The end of the Friends era of gossip, fame, and meta-spinoffs
Episodes — Showtime's scathing satire of the entertainment industry starring Matt LeBlanc — started its fifth and final season on Sunday. As this angular, snippy, delightfully soulless comedy spirals to a close, it closes the brackets, not just on "Matt LeBlanc's" post-Friends life, but on the fascinating clutch of meta-spinoffs that Friends spawned — with help from the Friends themselves.
Episodes, along with other Friends vehicles like The Comeback and Dirt, deals with the grim side of stardom — and the gossip industry that came with it. It seems right that Episodes is starting to wind down right around the one-year of anniversary of when Gawker shut its doors. The age of Friends and its aftershocks is coming to a close.
There was a Teflon quality to Friends back when it began that kept anyone from taking it too seriously. It sprung onto our TV screens fully formed, an instant archetype. The concept, right down to its title, felt already somehow canned and mass-produced. The execution was colorful, bubbly, a little vapid. But if at times the show seemed too glossy, this was counterbalanced by its air of being also — at the same time — unworked, spontaneous, sincere.
That impossible balance extended to fans' relation to the cast. However fake Friends' New York seemed compared to, say, Seinfeld, the Friends themselves seemed like real friends. The chemistry (offstage as well as on) between the mostly unknown actors was so strong it fed a perception that the Friends were "just" playing themselves. People liked that. At a time when the O.J. Simpson trial was making reality feel made up, Friends was intoxicating because despite being obviously scripted, it felt like reality TV.
In one sense, it was. In Friends we were watching a sitcom, but we were also — in ways that are only becoming clear two decades after the fact — watching six actors explode into an unprecedented celebrity vortex together, and cope with a virulent appetite for gossip.
The year 1994 was arguably when the iteration of America's gossip machine that culminated in Bollea v. Gawker began in earnest. The '90s are often described as uncomplicatedly prosperous, and while in straight economic terms they were, the aspirational verve of the rising dot-coms felt uncontrolled, propelled by a kind of manic venality that made ambition ugly. Success kept collapsing, confusingly, into moral failure. 1994 was the year Kurt Cobain killed himself. It was the year Tonya Harding's ex-husband put a hit out on Nancy Kerrigan's right knee. It was also — crucially, as the internet coalesced — the year the Supreme Court ruled that parodies were protected under fair use.
This last detail is relevant because Friends inspired a truly amazing number of transformative parodies and conceptual spinoffs including not just Episodes but Cougar Town, The Comeback, Dirt, and even Friends director Robbie Benson's terrible novel Who Stole the Funny?, featuring a hapless director charged with corralling a crew of spoiled, drug-addled actors. The name of the show? I Love My Urban Buddies.
Here's what's interesting: Unlike traditional spinoffs like Frasier and Cheers, or A Different World and The Cosby Show, not one of these is a straightforward take on the original that resides in the same universe. (Friends sequel Joey was intended to do this and failed.) No, the Friends spinoffs are orthogonal to the source text. They signaled a new movement in television that drew energy from being, if not more "real" than its progenitors, then reality-adjacent — a tantalizing invitation to viewers to step inside the industry.
Call them meta-spinoffs. The meta-spinoff is a weird artifact of this specific period in television when NBC's Must-See TV was dimming, reality TV was in the ascendant, and the celebrity-industrial complex was getting off the ground. There's a gossipy urge to disclose lurking within the meta-spinoff, an itch to revise and revisit the show's place in the culture. Above all, the meta-spinoff flirts with the real relation between actor and author and character, between star and substance.
Here, as ever, Seinfeld was more straightforwardly experimental. "Jerry Seinfeld" was a real comedian playing a comedian named Jerry Seinfeld. The show he and George pitched to NBC was called "Jerry." The satire sat on the surface, as "cool" often does — and because it declared its ambition by announcing it had none, it was recognized for the formal innovation it was. Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm performed this same maneuver, but at one remove. And what Curb proved is that the meta-spinoff retains the ability to revise its predecessor in ways traditional spinoffs can't. Curb talked back to TV history aggressively. It brings real stars onscreen playing asshole versions of themselves. It claims it's unscripted. It shows, in other words, what a Seinfeldian worldview looks like in LA.
Most importantly, though, it clarified to fans exactly how much of Seinfeld's DNA was Larry David. Once you'd seen Curb, it became impossible to watch Seinfeld in quite the same way.
But what about Friends? Like Seinfeld, the show made plenty of jokes about TV production — as when Joey got himself written off Days of Our Lives for telling a gossip rag he wrote his own lines. It also called attention to its highly stylized universe: When Jennifer Aniston's character Rachel dates a Ross-lookalike named "Russ," his uncanny resemblance to Ross highlighted both the tics underpinning David Schwimmer's performance and the extent to which another actor could step into those mannerisms and take over the character with discomfiting accuracy. Chandler's speech patterns are mocked within the show, as is Joey's bad acting. Friends called attention to the construction of its universe constantly, but — and this is crucial — it did so without breaking that universe.
In fact, no matter how much Friends went meta and analyzed itself — as when Phoebe dates a psychiatrist who perceptively names their complexes and complains that their coffee cups should have nipples on them — it couldn't break the fourth wall. It felt real. Paradoxically, that impression of "reality" fostered fan demands for greater disclosures, deeper access. People wanted to know things about the Friends. The protected universe of the traditional sitcom was giving way, just then, to the emerging seductions of reality TV shows like Survivor.
The Friends' hermeticism was essential to the celebrity-industrial complex that made TMZ and Perez Hilton possible. Their strategy of "unionizing" — led by David Schwimmer, who was offered a raise on the strength of his higher profile but refused it, advising instead that all six of his costars demand equal pay — revolutionized the way actors deal with networks.
For press, they performed their Friendship so aggressively that articles from the '90s describe the cast like puppies: "goofing off" or G-rated name-calling. Pranks were described or "caught" on tape. (They were staged, naturally.) And in interviews, the cast cleverly shuffled roles around. Sometimes Lisa Kudrow was characterized as "group leader." Others called Courteney Cox "the mother of the group." Here's Aniston: "She's explained that we have to watch out for each other. She knew the pressures of being on a hit might drive us all apart." Schwimmer's role in spearheading the deal was rarely made public.
A tactic the network had developed — packaging the Friends and encouraging them to do publicity together — backfired against them: While giving every sign of being pleasant and forthcoming, the Friends united against the network and kept many of their ingroup dynamics — including Matthew Perry's addiction troubles — private.
The cast would go on, in their post-Friends life, to theorize the experience of becoming mega-stars. The Friends experienced the transformation of contemporary celebrity culture together, and their subsequent work shows them semi-autobiographically reflecting on the experience. Together (though apart), they've produced a decade's worth of some of the most interesting philosophizing on (and reckoning with) the intersection of reality, gossip, television, and celebrity on the small screen.
Schwimmer scans as one of the more embattled instances of this tendency among the Friends: In 2016 he came full circle to play Robert Kardashian, O.J. Simpson's friend and the Kardashian patriarch, in FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Schwimmer plays Kardashian as Simpson's hapless but earnest cheerleader whose initial authentic gestures of support — like reading Simpson's bizarre farewell note to the news cameras during the Bronco chase — collapse into a frozen performance of friendship (or Friendship) he's unable to escape. By the end of the FX show, he's convinced of Simpson's guilt and longs to leave, but knows that doing so will convict Simpson in the eyes of the world behind the cameras.
Schwimmer is also of course playing Kardashian as the unwitting paterfamilias of the current reality TV empire (which Kardashian himself wouldn't live to see; Keeping Up With The Kardashians premiered in 2007, four years after his death). On The People v. O.J. Simpson, his character at one point gratuitously lectures his children on how being "pure of heart" is more important than fame. It's a view congruent with Schwimmer's own feelings; arguably the least comfortable with his celebrity status, he's spent more time behind the camera directing than many of his colleagues. And he has frequently lamented the effects of fame, particularly the extent to which his inability to go out and observe the world has affected his work as an actor.
Aniston's experience of post-Friends fame rose, as we all know, to a much higher pitch: When Brad Pitt left her for Angelina Jolie, she became part of one of the single biggest and most polarizing scandals in Hollywood history. Though it's inherently tougher for film choices to reflect personal arcs, many of Aniston's post-Friends roles have dealt with the experience of becoming an anti-Friend. Prominent themes are loneliness and isolation. Her part in Friends With Money — where she plays a cash-strapped maid with wealthier friends — feels like an inversion of her position as Rachel. That Aniston considers her projects in these semi-autobiographical terms is no secret. Her rationale for filming The Break-Up in the aftermath of her separation was straightforward: "'It was just a beautiful story about a couple breaking up, and I was slightly familiar on the topic and the issue. I sort of honestly felt like, what a great way to sort of exorcise some of that."
Cox talked back to the paparazzi apparatus that engulfed the Friends with Dirt, which (like Keeping Up With The Kardashians) premiered in 2007. Cox cast herself as an ethically bankrupt tabloid maven, effectively reclaiming the narrative from the forces that hounded her and her pal Aniston. By the end of the first season her character ends up bleeding and stabbed by a star who's been blackmailed and pushed too far. (Cox's other show, Cougar Town, had plenty of Friends cameos and references, too.)
Lisa Kudrow's show The Comeback was similarly interested in the ghostly aftermath of having been a Friend. She plays an actress named Valerie Cherish who became famous acting in a very popular show (I'm It — a clear reference to Friends that specifically reduces their plural "it-ness" to the singular) and is now reduced to doing reality TV. The first season of The Comeback theorizes reality TV and sitcoms in exactly the ways one might expect a sharp, observant survivor of the Friends phenomenon to do: Kudrow plays three roles. "Valerie Cherish" plays two: "herself" for the reality TV show and a wacky character (quite similar to Phoebe, but older, and humiliated for being older) for a new sitcom called Room and Board that is itself a clear Friends spinoff, with Valerie functioning as a foil to the attractive young leads.
If it's harder to see any connection between Matthew Perry's subsequent projects and his own experience on Friends, that's more than made up for by Episodes, the ultimate meta-spinoff.
In Episodes, Matt LeBlanc plays "Matt LeBlanc," a washed-up, amiably spoiled actor from the show Friends who's fighting his transition into irrelevance. He befriends a British couple (Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan) who've been recruited to Hollywood to remake their successful series in the States. But what he wants from them (and what the network wants from them) bears very little relation to the show they thought they were hired to make. As if to triple-down on the self-referential echoes, Episodes was co-created by Friends' creator David Crane and his life partner Jeffrey Klarik — a romantically involved couple trying to write a series in Hollywood.
There are a thousand nods to what life after the sitcom meant to those who were on it, but (as with Kudrow's The Comeback) one dominant feature is just how diminished the Friends are. Both LeBlanc's "LeBlanc" and Kudrow's "Valerie Cherish" are figures for the long undignified aftermath of stardom, and Kudrow and LeBlanc play them for maximal humiliation.
The difference is this: While Kudrow's show emphasizes the chasm that separates professional, high-strung Valerie from her zany character, LeBlanc gives his own reputation no quarter. On Episodes, he plays himself as an undisciplined lout — as more or less what you'd expect Joey to become if he'd made it big on Days of Our Lives.
If Kudrow's post-Friends work acts as a corrective to fans who remain convinced that she is Phoebe, LeBlanc practically doubles down on that 1990s' PR line that the Friends were exactly what they seemed. These are fascinatingly different strategies for handling the problem of post-Friends fame, and for filling in the ciphers fans retain an insatiable appetite for even 20 years after fame hit.
You remember how the Friends theme song went: "Your job's a joke, you're broke, your love life's D.O.A." One of Episodes' slickest moves was resetting LeBlanc's circumstances to those precise conditions. LeBlanc, who wants to star in a TV series again, is stuck being a host for a ludicrous game show in which people are stuck living in glass boxes from which they can torture people in other boxes (there really is no subtext to this show). He's broke. In the first episode, his love life — which could technically be described as D.O.A. — gets televised.
On Friends, this would have constituted a crisis: Everyone would have come together and solved the problem. In the real world, showing someone famous having sex in a way they're not supposed to ended Gawker. But the lesson on Episodes is that it doesn't matter. Nothing does, except ratings. Pride is over, shame is passé, and the gossip industry — which thrived on both — has burned itself out. People who behave badly don't suffer for it; they just do a tour on Dancing With the Stars.
As Episodes wraps up, so does an era defined by Friends' rise to sexy power, its actors' reckoning with stardom, aging, and the reality-TV-adjacent demands their moment in the sun generated, and, finally, the recognition that the screaming engine that propelled them into a vortex of celebrity gossip has stalled out. No one cares anymore, least of all Matt LeBlanc, whose fantastic indifference to his own image in Episodes turns out to be the very thing that hints there might actually be more to him.