The American television network NBC got into a spot of bother last week. It had been running on-air trailers for the last season of Friends, in which the long-running series was described as "the best comedy ever".
Nothing particularly unusual about that, you might think, given that hyperbole is the lingua franca of programme promotion. And it's hardly surprising that NBC might be a little prejudiced in favour of the series, since for five straight years now it has been the top-rating comedy among 18- to 49-year-olds. Even with the final 26 episodes costing in the region of $65m (£36m), the last series of Friends will pour a Niagara of money into NBC's bank account - and nothing cements the affections of TV executives in quite the way hard cash does.
Those trailers weren't just a case of leaving-party sentimentality. They were intended to ensure that the end came with a gush rather than a diminishing trickle. It's been reported that the ad breaks for the last Friends have been selling at up to $2m for a 30-second slot - and the "series finale" hard sell isn't exactly going to hurt prices.
The problem was that Friends isn't the only long-running NBC series coming to an end. Just a week after the very last trip to Central Perk, Frasier, the Seattle-based sitcom starring Kelsey Grammer, will also leave the building for the last time. And since Frasier has won five Emmys for best comedy, while Friends has won only one, Grammer had reasonable grounds for feeling unfairly overshadowed.
NBC might have calculated that it could afford to put that very expensive nose out of joint now that the show is finally coming to an end, but that would have been a foolish calculation back in 1993, when the end of Cheers suggested that we might have seen the last of Dr Crane's prissy high-mindedness. Frasier might not be quite as high-yielding a cash-cow as Friends, but it's delivered gold-top for years now. So, an NBC spokeswoman said they'd all got a bit carried away and they wouldn't run the spots again. Then they moved on to raking in the column inches for the filming of the last-ever Friends - recorded last week under the kind of security that usually surrounds the development of a new stealth bomber. Even the foreign buyers admitted to the last taping were shooed out before the final scene.
All of which, happily for NBC, did nothing to diminish the air of mounting hysteria over the demise of these programmes, or the sense that this was the end of an era in American television (which is, by cultural default, quite a bit of global television too). It isn't the end of an era, as it happens; just an unusual confluence of programme fatigue (by the way, the final series of Sex and the City starts on Channel 4 on Friday). But it does illuminate how self-conscious the networks have become about ending the audience's relationship with a long-running series. They understand that these are love affairs of a kind - and if the memories aren't to be soured by the last farewell, they need to tread a delicate path. "Seinfeld's all about break-ups," Jerry Seinfeld said in the run-up to that show's last episode. "Ultimately, the show had to break up with America. In the end, it just couldn't commit." It was a joke - but it wasn't just a joke.
By general consent, Seinfeld handled the break-up badly, with a final episode that contrived to put the main characters on trial for "criminal indifference" (they watched a carjacking and treated it as a comic spectacle). They were found guilty and given a jail sentence - which gave Jerry a tantalising out line ("A year isn't that long"), but also implicated the audience in the general charge of moral delinquency. The last episode remained true to the series' contempt for cosiness (the writers' motto was "No hugging, no learning"), but neglected the sovereign duty of all final episodes - to acknowledge the audience's sadness that the relationship is finally over. And even if the split is amicable, there are ceremonies of valediction to be observed.
The final episode of Cheers - which set the bar for public interest in finales, with an audience of 130 million people - handled these matters rather more delicately, with an episode that temporarily seemed to offer a resolution to Sam and Diane's barbed-wire courtship and then wisely drew back to end with Sam alone in the bar turning the lights off. The very last line in effect wrote itself; Sam turns away a customer at the door with the words: "Sorry - we're closed."
Controlling this sudden access of solemn feeling isn't always easy. The two-and-a-half-hour final episode of M*A*S*H was almost certifiably melancholy, including a nervous breakdown for Hawkeye Pierce and the moment when Dr Winchester sees his scratch orchestra of Chinese prisoners gunned down. Stock prices in Kleenex spiked sharply in the following days.
It's tempting here to make a crude national distinction between British and American styles. While a British sitcom run, or season, is traditionally six programmes long, those in America run for well over 20. By the time a long-running series comes to an end, even half-diligent television watchers are going to have spent more face-time with the cast than with most of their relatives, and in some cases than with their spouses. As a result, the wrench of parting is rather greater. What's more, a 25-week run demands a different kind of narrative approach. It's no surprise that many American comedies run storylines from one episode to the next, a soap strategy that ensures that viewers come back even if the scriptwriting team have been having a bad week. Most British comedies, by contrast, could have their episodes shuffled and no one would know the difference.
The exceptions only go to highlight this. Only Fools and Horses, which has racked up more "final" episodes than many comedies' complete runs, had long-burn romances that made it much harder for the programme to simply stop. In common with several American comedies, the programme had become a victim of its own success, creating stars who were in such demand elsewhere that recording another series became a logistical nightmare. Determined that it wouldn't just fade out, the production team made one last effort to produce a final trilogy - and were so moved by the process that they decided not to say goodbye at all. "It dawned on me that I'd been hasty," says the writer John Sullivan of the recording of the "last" Only Fools and Horses, "and that I shouldn't have done this." Fortunately, the BBC agreed with him.
The last episode of Blackadder, one of the British finales that genuinely made its way into the public consciousness, did so partly because it left it until the last possible moment to acknowledge that they might not be coming back. An American network would have commissioned a 90-minute special and accompanied it with "making of" documentaries and nostalgia shows; here, the sense of parting was achieved in just two minutes.
Blackadder was also unusual in finale terms in insisting on the reality of its characters. For five-and-a-half episodes the characters had been comic tropes - sarcasm or dimwittedness personified. You no more worried about their susceptibility to shellfire than you fret over whether Tom's head will stop being frying-pan-shaped after he's been whacked by Jerry. Then, suddenly, you were obliged to take them as mortal as they went into battle from their First World War trench, and a trivial regret was compounded with a larger historical one - to very powerful effect.
Most series go in the opposite direction. When The Cosby Show ended in America, the final scene showed Cliff and Claire dancing off set and out of the studio door - a relatively mundane acknowledgement of fiction, which paled alongside St Elsewhere's revelation that the entire series had been a figment of an autistic boy's imagination. Neither Friends nor Frasier are likely to go that route. For one thing, the characters still have some lucrative life in them. Matt LeBlanc is already signed for a spin-off called Joey, in which he moves to LA to further his acting career. For another, the networks know perfectly well that you pay a price for getting too clever. What audiences want is not postmodernist tricksiness but "closure" - something that fiction delivers more reliably than real life.
We want to feel that we weren't fools for caring so much about whether Ross and Rachel finally get together - so it seems likely that heavy lobbying from Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer for precisely that resolution will not fall on deaf ears. That way we're less likely to feel fools when we start caring about the next group of synthetic companions to come along. And the fact is that, however devastated network and audiences say they feel about the demise of their scheduling kingpins, we'll all shift our allegiances without too much trouble. The audience isn't going to take up fretwork just because their favourite time-killers have bitten the dust, and nobody's going to stop giving out Emmys or Golden Globes just because none of the programmes is up to snuff. The future supply of "award-winning comedies" is safe.
What is true is that you're unlikely to see obvious substitutes for Friends and Sex and the City, shows that preoccupy themselves with the sexual and emotional manners of pretty young people. NBC has already tried the replacement route with an American version of the British comedy Coupling, and it bombed. In any case, a more successful British import has already changed the broadcasting landscape. The unexpected success of reality formats in America (something of a shock for television executives there) means that the audience can turn to Joe Millionaire and Temptation Island if they want the vicarious excitement of other people's romances.
By contrast, the shows that are now winning audiences have taken one step back, even from the highly rose-tinted reality of Friends. Nip/Tuck (already showing on Sky and due to reach Channel 4 soon) is a modern bit of Grand Guignol set in Florida, while The OC (also due on Channel 4) is a drama set in a high-income suburb in California. My Wife and Kids, a hit for Damon Wayans in America, is coming to BBC2 this winter - a comedy about a household in which the mother goes out to work, leaving the father to get closer to his children. All of them, interestingly, concentrate on families rather than young singles. They may end up filling a space on your screen, in other words, but they're unlikely to shift quite as much dry white wine as their predecessors.
There is hope for the inconsolable, though. Friends re-runs are the television equivalent of a second-hand Volvo. Even used episodes hold their value, often getting better audiences on repeats than many home-grown programmes can manage first time out. So if you can't live without them, they'll be running for years yet.
In the wings: four series set to take off
* Nip/Tuck: When it premiered on Sky One earlier this month, this series about the goings-on of a Miami Beach plastic surgery received one of the highest ratings of any show on satellite. The series starts on Channel 4 in the summer.
* The OC: Ryan, a brilliant but troubled homeless youth is taken in by an idealistic public defender. Now ensconced in a luxurious villa, Ryan is thrown into the beautiful society of Orange County. Billed as Beverly Hills 90210 for the 21st century, this will compulsive viewing for teenagers aged 12 - 50.
* Carnivale: HBO's answer to Twin Peaks, this Depression-set drama about a travelling carnival is now into its second series. Be prepared for some very eerie evenings in when it makes it across the pond.
* Joey: One of the inevitable Friends spin-offs, Mr Tribiani is set to be the star of his own show, although any details are extremely sketchy at present.Reuse content