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Fifteen Years Later, What the Friends Finale Got Right (and Wrong)

The most iconic sitcom of the 90s coasted into a quiet landing.
  • David Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc, Courteney Cox, Paul Rudd, Lisa Kudrow in the Friends series finale (NBC)
    David Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc, Courteney Cox, Paul Rudd, Lisa Kudrow in the Friends series finale (NBC)

    When Friends concluded its 10-season run fifteen years go with an episode appropriately titled “The Last One,” it exited prime time with a whimper, not a bang. While it remains the most-watched sitcom episode of the 21st century (a record that’s unlikely to be broken anytime soon), and one can still be assured of catching a rerun on one channel or the other several times a day (or on Netflix at literally any time), the series finale almost never enters conversations about the show’s enduring legacy or about memorable series finales in general. Which sets it apart from shows like Cheers and Seinfeld, whose well- and poorly-received finales (in that order) live large in those show's legacies.

    And, indeed, while the episode puts a period at the end of each Friend’s sentence, it declines to make a sweeping holistic statement about the show’s trajectory, nor does it send the story careening in a new direction. Instead, it answers the questions it raised over the course of the season and then quietly leaves its keys on the counter as it exits. It’s basically just another late-season episode of Friends — no more, no less.

    The biggest question coming into the finale -- and probably the biggest question of the series as a whole -- concerned Ross and Rachel. Would they wind up together? Of course they did. That much was inevitable. But the endgame, as it played out in the finale, missed the mark, even as the setup showed promise: Rachel’s taken a dream job in Paris, but spends one last night with Ross right before she’s scheduled to leave, setting the stage for Ross to want her back.

    But seemingly the only options in play as Ross gears up to declare his love are: “Rachel moves to Paris without Ross” or “Rachel abandons her career plans and grounds a flight in order to stay in New York with Ross.” Since so much of the Ross/Rachel relationship was historically centered around Rachel adjusting to or accepting Ross’s screw-ups, it is fully in character for him to insist she change for him, but it’s striking that “Ross jumps on a plane to be with Rachel and Emma in Paris” is seemingly off the table completely. It would have shown some interesting character growth if he had, and feels like a real missed opportunity. (Ironically, two weeks later, Frasier Crane would end his own series by hopping a plane to “go see about a girl” himself.)

    The show’s other iconic couple, Monica and Chandler, enjoyed a less-fraught trajectory over the course of the series, and accordingly, they enjoyed a quieter, sweeter conclusion to their story. Anna Faris, then an up-and-comer, wrapped up a credibly funny arc as Erica, the dimwitted birth mother of their (surprise!) twins. It beggared belief even back in 2004 that twins could be a surprise to anyone giving birth under modern medical care, but Faris sold it as well as could be expected. Chandler’s gobsmacked initial reaction -- “what do you say we keep one and then just like have an option on the other one?” -- is also a little over-the-top, even at the time, and even for Chandler, but Chandler said many things that haven't aged well, so why quibble over just the one?

    The most interesting aspect of the Friends finale is how few of the series’ loose ends (Ross and Rachel aside) were tied up in the finale itself versus being gradually resolved throughout the final season. Though we did finally get to meet their children in the finale, Monica and Chandler’s best preparing-for-parenthood moments (not to mention Erica’s best lines) happened in the first half of the season. Worse yet, the season effectively left a third of the Friends without a journey to speak of as the show entered the home stretch. The fact that Phoebe gets the majority of the final episode’s best lines (“Do you know how many hot guys there are in Paris? It’s like a city of Gunthers!”) doesn’t make up for the fact that she doesn’t actually have very much to do in the finale -- or, indeed, at any point after her wedding five episodes prior.

    Joey, too, gets short shrift with a nonsensical C-plot involving a new chick and duck trapped inside the allegedly-iconic foosball table. Granted, he needed to be well rested for his spinoff, but he veritably sleepwalked through his final Friends moments.

    More than that, though, none of the six main characters landed in a resting place that seemed any more final than in any other Friends season finale. The show had closed out previous seasons with births, weddings, moves, hookups, and even last-minute airport runs. Maybe the show had just told those stories so many times, it was too much of a challenge to make the series finale any more authoritative without going completely off the rails. Regardless, the final Friends episode ever can't help but feel a little too typical.

    Monica and Chandler vacating that familiar improbably cheap, purple-walled, West Village apartment felt like the end of an era, to be sure, but it was the only true stamp of finality in that last episode. It was a little too easy to picture another season or two in which Ross and Rachel’s perennial break-taking and reconciliation continued apace; Monica and Chandler made a lot of diaper jokes; and Joey disappeared temporarily, only to rejoin the cast without comment once his spinoff flamed out. While it’s to the show's credit that they didn’t go that route, it feels as though they left the door open just a crack, in case it might happen.

    Given the fact that Friends is just about the only 90s sitcom that has yet to be rebooted, there's a decent chance it still will.

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    Jessica Liese has been writing and podcasting about TV since 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @HaymakerHattie

    TOPICS: Friends, NBC, Courteney Cox, David Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc