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TV Flashback: Why May 3, 2001 Was a Night to Remember

Friends raised the white flag as Survivor took all comers twenty years ago today.
  • (Photos: CBS, NBC, The WB)
    (Photos: CBS, NBC, The WB)

    With so much TV history in our collective history, we're never short on anniversaries to celebrate when it comes to landmark episodes or events. But sometimes it's just as fascinating to peek in on a regular day in TV history and remember what was happening across the dial. Today we're taking a look at the Primetime TV grid for May 3, 2001, the first Thursday of May sweeps for the 2000-01 TV season. Featured on this night was an epic primetime showdown between the two most watched shows on TV, an Emmy-winning performance by an Oscar-winning actress, one WWF superstar being sent to the hospital, and … well, for some reason FOX aired Die Hard with a Vengeance.

    Friends versus Survivor

    The biggest story of the 2001 spring TV season was the Thursday night battle between NBC's Friends and CBS's Survivor. The reality TV juggernaut had premiered the previous summer to huge ratings, but CBS's decision to bring it back in the spring, on Thursday nights, head-to-head against the biggest show on television, was seen as a very risky move. But it paid off, and after Survivor: The Australian Outback premiered directly following the Super Bowl, it settled into a time-slot grudge match against the gang from Central Perk.

    NBC didn't take the challenge lying down. For the entire month of February, Friends aired "super-sized" episodes, going longer than its 30-minute allotment, in an attempt to keep viewers from hopping over to Survivor at 8:30. Regardless, the Outback antics of Colby, Jerri, Alicia, Kimmi, and the f*cking chickens were winning the war, and by the first week in May, Friends' ratings had started to drop significantly, from 25 million viewers for the season 7 premiere to 16 million viewers for the last week of April. With the three-hour Survivor finale airing this night, NBC ended up waving a white flag of surrender, airing a clip show, "The One with the Vows," followed by a rerun of "The Truth About London" from earlier in the season.

    "The One with the Vows" follows the classic sitcom framing of a clip show, with the episode setting up a scenario — in this case, Monica and Chandler separately trying to write their wedding vows — that allows the characters to reminisce about old times. In this case, we got a greatest hits of the Chandler/Monica relationship, including the clip of Monica describing all seven erogenous zones, the candle-lit proposal scene from the end of Season 6, and pretty much every notable moment from "The One Where Everybody Finds Out" (a smart choice, considering that's the best Friends episode of all time). Still, the episode failed to keep the audience from fleeing to Survivor in droves, and it ranks as the lowest rated Friends episode of all time.

    Meanwhile, on Survivor, the final episode, "The Most Deserving," marked the only time that a Survivor finale began with only three players. The big decision in the episode was whether Colby would take Keith (who nobody really liked very much) or Tina (who most of the players did like) to the final 2 with him. Colby decided Tina was more worthy than Keith, took the Tennessee mom to the finals, and ended up losing the million dollars, proving once again that on Survivor strategy will always triumph, because good is dumb.

    Survivor was the only show on TV that ever made Friends look weak, and it was a sign that NBC's Thursday night lineup wouldn't be invincible forever. That said, once Survivor went off the air following the May 3rd finale, Friends would rebound with monster ratings for its own season finale, featuring Chandler and Monica's wedding and the blockbuster reveal that Rachel was pregnant, which led to Friends re-taking the Thursday-night ratings crown in its eighth season, when it was matched up against Survivor: Africa.

    Availability: Friends is streaming on HBO Max, while Survivor: The Australian Outback is streaming on Hulu.

    Must See TV

    Friends wasn't the only show that had to match up against the Survivor finale on May 3rd. The entire Must-See TV lineup had to combat the three-hour CBS behemoth. On the Will & Grace third-season episode "Alice Doesn't Lisp Here Anymore," Jack thinks he's won an award at a gay cabaret award show, while Will accompanies Grace to the funeral of who she thinks is an old classmate she bullied in high school, but who turns out to be alive after all.

    Will & Grace was followed by Just Shoot Me, the sitcom starring Laura San Giacomo, Wendie Malick, David Spade, and the late George Segal, about the goings on at a fashion publication in New York City, which was then in its fifth season. In this particular episode, "Maya Stops Thinking," San Giacomo's character has a one-night stand with guest-star Dean Cain. Just Shoot Me arguably epitomizes the Must-See TV era even better than the big hits like Friends, Seinfeld, and Frasier in that this was a show that lasted seven seasons despite making a minimal impact on popular culture, simply by riding the ratings wave provided by lead-ins and lead-outs like Friends and ER.

    Availability: Both Will & Grace and Just Shoot Me are streaming on Hulu.

    Emergency Room Antics

    NBC's 10PM drama in 2001 was still ER, which was in the midst of a transition season, its seventh. At the end of season 6, Julianna Margulies's Carol Hathaway left the show for good, to be with Doug Ross (George Clooney made a cameo return), marking the end of the first era of the show. Season 7 still featured original cast members like Anthony Edwards, Noah Wyle, and Eriq LaSalle, but Edwards and LaSalle would be gone within a few years, and this was when the next generation of central characters were emerging, like Maura Tierney's Abby Lockhart and Goran Vijnic's Luka Kovac. The growing pains were evident, with characters like Cleo (Michael Michele) and Malucci (Erik Palladino) who never quite clicked. One highlight was Sally Field's Emmy Award-winning performance as Abby's bipolar mother, who in this episode — "Fear of Commitment" — is facing a court hearing to determine whether she'll be committed to a 90-day psych hold after trying to kill herself. Both Field and Tierney excel in this episode, and it's worth checking out for them … and for the scenes of Dr. Weaver (Laura Innes) treating a pair of feuding Furries.

    Availability: Streaming on Hulu.

    Dubba, Dubba, Dubba…

    The WB Thursday nights had finally landed on a successful lineup in 2000-01. After giving up on Ryan Murphy's fabulous and misunderstood Popular, punting it to Friday nights, they premiered a new series from a then-unknown Amy Sherman-Palladino about a close-knit mother and daughter pair living in idyllic small-town Connecticut. Gilmore Girls never broke any ratings records, but it was a solid performer for seven seasons. This night saw the episode "P.S. I Lo…", which find Rory (Alexis Bledel) dealing (poorly) with her breakup with Dean (Jared Padelecki) and the fact that Lorelai (Lauren Graham) is dating her teacher again.

    Gilmore Girls was paired with the third season of Charmed, the original sister-witches series starring Holly Marie Combs, Alyssa Milano, and Shannen Doherty. Only not for too much longer, as Doherty's character, eldest sister Prue, would be killed off in a mere two weeks.

    Thursday Night Fights

    WWF Smackdown had been going strong for nearly two years on UPN by this point, during a serious boom era for the now-WWE. This particular episode featured a LOT of backstage brawling between Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Undertaker, which culminated in Undertaker throwing Austin through a plate glass window.

    It's comforting to remember that back in the spring of 2001, we could sit ourselves in front of the TV set, watch a Tennessee mom win Survivor, Chandler and Monica write their wedding vows, Sally Field win an Emmy, Rory and Lorelai Gilmore get in an argument, and Stone Cold Steve Austin get thrown through a plate glass window, all in the span of three hours.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Survivor, Charmed (1998 series), ER, Friends, Gilmore Girls, Just Shoot Me!, Will & Grace, WWE Smackdown!