At Last, the Cast of 'Friends' Is Making Hits Again

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After several years of duds, the actors who played Rachel, Ross, Joey, Phoebe, Monica, and Chandler have finally figured out which roles work for them.

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NBC

It's been eight years since Friends signed off. The first few post-Central Perk years were rocky for the show's six main castmembers—Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc, and David Schwimmer—with a slew of sitcom bombs and box-office disasters. But not anymore.

Four Friends are headlining critically respected sitcoms this TV season—the first time that's happened since the NBC hit ended. LeBlanc plays himself to Golden Globe-winning effect on Episodes. Lisa Kudrow's Web Therapy is an underrated gem. Critics won't stop griping that, despite it being one of the sharpest comedies on TV, Courteney Cox's Cougar Town still hasn't attracted the audience it deserves. On Tuesday, Matthew Perry officially premieres Go On on NBC, a new comedy in which he plays a cranky widower forced into group therapy. It has the best shot at being a hit of any of his post-Friends efforts.

With so many cast members doing such good work, now is a good time to countdown The Best of Friends—the ten best projects from the cast since their show ended.

1. The Comeback

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It's cruel irony that a show titled The Comeback failed to herald Lisa Kudrow's comeback to TV comedy after Friends, because the one-season HBO sitcom was so, so, so good. Kudrow played an aging actress clawing her way to a career resurgence by both signing on for a new show and allowing a reality TV camera crew to shoot her struggle to return to the spotlight. Kudrow perfectly played the desperation of the ordeal with just enough daffiness so as to not make her Valerie Cherish come off too sad or pathetic, allowing her indignity to come off as both painfully awkward and positively hilarious. Perhaps the show would have survived if it premiered in a post-The Office, post-Louie world, which has been more hospitable to comedy of discomfort. But even if we only got one season of Valerie's antics on The Comeback, and least it was a stellar one.

2. Episodes

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Who would have thought that Matthew LeBlanc would be the role of Matthew LeBlanc's career? The former Joey Tribbiani plays a heightened version of himself on Episodes, a Matthew LeBlanc with more obtuse hubris and diva tendencies than the actor allegedly has in real life. It works so well because LeBlanc embraces the jokes made at his expense. He joins the American adaptation of a respected British sitcom, only to hear relentless jokes about "Joey?! Seriously?!" trying to make a return to serious acting. His two main foils are the new sitcom's writers, played by British actors Tamsin Grieg and Stephen Mangan, leading to the show's biggest surprise—that the guy who played "Joey?! Seriously?!" has an undeniable affinity for playing off British humor.

3. 30 Rock

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While it's true that no Friends cast member stars on 30 Rock in any regular capacity, the show is responsible for two of the most memorable performances of two Friends graduates respective careers. First, David Schwimmer guest starred as Greenzo, a mascot hired by Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy to be a mouthpiece for the corporate messaging on environmental issues. But as the character's popularity takes off, Schwimmer imbues Greenzo with a sense of power-hungry madness that makes it all the more upsetting that he so rarely steps in front of the camera anymore. And Jennifer Aniston's turn as the roommate-turned-one-stand-from-hell, a brittle and broken femme fatale, makes me wish the actress would kiss her roller-coaster film career goodbye and return to TV in a new sitcom.

4. Cougar Town

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Fans of Cougar Town have beat the dead horse to a pathetic pulp: The show is not, and has not been since its first handful of episodes, about a middle-aged woman on the prowl for younger male lovers. What it's evolved into is essentially a variation of Friends, a series in which the main conceit of a given episode is friends hanging out. They drink a lot of wine. Have a lot of inside jokes. Insult each other. Date each other. Talk really, really fast. Bill Lawrence (Scrubs) has created the rare modern sitcom that is sharply and punchily written, but with real heart instead of cynicism and sarcasm. Cox grounds the show, which boasts a killer ensemble of lovable lunatics played by Busy Phillips, Christa Miller, Brian Van Holt, and Ian Gomez.

5. Web Therapy

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The appeal of Web Therapy is the joy of watching gifted comedic actors create and delve into their own characters. The show, which stars Lisa Kudrow as a psychotherapist who has the not-so-brilliant idea to conduct therapy over web cams on the Internet in three-minute intervals, consists mostly of improved two-person scenes, setting the stage for a master class of comedy. Kudrow's therapist Fiona is self-obsessed, slightly delusional, exceedingly insecure, and a fascinating mix of vulnerable and combative. The show has hosted a slew of guest stars including Meryl Streep, Rosie O'Donnell, Selma Blair, Conan O'Brien, Courteney Cox, and David Schwimmer—many of whom do their best, most nuanced comedy work in recent years. The show is more pleasurably consumed in the three-minute increments it was released in as an original web series, but the Showtime expansion into half-hour episodes is rewarding enough, if just to see Victor Garber play Fiona's confused gay husband.

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Kevin Fallon is a reporter for the Daily Beast. He's a former entertainment editor at TheWeek.com and former writer and producer for The Atlantic's entertainment channel.

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