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The End of Friends and Frasier Changed the Communal Viewing Experience Forever

Two series finales marked an accidental flashpoint in the history of how audiences consume TV.
  • Top: Cast of Frasier; Bottom: Cast of Friends (Photos: Everett Collection)
    Top: Cast of Frasier; Bottom: Cast of Friends (Photos: Everett Collection)

    The proliferation of TV options, whether via cable or streaming, makes it both possible to access all types of TV shows and films on the small screen at any given time, and next to impossible to find something that creates a truly communal experience. 

    The notion that there are too many shows is not new in 2024, since we’re nearly a decade removed from FX honcho John Landgraf coining the term “peak TV.” Around the same time, the concept of peak TV was gleefully mocked in very public, communal TV spaces, such as Andy Samberg’s cold open as host at the 2015 Emmys.
    Yet in the same way that it’s hard to believe we’re only a decade into the era of peak TV, it’s kind of hard to realize we’re not much further away from when the communal experience climaxed for many viewers. (Landgraf, for his own part, just a few months ago said that peak TV is over, but it’s hard to believe that just yet.) Before there was peak TV, there was Must-See TV, which didn’t officially conclude in May of 2004, but might as well have, when both Friends and Frasier aired their series finales.

    In the spring of 2004, it was exceedingly easy to quantify the communal-viewing experience. This was a time before iPhones, YouTube, and social media, so meme culture couldn’t capture moments from massively popular sitcoms like Friends. But the live viewing numbers didn’t lie: When “The Last One” served as the final farewell for the Central Perk gang, airing on May 6, 2004, the ratings were mammoth.

    With a reported 52.5 million viewers, “The Last One” became the fourth-most-watched series finale of all time, surpassed only by three other sitcom heavy hitters: M*A*S*H, Cheers, and Seinfeld. Two decades later, Friends endures with younger generations thanks to its presence on Netflix and Max, even if the finale isn’t discussed as frequently as Chandler serving time (in a way) in a box, or Rachel and Ross going on a break, or Phoebe giving birth to triplets.

    Frasier aired its finale just one week after Friends did, and while its own ratings weren’t quite as huge, they were still pretty impressive. More than 33 million people tuned in to see how the story of a stuffy psychiatrist would wrap up after 20 years on television (Frasier’s 11 combined with Kelsey Grammer’s nine seasons on Cheers). 

    Each of these finales were meant as definitive swan songs. Chandler and Monica finally got the kids they’d always wanted, adopting a pair of twins and then moving into the suburbs and away from their longtime apartment. Frasier, meanwhile, said goodbye to Seattle and headed to Chicago to follow his latest paramour in the hopes of finding his happily ever after. 

    In the intervening two decades, the communal experience has changed drastically. It’s a strange coincidence of the ups and downs of NBC’s ratings fortunes to note that just as Friends and Frasier served as poster children of the Must-See TV era, one of the series that aired in its place in the following season a) had disastrous initial ratings and b) is the ideal poster child of the peak-TV communal experience. That sitcom is none other than the American remake of The Office, which began airing in the spring of 2005 and nearly ended before it could truly get going. The first season, amounting to just a six-episode midseason replacement, averaged just over 5 million viewers.

    The Office was fortunate for a couple of reasons, aside from NBC’s executives at the time being patient enough to let it air for a second season. First, before that second season premiered, series star Steve Carell headlined the very funny The 40-Year Old Virgin, which allowed audiences to accept him more easily as the obnoxious Michael Scott. Also, by the end of 2005, iTunes began selling episodes of The Office through its online store. A novelty at the time, this approach still led to the series’s younger and more tech-savvy audience purchasing episodes and eventually seasons all about the misadventures of the white-collar workers of Dunder Mifflin. (It helped that the series’s first Christmas episode partially centered around a Yankee Swap/White Elephant gift exchange in which a video-enabled iPod is up for grabs.) 

    If nothing else, this early success for The Office portended the reality that Nielsen viewership would no longer be the most reliant barometer of success. Where Friends and Frasier had series finales that were massively, out-of-the-box successful with audiences around the country, The Office wrapped its nine seasons with an extended episode that netted just 5.69 million live viewers, according to Nielsen. What’s more, that finale had the highest live ratings of any The Office Season 9 episode by a wide margin. (In comparison, three of the first season’s six episodes had higher ratings.)

    But live ratings only tell so much of the story. The Office has since become a huge success on streaming services, to the point where NBC has pursued revivals of the series over the years, now pushing forward with one that would co-star Domhnall Gleeson. And while both Friends and Frasier are now 20 years old, their legacies continue on — the former had a highly touted reunion special on Max in 2022 and the latter has inspired a revival series on Paramount+ that’s already been renewed for a second season. 

    While there aren’t as many widespread comedic hits now, two recent shows have broken through to get both critical and audience praise. On ABC, Abbott Elementary not only takes its cues from The Office in its setup, but has garnered enough success to be literally the only sitcom on the network’s upcoming fall schedule. Abbott Elementary doesn’t have Big Bang Theory-level ratings, but it’s also ABC’s highest-rated comedy in three years, while netting Emmys and celebrity cameos from Bradley Cooper and Kevin Hart. And the FX comedy The Bear has garnered similar praise from the industry, critics, and social-media fans, while also vaulting its lead, Jeremy Allen White, to stardom (with an upcoming leading role on the big screen as Bruce Springsteen). 

    Of course, it’s not just sitcoms that can harness the power of modern social media to create some sense of a community-wide hit. When Succession wrapped its four-season run in 2023, its finale wound up with the highest ratings the series ever had, with 2.9 million viewers. But considering its of-the-moment political commentary and satire, taking inspiration from the Murdoch family and right-wing politicos, its media coverage was non-stop, akin to how outlets covered Game of Thrones in its original run. (House of the Dragon, the highly touted GOT prequel, netted nearly 10 million viewers for its first-season finale, but hasn’t quite hit the same social-media presence as Succession, whose Cousin Greg memes are unavoidable even for those of us who’ve only seen a handful of episodes.) 

    Most recently, Landgraf’s own FX harnessed some big popularity online with its adaptation of Shōgun. Though its live ratings weren’t terribly remarkable — with just under 500,000 viewers watching the finale according to Nielsen — the attention it’s garnered online is all the more impressive considering that it requires its audience to pay attention due to the subtitled nature of many of its scenes. A couple years removed from the worldwide phenomenon of Squid Game, it’s not entirely shocking that American audiences are willing to pay attention to non-English-language series, but the online fandom is a sign that people still crave the experience not just of watching something creatively exciting, but sharing that experience.

    Series finales can naturally create such a communal experience. With Must-See titles like Friends and Frasier (as well as the notoriously controversial finale of Seinfeld), the nature of the shared experience was obvious. These were shows people had made time for on a weekly basis for a decade, and even if the ending wasn’t going to be remarkable, the audience had to see them to the bitter end. (Arguably, both Friends and Frasier had seen better days creatively. Between the two final episodes, the most memorable moment has always been the very last line of Friends, fittingly a playfully sarcastic remark from Chandler Bing.) 

    The downside of the series finale as shared experience is that endings are awfully tough, whether for shows that weren’t heavily plot-driven like Frasier or for a program that was all about plot. (Looking at you, Game of Thrones.) Twenty years later, Friends and Frasier may not have served as the final hurrah for any kind of communal viewing experience, but they did end up being an accidental flashpoint in the history of how audiences consume TV. 

    Josh Spiegel is a writer and critic who lives in Phoenix with his wife, two sons, and far too many cats. Follow him on Bluesky at @mousterpiece.