Editor’s note: This column originally ran on May 7, 2004.
Here’s something I learned this week: You can’t write a weekly NBA playoffs column if the league decides to stretch out the playoffs like Mary Tyler Moore’s face. Guess how many games have been played since last Friday’s column. Seriously, take a guess.
(Think about it.)
The answer? Seven.
Are you kidding me? Seven games in an entire week? We’re barely in the second round!!! Apparently, things are stretched out because they want a specific date for the Finals in mid-June. This way, everyone can make their travel plans ahead of time and … oh, wait — we have no idea who’s playing in the Finals. Great idea. Because of this idiocy, the Heat-Hornets series dragged on like the Iran hostage crisis in 1980. TNT was thinking of replacing Ernie Johnson with Ted Koppel at one point. What a disaster.
So screw it … let’s talk about The OC and Friends instead. Two water cooler shows. Two breakout hits. Two season finales this week — one just hitting its stride, the other calling it quits. And both of them have polarized the nation as if they’re the pop culture version of “Roe vs Wade.”
I like The OC. I didn’t like Friends. We may as well start there.
People were calling Friends the “last great sitcom” this week, begging an obvious follow-up question: Friends was a great sitcom?
Really? For a TV show to be great, don’t women and men have to watch it? I don’t know any guys who watch Friends. (Hey, they might be out there, I just haven’t met them.) Thinking about a guy watching Friends always makes me think of that Seinfeld episode when George gets back with Susan, then realizes he can’t get out, and the show ends with them watching Mad About You together as she looks happy and he looks like he might throw up at any second.
It wasn’t always that way. The first season of Friends was the closest anyone ever came to capturing Generation X on TV. The characters discussed misunderstandings from Three’s Company, made jokes about Joanie Loves Chachi, even hummed the theme from The Odd Couple. They were constantly fending off nitpicking parents and nosy neighbors. They busted each other’s chops, made constant wisecracks, ripped each other’s latest boyfriends and girlfriends. Some of them had a little money, others were pretty much broke, and there was always tension between the haves and the have-nots. And they were always happiest just sitting around and doing nothing.
Heck, this was what my life was like! Maybe I wasn’t dancing in a water fountain or having a kid with my lesbian ex-wife; but for the most part, this was me. We all had friends like Chandler and Joey, guys who roomed together for too long and almost started to take on couple tendencies (in a funny way). We all knew an over-sensitive guy like Ross, or a ditz like Phoebe. We all knew two smoking-hot chicks who didn’t have boyfriends and laughed at everyone else’s jokes.
(Okay, maybe that was a stretch.)
During that first season, Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston were the breakout stars — Perry because he was wickedly funny (you forget this now), Aniston because every guy on the planet had a crush on her. (I’ve written this before, but I would put the ’94-’95 Aniston against any celeb &mdahs; back when she had a little more weight on her and pulled off the “Extremely Hot Chick Who You Feel Like You Could Actually Have a Chance With” dynamic.) But each actor was at least somewhat likable. Well, except Schwimmer.
And then the show went in the tank.
The first sign of trouble happened at the start of Season Two, when Rachel realized that Ross was in love with her, planned on reciprocating … and he came back from China with an astonishingly average-looking new girlfriend. So Rachel spent a few episodes pining for him — which was outrageous, since she could have had anybody, but she was settling for this horse-faced doofus — and he was too dumb to notice. When he finally realized what happened, we had an old-fashioned love triangle on our hands, which Ross attempted to solve — with the help of his buddies — by making a pro-con list, which Rachel somehow stumbled across. Eventually they ended up together.
Three problems here:
1.) Nobody would ever debate between two women if one of them looks like Jennifer Aniston. Not even for a millisecond. Not even for a split-second of a millisecond.
2.) No female would ever forgive a guy for making a pro-con list that included mean comments about them. It would never happen. It would never, EVER happen.
3.) More importantly, this is a freaking sitcom! Who cares? Make me laugh!
So that started the downfall. Suddenly Ross and Rachel were doing oogly-googly stuff, Rachel wasn’t working in the coffee shop, Joey was getting acting jobs, Chandler was banging out one-liners like Shecky Greene, everyone had money … these were becoming people I couldn’t identify with anymore. There was a painful Thanksgiving episode where the gang played football — that one has to rank among the worst 30 minutes in TV history. Things eventually plummeted off a cliff during the Super Bowl special in ’96, which included special guest appearances by Julia Roberts, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Fonzie waterskiing over the shark.
To everyone’s eternal horror, Friends had evolved into a Chick Show (the dreaded cousin to the Chick Flick). Episodes revolved around Ross and Rachel’s on-again/off-again romance, or Monica dating Tom Selleck, or some B-list celebrity making a cameo. Meanwhile, Matthew Perry was losing weight at warp speed and taking all the comedy with him. Suddenly, male characters were confessing “I love you” while the studio audience went bonkers — just a room full of females shrieking in delight, like one of those Oprah episodes where Oprah gives away blenders to the entire audience. When Ross and Rachel started having problems and bickering for entire episodes, that was it for me. What was this, the Lifetime Network?
Like most guys, I stopped watching for a few years, making a brief comeback for the story arc when Ross married the English chick and Monica hooked up with Chandler (only because everyone was talking about the Friends resurgence), then jumping ship after Joey fell in love with Rachel.
Because here’s the thing …
(And Friends did this not once but twice … )
There are certain codes that guys live by. I’ve mentioned many of them in this space over the years — stuff like “If you’re sharing a bed with someone in Vegas, make sure you remain at least two feet apart at all times,” and “If your buddy’s team loses an especially tough game, you can’t call him to make fun of him under any circumstances.” But there are three codes that supercede all others. Here they are:
1.) You can’t be attracted to your buddy’s sister. 2.) You can’t be attracted to your buddy’s girlfriend. 3.) You can’t be attracted to your buddy’s ex-girlfriend if he had genuine feelings for her.
Those three codes are non-negotiable. So when Chandler fell in love with Joey’s girlfriend … I mean, that’s it. As Charles Barkley would say, first of all, they can’t be friends no mo’. Joey ain’t forgivin’ nothin’ like that. And No. 2, I can’t like Chandler no mo’.
(Sorry, I’ve been watching way too much “Inside the NBA” lately.)
But seriously … how can anyone get past this? Wasn’t there a guy on the Friends writing staff who could say, “Hold on, everyone. We can’t do this; we will lose our entire male viewership.”?
Well, they lost me. I trickled back for more punishment during the Chandler-Monica thing, became repulsed as Chandler turned into a whipped, emasculated parody of himself (it’s bad enough dealing with friends like this in real life, isn’t it?), then quit cold turkey when Joey fell for Rachel. They did it again! Rachel was Ross’s girl! He had been in love with her for like 10 years! She was pregnant with his kid, for God’s sake! And they have the nerve to call the show Friends.
Before last night’s unwatchable final episode, I hadn’t seen the show for over two years. Now I remember why I stopped watching. First, Ross wanted to confess his love to Rachel, but she was headed to the airport; then he and Phoebe went to the wrong airport … I’d tell you more about it, but I was busy slamming the remote control against my head. There was also a subplot where Monica and Chandler brought their adopted twins home 10 minutes after they were born. They moved out of their apartment. People tried to act sad and stuff. Then they went out for one last cup of coffee and that was that.
I didn’t laugh once. They weren’t kidding when they said it was the end of an era.
A friend in L.A. mailed me The OC pilot last summer, about a month before it premiered on Fox. “You’re going to love it,” he told me. “It’s ridiculous. Could fill the void of 90210.
Well, those are some pretty strong words. I still haven’t recovered from the demise of 90210, not when David Silver had so much more music in him. I’m not sure what Fox was thinking here. Personally, I would have spun him off into his own show where he tried to launch a music career in LA and became bitter rivals with David from Real World: New Orleans, only they eventually became roommates and merged their talents together with the smash hit duet, “Come On Be My Baby It’s You Girl.”
I wouldn’t have stopped there. Brandon should have gotten his own show, where he worked for the Boston Globe and did Brandon things. And Dylan definitely should have gotten his own show — Permanent Hangover, where he did drugs, drove drunk and had sex with bimbos every week, only with no repercussions. Even Valerie should have gotten her own show, where she played a struggling 20-something in L.A. who slept with a ton of guys and had to get tested at the end of every episode. Best of all, Ian Ziering could have just zoomed around and made cameos in every show. None of these ideas would have missed.
Here’s the point: There was a 90210 void. When I passed my friend’s OC sentiments along to the Sports Gal, she practically clotheslined me for the tape. And as we watched it … I mean, sometimes you just know. People will always watch a show if it includes the following things: 1. Rich people doing rich things
There’s a famous Hollywood story about Rodney Dangerfield’s movie Back to School. They had the script, had Rodney, had the jokes, couldn’t figure out what it was missing … and then someone had the suggestion, “Make him rich.” Boom. There’s the movie. Everyone wants to be rich. Few people get the chance. So whether we’re watching someone save the day with money, or we’re watching attractive people driving Ferraris, throwing black-tie functions and getting double-crossed out of millions, it’s probably going to work. If there are bikinis and sun, even better. Why do you think 90210 didn’t take off until their summer at the Beach Club?
2. An outsider watching rich people do rich things
You always need that outsider — Brandon on 90210, Ryan on The OC, Darko on the Pistons. They’re like us. They don’t belong in this world; neither do we. If you can have them battling about “whether they should move back home” every 10 episodes or so, that’s a bonus.
3. A premise just ludicrous enough that you have a good time making fun of it … and yet just believable enough that it doesn’t undermine the whole show
I loved what The OC did here: Peter Gallagher finds himself defending a kid from Encino, a nice enough kid with nothing going for him. And here’s what Gallagher decides: “This kid is nothing but trouble … hey, he can move into my house for a few weeks! I’m sure this street thug kid will get along famously with my nerdy, awkward son who loves comic books! My wife won’t mind at all!”
So Ryan moves in. He makes friends with Seth (the nerdy son), then falls for the next-door neighbor (Marissa), a rich chick who has a thing for brooding short guys with no money and no hope. Then he and Seth get their asses kicked by the OC water polo team, so Seth’s mom wants him gone. Gallagher drives him back to his old house in Chino, where he’s already been kicked out by his mom — and you know something sad is about to happen because there’s a sad song playing in the background — and guess what? Everyone moved out! He should just kill himself, right?
Nope. Gallagher gives him this one: “Come on, grab your stuff, you’re coming home with us.”
End of pilot. And if you didn’t think this crap worked to a tee … well, you’re crazy. The Sports Gal ended up watching the pilot three times in a single weekend.
4. At least two good-looking chicks
Guys aren’t watching trashy shows unless hot women are involved. It’s just a fact. For instance, there wasn’t a guy on the planet who watched Melrose Place until Amanda and Sydney showed up. Not a problem for The OC. Between Summer, Marissa, Kirsten’s sister and Marissa’s Mom, we’re in good hands here.
5. Luck with the actors
Goes without saying. The OC lucked out with the adults (especially Gallagher) and the girl who plays Summer (the delightful Rachel Bilson). The kid playing Ryan isn’t bad, even though it seems like he’s doing an imitiation of Jay Mohr’s Andrew McCarthy imitation half the time (looking intense, rolling his eyes and saying stuff like, “I love her, man”). He’s also like 27 in real life (insert Ian Ziering joke here). Then again, maybe that isn’t a bad thing. I think my 90210 highlight of all-time — other than Dylan ruining Donna Martion’s debutante ball — was Steve Sanders celebrating his 21st birthday when he was like 37 in real life.
But the key to everything was the guy who plays Seth — Adam Brody — probably the best young actor on TV and someone who reminds many people of a young Tom Hanks (not Serious Tom Hanks, but the guy from Splash, Bachelor Party and Turner and Hooch). Whether The OC becomes Brody’s “Bosom Buddies” remains to be seen, but he’s the franchise here. And that was the problem with Season One — the show was supposed to be geared around Ryan and Marissa, but Seth and his girlfriend (Summer) were 10 times more entertaining. A good problem to have … but still, a problem.
6. A random, ridiculous fistfight for no reason
Done and done.
And finally …
7. Just the right dose of Unintentional Comedy
Again, not a problem with The OC. We knew right away, too — during the scene in the pilot when Ryan and Seth brawl against the Aryan Rich Kid Fighting Machine on the beach, and the villainous Luke kicks Ryan in the stomach and screams, “This is how we do it in the OC, bitch!”
So all the elements were there. I’d give them an “A” for the pilot and a “B-plus” for the season that followed — which was uneven at times but delivered the goods for the most part. There were three great episodes (and by “great,” I mean “great” in terms of reaching the potential of the show): The pilot; the one where Ryan’s mom came to visit; and a clever episode where they interacted with the characters of a fake, “OC”-like show. The guy who created the show — Josh Schwartz, only 26 ‐ could be headed for bigger and better things. Some of the stuff in Season One was genuinely funny.
Sure, there were some problems. During the middle of the season, there was a gawd-awful running story arc with Oliver, an imbalanced rich kid who tried to steal Marissa from Ryan over the course of a few episodes. This idea was right up there with “Rocky 5” and “Ruiz-Holyfield 3.” They also tried too many love triangles. Milked the Ryan-Marissa relationship for too long when they didn’t have any chemistry at all. Tried to pretend Summer was a virgin when she slept with Seth (please). And some of the mix-and-match moments — like Marissa’s dad dating Seth’s mom’s sister as Marissa’s mom was dating Seth’s mom’s father — went a little overboard.
My biggest problem was how they handled the Luke character — a natural villain for Ryan out of that “Billy Zabka in the 80’s” mold. They just weren’t patient with him. By the 10th episode, he had been turned into one of those goofy, Steve Sanders-type characters, befriended the gang and seemed poised to shatter the Unintentional Comedy Scale as we know it. Then he had an inexplicable affair with Marissa’s mom. Finally, he crashed his jeep and almost died. Now he’s just MIA. How can someone blow a chance to become the next Zabka and the next Ziering in the same season? It’s almost mind-boggling.
On the plus side, Brody emerged as someone who could carry the show. They managed to keep the adults interesting all season (something early 90210 couldn’t pull off). Gallagher’s character even joined the ranks of the all-time great TV dads, right up there with Mr. Keaton on Family Ties, Mr. Drummond on Diff’rent Strokes and Mr Walsh on 90210. Meanwhile, Marissa’s acting was so comically atrocious, it brought back fond memories of the Andrew Shue Era. They managed to hit a record number of “issues,” including teen pregnancy, virginity, drinking, drugs, schizophrenia, suicide and, DWI. They even made Marissa’s useless sister vanish halfway through the season, a classic 90210 ploy (if it ain’t working, make it disappear).
The season-ending cliffhanger was actually pretty good — Ryan leaving to deal with his knocked-up former flame; Marissa hitting the bottle; Seth sailing to Tahiti on a 15-foot sailboat that wouldn’t have been good enough for Gilligan and the Skipper, bringing only a duffel bag and no food. All in all, a ludicrously satisfying conclusion to an entertaining season. If only “Friends” could have said the same.
(Of course, I’ll take the NBA Playoffs over either of them. Can we start playing some games, please? Please? Pretty please?)