It’s 1998. Thursday Night. The Papa John’s pepperoni pizza has been ordered and delivered, the beer and wine have been bought and the scene that is unfolding is currently taking place in a shoe box sized dorm room in Claremont, California. A group of college students gather around a tiny television ready for what has now become Must See TV. Friends kicks it off. Hilarity ensues. Laughter erupts as new catchphrases are uttered and discussions are held about plotlines, characters, and the actors who played them.
Friends is followed by Just Shoot Me, which is funny enough, although by this point, every Must See TV viewer knows that it’s never good to get too attached to those shows that fall in between Friends at 8 and Seinfeld at 9 and the same goes for whatever show is placed between Seinfeld and ER. The Single Guy, Caroline in the City, Suddenly Susan, Veronica’s Closet, while all pleasant shows never lasted too long. Will and Grace did not land a Must See TV Thursday spot until 2000 so back in 1998, we had those. ER was also appointment television. Hot doctors doing hot things while saving people and stuff, what could be more fun? In 1998, NBC was bulletproof.
And then it wasn’t.
In 2004, Oprah interviewed the Friends cast members months before they took their final bow. She asked them what NBC was going to? How were they going to fill that spot, that coveted, glorious spot that for almost ten years had been the home to six fictional friends we knew as well as we knew our own? The six joked that it would be filled by the Joey show, of course referring to Matt LeBlanc’s spin-off show, Joey. NBC’s 2004-2005 lineup did have Joey in that spot. Matt LeBlanc has since said that the show was doomed from the start and as a loyal, some might say weirdly obsessed fan, I have to agree. It was too strange to watch Joey without the other five.
In the 2003-2004 season, Friends was averaging 22 million viewers per episode. I was one in 22 million and by the next season, the only show that was getting anywhere near Friends numbers was American Idol and they averaged almost 21 million. NBC no longer had that juggernaut that was Friends and maybe that hit harder than anyone expected. The Apprentice and ER were seemingly their highest rated shows, but even those ratings couldn’t touch what the Friends legacy had left behind.
Regardless of your opinions as to whether or not Rachel should have gotten off that plane (spoiler alert), there is no denying that when that show ended, NBC got scared. While the other six actors have gone on to be quite successful post-Friends with hit TV comedy shows (Cougartown, Web Therapy, The Comeback, Episodes, The Odd Couple), hit movies (Jennifer Aniston) and directing (David Schwimmer and Courteney Cox), NBC still seems to be taking the Friends break-up the hardest, eleven years after it ended.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons everyone but the cast members want a reunion? The cast has moved on, NBC has not. They’ve become the person in every break up who stalks their exes page and mourns what once was while at the same time hoping to one day get it back.
Since the ending of Friends, there have been some successes at NBC. I will forever hold a soft spot for The Office, Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock. Those were funny shows, well written and while they never achieved the monumental success of the show about six friends, they were good shows with phenomenal actors who made you care deeply about the characters they played. You rooted for Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope, you wanted to throw your shoe at the television when Pam and Jim had marital problems on The Office–okay that could have just been me–but you cared. Parenthood, which recently ended its run, had the same effect. The viewers cared. They cried, they laughed, they grew with those characters. I still say, “that’s what she said” whenever appropriate because that is indeed what she said.
Now, with NBC canceling all of its sitcoms after a season once more, I wonder what happen? Did Friends really have that much power at NBC? That much of a hold? That doesn’t seem like the healthiest relationship. I think even Dr. Drew and Dr. Phil would totally agree with me that it’s never a good idea to be completely obsessed with one person or in this case: television show. Maybe the reason they canceled two of Matthew Perry’s shows after one season was because they were still bitter from the Friends break up and were taking it out on Matthew Perry and if that’s the case, the poor guy’s been through enough and Go On and Studio 60 were both really good shows.
Is the problem that there are now too many options? There’s Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, cable but there’s also TiVo and the ability to record shows to watch later. Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu allow you to stream an entire season at one time allowing for binge watching which I hate to brag, but I feel I invented binge watching television shows in high schools. I just called it a typical Saturday night. What? Oh, yeah and a show on cable typically repeats one episode about fifty-seven bazillion times (this number may not be accurate) but if you miss it once, chances are you’ll catch it. It’s like a cold, it’s pretty common.
So maybe the problem is not that there are too many options because like Modern Family or Scandal will prove, a good show is a good show and viewers will follow that show until the bitter end like I have done with American Idol, even though I don’t really know who is competing except Jax, but that’s just ’cause I know people named Jacqueline not ’cause I know what she’s singing.
So what is the problem? I tweeted Joseph Kapsch and Anthony Maglio of The Wrap and asked about that. Anthony Maglio said that NBC was lacking a sense of identity which I thought was kind of interesting and given the shows that are on major networks now, I think he makes a valid point.
On ABC, you have Modern Family, The Middle, Fresh off the Boat, The Goldbergs, Blackish which are all essentially shows about the family dynamic. Each family is a bit different but at the core of each show, the message is the same: nothing is more important than family because at the end of the day, no one will protect you more.
FOX has The New Girl and the now defunct, The Mindy Project, plus their Sunday cartoon line up of shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy. It’s about being different, quirky, looking at life in a different way.
CBS comedies are still those multi-camera shows. Big Bang Theory, Mike and Molly, The Odd Couple, Mom and you know what you’re getting. It’s just a typical sitcom with a setup, a joke, and a live studio audience. You get what you came for and it works.
NBC had workplace comedies like 30 Rock, The Office and Parks and Rec, but those are now gone. Next season, it seems like that have no comedies so what does NBC need to succeed again? Do they need to find a new identity or figure out what it is? Undateable is cute and they’ve done well with shows about quirky groups of friends in the past, maybe they need to go in that direction or is that too much like New Girl? Although some might say New Girl is a lot like Friends so…..
Joseph Kapsch said that NBC is greenlighting shows based on relationships rather than quality which I also found interesting. While I don’t know all the inner relationships of Hollywood, considering the fact that NBC canceled ten shows this season (two of those canceled shows, Parks and Rec and Parenthood, both ended their run) seven of them were comedies. So something is off with the quality.
I watched A to Z, One Big Happy, Marry Me and About a Boy and I think the issue with those three shows was that they were painting themselves into a corner. The comedic value had a shelf life. A couple in a relationship. A couple with a pregnant lesbian best friend? A couple planning a wedding? I was never quite sure what About a Boy was about because it didn’t always seem to be about the boy. All those shows seem to have a limited amount of stories to tell whereupon a workplace show or a show about family and/or friends could have tons of stories to tell.
While promoting Go On a few years back, Matthew Perry had joked about executives needing to lower their expectations. He had made that joke again during a Hollywood Round Table session. Do they need to? Maybe executives need to lower their expectations on the numbers side? Unless it’s a special event, Friends numbers are no longer possible it seems. Maybe they also need to let shows grow and develop and not stop them. Parks and Rec, The Office, and 30 Rock were allowed to develop and grow fan bases. Friends, Seinfeld, and Cheers were also allowed to grow. Those three shows, now considered classics, were not popular right out of the gate. All had numbers at the beginning that today would have resulted in a quick cancelation but they were allowed to find their own footing. I mentioned Go On and Studio 60, both shows had potential. They also need to stop moving shows around so much. I enjoyed Community, but I never knew what time it was on that week.
So what’s next for NBC? What will it take for them to be back on top? Lowered expectations? Finding themselves? Not hiring shows based on relationships? I am not an executive and I would never ever, ever want that job. Considering the fact that back in 1994, my first thought upon hearing that there was this new show called, Friends was that it was the worst name for a show ever and would get canceled quickly, I don’t think I’d be good at it. I do hope that NBC is eventually able to move past the heartbreak of Friends ending and can recapture what it once was…..good.