How the Friends Finale Encapsulated Sitcom Perfection

Twenty years ago, the Friends series finale passed the ultimate vibe check by leaning into its strengths.

FRIENDS -- "The Last One: Part 1" -- Episode 19 -- Aired 5/6/2004 -- Pictured: (l-r) Jennifer Aniston as Rachel Green, David Schwimmer as Dr. Ross Geller, Matt LeBlanc as Joey Tribbiani
Photo: NBCU Photo Bank | Getty Images

Not many shows avoided controversy and appeased mass audiences quite like Friends. Thirty years after its premiere, however, our perception of the series has evolved.

Some say that the show used jokes that capitalized on the intolerant views of the 1990s without any regard for actual wit or intelligence. Others claim that the NBC megahit emulated other better programs, such as Living Single, profiting off of superior greatness without ever crediting its inspiration. No matter what anyone thinks of this David Crane and Marta Kauffman-created series, Friends remains the most culturally relevant sitcom of its era. 

Its themes and comfy aesthetics continue to engulf young and old viewers alike in a cozy realm of immature banter and authentic bonding, both platonic and romantic. The show gets millions of views monthly in cable syndication and streaming, making it a beloved fixture of the television zeitgeist a quarter into the 21st century. Warner Bros. spent over $400 million when it acquired the show’s streaming rights in 2020.

This timeless adoration for Friends makes it borderline perplexing that it ended 20 years ago this week. “The Last One” aired May 6, 2004 on NBC to a massive audience of over 50 million Americans. Two decades later, no non-football program has been able to garner this type of event-style viewing around the country. The climax lived up to everything fans could have ever dreamed of, concluding the series by tying together romantic threads and supplying a typical dose of goofiness. In a media world where so many series swing and miss in their final at-bat for glory, Friends played into its innate corniness and goodness to craft a series finale that many other sitcoms are still chasing so many years later. 

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Giving the Fans What They Want

Final episodes are difficult to pull off because every person who watches a TV show wants something different for the characters on the screen. After living with a sitcom for 10 years, audiences have often adopted the characters like family. Ruining the last time people get to live with Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe, and Joey would be a television crime! 

Creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane wrote their finale to focus on the obvious (Ross and Rachel’s will-they-won’t-they relationship) while fittingly incorporating the other characters. Chandler and Monica finally get the child they’ve dreamed of (and are treated to twins!) while Joey and Phoebe hang out on the outskirts of the group, destined to travel the world solo and let their emotions guide them unhinged from society’s expectations. The episode’s plot fits together like a perfect jigsaw puzzle that everyone at home could solve.

Some TV creators like to live on the edge and shoot for an ending that challenges the expectations of the audience for the sake of ingenuity, but sitcoms differ from dramas in that they are thoroughly rewatchable and endlessly immersive. Some might say sitcoms belong to fans more than dramas do. Trying to do too much within the format feels more disrespectful in the comedy world. Kauffman and Crane appreciated the people who made Friends what it was with a fan-service finale that didn’t miss a beat. 

The Iconic Final Scene

Friends’ final scene elevates the episode into the TV Hall of Fame more than anything that happens in the first 40 minutes. Putting the entire ensemble cast in one place and using Monica’s apartment, which was always the comedic hub of the series, to say farewell never fails to produce a tear, even on the 20th rewatch. 

Setting is just as much a character as any person, and the friends bidding adieu to the loft symbolizes the story’s undeniable end. No matter what happens to these six people now, the reality that it won’t occur in this place means we may not deserve to be privy to it. Monica’s apartment is an isolated engagement between the people on both sides of the screen. Life will go on for them, but closing the chapter on this location demonstrates a boundless beginning.

The late Matthew Perry getting to speak the final line now represents an eerie television justice. Chandler asking “where” when the group doesn’t know where to hang out is an exquisite last retort that summed up the show’s light-hearted spirit and quest to make people laugh, even when crying or mourning. Perry’s character understanding of irony and line-delivery (the characters obviously knew they were going to the other famous hang-out, the Central Perk coffee shop) heightened the humor of the show into an upper echelon that many detractors choose to ignore.

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Friends’ Finale Stayed True to Itself

Many would agree that a finale episode is never a good time to stray from what made a show successful. Experimenting with artsy or unconventional storytelling is a recipe for spoilage. Just like we talked about here at Den of Geek with the Six Feet Under series finale (arguably TV’s best dramatic climax), Friends stayed true to its core values and premises all the way through to the end. 

The show wanted to serve as a safe space for people, whether they had real-life friends or were searching for fictional placeholders in media. “The Last One” passes the ultimate vibe check with zany fun (such as Joey’s storyline with giving Chandler and Monica new ducks) and emotional devastation (saying goodbye to the apartment.) Friends’ momentous exit made people want to revisit New York again and again, carrying on a legacy that supersedes stereotypes and haters into eternity!

Friends is available to stream on Max in the U.S. and Netflix in the U.K.