TV writers are hyping the Friends finale as the last gasp of television's last great situation comedy. To cite only the most literal example, the cover of Entertainment Weekly lumped Friends with the finales of Sex and the City and Frasier to ask, "Are Sitcoms Dead?" In today's fragmented TV universe, the theory goes, no single sitcom will again be able to garner an audience large enough for its finale to prompt an outburst of nationwide mourning. Highbrow sitcoms—the BBC's The Office, HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, Bravo's Significant Others—may live on as niche shows that appeal to the egghead crowd, but the TV masses have shown their preference for forensic crime dramas and reality television. Where have you gone, Mrs. Huxtable?
There are flaws in the sitcoms-are-dead hypothesis, beyond the fact that it's the kind of story that gets published every time a major sitcom goes off the air. For one, if greatness requires that a show be loved by the bulk of the TV-viewing audience, Friends fails the test. Most writers vastly overestimate the size of the Friends audience. (Sitcom declinists make no claims about the quality or critical reception of Friends, only its popularity.) Sure, it's been a Top 10 show from its inception, and it was the most-watched show on television as recently as the 2001-2002 season. But although Friends'eighth and ninth seasons were its highest-ranked seasons ever (No. 1 and No. 2 overall), the show isn't nearly as highly rated as it once was. It's just that its ratings remain higher than the still-lower ratings of other shows.
Only 21 million viewers tuned in last year, compared to the nearly 30 million viewers who watched during the Ross-and-Rachel heyday of Season Two. And fans haven't been coming back for the show's final episodes, either. During last week's time slot, more viewers watched CSI than the penultimate episode of Friends. As the South Florida Sun-Sentinel TV writer Tom Jicha pointed out this week, seven out of eight American homes don't watch Friends, and this season's ratings wouldn't have cracked the Top 20 for any show only a decade ago, in 1995. This is mass appeal?
But there's another, more fundamental problem with hailing Friends as the last great situation comedy: It misstates the genre to which the showbelongs. Friends isn't a sitcom. It's a soapcom, a soap opera masquerading as a situation comedy. The earworm theme song, the laugh track, and the gooey sentimentalism all conspire to fool viewers and critics into thinking they're watching a family sitcom like Growing Pains or Family Ties updated for urban tribes (a Golden Girls for the pre-retirement set). But the beautiful people with opulent lifestyles, the explicit sexual content (everybody's slept with everybody, Ross's ex-wife is a lesbian, Chandler's dad is a transvestite, etc.), the long multi-episode story arcs, and each season's cliffhanger ending are the show's real hallmarks. Days of Our Lives isn't the only soap opera that Joey has a role in. And this one's got jokes to boot.
Somewhere along the way, TV drama and TV comedy switched places. It's fairer to call shows like Law & Order and CSI "sitdramas" than it is to call Friends a sitcom. Law & Order's syndicated success hinges on the tidiness of each episode. You can shuffle them all together and deal them out in any order you like, and viewers won't even notice. But if you shuffled episodes from Friends' 10 seasons and aired them in random order, you wouldn't have the slightest bit of continuity from show to show. Friends is Dallaswithout the shootings.
Rather than wrapping up plots in 30 minutes, as sitcoms do, Friends stretches them over several episodes, or even several seasons (or in the case of Ross and Rachel, all 10). A conventional sitcom plot, such as Chandler kicking Joey out of his apartment, gets a three-show treatment on Friends. Most sitcoms would feel obliged to slap "To Be Continued … " on any plot that lasts longer than half an hour. But the soapcom only very rarely begins even with a "Previously on Friends … " summation for the uninitiated. Believe it or not, Friends is structurally most similar to a show like The X-Files: Episodes are occasionally self-contained, but most expand upon series-long story arcs that grows more convoluted and harder for non-devotees to follow with each passing season.
On sitcoms, of course, big changes sometimes happen. As with Friends, characters get married, or have babies, or go to London. But the writers of sitcoms use such plot devices as exogenous shocks to try to revive a dying system. Can't think of anything new to write? Have the family adopt a homeless kid! Friends, by contrast, never pretended that it was about a static environment, an unchanging "situation" in which to insert comedy. You don't tune in to Friends to watch wacky hijinks—Will Chandler get stuck in an ATM booth? Will Phoebe land a music video?—but to find out what happens next in a plotline you've been following. How will Ross react when he sees Rachel with flowers at the airport? Whose room did Ross walk into, Rachel's or Bonnie's? Will Emily abandon Ross for saying Rachel's name at the altar? What will happen after Ross and Rachel's drunken Las Vegas wedding? Even Cheers, which had soapcom elements, didn't rely on plot to this extent.
Which is why, I think, when the writers of Friends referred to the demise of another TV show last week, it wasn't a sitcom. One of the most enjoyable things about Friends is the occasional ways that it comments upon itself as television. In the beginning, the frame of reference for the show was the sitcom universe. In the pilot alone, Rachel watches the Joanie and Chachi wedding from Happy Days ("See, but Joanie loved Chachi! That's the difference!" she says), and Monica refers to Joey and Chandler as "Lenny and Squiggy." Ten years later, the point of comparison is a different one: Bemoaning Rachel's imminent departure for Paris, Chandler says, "It feels like when Melrose Place got cancelled." Exactly.