They'll be there for you

What do you do when you've got no Friends? Visit one of their 108 Web sites, says Nicholas Barber
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The Independent Culture
Browse the Internet pages devoted to Friends, the phenomenally successful US sitcom, and you will quickly find half-a-dozen sites that transcribe the lyric of the theme song: "When it hasn't been your day, your week, your month or even your year / I'll be there for you." Considering how easy it is to pick up the words via the less technologically advanced method of listening to them, this service must be designed for the programme's deaf aficionados. Either that, or it just indicates how important the song's sentiment is to the people who hit the 108 separate Friends home pages on the World Wide Web.

The show is an attractive fantasy about six attractive New York twentysomethings, whose day-to-day problems are somewhat outweighed by the joys of having unlimited access to loving concern, good clothes, and superbly sarcastic repartee. Friends fans can relate to the characters' myriad insecurities. What these "Frienatics" may not have are the perfect companions to make those insecurities bearable.

So who will be there for them? Why, their Internet correspondents will, whether debating the age-gap between Monica and Ross on The Big Couch pages or pretending to be in the programme on the site entitled CentPerk, "a virtual model of the coffee shop [Central Perk] on the show Friends". The difference between CentPerk and the coffee shop on the show Friends, of course, is that you're not lounging on a couch, sipping cappuccino, with your beautiful soulmates slouched around you. You are in your bedroom typing messages to people whose noms de Net are Gimpy, Pimpy, Buttercup, Lulu and Sprout. If Gimpy & Co do want to live in a sitcom, they might care to remember that you never see anyone in Friends using the Internet.

Besides chat-lines with delusions of humour, there are sites which compile favourite pieces of dialogue, there are "spoilers" which reveal the plots of up- coming episodes, and, yes, there are cast photos, often labelled helpfully: "Jen in a bikini", "Jen look- ing sultry", "Jen naked (nice)". Then there are the trivia quizzes, the games, the episode guides and the cast biographies. A significant number of Friends home pages simply review other Friends home pages.

None of this friendzy has been set up or endorsed by the cast, producers or writers of the sitcom. Instead, it is the Frienatics themselves who have found windows in their busy social schedules to design these cyber- fanzines. Some of these fans wish they were the show's writers, though. They have, for instance, collaborated on a script of The Wizard of Oz with Chandler as the Scarecrow, Joey as the Tin Man, and so on. But if "The Gang Goes to Oz" has all the catchphrases from the show, it has few of the jokes, so the chances of its being bought by the producers and turned into a Christmas special are slight. The rather more entertaining script that imagines an episode written and directed by Tarantino isn't likely to make it to the screen either, this time for reasons of decency.

Having surfed through an ocean or two of Friends-related treacle, I was ready for the "The First Ever Anti-Friends Page", which I expected to be a subversive, underground sort of Web site. I expected wrong. "I watched the show faithfully for one-and-a-half seasons before my parents approached me and brought the truth to my eyes," said the text on the screen. "This show was perverted and at times out right [sic] disgusting ... We see the cast of six `beautiful' people living a `beautiful' life of casual sex, one-night stands, and bad comedy all in one 30-minute time period." Is the person behind this crusade serious? He is American, so we have to assume so. The makers of Friends should be thankful that the Internet exists to give this potential stalker's feelings a relatively harmless outlet.

The Web's most celebrated Friends accessory is the Drinking Game. It invites you, with a welcome wryness, to "gather friends (if applicable) around the TV set", and knock back some alcohol every time one of the 50 events on its list occurs: "Take a sip if any of the main characters asks, `What's wrong?' (two sips if followed by `Nothing, it's just that ...')" "Take a gulp if Chandler makes a reference to an old TV show from your youth." "Chug your entire drink if any of the main characters drinks any alcoholic beverage."

The remaining sites just get weirder. My computer, which had already crashed three times in protest, refused to let me see The Third Nipple Page. Sadly, it wasn't as protective when it came to a page offering badly animated cast photos, or, more chillingly, the Mr Showbiz Plastic Surgery Lab. This allows you to "Create an UberFriend" using an identikit of the actors' facial features. "If you don't like the results, don't worry, simply try, try again. No one suffers!" Thus reassured, I spliced together Rachel's trendsetting haircut, Ross's puppydog eyes, Joey's Italian nose and Monica's seductive mouth, and ended up with a surfing drag queen. So it's not true to say that no one suffers. My sanity suffers, and I'll stick to watching Friends on television from now on. Look for me in CentPerk or on the Big Couch and I won't be there for you, whether you're carrying photos of Jen naked (nice) or not.

! `Friends' is on Fridays at 9.30pm, Channel 4.

`FRIENDS': FIVE THINGS YOU NEVER KNEW

1 The mother of Matt Le Blanc (Joey) did not suffer much when he was born. "I was ready to come out, and out I came," says Le Blanc.

2 The part of Marcel was played by two female monkeys named Katie and Monkey, both of whom appeared in the movie Outbreak.

3 The scene where Chandler accidentally sees Rachel topless was filmed on a closed set, ie. no studio audience present, just the director and the cameraman.

4 Courteney Cox (Monica) had a five-year relationship with Michael Keaton. In the sitcom Family Ties, she played the girlfriend of Alex Keaton, played by Michael J Fox.

5 Matthew Perry (Chandler) was once ranked as the number two junior tennis player in Canada.

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