Wednesday, April 29, 2009

FRIENDShip: TV Pals In Comparison

In this day and age of Facebooking, Twittering and Linking-In, friendship has become the cornerstone and central aspect of every relationship in today's society. Friends are no longer only defined as those with whom we grew up, or as non-familial intimate associates. Amicable aspects of human relating have expanded into, among other arenas, the work place (between co-workers, and employer/employee relations), and in the home.

In the increasingly complicated category of the central kindred unit, however, the traditional family has extended past the husband/wife, parents/children/siblings category with parent-like types (mom's boyfriend, dad's girlfriend), ex-spouses, step-siblings, adopted children, gay and lesbian companions, and people forced to co-habitat for no other reason but economics.

No other television show so clearly and humorously addresses the enlarged family significance of the new friendship, than the super Friends, which had it's original run on NBC (1994-2004), and which remains a hit in syndication. The program's executive producers, David Crane and Marta Kaufman, once confirmed that Friends storylines would always be parceled out in six equal portions. They held true to that ideal, and kept us entertained with witty dialogue, a frenetic, yet controlled pace and, quite simply, brilliant performances by their cast.

As we have come to know, the series originally revolved around a close-knit sextet of twentysomething New York singles who overdose on conversation and coffee at the Central Perk gathering hole. There's Monica Geller (portrayed by Courtney Cox), a neat-freak assistant chef; Ross Geller (David Schwimmer), her on-the-rebound older brother; Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow), her spaced out blonde college chum; Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston), Monica's rich-girl roomie; and their across-the-hall neighbors, Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc); a himbo actor; and Chandler Bing (Mathew Perry), an acerbic office worker.
The characters evolved over the years and, in the process, showcased just how challenging (and humorous) it can be to sustain relationships. In the beginning, all were unattached, romantically, though Schwimmer's Ross retained a massive crush on Aniston's semi-oblivious Rachel from their days in elementary school. Rachel (who left her groom at the altar), and Ross eventually hook-up, then separate, get married, divorced, have a child, and then ultimately marry (and only true fans can understand the dynamics of those developments).

Monica and Chandler eventually fall in love and wed, while Joey and Phoebe remain romantically unattached to each other, while dating a ton of significant others. The gang's relationships with parents, co-workers, each other and themselves continued to present various challenges, as this intensely cheery group of people carried on a mutual, moderate admiration (which is ultimately more tangible).

A closer look at the characters and the actors who portrayed them may hold additional friendly insight.

Courtney Cox, who played Monica Geller, began her show business career as an audience member who was pulled on stage to dance in Bruce Springsteen's mainstream breakthrough video/single, Dancing in the Dark. She auditioned for the gig as a fluke, after accompanying an actress friend of hers who sought the very part Cox won. Reportly, Friends co-stars David Schwimmer, Matthew Perry and Lisa Kudrow were once concerned that Cox, the biggest name of the group when the show premiered (she was last scene regularly as girlfriend to Michael J. Fox on TV's Family Ties), might have had a star persona or attitude. "I thought she'd be a little aloof and celebrity-ish," Kudrow once confessed oh-so-honestly in an interview. "And she wasn't at all. She's so great." As to Courtney's perspective on Monica Geller, her TV persona, she said: "She's the most normal. She has her quirks. She's compulsive, but she's the voice of reason."

David Schwimmer: This down-to-earth actor has a similarly humble parallel to his TV self, Ross Geller. Schwimmer, who became known to the general television audience though semi-regular roles on The Wonder Years and NYPD Blue, once relayed how his character is "...the 90's Guy, struggling with old fashioned values in a contemporary world." Though some Friends cast members were initially effusive about Cox, none turned green with envy for Schwimmer as a stand-out star. His character's plight (Ross' wife left him for a woman, then discovered she was caring his child) and the actor's wistfully neurotic line readings have delivered many of Friends biggest laughs. "It's always nice to have a vulnerable character - girls love that stuff - and that's Ross," Cox once said. "He's got this quality I admire and hate at the same time," Matthew Perry once revealed. "I admire it because nobody else has that hurt-guy style, and I hate it because every single woman on the face of the planet wants him." Early on, Schwimmer said he didn't want the Friends focus to shift to his (or any other) character. "That would be the downfall of the show," he relayed. "All of us signed up to do an ensemble" (and, ultimately, made millions of dollars a year in a all-or-nothing stick-together deal with NBC and Warner Bros.)

Lisa Kudrow, otherwise known as Phoebe, introduced to TV audiences in shows like TV's classic, groundbreaking family drama, Life Goes On - on which she made her TV debut as a ditzy waitress. Kudrow also appeared on Bob, Bob Newhart's short-lived, sitcom of the early 1990s. Here, she played a similarly dippy Phoebe-like character who managed to attract sane viewers who identify with her wacky life perceptions. Once getting together with Friends, Kudrow pulled double duty in the show's first season, in which she also portrayed Phoebe's twin sister, Ursula (the air-headed waitress she occasionally played on NBC's Mad About You). With Friends, Ursula originally began dating Matt LeBlanc's Joey (and later, a teacher played by the Oscar-nominated Sean Penn), and the long-estranged twins reunite. Does Kudrow have a twin in real life? No. Is she dating anyone special? She's married to Michel Stern, a French adman. As to how Kudrow perceives her role as Friends' main Buffay sister, Phoebe, the actress once declared to a reporter: "She's not stupid. She just has a different point of reference for everything. She's a little Nell-ish."

Jennifer Aniston once described her Friends TV alter-ego, Rachel Green, as "...not bitchy," but "spoiled." "She knows no other life," Aniston professed. And there are similarities between the actress and the character, including the shared trait of self-deprecation and modesty, and how such characteristics often become magnetic in establishing friendship. As Aniston recalled in an early interview, "I'm completely shocked that I'm on a show that's actually going [a hit]. One of her credits included a summer 1994 sitcom for CBS, entitled, Muddling Through, which was a no-winner. When it was pointed out to her that Friends may have the best-looking class in sitcom history, Aniston responded with, "I don't think, Oh, I'm Miss Outstanding-Looking Person. The last thing we think about is our looks, even though people think we do because our wardrobe and hair are so great" (Aniston went on to create a sensation with her alter-ego's rave hairstyle, which was ultimately referred to as the Rachel).

Matt LeBlanc once labeled his girl-crazy Joey Tribbiani character as "...honest...a result of his cloudy perception of the world." Now, of course, LeBlanc and Joey had their own Friends-spin-off on NBC. But then, David Schwimmer and Matthew Perry, who had their own early (and unfounded) issues with their misperceived arrogance of Courtney Cox, also had some initial skepticism with which they perceived LeBlanc, a onetime Levi's 501 jeans model. As Schwimmer once recalled of meeting LeBlanc: "I thought, Oh, great, here's this guy I'm going to work with for maybe five years, and he's...Joe Cool stud. Well, he's turned me around completely." Added Perry of LeBlanc: "He's an unbelievably nice guy in the body of a tough, get-out-of-my-way guy."

Matthew Perry once defined his screen presence as Chandler Bing, as "...the guy everybody thinks will do really well with women, but he thinks too much and says the wrong thing." While Chandler somehow managed to win Monica as his bride, Perry remains single, though clearly one of the most eligible bachelors in Hollywood. A wicked talent with spitfire line-elocution (so perfectly displayed in a recent guest-shot on FOX-TV's Ally McBeal), he shares only a few traits with his most famous small screen other self: They both have a penchant for coffee with cream and two equals.

Clearly, being equal is what Friends was really all about (especially regarding the cast's million-dollar contracts). Though the series has been out of production for almost two years, viewers will continue to pal around with the show for years to come in syndicated reruns, feasting on the immutable essence and image of friendship, while enjoying a hearty, healthy and very happy dose of friendly humor.

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