NBC’s comedy Friends premiered on Sept. 22 1994 to 22 million viewers. In today’s multi-platform world, no new comedy could even dream about a premiere audience of that size, half of that would constitute a hit now.
As a slew of new network comedies launch in the next few weeks, many will face harsh critical response. While some bad reviews would be warranted, creators of panned shows should be consoled by the fact that critics don’t always get it right. Friends, which went on to win best comedy Emmy in Season 8, received favorable notices from several top papers, including the New York Times and LA Times, but was ripped apart by Time and the Washington Post, whose review was recently unearthed by Vulture: “Another ghastly creation from professional panderers Marta Kauffman and David Crane, the witless duo who do Dream On for HBO, Friends is more a scripted talk show than a sitcom. You keep waiting for Sally Jessy or some other cluck to interrupt the jabbering. The show is so bad that Sally Jessy would actually come as a relief… The stars include that cute Courteney Cox, formerly funny David Schwimmer, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc and Matthew Perry. They all look nice, and it’s sad to see them degrading themselves.”
Well, it wasn’t that degrading to see the sextet become superstars and command $1 million an episode each. And since it’s selling season at the moment, here is the pitch Friends was sold with: “It’s about sex, love, relationships, careers, a time in your life when everything’s possible. And it’s about friendship because when you’re single and in the city, your friends are your family.” If that sounds like a ton of other ensemble comedies that came and went before and after Friends, that is because, as TV executives like to say, in comedy, it’s all about execution and the chemistry of the cast. Friends aced both.