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    Posted on Feb 18, 2015

    Why Has There Never Been Another "Friends"?

    Many have tried, but those are hard shoes to fill.

    Warner Bros.

    Friends is – and this is irrefutable – a classic sitcom. As a television series, it was often very good: sharp and funny, with a rare and infectious chemistry between its cast members. The years have been very kind to it, partly because the jokes were so funny, but also, crucially, because the series never seemed to want to define itself with too many zeitgeisty pop culture mentions. Nobody ever droned on and on about hip new pagers, for example. The internet had a couple of moments within the entire 10 seasons (Ross and Chandler updating their alumni pages for escalating LOLs was one such occasion), but no character really tied a joke to pop culture in any real way. In the real world outside Central Perk, of course, we were all busy weaving Friends into our own lives.

    Warner Bros.

    The show did fail on some counts: The (wilful?) ignorance around race, the gentle but consistent hum of homophobia, and the persistent fatphobia have all been noted and cannot just be brushed aside under the reasoning that "it was a different time". The "jokes" about Monica's childhood size swiftly became uncomfortable, as did the regular ridicule of Chandler's dad's sexuality, and the intimation that activities involving two men (Ross and Joey's mutual naptime, for example) was "gay" and to be mocked ("Chandler kissed a guy!" crowed Ross in Season 7). Those problems, like the show's many high points, are worthy of inspection and critique.

    But it also frequently triumphed. In that column of the ledger, the riches are overflowing: complex male-female relationships that acknowledged that these were attractive twentysomethings who could also be (mostly) platonic, series-long jokes that never got old (Joey wasn't very smart, Phoebe was a kook, Monica was a control freak, Ross was a terrible human person with a knack for physical comedy, Chandler was the grown-up all along, and Rachel was The Girl Who Finally Grew Up), the inherent comedy that lies in living within a co-dependent group of friends... Not everything Friends did was brand new, but over the course of a decade, it inspired many others to try and create similar (and indeed better, more inclusive) worlds on television. And as television informs so much of real life (and vice versa), that's no bad thing.

    Warner Bros.

    In the years since Friends ended (there have been 11; count 'em), many pretenders have come along to fill the void. Friends Replacement Therapy (FRT), if you will. The criteria largely stay the same, with occasional tweaks: a group of friends (perhaps including a sibling situation) in a resolutely urban landscape, plus a central "hangout space", dating woes (where applicable), and the planning of elaborate absolutely-wouldn't-work-in-the-real-world japes.

    So, the FRT Checklist includes the following: 1) A true ensemble cast, in their late twenties. 2) An urban setting. 3) Dating misadventures. 4) Actual real jokes, not just a manipulative laugh track. 5) A sibling/sibling-like relationship within the group. 6) An airing on E4 in the UK.

    Here, then, are the contenders (subjective and incomplete, of course) for the much-coveted title of "The New Friends".

    Happy Endings; three seasons

    A straw poll on Twitter suggested Happy Endings was the clear winner in the Friends Replacement Therapy stakes. It's not hard to see why: The cast had a chemistry that belied their tender years, and the gag rate was breathtaking. This show did not care too much about losing the audience in a flood of pop culture references – and flood them they did. In one episode, Max tells Penny: "You're not the only one who's good at this, Emily Thorne," a reference to the show's ABC stablemate, Revenge. In another unforgettable moment, he does a needlessly complex riff on Mary Tyler Moore's name. And then there's the magnificence of Jane and Brad strolling through their building lobby to Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day".

    Bob D'Amico / ABC

    The jokes relied on an audience that was literate in the full range of pop culture references, and the show operated on a motto that loosely read: "If you don't get this one, there'll be another along in a second!" Most crucially of all, the jokes were splendid.

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    Greatest hits: that cast! Most of the show's alumni have gone on to do great things: Damon Wayans Jr is back on New Girl (which he originally left after the pilot to focus on Happy Endings); Casey Wilson is on Marry Me (but also the much funnier Hotwives of Orlando); Adam Pally's riding out his last days on The Mindy Project; and Eliza Coupe, Elisha Cuthbert, and Zachary Knighton are doing telly bits and bobs. This is not a cast that failed.

    FRT Checklist: 1) A true ensemble cast, with everyone given the time to shine, definitely in their late twenties. 2) Set in Chicago. 3) Penny and Max had enough love and sex misadventures for several shows. 4) Joke-a-rama. 5) Sisters Alex and Jane. 6) E4 aired it.

    The Class; one season

    From partners Jeffrey Klarik and David Crane (who went to create Episodes together; Crane is one of the creators of Friends) came this one-season "wonder". It was not wonderful. Like Friends, it started with a dumping and a reunion: a broken engagement at an engagement party that saw the invitees reconnect for the first time since the third grade.

    Warner Bros.

    The alchemy of The Class was just a little off. No doubt the players were talented and indeed in possession of funnybones. But the gel that should've held the whole together was weak. Special mention to Lizzy Caplan, who was considered the best thing in it (she often is, and went on to greatness in Masters of Sex), and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, now killing it in Modern Family. The rest of the cast included two Brits, Lucy Punch and Sean Maguire (she's now in Into The Woods; he's playing Robin Hood in Once Upon a Time); Jon Bernthal, who died beautifully in the all-conquering The Walking Dead; Jason Ritter, who moved on to Lauren Graham's character in Parenthood; and Andrea Anders, who was in the underrated and unlawfully retired Better off Ted and recently guest-starred on Modern Family. I doubt they're crying over what could've been.

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    With more time, it is possible The Class could've become something. But on the evidence of the single season, it seems unlikely.

    FRT Checklist: 1) A true ensemble cast, yes, but overcrowded. Eight is just too many for sitcom magic. Definitely in their late twenties. 2) Set in a Philadelphia curiously free of black people. 3) Not so many dating misadventures. 4) The jokes were...not good. 5) Twin sisters Kat and Lina. 6) E4 aired it.

    How I Met Your Mother; nine seasons

    The Twitter straw poll suggested How I Met Your Mother was the second-closest thing to a post-Friends Friends replacement. It's easy to see why: five relatively attractive people in New York (not one a person of colour, though!), navigating their late twenties and early thirties with one another's help, and failing in big and small ways throughout.

    In Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), there was a straight-up villain (who by show's end had received a heart from the wizard); Marshall and Lily were love's young dream (sprinkled with the occasional spikiness of a long-term relationship); Robin was the Miranda (of Sex and the City – keep up) of the group, career-minded, pragmatic, uninterested in (and then unable to have) kids; and Ted was a combination of all the Friends: a dreamer like Pheebs, needy and irritating like Ross, sometimes funny like Chandler, deeply ignorant like Joey, anally retentive like Monica, and flighty like Rachel. It goes without saying that Ted was often deeply unlikeable.


    Carter Bays and Craig Thomas' show was exactly what the doctor ordered: These were beautiful people, but not too beautiful, not too rich, and not too annoying (except for Ted). Their problems were relatable – work, love, family etc – and largely solvable. It arguably went on too long, and many fans found the show's finale to be a letdown, but for three solid seasons, there was no touching this. Also: Robin Sparkles.

    FRT Checklist: 1) A true ensemble cast, with judicious use of catchphrases. Late twenties. 2) Set in a New York with more people of colour than the Friendsverse. 3) Many, many dating misadventures. 4) Solid jokes, for the first three seasons at least. 5) No siblings. 6) E4 aired it.

    Ben and Kate; one season

    Dana Fox's superlatively charming series – centred around a head-in-the-clouds brother and feet-firmly-on-the-ground sister – was cut down in the prime of life. It's hard to see why: The jokes were solid, (a pre-Fifty Shades) Dakota Johnson was a heroine to root for, Nat Faxon was a charm-bomb, and Echo Kellum gave me every "quirky black boy" feel I didn't even know I was looking for. Lucy Punch was reliably good as well, the salt to Johnson's sugar. Plus, the show had one of the cutest child actors of all time in Maggie Elizabeth Jones. How do they make them so excellent in the US? Is it the fluoride in the water?

    20th Century Fox Television

    Perhaps audiences weren't ready for such an affable sitcom with a single mother and her loveable screw-up of a brother at its core. But this show had legs from the very first episode, with a strong idea of who each of the characters were and what made them tick. Watching it was like putting on an old shoe: It felt right, and cosy. It also perfectly captured two important things: all-encompassing male friendships (Faxon and Kellum had such chemistry) and the simple pleasure of taking part in a warm-hearted snark-free laugh. Ultimately, perhaps that's what killed it – the perceived lack of edge, which in actuality just indicated a sitcom confident of its old-fashioned allure.

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    FRT Checklist: 1) Ensemble-ish, but with a definite focus on Kate. It worked, though. 2) Set in Los Angeles. 3) Some dating misadventures, but with repeat partners. 4) Great jokes, lots of zip. 5) Titular brother and sister. 6) ITV2, not E4, aired it.

    New Girl; four seasons – ongoing

    Who's that girl? It's Jess! It's the show that ignited the spark on the "what even is adorkable?" thinkpiece bonfire, before everyone settled down and realised just how great a property it was. The premise was built very clearly on the star power and awkward comedy chops of Zooey Deschanel (Jess), who moves into a loft with three guys (Winston, Nick, and Schmidt) in Los Angeles. That's it. That's the show. It looks like the most simple of equations but what emerges is a near flawless single-camera sitcom that has the holy trinity: jokes, heart, and bags of chemistry.

    Elizabeth Meriwether Pictures / 20th Century Fox Television

    After two wonderful seasons, the writers made Jess and Nick a fully fledged couple, and the show unravelled a tad in the third season. For a show so wedded to the absurdities of dating in LA, the Nick/Jess dalliance was a bothersome development, but it seems to be rallying again, focusing on what made the show so watchable and great in the first place: Winston leaning into his weirdness, Coach revealing his layers, Jess doing Lucille Ball-level comedy work, Schmidt being a loveable douchecanoe, and Nick being a grumpy young fogey. When it works, it really bloody works.

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    FRT Checklist: 1) Didn't look like an ensemble but very quickly became one. Everyone pulls their weight here. 2) Set in Los Angeles (and with three people of colour in the main cast!). 3) Plenty of dating misadventures. 4) Great, assured jokes, with self-awareness as standard. 5) No siblings. 6) E4 is still airing it.

    The Big Bang Theory; eight seasons – ongoing

    This was the third favourite of the FRT shows, according to my unofficial Twitter poll. Many respondents were at pains to explain that they didn't exactly love (or even like) the show, but that in terms of cultural cachet and reach, it's the one to beat. Chuck Lorre's behemoth can be summed up as "four geeks and a girl": Penny (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting) lives across the hall from theoretical physicist Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and experimental physicist Leonard (Johnny Galecki) – who harbours a not-so-secret crush. The pair's friends, astrophysicist Raj (Kunal Nayyar) and aerospace engineer Howard (Simon Helberg) often visit, and the four go to the comic book store, play Halo, order in food, and generally nerd out. The main source of hilarity is that Penny is an attractive blonde who is not a scientist, and that Sheldon is a peculiar man. It is wildly popular.


    The thing with TBBT is that it's just not very warm, even though Chuck Lorre is clearly capable of it – one of his earlier shows, Dharma and Greg, was mostly a beating heart, swaddled in hippy hemp. TBBT hits many pop-culture beats: The guys are into comic books and conventions, they love gaming, they're "the nerds next door"... But the jokes (in the earlier seasons at least) are, to my eyes, tinged with a mocking hardness, and the targets of the punchlines are often the same people delivering the gags. The affection in Friends never felt like it had to be earned, but that is not the feeling this show telegraphs. Of course, I am one voice in what the viewing figures suggest is a very small chorus, so perhaps it's all wonderful and my sense of humour needs retuning. Bazinga.

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    FRT Checklist: 1) Very ensemble, but still manages too much Sheldon. 2) Set in Pasadena, California. 3) Some dating misadventures, but really, these dudes are more or less dating one another. 4) Some good jokes, mostly mildly amusing and very broad. 5) No sibling relationships. 6) E4 is still airing it, and probably will forever.

    Coupling; four seasons

    I remember reading many "It's the British Friends!" notices when Steven Moffat's sitcom debuted in 2000. It wasn't. But it was a perfectly formed version of what it was: Six British people having pints and pretending to be normal, functioning adults. The couple at the centre were Susan (Sarah Alexander) and Steve (Jack Davenport), and orbiting around them were their friends Jeff (Richard Coyle), Sally (Kate Isitt), Patrick (Ben Miles), and Jane (Gina Bellman). It was all very Venus and Mars – why are men this way, while women are that way? – and had lots of "he said, she said" moments, leaving us to decipher conversations between the sexes. It also had a bangin' theme tune.


    Consider this: Coupling was eventually remade in the US and Greece (both versions bombed and sank without trace) and won a British Comedy Award, so it is fair to say it was successful in its original incarnation. The thing is, the jokes haven't aged terribly well, even as the situations they're illustrating have persisted. The Coupling alumni have done remarkably well, appearing in TV, theatre, and movies such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Last Tango in Halifax, Prince of Persia, Stardust, Ripper Street, and Wolf Hall. For a time, we were very happy to have them work out their dating dilemmas on our television screens.

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    FRT Checklist: 1) Solid ensemble, with entire episodes given to each character over the course of the series. Late twenties and thirties. 2) Set in London (yay!), but solidly Caucasian (boo!). 3) Too many dating misadventures to cover. 4) Solid, but also a bit stolid. Jeff was easily the best, most relatable character. 5) No siblings. 6) BBC, not E4.

    Rules of Engagement; seven seasons

    I have a confession to make: I actually didn't mind Rules of Engagement. It reminds me of The King of Queens in its simplicity, designed to make middle America laugh and take their minds off things like gas prices and universal healthcare. The cast was mostly couples: Jeff and Audrey and Adam and Jen, plus professional creepster Russell and foreign-so-let's-laugh-at-him-a-bit Timmy. The conceit was that couples change over the course of their relationships (Jeff and Audrey were older, more established), and isn't it funny how that happens? As a counter to all the settled down rituals, they cast David Spade as a sort of ageing singleton with daddy issues. Russell was a mixed bag: He got given some great jokes and a lot of worrying dating behaviour. We do not need the distance of time to see just how creepy his ways were.


    The interesting thing here is how most of the cast weren't unlined and unworried twentysomethings. Jeff and Audrey struggled with fertility issues and Russell's age and single status was often (gently) ridiculed. Adam and Jen were youngish but settled. Which left Timmy, who had a British accent (he was South African) and was smart and responsible, not a wild hit with the ladies, and a little timid (although he often got his revenge on his awful boss with pleasing alacrity). The show also had a good number of recurring gay characters, who were not necessarily played for laughs: Sara Rue played Jeff and Aud's lesbian surrogate, and Orlando Jones played Brad, a gay man who, with his partner, Jackie, went on double dates with Jeff and Audrey. For a gentle network comedy, that was fairly cool, even in 2009.

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    FRT Checklist: 1) An ensemble cast, although pretty much all of them had left their twenties. 2) Set in New York, with a sprinkling of people of colour, not least with the Poochie-like addition of Timmy in the fourth season. 3) Some (creepy) dating misadventures, but mostly "coupled up" issues. 4) Broad, gentle comedy for a network audience, but engaging nonetheless. 5) No siblings. 6) It was on E4. A lot.

    Perfect Couples; one season

    Have you ever watched a show where you felt sorry for every single gifted performer involved? Like, "Why are you doing this?!" ticker-taped through your head the entire time you're watching? That's what it was like to watch Perfect Couples. Created by Jon Pollack (formerly of 30 Rock) and Scott Silveri (co-creator of Joey), the show was about three couples with different relationship identities: "normal", "perfect", and "terrible". It was supposed to be a romantic comedy, but managed neither romance nor comedy, leaving behind only the vague stench of disappointment and recriminations, like an awful one-night stand. It's difficult to fully convey how bad this was.

    Universal Media Studios / NBC

    What was particularly galling was the wealth of talent involved in this project. The AV Club once described David Walton (Vance) as "a tall, scruffy drink of water", which perfectly captures his charming, offbeat ways – squandered in Perfect Couples. Instead, he often comes across as a manchild with mild anger issues. I like Olivia Munn, but this role was a straitjacket for her talents. Ditto Kyle Bornheimer and Christine Woods. It is difficult to believe that the finished product viewers got to see was the dream the showrunners had initially.

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    The cast's not dead in the water, though. Walton, also great in the curiously cancelled Bent, guest-starred as a love interest for Jess on New Girl and now has his own show, About a Boy; Bornheimer guest-starred in Brooklyn Nine Nine; Munn appeared in both Magic Mike (woo!) and New Girl; Ellis continues in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and guest-starred in New Girl; and Hayes MacArthur was a series regular on Go On. Nobody's too cut up about that one failed series they were in that one time.

    FRT Checklist: 1) Yes, an ensemble but full of shoddy characters. Late twenties. 2) Set in Portland. Put a bird on it. 3) No dating mishaps, but plenty of co-habiting ones. 4) Poor jokes, poor set-ups, a waste of so much talent. 5) No siblings. 6) E4 rammed it down our throats.

    Community; six seasons – ongoing

    Is Dan Harmon's college-set sitcom perfect? No. But it's often flirted dangerously with perfection. Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) gets sent back to community college and sets up a study group as a ruse to get into Britta's (Gillian Jacobs') pants. Instead, he gets Troy (Donald Glover), Pierce (Chevy Chase), Abed (Danny Pudi), Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), and Annie (Alison Brie). Everyone's learning how to be better humans, essentially, and they're doing it via jokes and hilarious situations.

    Mitchell Haaseth / NBC

    If Happy Endings likes pop culture, then Community makes sweet love to it, before enjoying a cigarette and spooning with it. The show is a reward for every person who loves everything – every joke is a gift to be unwrapped now or later, every seemingly throwaway sentence perfectly calibrated as a throwback or homage to specific film or TV show (or maybe just even a single scene from a film or TV show). Community is a love letter, a carefully curated mixtape from one pop culture fan to another. It is one of the finest television shows ever to exist.

    The myriad problems the show encountered – not least cancellation on NBC before being picked up again by Yahoo Screen – may have overshadowed its legacy in recent years, but there's no denying it: Harmon is an auteur, and his stamp is all over the show, from the themed episodes ("Basic Lupine Urology" and "Pillows and Blankets" were highlights) to the complex and singular narrative vision that the show possesses. Its identity has never been truly compromised, even during the Harmon-free years, which is rare and praiseworthy.

    Most importantly, no one who watched Community could get away with not laughing out loud.

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    The question is: Is Community a legit FRT contender? It fails spectacularly in many ways: It's a multi-generational show, totally not about twentysomethings navigating life in the city; there are no siblings; and the dating misadventures are largely incidental rather than integral to plots. BUT, the jokes are better than almost anything else on television, the enjoyment levels are through the roof, and it has stayed resolutely cult in its allure. I'll be honest – I only included this because I could.

    FRT Checklist: 1) A stunningly well put-together ensemble cast of varying ages, with up to four non-white cast members. 2) Set in fictional Greendale, Colorado. 3) Some dating misadventures within the ensemble and no slut-shaming. 4) Only the most intricate and excellent jokes. 5) No siblings. 6) Not E4, but music channel Viva aired it.

    Sorry if I missed out what you consider to be the best FRT show. Share yours in the comments!

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