November 13, 2012

friends It’s hard to believe eight years have passed since Friends went off the air. Harder still to believe just how much television has changed in that time. Friends may have been the last of the network behemoths: old school dramas and comedies that everyone watched and chatted about over the water cooler the next morning. The environment in which it thrived no longer exists, replaced by the long tail and cable shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad that now command our cultural attention. Which is why the new Blu-ray set covering the entire series feels more like a nostalgic throwback than a white-hot imperative.  Hit the jump for my full review.

friends jennifer aniston david schwimmerThe show itself remains the nicest sort of television comfort food you can imagine.  Its ensemble of characters are likeable and sympathetic, their dilemmas are engaging but angst-free, and the writers found smart and interesting ways for them to bounce off each other. Simply put, we liked these guys: neurotic Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), sensitive Ross (David Schwimmer), Type-A Monica (Courtney Cox), dippy Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), super dippy Joey (Matt LeBlanc), and snarky Chandler (Matthew Perry). Chemistry? Yeah, they had that in spades. Even during weaker moments when they all fell back on their respective stereotypes, you could sense their shared sympathy and warmth.  Lose one piece of that puzzle – have one falling out among the cast or one role turn up in the hands of a different actor – and it all would have fallen apart.

Thankfully, that didn’t happen, and the writers used the incredible onscreen energy as the foundation for a remarkably durable series of shticks.  Could any other show have kept Ross and Rachel’s on-again/off-again hijinks alive for so long? Or parlayed Monica’s efforts to conceive as anything other than a one-shot cliffhanger? The writers succeeded, often impressively so, where other shows would have taken the cheap way out. Keeping all six cast members together for the whole run helped a great deal too. They engaged in collective bargaining when negotiating their salaries – which meant some of them taking a pay cut in the early years – which spoke to their solidarity and espirit des corps that you rarely see in a big TV show.  It showed through in every episode, helping to further endear us to their lovable characters.

friends matthew perry courtney coxYes, they basically dealt with First World problems. And yes, the show sometimes got caught up in trivialities that don’t show up much in our grim new century.  That, too, was a part of its charm. It performed one of the key features of entertainment – an ability to help us relax and forget our troubles for a little bit – without ever feeling distant or out of touch. It earned its laughs and it never took its audience for granted. Above all, it found a way to appeal to a broad audience without diluting its identity. Early critics accused it of riffing on the Seinfeld model, but it established its own rhythm pretty quickly and now other shows emulate its formula even more than that of Jerry and the gang.

“Emulate,” but never equal. Friends really was the last of a breed; the television environment that created it no longer exists. Follow-up sit-coms like The Office and The Big Bang Theory attain just a fraction of the viewership that Friends did, and thus lack the same widespread impact. The Sopranos began its run midway through that of Friends, and the resulting seismic shift rendered regular network programming a distant second to edgier cable fare.  That only increases its appeal, especially among die-hards who haven’t seen it on Blu-ray before. The nostalgia factor goes a long way (Brad Pitt! With blonde highlights!), and thankfully doesn’t dull the humor one bit.

friends-blu-ray-box-setOf course, it’s not like the show is hard to find: DVD sales are still strong and syndication means that you can probably find an episode right now just by turning on the TV. That’s the impression the Blu-ray set has to fight through if it wants to score sales. On that front, the bag is decidedly mixed. The good news? The transfer is decent and the hi-def image looks solid. There’s plenty of nice extra features, including interviews, audio commentaries, a Friends of Friends option on every disc covering the show’s copious guest stars, a snazzy carrying case, and an entire disc of all-new docs. As I write this, it’s going on Amazon for just $10 more than the older DVD set, making it easy to pick up without a huge strain on your wallet.

So what’s the problem? It depends on who you ask. This new Blu-ray set contains the “broadcast” versions of each episode (the ones originally shown on NBC during the show’s run) rather than the “extended” versions from the DVD sets a few years ago (that contains a few minutes of extra footage for each episode).  That makes them true to the original airing of the shows… though some fans may feel short-changed by the lost material, especially those accustomed to the extended cuts on DVD.  DVD owners should ask themselves if the upgrade in quality means losing that extra few minutes every screening.  More casual viewers might not care, nor will those who want the episodes as aired by NBC. But considering the set’s other credentials, the new material could have been included without much of a fuss. It’s a marked blemish on a great series, and while the extra features are a kick, some fans may want to think twice before abandoning their DVDs.

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