Television: 'Friends' wail and gnash their teeth

Friends Channel 4
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The Independent Culture
Like an ancient farmer seeking harvest omens in the flight of sparrows, American sitcom producers divine the future of their programmes by asking the gods to send them a British comedy actor. If John Cleese materialises, as he did once on Cheers and again in Third Rock From the Sun the other week, then the producers give thanks, for their sitcom is healthy. If Jennifer Saunders is sent unto them, there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth. She guested in Roseanne in its dying days, and her appearance in this week's Friends was a portent of doom.

On Friday, Friends' fourth series finished with two episodes set in London: an event deemed so significant / marketable by Channel 4 that it has published a spin-off book specially. The story is that Ross flies to Blighty to marry Emily (Helen Baxendale). Three Friends come over with him, while Phoebe stays in New York because she's about to give birth to her brother's triplets (it's not how it sounds), and Rachel stays with her because Ross is her ex. Soon after his departure Rachel realises that she's still in love with him, and, to Phoebe's horror, she rushes off to tell him. "It's not over until someone says 'I do'," she declares between gritted teeth. "I do! I do!" squeals Phoebe, but it's no use. Rachel is on her way to the airport.

And so the action moves to England, or Cameoland, as it's due to be renamed. In the first episode, Fergie played herself - mercifully for no more than a few seconds - and Richard Branson was a Tower of London souvenir seller. Guess which airline Rachel flew to Britain on? (She had to pay $2,700 for a ticket, so I wouldn't have thought it was a very effective plug.) In the second episode, it was the turn of the actors. In increasing order of hamminess: Hugh Laurie sat next to Rachel on her flight. Jennifer Saunders was Emily's stepmother, an Absolutely Fabulous harpy. Tom Conti was Emily's father, an addled buffer who actually addressed someone as "old boy". And June Whitfield betrayed her country even more shamelessly by playing a haughty housekeeper who lectured Phoebe on her phone manner. In America's eyes, Britannia is as uncool as ever.

British actors find it hard to fit into the Friends universe. Either they aim for funny-but-unbelievable (Conti) or believable-but-unfunny (Baxendale). The key to Friends, for those of you who go out on Friday evenings, is that its tone is somewhere in between. The cast are more interested in snappy delivery than authenticity, but the characters are well enough defined for us to care about who is falling out with or falling into bed with whom. We believe in the protagonists when by rights the only way to do so would be to imagine we're watching a programme about six stand-up comics.

It's a balance that is rarely achieved, or even attempted, in British sitcoms. We can be funny (Black Adder, Father Ted), or we can be soapy (Birds of a Feather, Game On), but now that Only Fools And Horses is no more, there's little evidence of our being able to do both.

Friends' exchange trip should have been an opportunity for them to show us how it's done, but in the event seemed more like a flagging programme's desperate gimmick. Matt "Joey" Le Blanc's weight is a handy barometer of the show's quality, and at the moment they're both a little flabby. The once reliably brilliant Chandler (Matthew Perry) makes more gurning faces and fewer acid remarks with each episode. And after Friday's finale, you get the feeling that Friends is literally losing the plot. What is this business about Ross's instant engagement to Emily? His first wife left him for another woman; shouldn't he think twice about jumping into a marriage with someone he's only just met? Especially someone who has no discernible personality. Either Emily seems to Ross to be a refreshing change - he has, after all, been hanging out for years with five relentlessly amusing people - or the writers realised that viewers would resent anyone who came between Ross and Rachel, so didn't consider it worthwhile trying to drum up any sympathy for her. To those of us who have been enchanted by the ebb and flow of the characters' relationships, it's a betrayal to see Ross being so quick to choose Emily as the stepmother of his toddler son. Which reminds me, why didn't we see his son at the wedding?

Still, sub-standard Friends is of a higher standard than almost any of our current sitcoms. David Schwimmer, who plays Ross, is the actor Woody Allen should cast in whichever roles he's too old for. And Jennifer Aniston has proven in this series, as Rachel has grown increasingly frantic, that she could carry a sitcom on her own when Friends finishes. And maybe that should be sooner rather than later. Friday's episodes had me worried. Not that they were bad, but they did indicate how a programme which has sometimes been perfect could become slapdash and shoddy. There's nothing worse than friends who outstay their welcome. There should certainly be another series - which in itself adds up to more episodes than most sitcoms on this side of the Atlantic ever have - but at the end of that ... well, they'll have to pray for a British guest star and see what happens.