TELEVISION Friends (Channel 4)

Jasper Rees wonders why we're not able to write sitcoms that can hold a punchline to the well-oiled product from across the pond
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The Independent Culture
Steeling itself against the triumphal return of Friends, the BBC blockaded the schedules with heavy guns. The first ever episode of Are You Being Served? crumpled on impact. The last ever episode of Blackadder Goes Forth put up stiffer resistance: the finale in which the cast went over the top is one of the few occasions when a British comedy has matched the pathos organic to the superior US models.

But deploying a battering ram never before seen on TV - two episodes back to back - Friends made short work of the opposition. More than even its direct descendant Frasier, also back last night, Friends has picked up the baton from Cheers. In the psychoanalyst siblings, Frasier offers only two genuinely original comic creations, whereas Friends is an ensemble piece: like Cheers, it shuffles its characters downstage and up, episode to episode, and so well oiled is the writing that they never suffer from a stint in the background.

In the foreground right now are Ross, back from a trip to China where he recovered from his unrequited infatuation with Rachel, and Rachel, who now has an unrequited infatuation with Ross. Ross has Julie, which Rachel has a problem with. In Episode 1 there was a scene rich in emotional tension in which Ross tells Rachel at some length how she deserves a boyfriend who adores her, but then he spoils it by saying that this mythical man should love her the why he loves Julie. In Episode 2 Rachel's rage is mined for laughs. Monica, who is Ross's sister but Rachel's best friend, goes shopping with Julie in Bloomingdales. When Rachel finds out, it's as if the betrayal is extramarital: "We only did it once ... It didn't mean anything ... I was thinking of you the whole time.'' It's not often those words are funny.

Another beauty of Friends is its plotlessness. Phoebe, having a screw loose, gives Monica a Dudley Moore haircut instead of the Demi she requested (good to know primetime America still knows who our Dud is). And the boys have a problem with tasting breast milk. It's not meant for adults, argues Ross. "Of course,'' points out Chandler, who, like Phoebe, gives the show its balance and delivers a lot of the best lines, "the packaging does appeal to grown-ups".

The baby belongs to Ross's ex-wife Carol, who left him to take up with her girlfriend Susan. When Ross twigs that Susan has tasted Carol's milk, the writing has a real whiff of comic daring. The regular sighting of two gay women in America's most popular comedy can only be good news. Militant spokespersons may argue that they're just a male fantasy of a lesbian couple, but it's more important that they're strong and likeable.

Why writing this sure-footed should be beyond our grasp is anyone's guess. But just to prove we can think up the same jokes, there's a scene in which Ross and Julie josh each other, like lovers do, about who should put the phone down first.

In a forthcoming comedy vehicle for Jane Horrocks on Channel 4, one sketch has an identical scenario with a practically verbatim script. But they're way ahead. Or, as Ross says when just back from China, "It's six o'clock tomorrow our time."