Monday 16 December 2019

Life after Friends: When friends split up

Since the end of the long-running series, the stars of Friends have struggled to lose the association with the five fictional buddies. As Courteney Cox’s new series arrives, Paul Whitington looks at the highs and lows of the actors’ careers

Courteney Cox. Photo: Getty Images
Courteney Cox. Photo: Getty Images
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Courteney Cox is back on your screens this week in a clever new sitcom that's been a big hit across the Atlantic. Cougar Town casts Cox as Jules Cobb, a 40-year-old Florida realtor (estate agent) who spent her 20s and 30s raising a child with a husband from whom she has recently separated.

Now she's back in the dating game, but must balance a hectic social life that includes boyfriends significantly younger then her with the fact that her 17-year-old son is still living at home.

Gleefully crude and often very funny, Cougar Town pulled in more than 11 million viewers when its pilot episode was aired in the US last autumn, and averaged a very respectable seven million an episode during its first season. A second series is currently being made, and it seems that Cox has another prime-time hit on her hands.

Of all the former Friends stars, she has perhaps shown the most intelligence and resourcefulness in handling her subsequent career -- and this despite some pretty indifferent luck. After Friends finished in 2004, she was producer Mark Cherry's first choice to play Susan Mayer on Desperate Housewives, but Cox had to pass up the part because she was pregnant and Teri Hatcher got it instead.

Then, after she and her husband David Arquette had set up their own production company, they launched a very clever drama called Dirt in 2007 that starred Cox as a ruthless celebrity magazine editor. It was cancelled after two seasons, a victim of mediocre ratings and the Hollywood writers' strike.

But Cox is a fighter, and after she approached Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence about writing her a series he came up with the idea for Cougar Town. Courteney, however, had to undergo an audition of sorts first, appearing in three episodes of Scrubs so that Lawrence could find out if they worked well together. He was delighted with her portrayal of the dictatorial and unbalanced Dr Maddox, and Cougar Town went into production.

The show's ratings reflect the fact that at 45 Cox is still a big TV draw, and her performance in Cougar Town earned her a nomination at the Golden Globes. But her struggle to establish herself post-Friends reflects the broader experience of all that extraordinary sitcom's former stars.

Since the sitcom ended in May 2004, after 10 gloriously successful seasons, all six stars -- even Jennifer Aniston -- have found it difficult to establish themselves as anything other than the characters they played on that show.

Aniston was perhaps best placed to survive the end of Friends. Her marriage to Brad Pitt in the summer of 2000 had propelled her to international superstardom, and her wholesome beauty and likeability earned her the title of 'America's sweetheart'. Even before the sitcom had ended she was taking her first steps as a film star in well-received films such as The Good Girl (2002) and Bruce Almighty (2003).

She had the profile and box-office pull to become a genuine movie star, but just as she was embarking on her new career disaster struck. In January of 2005 she and Pitt separated, with Pitt subsequently becoming involved with Angelina Jolie, whom he'd met on the set of Mr & Mrs Smith. However difficult this may have been for her privately, however, America quickly took Aniston's side and the separation seemed to make her even more popular.

She has remained a beloved staple of the tabloids and celebrity magazines, but hasn't quite managed to develop her film career as she might have liked. This is partly because she's been typecast as a romantic comedienne at a time when decent rom-com scripts are very thin on the ground. And while some of her films have been financially successful -- Rumor Has It, The Break-Up, Marley & Me -- she has yet to score the kind of critical success that might establish her as a serious actress.

Lisa Kudrow, who played Phoebe in Friends, has quietly returned to the character acting she was doing before the sitcom started. At 46 she's the oldest of the friends, and had been working for some years as a comedienne and actress before the sitcom was launched in 1994. In fact she very nearly ended up as a household name in another comedy: originally cast as Roz Doyle in Frasier, she was replaced by Peri Gilpin halfway through the pilot episode.

After Friends ended Kudrow produced and starred in a satirical sitcom called The Comeback, a documentary-style show about the histrionics of a washed-up soapstar who's trying to recover lost glories. The series, and Kudrow's performance in it, were widely praised by critics, but sadly it only lasted one series.

Since then, she has popped up in supporting roles in films such as P.S. I Love You and Bandslam, and is currently producing the American version of Who Do You Think You Are? She will make a cameo, by the way, in the present series of Cougar Town.

In fact, Kudrow and the other female Friends have fared far better overall than the men. When the sitcom ended, Matt LeBlanc must have been delighted to discover that his character alone had been chosen to head up a spin-off. In Joey, Joey Tribbiani moved to Los Angeles to pursue his dream of becoming a film star. The show initially did well, pulling in 18 million viewers for its opening episode, but this, it turned out, was a Friends spillover that did not last. Midway through the second season the show was pulled, and the remaining episodes were never aired.

Since then LeBlanc has disappeared from prime-time television, and hasn't appeared in a feature film since 2003. However, this year he is teaming up with Friends creator David Crane to play himself in a satire about a TV comedy show called Episodes.

Matthew Perry, the youngest of the Friends cast at 40, played Chandler Bing in the show and usually ended up getting most of the funniest lines. A comic actor of impeccable timing, he had appeared in films while still making Friends, and scored a significant hit starring opposite Bruce Willis in The Whole Nine Yards (2001). In 2004 he turned to film full-time, but was roundly panned in the weak sequel The Whole Ten Yards, and has subsequently found it hard to shake off the Chandler persona.

In fairness, though, he has tried hard, and serious roles in films such as Numb (2007) and Birds of America (2008) have been well received. But his star has definitely faded in recent years and, like Matt LeBlanc, he'll be hoping that a new sitcom he's been developing (it's called Mr Sunshine) will prove a hit when it airs later this year.

David Schwimmer, who played bumbling paleontologist Ross Geller in Friends, was already experimenting with serious drama before the show finished. He surprised many by starring as the cruel and manipulative army captain Herbert Sobel in Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks' HBO mini-series Band of Brothers in 2001. But not everyone was convinced by his performance, and his record in TV and film since the end of Friends has been fitful. He voiced Melvin the giraffe in the kids' animation Madagascar and its sequel, and performed very creditably in extended cameos in Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage. But mainly he has concentrated on theatre (he's appeared both in the West End and on Broadway) and directing.

He directed his friend Simon Pegg in the 2007 British comedy Run Fatboy Run, and is currently making his second film as director, Trust, a thriller starring Catherine Keener and Clive Owen. As an actor, however, he is these days rarely seen.

Rumours of a Friends film that might revive these flagging careers regularly surface and are roundly denied (Aniston in particular may not see the point). But before you start feeling sorry for the likes of Schwimmer, LeBlanc and Perry, it ought to be remembered that during Friends they were being paid anything up to a million dollars an episode, so none of them are likely to be on the breadline any time soon.

Cougar Town begins this Monday at 9pm on RTE2

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