When Friends Debuted 20 Years Ago, People Gave It a D+

Early reviews for one of the best-loved sitcoms of the '90s called the show's stars not just "sexy" and "urbane," but also "dysfunctional morons."

There was a time when the phrases "how YOU doin'," "could I BE more excited?" and "we were on a break!" didn't make people laugh. There was a time when the unemployed twenty-somethings making their way in New York City lived in terrible apartments in Queens. There was a time when Rachel was not a haircut, when smelly cats weren't the subjects of troubadourian ballads, when friends who happened to live near each other were not also, in their way, a family.
That time was, pretty much, the entirety of human history that came before September 22, 1994—the day Friends debuted as part of NBC's Thursday-night lineup. The show would go on not only to average more than 20 million viewers (25 million as of its eighth season), but also to reach a kind of cultural ubiquity in the form of catch-phrases, quizzes, reaction gifs, and many, many knock-offs. Between TBS and Nick at Nite, Slate's Willa Paskin points out, the show "is currently rerun eight times a day."
It wasn't clear from the beginning, though, that Friends would become such a success. While many of the critics who reviewed the show liked it, there were also some who found Central Perk to be decidedly unperky. One resented the show's "rimshot writing." Another, the characters' promiscuity. Another called the friends themselves "dysfunctional morons."
Could the critics have BEEN more prescient? The answer, it seems, is yes. Here's a selection of what they had to say, twenty years ago today.

The scripts are filled with pop references—e.g., gags about David Hasselhoff, Shari Lewis and Mentos mints.

A game cast delivers the barrage of banter with an arch coyness that suggests they think they're in some Gen X Neil Simon play.

The show's saving grace is that as the weeks go by, the characters begin to grow on you. That has more to do with the actors' animation than it does with the rimshot writing.

NBC (Thursdays, 9:30 p.m. ET)


Concept is OK, but the humor’s less sophisticated than expected from the exec producers of HBO’s comedy series “Dream On,” and the dialogue is not exactly snappy. Ross: “I honestly don’t know if I’m hungry or horny!” Chandler: “Stay out of my freezer.”

Moral and health issues are sidestepped altogether: “Friends” touts promiscuity and offers liberal samples of an openness that borders on empty-headedness. It’s not much of a positive example for juves, though.

Pilot centers around Monica’s bad luck with previous dates and what happens when she welcomes a new man to her bed. An embarrassing situation seems to be the worst that comes of the encounter—at least, for the time being.

All six of the principals, especially Cox and Schwimmer, appear resourceful and display sharp sitcom skills. But even the best tightrope walkers need dependable rigging, and the pilot, a getting-to-know-you script, offers little support.

Oh, no, you might well moan, not another group of pals sitting around whining and nursing their anxieties, getting up once in a while to test the passing Zeitgeist. Oh, yes. But click into NBC's "Friends" anyway. The creators and executive producers are Marta Kauffman and David Crane, whose "Dream On" has been exploring new boundaries of zaniness (and permissiveness) on HBO. "Friends," more conventional on the surface, promises to be equally offbeat and seductive ...

The cast is appealing, the dialogue is pitch-perfect 1994, the time-slot is between the solidly established "Mad About You" at 8 P.M. and "Seinfeld" at 9 P.M. "Friends" comes as close as a new series can get to having everything.

The sexy, urbane "Friends"—from Marta Kauffman, David Crane and Kevin Bright, the people responsible for the HBO super-comedy "Dream On"—starts fairly strongly tonight, improves next Thursday and in week three gets on a grand, hilarious, rip-roaring roll. It's the perfect series to bridge "Mad About You" and "Seinfeld."

Its premiere has the burden of sorting out the major characters in this communal comedy, six singles in the their 20s who spend much of their time slouching around—in their spacious pad and in the casual cafe/coffee house where some of them work—talking about being single ...

Given that the cafe and apartment look somewhat alike—and that the schmoozing and blizzard of acerbic one-liners occur in both places—juxtaposing these locales gets confusing. And the notion that all of these attractive people would remain platonic while flopping around together is a bit far-fetched. Yet these are nit-picks, and "Friends" has so many good moves that there's really nothing to dislike. It's all so light and frothy that after each episode you may be hard-pressed to recall precisely what went on, except that you laughed a lot.

Whether Generation X is a genuine social phenomenon or a marketing concoction, it's the motivating principal behind NBC's "Friends."

The new series, wedged between "Mad About You" and "Seinfeld" at 7:30 tonight on WMAQ-Channel 5, is a hip urban comedy for people who are old enough to be on their own but young enough (almost) for Jerry to date.

The Hollywood Reporter:

There's a sustaining humor at work on the new NBC entry Friends.

This ensemble comedy about a pack of young adults holed up in Manhattan starts in a capable manner, evidencing a solid understanding of the forces at work within the series' architecture. True, there is some forced shtick, but nonetheless, Friends makes the lives of its protagonists humorously involving ...

The interplay of characters is kickily, if slightly inartfully, accomplished in Friends' commencement, as rendered by a story pertaining to Monica's going out with a line-skipping cad and Rachel skipping out on her wedding ceremony.

While Friends sometimes does appear more like a clumsy parody of MTV's The Real World than as a knowing effort to comically report on the real world, by and large the series puts its band of actors into engaging predicaments, resulting in good laughs.

Wedged happily between "Mad About You" and "Seinfeld," this comedy series from the producers of HBO's "Dream On" would have to be an utter disaster-which it isn't-not to finish as the season's highest-rated new comedy.

What helps "Friends" is that the show's creators have come up with a highly likable group of actors who are talented and charming, if not rip-roaringly funny.

"Friends," like "Ellen," like "Seinfeld," like "Mad About You," wants you not merely to laugh at its characters-but to identify with them ...

The humor derives mostly from a litany of complaints and wisecracks that spring from such subplots as Monica finding a beau her friends approve of, and Ross coping with the fact that his ex-wife, who left him for a woman, is pregnant.

Unlike "Ellen" and "Seinfeld, which pride themselves on exploring the trivial, "Friends" wants to be about something-which I suppose is its attempt to be a deeper, more poignant show.

It isn't, not yet anyway. But "Friends" is clearly a show of demographics-which is why it should do extremely well among those who, between the snappy dialogue, find themselves among the crowd.

Because the show looks and behaves like so many other sitcoms, the originality at the center of Friends (NBC, Thursdays, 8:30- 9 p.m.) comes as something of a surprise. If I tell you that it's a show about a bunch of attractive yuppies sitting around talking, what do you think of? thirtysomething, Seinfeld, Mad About You, yadda-yadda-yadda.

Well, not in quite this way. At its best, Friends operates like a first-rate Broadway farce, complete with slamming doors, twisty plots, and intricately strung together jokes. And even when it's not at its best, the crack acting and piquant punchlines give Friends a momentum and charm that win you over even if you're not laughing ...

Created by writers Marta Kauffman and David Crane (Dream On, The Powers That Be), Friends bulldozes past its confusions and clichés on the power of its zippy dialogue. Kauffman and Crane can take an utterly standard sitcom scene—a discussion among the chums about whether foreplay is more important to women than to men—and turn it into a tensely funny playlet with a beginning, middle, and end, all before the opening credits….

It's just another sitcom, but even so, Friends is pretty irresistible. A-

Life on Seinfeld may be laid back, but its characters always seem to have someplace to go. In Friends the crowd is always around to share their latest personal woes or offer a shoulder to cry on. But who would want advice from these dysfunctional morons, with their obsessive pop-culture references?

Via @neetzan