The Forgotten Years of the ‘Friends’ Saga

joey
“Nobody understands wanting things to stay the same like I do. I was happy in New York, okay? And I tried really hard to keep things from changing. But everyone else got married, and had kids, and moved on. They all changed. So, I’m giving change a shot. And it has been hard. But just hoping things stay the same? It doesn’t work.”

Not many Friends fans will recognize this as a quote from Joey Tribbiani in the wake of the events of the hit NBC sitcom’s series finale. That’s because it didn’t happen on Friends.

In the wake of the recently announced (and wildly misleading) “Friends reunion,” fans have been thinking a lot about where their beloved characters left off in 2004 — but what few choose to remember is that the story didn’t end there for everyone. From 2004-2006, NBC gave us Joey, a spinoff that followed Joey Tribbiani as he moved to LA to further his acting career. Airing in Friends’ prime 8pm Thursday timeslot, it was created by Friends executive producers Shana Goldberg-Meehan and Scott Silveri, and also retained Kevin S. Bright, one of the three original EPs behind Friends.

Though the show remains underrated, it was unable to live up to its origin series and was cancelled midway through its second season. The final eight episodes of its 46-episode run never aired in America, and even now have only been seen by a relative few; while the Complete First Season was put out on DVD in the US, poor sales led to the second season only being released abroad. In effect, the most recent events in Friends canon remain largely unknown by fans.*

So what did everyone miss?

Upon Joey’s arrival in LA, viewers are reintroduced to his sister Gina (Drea de Matteo), the hard-edged single mother of Michael (Paulo Costanzo), a socially awkward college kid studying rocket science. In the pilot, Michael convinces his Uncle Joey to let him move in with him. Joey also finds a potential love interest in Alex (Andrea Anders), a married neighbor at his apartment complex. Rounding out the cast is Joey’s psychotic and aggressive agent, Bobbie (Jennifer Coolidge), and — in one of the best parts of the series — the recurring Howard, an obsessive, borderline-stalker Joey Tribbiani superfan played by Melissa McCarthy’s husband, Ben Falcone. (The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg also recurred in four episodes as a friend of Michael’s.) By the end of the pilot, Joey finds out the show he was starring in has been cancelled, while another show he turned down is an instant hit.

Though Joey premiered to 18.55 million viewers, the first season averaged 10.2 million — just under half of Friends’ final-season average (even excluding the meteoric series finale and pre-finale special). Throughout season [spoiler alert], Joey eventually lands a starring role in a hit drama series and winds up in his most serious relationship to date, almost moving in with someone before a sudden breakup results in his fling with the newly divorced Alex.

Joey went on to win a People’s Choice Award for Favorite New TV Comedy. In the acceptance speech, LeBlanc promised the audience, “We’ll stick around as long as you’ll have us.”

Unfortunately, that wasn’t very long. By Season 2, the show’s average fell to 7.10 million. Beginning with Joey getting fired from his TV show, the season ultimately sees his career take off again with a blockbuster action movie, his own studio-based production company, and his own action figure. His romantic arc continues as well, with he and Alex secretly having feelings for each other at different times in what naturally amounts to a Ross-and-Rachel-esque back-and-forth. In the last-ever episode, Joey is comfortably in a new relationship with Alex, and tells her that she is the first girl he has ever been able to imagine himself marrying.

More importantly, the second season features the addition of two new characters in what seemed to be an attempt at retooling the show. In the premiere, Miguel Núñez, Jr. enters as Joey’s friend Zach. (Joey and Zach later get drunkenly married in Tijuana, and while it turns out to be non-binding, it does admittedly feel weird that no reference is made to Ross and Rachel, TV’s most famous onscreen couple.) Later in the season comes Jimmy, an old high school friend of Joey’s who is revealed to be Michael’s father — notably played by Adam Goldberg, who also portrayed Chandler’s ill-fated roommate Eddie on Friends. (Joey is also visited by his dad, with actor Robert Costanzo reprising the role from Friends in an impressive bit of continuity).

By the middle of the second season, the outlook for Joey looked grim. The show went on an extended hiatus in December 2005, and in February 2006 The Hollywood Reporter reported that Andrea Anders had already signed onto a new gig: Friends co-creator David Crane’s new sitcom, The Class. Joey moved to Tuesday nights against American Idol in March 2006, where it lasted just one episode, hitting a low of 4.09 million viewers. It was immediately pulled from the airwaves, though it continued to air in the UK and other countries.

While there are inconsistencies in both cast and characterization, such issues are natural in most sitcoms, including Friends. These inconsistencies are also balanced out by some rewarding continuity within the series. Visible in Joey’s LA home are props like Hugsy and the famed Magna-Doodle, and Joey also makes a few passing references to his old friends throughout the series — most notably in the pilot:

Gina: I thought you and Chandler should have moved out [to LA] a long time ago. It’s a very vibrant gay scene.
Joey: Chandler and I are not a gay couple!

While guest appearances by Joey’s New York friends were a stated possibility down the line, the show initially wanted to distance itself from its parent series. Throughout its run, no other Friends co-star appeared nor was mentioned in a present tense, and the closest the show came to a Friends reunion was David Schwimmer directing two episodes.

In the end, Joey fell victim to a change in the character’s dynamic. LeBlanc and Bright have identified a shift in Joey’s personality from optimism to self-doubt as a key problem, but the new dynamic was also problematic on practical level, with LeBlanc being given the bulk of responsibility. The actor has noted this as well, telling Radio Times last year, “In Friends, I was sharing a 22-minute episode with six other characters. In Joey, the script was all me… The pressure was so much, I remember feeling like an elephant had sat on my head.”

LeBlanc has also noted that he wished Friends co-creator David Crane were involved with the series, but that Crane was not interested, having just come off the long run of Friends. (Crane and fellow co-creator Marta Kauffman have also said they were never interested in a spin-off, but nonetheless are supportive of those behind it. Crane told Entertainment Weekly in 2014, “We love everyone involved, so even eight years later, I wish them all the best.”)

These days, perhaps the biggest head-scratcher about Joey is why it hasn’t found a second life on Netflix. While it’s no Frasier to its Cheers, it’s logical to assume that some faction of Friends fanatics are interested in the series. Moreover, aside from occasionally surfacing on YouTube, the only way to currently see Joey’s second season in the US is to purchase a Region 1 DVD from Canada.

Though it remains widely unremembered, Joey was a solid if middling sitcom that, compared to today’s slate of multi-cams, was a respectable and decent effort. But what makes fans’ ignorance of the spin-off most interesting is not the show’s quality, but the fact that it served as a continuation of the Friends saga. Despite the fervent nature of a fanbase that demands updates and continuations of the universe, Joey has generally never been regarded as accepted Friends canon — partly because its first impression was made in the shadow of one of the most heralded shows of all-time, and partly because it’s not what fans wanted.

While it is understandable and not unprecedented for fans to have a selective hearing when it comes to the canon of their favorite shows, it is also surprising, given, for example, the angry outcry of Scrubs fans after Bill Lawrence continued the show for a ninth season with new characters, for rational reasons (to keep staffers employed in a downward economy), and in a way that made clear the season was intended to be a spin-off (it is now unofficially called Scrubs: Med School). Scrubs fans seemed to feel inexplicably forced beyond their will to accept Med School as canon. How, then, can a more straightforward and voluntary depiction of Joey Tribbiani’s life after Friends be given the cold shoulder? It can certainly be debated that fans have the right to accept or deny any part of a fictional universe as they see fit, and such an argument is probably correct. But the cold reception given to a Friends sequel fails to align with the show’s characteristically loud and demanding fanbase, and therein lies the intrigue of Joey. What often causes the show to be cited as one of the worst spin-offs as all-time is also what makes it one of the most interesting: the fast abandonment of a dedicated fanbase.

So, sure — fans aren’t required to follow their favorite characters like disciples of fiction. But it’s a little surprising that so few did. As Joey himself said, it was pointless to just hope things stayed the same. For now, though, the life of Joey Tribbiani past 2004 continues to be forgotten or completely ignored. But it was a respectable effort.

They gave change a shot. And it was hard.

*More or less. The single most current development in the Friends universe actually occurs in the future: The 1999 series finale of fellow NBC sitcom Mad About You, from which Phoebe’s twin sister Ursula originated as a character, flashes forward to roughly 2021 to reveal that Ursula became the Governor of New York. Take that as you will.

Nick Riccardo writes about TV sometimes.

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