I feel it necessary to state outright what should be inherent from the fact I even titled this article the way I did: one, we are talking about the two residents for numberos uno and dos in sitcom history, and two, ‘Seinfeld’ is at its core composed of the greatest dialogue to ever grace the television air waves. That said, the David Crane and Marta Kauffman created Central Perk sitcom rises to the top over the show about nothing.
With the recent burial of ‘How I Met Your Mother’ I was forced to take a long ponder at my top ten list of sitcoms throughout the years in order to place ‘HIMYM’ in its proper place as the show came to a critically condemned close. Of course, sitcoms are akin to albums, a discussion about “the best” quickly degenerates to “my favorite” to which there will almost never come an absolute agreement.
Many will argue for ‘Full House’ or ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’, ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ and ‘Mike and Molly’. Sadly, some will even vehemently defend ‘Sabrina the Teenage Witch’ as the best and most innovative 22-min comedy. For myself, ‘Boy Meets World’ barely makes the top ten, ‘Roseanne’ and ‘Modern Family’ hit in the middle of the pack, and ‘Friends’ reigns in the championship over a nipping at the heels ‘Seinfeld’.
The reasons Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Joey and Phoebe beat out Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer form a specific three-pronged defense. The first defense lies hidden in the ten names just mentioned. The dynamics of each relationship among the six actors of ‘Friends’ delved deeper and deeper into what made friends into true friends over the course of ten seasons. The Ross and Rachel angle jettisoned the show into full gear in the pilot, then changed and morphed throughout the years to eventually bring the show to its heart-strumming conclusion (more on that later).
Monica and Chandler’s relationship, sickeningly cute as it were (and trust me, I know a thing or two about sickeningly cute), permeated out and affected not only their own relationships with the rest of the cast, but the entire group schematics as well.
Chandler and Joey, the two best friends who co-created “FireBall”, (the sport not the alcohol), had their relationship ripped and mended and twisted and reaffirmed over and over again. The most memorable of which being when Chandler kissed Joey’s girlfriend and Joey proclaimed that “you’re so far past the line that you can’t even see the line, the line is a dot to you!”
‘Seinfeld’ simply didn’t have the kind of growth in its relationships that ‘Friends’ did. To the best of my recollection, there was one episode where George and Elaine tried to hang out without Jerry and it was awkward, and the episode probably ended with it still being awkward. Jerry and Elaine had their incredible “This, That and the Other” episode which reviewed the hang ups and emotional confusions that come with sexually beneficial friendships. But as a series that stretched nine seasons, ‘Seinfeld’s characters lacked the growth we see on ‘Friends’.
Another reason ‘Friends’ surpasses Larry David’s dream team are the bottle episodes. Now, I’m too young for ‘Cheers’, which owned bottle episodes (bottle episodes are when the entire 22 minutes is essentially one long scene in one locale). Monica’s apartment on ‘Friends’ was home to so many intricate, action packed storylines that transported the viewer into the home of its characters. If there is one set in all of television where if I were dropped into it blindfolded I would have no problem navigating around every corner and piece of furniture, it’s Monica’s apartment.
Now, having another apartment, that of Chandler and Joey and, later, Rachel and Joey, right across the hall was a type of cheating in this regard. Episodes could still technically be classified as “bottle” even when scenes would shift over across the hall, since it was still in one specific time frame and theoretically one fictional location. This allowed one scene to move around in space with characters pairing off and creating fluidity. Still, though, bottle episodes are hard to pull of and the fact that ‘Friends’ delivered fantastic ones on a consistent basis is deserving of praise.
Consider the holiday episodes, my favorite being when Rachel decides to cook dessert but, due to pages in a recipe sticking together, adds a layer of beef sautéed with peas and onions to a trifle with lady finger and custard. Each character in this episode has an arc, including Ross and Monica’s parents. The action is heightened throughout the episode as storylines start to dove-tail together which all culminate in quick firing baring of truth that gets funnier and funnier as it shoots across the cast. These are the best kind of episodes in a long running show like ‘Friends’.
The third and final defense ‘Friends’ has over all other sitcoms lies in its final episode. Consider ‘Seinfeld’s finale. Sitcoms’ finales simply don’t get the same buzz these days that the two series’ debated on this list do. ‘HIMYM’ came close, but didn’t nearly stop American culture in the same manner these shows did in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Furthermore, I cannot remember ever being as disappointed in a series’ climax as I was in ‘Seinfeld’. ‘Seinfeld’s finale was a clip show, which is another staple episode of sitcoms where the episode is, for the most part, made up of short clips from previous episodes. I know what ‘Seinfeld’ was trying to do: finish with a wham bam thank you America of its own greatest hits. But that’s an episode that comes halfway through the fourth season to save a little money, not as a nine season cultural touchstone’s send off as it leaves the airways.
The ‘Friends’ finale was wrought with the emotional closure the show deserved. Ross and Rachel, who kicked off the show and continued to contribute heavily to its growth and evolution, hit a home run in the finale, where Ross was desperately trying to stop Rachel from moving overseas. He tried, he failed, only to come home to a voice mail from Rachel that ended with her realizing she loved him and attempting to get off the plane just as it’s taking off. As Ross is yelling at his voice mail machine “What happened? I have to know! Did she get off the plane?!”, Rachel’s voices sings from the doorway offscreen, “I got off the plane.” I don’t get my heart twisted often when watching sitcoms, but at that moment my blood pumper was reaching for the tissues.
Through all this, ‘Friends’ was also able to give a proper send off to the apartment, Monica’s apartment that was home to so many amazing bottle episodes. Monica and Chandler are moving out, giving up the apartment that’s been home to ten seasons of laughs, so it really feels like the end of an era. Each of the six characters is sad to see it go, and they all take turns putting their keys to the apartment on an empty counter, turning to give one last cast shot and silent goodbye to the apartment that taught friends how to be friends, lovers how to be lovers and ordinary people how to deal with the scenery of an ugly naked guy in the next building over.
The biggest lesson I learned from ‘Seinfeld’? Never make a bet on who can avoid pleasuring themselves the longest. Sorry Jerry, but my Central Perk peeps take home the gold.