The End of ‘Friends’

The last episode of “Friends” airs May 6, and while we may all express a collective sigh of relief at the end of more than a year of shameless hype and exploitation, it doesn’t mean that we can’t stop to reflect on this moment in American cultural history. Or that we don’t care about whether Ross and Rachel will get together.

One may debate whether Marta Kauffman and David Crane’s “Friends” will join the ranks of comedy classics, but it was a show that had many, many great comic moments, a cast that played so well off each other and writers who were able to reap maximum humor from the talents and personalities of their six main actors. Rewatching the pilot episode recently, it was all there from the beginning — the chemistry between the actors, and the quick quips and repartee in the writing.

No matter how artificial the construct of a sitcom, from the start “Friends” stood out and was buoyed by the essential truth it explored: that there’s a period of time in our lives — post-college, at first jobs, figuring out life, love, adulthood — when our friends become our family.

“Friends” leaves us at a time of particular weakness for the sitcom as several other classics are also fading. “Frasier,” which managed to channel Jack Benny and Georges Feydeau in equal parts, is ending this year. I will miss it. “Everybody Loves Raymond” is leaving next year after a truncated season. My sadness is also personal: “Frasier” and “Raymond” are the last in a long line of shows I enjoyed and discussed with my mother, a connoisseur of the sitcom who died three and a half years ago. As a child, my mother thought it more important that I watch “Lucy” or old “Burns and Allen” shows than do my homework (which explains a lot about my life).

The sitcom is also losing ground to unscripted shows — so-called reality TV. In truth, “Friends” seems very much of an era — the optimistic and lighthearted 1990s, the self-obsessed years of the Internet bubble. Today everything has become more serious. Ironically right after Sept. 11 many pundits opined that America would turn to comedy and traditional sitcoms for comfort — it turns out they were wrong. In order to avoid reality, we demand not sitcoms but “reality TV.” As Jeff Zucker, el presidente of NBC Entertainment, recently told The New York Times, “turns out the next ‘Friends’ was not a half-hour scripted comedy. It was ‘The Apprentice.’”

Perhaps, in a world of uncertainty, sitcoms are too scripted. So we have found alternatives to our reality in unscripted, but nonetheless unreal programming. At a time when people are struggling to find a job, and where the millions of Americans who’ve lost their jobs are bravely living day by day, we watch people vie to start at the top, and thrill to hear Donald Trump, certainly the least authentic person in America, say, “You’re fired.” Instead of sitcoms, where unlikely groups of people share apartments and fall in love, we are watching “The Bachelor,” “The Bachelorette” and “Average Joe,” all competitions for a diamond ring, not a brass one.

Talk about holding up a mirror to our times: rather than acknowledge the reality of how we look in America — in a country that has both an epidemic of obesity and record cases of anorexia — we are compelled by “Extreme Makeover” and “The Swan,” where happiness is achieved at knife point. We prefer our reality to have a happy ending, or at least a meaningful one. We debate showing the corpses flayed in Fallujah, as we go in record numbers to watch the graphic flaying in “The Passion of the Christ.” These are the times we live in, where we flock to manufactured versions of reality. Given the reality, I can’t blame them.

If I am sad at all about the end of “Friends” after 236 episodes, it’s because the show poses a question that is also true to life: Does the end of “Friends” mean the end of friends?

Monica and Chandler are moving to the suburbs and adopting a child. Joey is moving to Los Angeles to pursue his acting career. Phoebe is married as well. As for Ross and Rachel their future is uncertain. We wonder for them, as we do for David Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston and the rest of the cast: Will they able to keep the friends they made over the last decade? Will they make new ones? Will we?

Children play with anyone — they are delighted to make new friends. In our 20s, we also make new friends, friends who are our companions as we make fools of ourselves in a thousand ways, as we explore living apart from our parents, making our first homes, finding love in places wrong and/or with Mr. or Ms. Right. But then as we move on to new jobs, new homes and/or committed relationships with or without children, we seem to lose those friends. How often have people looked at their wedding albums to comment about how few of the people in the pictures they still know.

The importance of “Friends” may be argued, but the importance of friendship cannot be overrated. On an occasion such as this, it would be hard to resist quoting Cicero, who said of friendship that “with the exception of wisdom, no better thing has been given to man by the immortal gods.”