for what seems like an eternal golden age and it will be interesting to see what replacement goods C4 come up with. A mild criticism that I have is the failure to show the final season of the quite outstandingly brilliant Frasier on a Friday night alongside New York’s finest. Rather than watch Norton repeat his threadbare formula ad nauseam, surely we could have been treated to the final shenanigans of the Crane brothers? I’d rather watch Eddie chew dog biscuits for a half-hour than be subjected to yet another slice of “stand up if you’ve had a shag in a strange place” routine from the worryingly repetitive Norton. Indeed, Patrick Stewart’s turn as Alistair would have rounded off last night perfectly, after the well-acted introduction to the breast cancer storyline in Sex and the City. Still, a minor gripe – but, to me, a perfectly valid one nonetheless.

The criticism leveled against Friends is varied and unrelenting. However, there are three charges that are regurgitated by our separated brethren in the Fourth Estate with uncharitable regularity. One common thread of disapproval is the “look at he creepy way the six of them hang out together. All the time.” However, this issue was addressed in the very first series (“The One With The Boobies”) and thereafter any objections against this close, inter-related dynamic are entirely academic. If the writers are able to poke fun at the characters (and by extension, themselves) then surely it’s fairly pathetic for critics to continually harp on about it?

Another condemnation that Friends regularly faces is the charge of racism. Where are the black characters caterwaul the British TV critics? Well, where the Donald Duck are the blacks, the Jews and Bangladeshis on EastEnders? Come to think of it, where are the East Europeans, the Somalis and the Turks and Kurds? Haven’t I been here before? We could be here all day bemoaning the lack of ethnicity inherent in decade after decade of British television programming. So, why do our critics love to slate American programmes (The West Wing has suffered similar asinine charges) whilst conveniently ignoring the inadequacies and inequalities so obvious at home? Well, it’s an easy target to hit and an equally easy charge to lay. It’s a white show for white viewers apparently. Right then, strike The Cosby Show from my list of likes since it must have been a black show for black people and I was watching it under false pretences. Didn’t the Huxtables inhabit the same space as the Central Perk Posse? I don’t seem to recall any barbs being thrown at The Cosby Show due to its empowering and all-encompassing blackness? And as for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? Get me Liberty on the phone right now! No, sorry, I don’t buy the snide charge of racism or the ideologically unsound assumption that it’s a white show for white viewers. If you genuinely believe that Friends is wilfully white then roll out the rubber wallpaper, get the decorators round and I’ll make a present of the jacket that wraps up at the back.

The final charge of three is the mind-set of the show and its scripting in the wake of 9/11. I sometimes get the impression that certain critics would be happier if the show had a “9/11 Quota” to fulfil. The charge that by ignoring the atrocity the show is in denial and self-obsessed seems out of kilter with the reality. For once, I’d side with the focus groups of inhabitants from the Five Boroughs who stated that they believed the show was representative of the attitude and depiction of every-day life of New York in the aftermath of 9/11 rather than the select group of idiots who write for our national press. Anyway, when was the last time you heard mention of various IRA atrocities in north-west of England during an episode of Coronation Street? Don’t seem to recall Norris going off on one regarding the destruction of the Arndale, do you?

Friends is not here to capture the zeitgeist or pander to the middle-class sensibilities of liberal, hand-wringing anal-retentive British television reviewers. It’s a sitcom. No more, no less. If you don’t find it funny, fair enough. But don’t dress up your jealousy or annoyance by concocting false and insidious charges. 200+ episodes and that’s the worst you can come up with? And therein lies the rub. Whereas the above average British sitcom can be declared an all-time classic after a dozen episodes, an American sitcom can be instantly dismissed despite having a body of work almost 20 times the size. And, invariably, the quality to match. As American drama follows its comedic cousin in outstripping its British counterpart in terms of quality, diversity and sheer bloody brilliance it becomes more and more apparent that the critical faculties of our self-appointed reviewers are becoming more blinkered in their neurotic and, more than occasionally, xenophobic outpourings.

Which is a pity, as this episode – the season opener – was a well acted, deftly plotted corker of a show that deserves considerable praise. The major hook of the cast was their singular twentysomething-ness. Now, 10 years on and a welter of relationships later, the premise might have worn paper thin – but not so thin you could blow a hole in the plot and still wring out a laugh. Bizarrely the characters are also, I see from the charge sheet, accused of “not having changed” – either emotionally, psychologically or intellectually. Well, butter my remaining love spud with Lurpak and toast me like a squealing piggy on a spit if I don’t have a scornful, contemptuous laugh in the manner of Dick Dastardly at that one. Since when did we start agonising over the emotional journeys of our characters or worry over the state of arrested development that some find themselves endlessly locked into? Did Bilko, Fawlty or Coach undergo some damascene conversion in a particular episode that I missed? Did Father Dougal wake up one day and proclaim a sudden interest in Heglian theory in relation to the concept of constructive chaos? I think not. Mind you, perhaps that’s my error. I tend not to think but to enjoy. What’s good for the goose over a British sitcom half-life is sauce for the long running American turkey surely? I just want to sit down, turn on, tune in and chill out. That’s why I particularly enjoy Friends. It’s a beautiful no-brainer of a show. It makes no effort to change the world or your way of thinking. It is classical in its simplicity and also in its execution. Its objectives, parameters and raison d’ĂȘtre are clearly delineated and only a fool would attempt to scratch deeper than the surface in a vain search for some form of ineffable wisdom or underlying architectural comedic master plan.

I take refuge (and solace) in the ongoing, intellectual vacuity of Joey; I revel in the continual fragility of Chandler’s ego and I positively relish the incessant, almost angelic optimism emitted by Phoebe. If I wanted emotional development or intellectual maturity then I’d simply watch another show. In this ensemble, we have a cast that has matured greatly as comedic actors together and this is transmitted effortlessly in their performances – assured to a man and woman with immaculate delivery and crisp, impeccable timing. All of which, as I said, were in abundant display tonight.

Forget the nonsense of lack of plausibility or social responsibility. As a comedy of modern mores and manners, this show is unsurpassed. It speaks to the viewer on a simple but complex level and draws them in conspiratorially and unconditionally. This is, despite the age in which it exists, a gorgeous throwback to ’50s and ’60s America with more than a passing reference to the heroes (and heroines) of that hour. There are sly nods to Rock and Doris, echoes of the shot heard round the world reverberating throughout and genial winks given to Ozzy, Harriet and John T Hall. Friends is firmly anchored in the great American tradition of ensemble comedy and is a proud inheritor of a wonderful cultural tradition. It adds to this tradition with honesty, with optimism and, most importantly of all, with style. I, for one, will be saddened by its departure. And if I could, I’d raise an Erlanger or a Schlitz to it.


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