The series finale as we’ve known it for decades may very well be a thing of the past.
It used to be that the grand finale of a popular show was an event, either for the niche audience that obsessed over it or the mainstream that united over it.
Today’s TV audiences are fractured across not only hundreds of cable networks but seemingly as many streaming services, which all but ensure that modern TV shows never reach the same audience size or enjoy the cultural ubiquity of shows we now call classics.
A lot of beloved shows don’t get proper finales because they’re cancelled outta nowhere (see Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet or One Day at a Time) and every show’s demise is met with a hashtag campaign to extend its life (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Lucifer).
Even the revival trend has led plenty of series finales to be completely undone decades after they aired (Roseanne, Will & Grace).
Series finales look totally different now, if a show even gets one, and if a show’s finale even sticks. In retrospect, that’s what makes the Friends finale feel even older than its already I-can’t-believe-it’s-been-that-long 15 years.
Friends wrapped up its 10-season run 15 years ago today with the two-parter “The Last One”, the kind of major TV event we haven’t seen in, well, 15 years.
Okay, that undersells some of the big finales since then. Breaking Bad and Mad Men’s finales were cultural moments, and we’re in the middle of a similar culture consuming final stretch of Game of Thrones.
But when it comes to ratings, to a show’s popularity among not just pay TV subscribers and the buds that have their password, literally nothing comes close to matching what Friends did 15 years ago.
In terms of wide attention, the kind measured in Nielsen ratings, the Friends finale was the last great cultural TV moment not revolving around football or a presidential debate.
“The Last One” was watched by 52.46 million people in the US alone. That’s a bigger audience than the finales of Mad Men, Parks & Recreation, 30 Rock, The Office, Breaking Bad, and Lost combined.
That’s also four times as many people as watched the Battle of Winterfell on Game of Thrones last weekend in the US — although no shade to GoT, because 12 million viewers on pay TV in the US in 2019 is insane.
This staggering stat is just a reminder of how TV culture used to operate. Friends’ crazy rating actually wasn’t the biggest of all time, not even close. It falls behind Seinfeld (76.3 million viewers in the US), Cheers (84.4M) and M*A*S*H (a truly bonkers 105.9M). Frasier, which wrapped just a week after Friends did, drew a decent-sized 33.7 million, and the monoculture eroded from there.
For example, when network sensation Scandal ended last year, it closed out with 5.46 million viewers, which wasn’t even the highest ratings it scored that season. But that’s because we watch TV differently now.
I’ve crunched all these numbers on this anniversary without actually talking about the episode itself, an episode that fully caught my attention so long ago as a uni student who had watched Friends every single week since middle school.
There’s a reason for that: rewatching “The Last One” 15 years later, it’s … fine. It’s not an artistic statement on the power of found family like Cheers’ poignant closer, and it’s not a total bummer like Seinfeld’s. It’s in the middle, a perfectly average episode that’s indicative of everything Friends did well and not so well in the last half of its run.
The hot take that’s cooled off over the past 15 years is that Ross and Rachel should not have ended up together. Ross was a jerk to Rachel when they were together (let Rachel have a career, dude!) and my boy Geller went off the rails right around the time that a turkey sandwich caused him to need anger management.
Rachel should have gotten on the plane to Paris and, if Ross and Rachel had to stay together to make the fans happy, then Ross should have gone to Paris to be with her on her journey. Ross would not have missed Ben, because as far as we know, Ross hasn’t seen his son since 2002.
Forget all the Ross and Rachel drama. The true gag of the series finale is that Monica and Chandler have twins and none of the friends are there for them. They literally defy the orders of the show’s theme song and are not, in fact, there for them!
Instead of being at the hospital for the births of the babies Bing, Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, and Joey just … hang out. They aren’t at work. They aren’t with their kids. None of them are sick, none of them have dates, none of them have job interviews. They’re all just at Central Perk while their two best friends are welcoming children into the world.
It’s a mind boggling development considering how so many Friends episodes took place in hospital waiting rooms over the course of 10 seasons, starting with Season 1’s fantastic “The One with the Birth”.
But “The Last One” does right by Friends in a few places, like when it pays off Gunther’s long-running crush on Rachel and the introduction of a new chick and duck. The last scene famously explains away how Monica and Phoebe/Rachel/Chandler have been able to afford that huge apartment when Chandler tells his newborn kid that the place was “a friggin’ steal” because of rent control.
And if you’re not into the Ross and Rachel stuff, there’s at least a sentimental moment for fans of Joey and Chandler’s friendship that really highlights what made the show so special early on: characters you like actually liking each other.
Plenty of people still like Friends 15 years later, too. The show is consistently cited as one of the most (or the most) binge-watched show on all of streaming, and constant reports and rumours about the show leaving streaming services sends customers into a panic semi-regularly.
When viewers watch “The Last One” for the first time today, it’s at the end of a year, month, or possibly a very intense week of bingeing. There’s not 10 years of build-up to it, and it’s not surrounded by all the prime time specials and clip shows we all spent a week watching 15 years ago around this time. It’s just another episode in the series before you circle back and queue up the pilot again.
“The Last One” is now just another one of 236 episodes on constant rotation in our homes (yeah, I’m including my own).
And because of the increased fragmentation of audiences, the resurgence of revivals, and the occasional success of hashtag campaigns, series finales — if a show even gets one — mean something completely different in 2019. Friends’ goodbye really was the last one of its kind.