Was 'Friends' Always Beloved By Critics?

by Caitlyn Callegari

As mere muggles, we don't have the ability to predict the future. We can project and ruminate over what we think will happen based on trends and a hearty reliance on gut instinct, but those forecasts are just that — an estimation. So, when you have the ability to look back on a monumental event or television series and the mutterings that surrounded it when it was only in it's infancy, it is all kinds of amusing, not to mention sort of enlightening as well. Which brings me to my point, and, also, my question: What were critics saying about Friends, a now-beloved pop culture staple, when it first premiered in 1994? What about when the saga all ended, 10 years later in 2004?

I know, could I be anymore obvious? Well, as they say: hindsight is always 20/20. So, just because we know now that the sitcom is still enduring and genius 10 years after it ended, it doesn't mean we always were so sure of that... or that the critics were sure of it, either.

So, that in mind, let's take a look back at the critic reviews from Friends' pilot episode in 1994, in relation to the critic reviews from the 2004 finale, and see if they were on the same page as the rest of the world is now — a place where we can't and don't want to let it go. Did they love the show, or hate it?

A hint before we begin: Be. Prepared.

The Beginning:

Before looking into this, I was skeptical. I thought, like most things I love, that there were going to be disapproving hipsters lurking in the distance, waiting to destroy my mainstream fun

Thankfully, though, in most instances, people actually seemed to really dig it from the get go — despite having a few gripes here or there.

For instance, The Hollywood Reporter said,

There's a sustaining humor at work on the new NBC entry Friends.

This ensemble comedy about a pack of young adults holed up in Manhattan starts in a capable manner, evidencing a solid understanding of the forces at work within the series' architecture. True, there is some forced shtick, but nonetheless [...] While Friends sometimes does appear more like a clumsy parody of MTV's The Real World than as a knowing effort to comically report on the real world, by and large the series puts its band of actors into engaging predicaments, resulting in good laughs.

The New York Times wrote,

...The creators and executive producers are Marta Kauffman and David Crane, whose "Dream On" has been exploring new boundaries of zaniness (and permissiveness) on HBO. "Friends," more conventional on the surface, promises to be equally offbeat and seductive [...] The cast is appealing, the dialogue is pitch-perfect 1994, the time-slot is between the solidly established "Mad About You" at 8 P.M. and "Seinfeld" at 9 P.M. "Friends" comes as close as a new series can get to having everything.

And, Entertainment Weekly lauded it, stating,

...At its best, Friends operates like a first-rate Broadway farce, complete with slamming doors, twisty plots, and intricately strung together jokes. And even when it's not at its best, the crack acting and piquant punchlines give Friends a momentum and charm that win you over even if you're not laughing [...]

Friends bulldozes past its confusions and clichés on the power of its zippy dialogue. [Marta] Kauffman and [David] Crane can take an utterly standard sitcom scene — a discussion among the chums about whether foreplay is more important to women than to men — and turn it into a tensely funny playlet with a beginning, middle, and end, all before the opening credits. [...] It's just another sitcom, but even so, Friends is pretty irresistible. A-

Ah, so we are all justified in our slightly unhealthy obsession. Huzzah!

The End:

But wait — not so fast. The reviews for the pilot may have been great, but the reviews for the series finale were surprisingly not as kind. As it turns out, those darn meddling hipsters were waiting until I felt I was safe enough in my love for my mainstream sitcom so that they could chew it up and spit it out... and then hand it back to me so that I could pass the dismal message on to all of you, because, obviously, misery loves company.

I guess it wasn't all bad, though. Read USA Today's review first to soften the blow of reading the reviews to follow:

With an entertaining, satisfying one-hour finale Thursday, Friends circled back to where it began, with Ross and Rachel united as a couple. For 10 years, fans of this blockbuster NBC sitcom have followed Ross and Rachel through the soap-comic-opera mechanics of a relationship that kept them in balance, never completely together or completely apart. Well, now they're together (and in New York, not Paris), which is what fans wanted [...]

How did it rank against other great finales? Overall, far better than most... Ultimately, the two-hour package did exactly what it was supposed to do. It wrapped up the story while reminding us why we liked the show and will miss it.

Goodbye, good Friends.

As promised, Slate wasn't as kind. They explained that Friends wasn't a sitcom, but it was instead a "soapcom" (or, as we'd call it today, a "dramedy") — and, to really kick us while we're down, they also pointed out that the show wasn't nearly as popular as everyone would like to believe. They said,

Most writers vastly overestimate the size of the Friends audience. (Sitcom declinists make no claims about the quality or critical reception of Friends, only its popularity.) Sure, it's been a Top 10 show from its inception, and it was the most-watched show on television as recently as the 2001-2002 season. But...the show isn't nearly as highly-rated as it once was. It's just that its ratings remain higher than the still-lower ratings of other shows. [...]

One of the most enjoyable things about Friends is the occasional ways that it comments upon itself as television. In the beginning, the frame of reference for the show was the sitcom universe. In the pilot alone, Rachel watches the Joanie and Chachi wedding from Happy DaysMelrose Place got cancelled.' Exactly.

The New York Times lumped an overall review of Friends and Frasier together, clearly listing Frasier as the favored son. They also employed a Seinfeld/Friends comparison to make Friends seem lesser.

...And that makes this an easy time to scorn Friends.The network's bathos has drained much of the fun out of tonight's two-hour finale. So has the show's 10-year streak of mass popularity. Friends is the television equivalent of the tree-in-the-forest conundrum: if a sitcom is put on network television and everybody likes it, is it still good? [...] Friends was not original. Seinfeld had already charted the territory of single, self-absorbed slackers...The racy reputation of Friends had more to do with its family-hour time slot at 8 p.m. than with groundbreaking material."

But, perhaps the most interesting (and negative) critique comes from a Time critic, who went back and defended his original claims 20 years later.

The original 1995 review said,

...Life on Seinfeld may be laid back, but its characters always seem to have someplace to go. In Friends the crowd is always around to share their latest personal woes or offer a shoulder to cry on. But who would want advice from these dysfunctional morons, with their obsessive pop-culture references? “Guess what?” says Rachel, bursting in with good news. Cracks Chandler: “The fifth dentist caved, and now they’re all recommending Trident?”

Where Seinfeld is smart and appealingly free-form, Friends is inane and gimmicky. The characters are constantly abusing that most bogus of sitcom conventions–playing out their intimate personal crises in front of the largest possible group.

And, his cheeky summation two decades later says,

Little did I know when I poked fun at Friends back in 1995 that I was dumping on what would become a TV classic.

But I was a dissenter then, and I’m still a dissenter. The show never rose above its artificial, formulaic roots — characters assembled straight from the sitcom-writer’s handbook, jokes delivered with mechanical predictability at the network-mandated rate of three per page. It became a little easier to watch over the years, thanks to sheer familiarity and as the actors and writers dove more deeply into the characters. And I admit the show looks better in retrospect: compared with The Big Bang Theory...Friends almost qualifies as cinema-verite."

While those reviews may have been particularly hard to read for any Friends fan, it really doesn't change much about how great the show really was. Yes, it hurts to hear that something we enjoy and identify with so strongly wasn't as well received during its time as we would have liked, but, in some ways, that actually speaks to how great it is: It was, in some respects, ahead of its time. Negative reviews don't discredit the show in our hearts or in our culture, either — because hey, we're still talking about it and we're still watching it.

Image: NBC; Giphy (5)