NBC’s Journey and Ultimate Failure to Find the Next ‘Friends’
For the past few years it’s been nearly impossible to flip through the channels without stumbling upon a number of the Friends clones that have come and gone. Shows like Perfect Couples, Friends with Benefits, Partners, Friends With Better Lives, Some of My Best Friends, Undateable, and a wealth of other shows with generic titles that have failed to make a name for themselves (as well as other legitimate contenders for the “throne” such as Happy Endings or How I Met Your Mother). Now, with Friends recently added to the Netflix pantheon, and with Lisa Kudrow and Matt LeBlanc being as hot as ever (well maybe that’s not true) with current hit series, The Comeback and Episodes, and Courtney Cox’s Cougar Town ending its run, it seems like now is the best time to analyze the immense problems NBC faced when trying to replace their flagship comedy, and some of the absurd strike-outs they tried to turn into sensations during the transition period.
During the early 2000s, NBC foresaw the end of their comedy cash cow and as Friends began moving into its twilight seasons, the network began planning for the inevitable and developing the next wave of comedies that would hold onto their grip of the market. This effort saw a number of failed sitcoms rise and fall over Friends‘ final seasons.
One such sitcom that aired during 2000 was Battery Park. A comedy set at a police station that was based on an already canceled sitcom that ABC had called Sugar Hill. Battery Park featured such names as Elizabeth Perkins and Frank Grillo but still didn’t last any longer than four episodes before being canceled.
2000 also saw the release of Daddio which saw gruff leading man Michael Chiklis staring as a recently grounded stay-at-home dad. The safe show’s first season only had five episodes, which helped it squeak out a second year (even though the next season aired less than half a year later). However, reality was crueler this time around, with the sophomore season getting pulled after merely four episodes.
With NBC being no closer to finding a satisfactory successor to Friends, in 2002, network president Jeff Zucker became so desperate to not lose the hit that he kept the show going for another (truncated) season by offering each of the six cast members a million dollars per episode, which was then unprecedented. That’s how much faith Zucker had lost in what they were developing and how convinced he was that they needed Friends to remain relevant (although with the new price tags the cast was valued at, the show was still barely making money at this point). But as this extra season began to come to a close, there was no more level of negotiating that Zucker could do to hang onto his precious show. He needed to move forward with the new blood, and what followed was a messy, fascinating experiment.
Near-success was seen with Stark Raving Mad, a sitcom about a Stephen King-esque horror writer (played by a pre-Monk Tony Shaloub) who tries to get along with his squeamish, hypochondriac of an agent, with a pre-How I Met Your Mother Neil Patrick Harris playing the role and rounding out the cast. In spite of using these actors effectively against type, garnering decent ratings, and even lasting a full season, the plug was pulled as the show wasn’t deemed tremendous enough to replace Friends.
This nadir also saw the creation of Cursed, a sitcom staring Steven Weber (and a strong supporting cast that included Chris Elliot, Wendell Pierce, and Paula Marshall) centered around the idea of him consistently having bad luck in love and life due to a curse he received. As the show struggled along, it was frequently tampered with by the network, culminating in the series being shut down and “rebooted” as The Weber Show having now ditched the curse angle and it basically resembling any other sitcom that was on the air. Unsurprisingly, after suffering this interference and a name change, the sitcom didn’t last past 17 episodes. And if anything, it looked like the initial curse that plagued Weber’s character had shifted to the network itself.
While these erratic comedies failed to make an impression, NBC’s primary plan was to replace Friends with Coupling in a move that they highly publicized and even thought was particularly clever (Friends in the first place was a loose adaptation of the original British series, Coupling). The idea here was that Coupling would win over audiences as it was seen as “Friends, with sex” however audiences quickly revolted with the series not only not acting as the new de facto Friends, but getting canceled after four episodes. The show awkwardly adapted scripts from Moffat’s original series with the results being stilted and unnatural. Even Zucker would later say that the show “just sucked.”
When NBC’s contingency plan quickly failed, more comedies were rushed into development to save the day, with the results being bizarre amalgams, all centered around relationships, but throwing in frantic elements, almost as if out of panic, to attract a new audience. These elements varied from ambitious framing devices, out-there settings and locations, or seemingly random premises like sitcoms about the police, authors, or television personalities. The attempts included programs like Inside Schwartz, Leap of Faith, and Good Morning Miami. Inside Schwartz starred Breckin Meyer and chronicled his dating life with the twist being that sports commentators “called plays” on it all, reducing his relationships to sports highlights as the series offered a very unique perspective. In spite of the creative twist, it still only aired nine episodes.
Leap of Faith was as pedestrian as they come as the series depicted a young Sarah Paulson as the titular Faith (groan) who was engaged but then flees from it all and throws herself back into the single life after falling for a hot actor. Even though the supporting cast included a young Ken Marino and Tim Meadows, the series was canceled after six episodes, with viewers never knowing if Faith’s leap had paid off (it probably did, because of course).
Faring a bit better was the sitcom Good Morning Miami, developed by some of the creatives behind NBC’s very successful Will & Grace, which looked at the lives and relationships of those at a morning news and talk show. Even though Good Morning Miami lived through a full first season and renewal, when Friends was leaving and the pressure was on, the show faltered and was canceled nine episodes into its second season.
The most egregious example of this was The Singles Table, which in spite of producing six episodes, and staring a rosy-cheeked John Cho, never even ending up going to air. The series saw twentysomethings sitting at the singles table (now I get it!) at a wedding, with the rest constantly rotating and the impetus being just a conduit to have twenty year-olds talking about sex and dating.
In the end though, just focusing on strong characters and relationships would have been all that was necessary. After all, it’s not as if Friends was a deep show and contained much more than six friends dating and living their lives.
With NBC now having dismantled their comedy night entirely, you can see the extreme extrapolation of where all of this headed. Not only did they struggle to find a new Friends, when they eventually got a new hit in the form of The Office, they saw similar problems trying to usher in a replacement for that (along with an ill-advised Dwight spinoff, The Farm, that probably would have aired even less episodes than Joey did), and slowly their dedication to this hunt died out entirely, and with it went their comedy block. You could perhaps say that this entire time NBC has been simply trying to find its new Friends (although this opinion is more than a little simplistic), but you can see the care and effort draining out a little more each year as increasing amounts of reality television and competitions took up root, until there was only the latter remaining.
But hey, at least all your favorite New Yorkers will still “be there for you” on Netflix.