By now, Netflix bingers are well into Friends, after the series was released in its entirety on Jan. 1. They’ve surely passed “We were on a break!” and are well on their way to Ross’ red-sweater paternity test.
However, as a huge Friends fan, there’s one thing that’s always bothered me about the series—that being the over-the-top saccharine ending with a chase to the airport and three cliffhangers in a matter of 10 minutes (Will he get to the airport? Will she get on the plane? Will she get off the plane?).
True Friends fans know this was kind of a cop-out. After all, how many times did Ross and Rachel almost get back together only to break up? What made us think they didn’t break up once they got to Central Perk after the final “key” scene? Surely, they were going to argue over whether to move to Paris or not.
And yet, the Friends finale from 2004 has remained relatively unscathed from fans compared to NBC comedy comrade Seinfeld. In fact, in a recent Grantland podcast with Bill Simmons, Larry David addressed how much grief he got with the finale from 1998, saying, “I thought it was clever.”
And it was clever. Way clever. It took risks, it garnered laughs, it wrapped things up. It did everything a good finale should do, and yet that particular episode is much more divisive than the weaker Friends finale. Why is that?
For one thing, there was no happy ending. Elaine and Jerry didn’t get together (although who really wanted to see that?). George didn’t finally grow up. Kramer didn’t get a job. No one had kids. Larry David’s ending served almost as a punishment for the personalities that collectively represented America’s uninhibited id. (There’s a reason why a Rutgers professor is teaching these characters.) Maybe in some way, audiences felt like they, too, were being punished.
Friends took the easier way out, the crowd-pleasing one. Everything that was expected to happen, happened. The only surprises were pleasing ones (Twins! She got off the plane!). What’s most frustrating was that for a show that was pretty original (lesbian weddings, surrogate babies to your brother), it used the cliche romantic comedy ending, which 30 Rock ended up doing better (“I was about to do the whole run to the airport thing, like Ross did on Friends and Liz Lemon did in real life”).
That’s probably one of the biggest differences between the two classic shows. Seinfeld was a show that did things its own way, whereas Friends appealed to what audiences wanted to see. Seinfeld unapologetically killed off one of its only redeemable characters, while Friends boosted its ratings by randomly adding Joey into the Ross and Rachel love story. While both shows are hilarious and textbook ‘90s comedy, they both had very different ways of execution. In the end, the Seinfeld finale proved that audiences really do like their happy endings and want a say in where their favorite characters end up. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.