Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Friends: Farewell and/or Good Riddance?

Wouldn’t it be intriguing to see some statistics on how many times each episode of Friends has aired on Channel 4? Well, don’t get too excited – after some frantic Googling, Asking and Wikipedia-ing, it appears such numbers are not in the public domain. But it’s safe to say they go well into triple figures, taking into account airings on Channel 4, E4 and their respective plus ones, since as far back as 1994. Hell, we wouldn't be surprised if it was knocking on quadruple figures.

Alas, those numbers – whatever they may be – will remain at their current total. Back in February, Channel 4 announced they weren’t renewing the rights to Friends repeats, and that moment has now arrived. As of last week, Channel 4 screened its last Friends, while the E4 showings come to an end this Sunday.

While its initial screening was warm, emotional and conclusive, the final episode doesn’t carry much clout these days. The fade-out on the peephole in Monica’s empty apartment doesn’t invoke anything resembling sorrow, because you know that after the break, a bouffant bride will thunder into Central Perk a decade earlier, and kickstart the whole timeloop once again.

But that’s not the case this time around. Once the Warner Bros end board vanishes on Sunday, that’s it. The Bing family really have moved to that house in Westchester; both Ross and Rachel, and Phoebe and Mike really have dissolved into their own private worlds of domesticity; and Joey... well, legend has it he moved to LA to pursue his acting career, but the rumoured footage of this has been seen by just a hallowed few.

As foreseeable and as familiar as Friends is when you’ve seen each episode two dozen times, it made for the perfect hangover/I’m-bored/I-have-writer’s-block/dinner-is-taking-too-long/it’s-too-cold-to-leave-the-house TV. Knowing that, at almost any point during the day, you can flick around and find that welcoming informality, it was kind of comforting. And somehow, it was still entertaining. The Barbados episodes, or Jennifer Aniston trying not to laugh when Ross is playing the bagpipes, or the all-too-rare appearances of Frank and Alice never fail to raise a cackle. And there will never come a time when the adventures centered around Phoebe’s 3D painting Gladys are anything other than uproariously funny.

But, when you look at it objectively, it’s good that Channel 4 are dropping Friends. Brilliant, in fact. While the convenience of having Friends on tap will be missed, the series has fallen prey to some of the worst editing in the history of British broadcasting. Entire jokes mercilessly ripped away, punchlines hacked from the dialogue, and mid-sentence words replaced with an eight-frame burst of audience laughter made Friends not so much convenient viewing as downright fucking infuriating viewing.

Sure, there were compliance issues that had to be dealt with. But ending a scene on the plaintive line “Didn’t you ever read Lord of the Rings in high school?” followed by a bellow of laughter from the studio audience is just plain lazy. The cut line featured the word ‘sex’. WHO WILL SAVE US FROM SUCH FILTH??!?! Thank God for Channel 4 and their Christian reversioning team, ready to tackle the sinful digi with round-ended safety scissors and a roll of sticky tape, and an approximate timecode of the offending term.

But aside from waving goodbye to the butchering of many a classic line, the pros of the show’s departure keep coming thick and fast. Hopefully the screentime and budget allocated to the Channel 4 Friend-Spend will be spent on original, entertaining (and with any luck, British) programming; and of course, we’ll be spared the dreadful spate of sponsorship bumpers that have bookended Friends during its UK run.

All that said, while the show may be waving goodbye to Channel 4, it’s certainly not disappearing altogether. Those needing their Friends fix will already be aware that there’s DVD boxsets going for all of two quid each; episodes are regularly available on Virgin Media On Demand; and Comedy Central will begin airing the whole lot all over again this Autumn. With any luck, they’ll be leaving the material the way it was intended, and not blindly taking a blunt scalpel to the scripts. As for Channel 4, thank you for the chuckles. Now let’s see how you fill that gap. (N.B. Buying the rights to air re-runs of Joey is cheating.)

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