Farewell to 'Friends': after 236 episodes, 50m wave goodbye

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It was another of those nights when a country is taken hostage by television. Again. It was Thursday at 9pm and almost an entire nation was settled on its collective sofa sharing in a cultural event nobody dared miss. Not quite the moon landing, in fact, it was almost meaningless. It was the end of Friends.

It was another of those nights when a country is taken hostage by television. Again. It was Thursday at 9pm and almost an entire nation was settled on its collective sofa sharing in a cultural event nobody dared miss. Not quite the moon landing, in fact, it was almost meaningless. It was the end of Friends.

Some television programmes achieve the extraordinary, becoming a lifestyle touchstone for a whole generation. For 10 years, Friends has been the social anchor on Thursday nights for tens of millions of American fans - and plenty more around the world - and for the network that aired it, NBC. Girls have copied Jennifer Aniston's various hairstyles. And boys have tried not to be as dumb as Joey.

"It's about friendship," explained the first pitch for this series before it was launched 236 episodes ago. "When you are young and single in the city, your friends are your family." Who - living in this city at least - could not identify with that sentiment? And so all of us were content to sit back and see what we could of our own lives in those of Monica, Chandler, Rachel, Ross, Phoebe and Joey.

Which is why it was important that everything should end happily ever after. And it did. NBC had teased us for weeks about how everything would end up. But finally, the denouement was dopey and fully predictable. But then there was never much edge to this series or reality, really. The apartment was much too big for young adults allegedly without much money. And there was rarely a non-white face ever to be seen. (This is New York?) The edge was in the witty writing and the chemistry between the actors.

Even casual followers of the sitcom - who knew that the Ross-monkey storyline was all the way back in episode one? - had to feel a little bereft as the last scene played out. The purple Bing apartment is empty of furniture and, one by one, the sextet deposits their keys on the kitchen counter. It's time for them to leave. For ever. Cut to a rear view of the group walking down the gloomy landing.

But viewers had had a whole hour - except for what seemed like endless interruptions for those $2m-for-30-second commercials - to satisfy themselves that all the strands of their lives together have been untangled and resolved. There were some surprises all of which by now will have been added to the canon of the Friends trivia on websites around the world. But the surprises were all good ones.

The big moment, you will find out, was a kiss. It was between Rachel and Ross and we hear the giant "Aaw" of the studio audience. And the same "Aaw" echoed from living rooms and Friends farewell parties across the world. This is what television entertainment was invented for. Never mind the news. Especially the news like it is at the moment.

Just how many people were snared into watching the last episode, we don't yet know. But it was a lot. In New York, you could sense the calm. The stairway in my building was quiet for two hours, like a church. It was two hours because NBC, milking the moment until it was dry, preceded the final episode with an hour-long tribute to the series.

Friends had some competition. It will surely not have had the same capturing power as the last episode ever of M*A*S*H, which, all the way back in 1983, attracted a so-called 77 per cent share of America's viewers. The last evening of collective television worship worthy of comparison was in 1998 when Seinfeld bowed out. That attracted a 58 per cent share.

If you are sick of Friends - and not everyone was in love with it - ask any of my African-American friends (what had it got do with their lives? Absolutely nothing) - now you can relax. Or maybe not. In good television tradition, it will live on for at least another decade in endless re-runs on all the other cable channels. Seinfeld still plays nightly and you can find M*A*S*H most evenings.

And then Joey, played by Matt LeBlanc, who for this viewer seemed the least interesting of them all, already has a spin-off vehicle. Starting this autumn we can watch Joey starting his new life trying to be an actor in Los Angeles. (Guess what, his show is called Joey) But he will have to survive without his friends. And so, from now on, will we.

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