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

By Kevin Fallon

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.

6. Wanderlust

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Rachel Green was kooky. She was a nut, really, and Jennifer Aniston may not get enough credit for turning her into such a character to root for on Friends. It's a shame, then, that Aniston has been so reluctant to tap into that same free-spirited, off-the-wall, endearingly wacky characterization in any of her many bland films that she's made since Friends ended. It's also why Wanderlust works so well. Aniston and Paul Rudd play an uptight urban couple who lose their jobs, flee the city, and then stumble upon a hippie commune. As their characters throw inhibition to the wind at the free-love community, Aniston and Rudd delve into the sometimes-obscene, mostly hilarious antics with admirable gusto. With Rudd there as her reliably committed comedy safety net, Aniston is finally unafraid to go for broke in her funniest performance since Friends.

7. Go On

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Pulling off a new series pilot is incredibly difficult. The characters have to be introduced, the plot set up in a non-confusing manner, and enough stakes have to be present to woo viewers back. This is especially hard to do with a 30-minute sitcom. Based on its pilot, Go On certainly isn't brilliant, but there are signs that it could be. Matthew Perry plays a sports-radio host forced into group therapy after the death of his wife, and attends only grudgingly. Perry is at his best playing cranky and firing off droll zingers, which the island of misfit toys he visits for each therapy session allows him to do often. Yet rather than be caricatures of crazy, grieving people, the people in group therapy are oddballs in the most endearing way—but, importantly, still odd, providing plenty of laughs. Perry's comedic chemistry with the radiant Laura Benanti as his therapist is reason enough to tune in.

8. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

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Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip did not live up to its potential. But it had such great potential. Its pilot episode was impeccably written, grandiose, exciting, and expertly acted by a cast that included Matthew Perry as a curmudgeonly head writer for a late-night sketch series. The show quickly lost its footing, chiefly because its show-within-a-show wasn't interesting enough to sustain the behind-the-scenes drama. But with greats like Bradley Whitford, Amanda Peet, Sarah Paulson, and Ed Asner on board and writing from Aaron Sorkin, it produced some of the most memorable dramatic hours of television of the past decade—particularly the pilot, "The Long Lead Story," and "The Christmas Show."

9. Horrible Bosses

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Released at the peak of the summer of raunch in 2011, Horrible Bosses was the box-office hit that Jennifer Aniston needed. It also proved where he bread and butter is: Not in color-by-numbers romantic comedies (Just Go With It) or even more wooden romantic dramas (Love Happens), but in pure comedies that allow her to show off the zany physical comedy skills that made her turn as Rachel Green so winning. In Horrible Bosses Aniston plays a dentist from the sex dungeon-wing of hell, who so crudely and brazenly sexually harasses her male hygienist that he tries taking a hit out on her. The film is unapologetically lewd and dark, and Aniston steals the show with her uninhibited performance.

10. 17 Again

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There were numerous entertaining films from Friends alums that could have filled this lowest slot—the kind that were never going to win any major awards, never going to set box-office records, but are perfectly pleasant to stumble upon on TBS on a Sunday afternoon. Aniston's Marley & Me is as schmaltzy as you'd expect a movie about a dog to be, and also as affecting. The uncomfortable black comedy in The Break-Up is jarringly realistic and occasionally hilarious. Scream 4 may not have lived up to the standard of the original, but it was a hoot to see Cox and the cast reunite. Easy A is unexpectedly smart, but Kudrow's role in it is marginal, and David Schwimmer's voice work in the Madagascar film is third banana to Chris Rock and Ben Stiller's. But 17 Again, with its appealing Big-like storyline and the unabashed goofiness of Matthew Perry and Zac Efron's performances as men stuck in each other's bodies is too hard to resist. The film is cheesy and predictable—and quite delightful.

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http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/09/at-last-the-cast-of-friends-is-making-hits-again/262208/