NEW YORK — Since Sept. 11, Americans by the millions have been reaching out to friends — real ones, and imaginary ones on television.
The NBC sitcom “Friends” has unexpectedly become TV’s most popular show this fall. Rachel is pregnant, Ross is the dad, and viewers are anxious to share the experience.
“Friends” is averaging 28.4 million viewers through five weeks, despite competing against “Survivor” for two of them. Guest shots by Sean Penn on Thursday and Brad Pitt later this month should keep those numbers up. Not bad for a show that many worried was creatively spent.
“Nobody expects that in the eighth year of a series,” co-creater David Crane said this week. “It’s phenomenal.”
Many suggest “Friends” is doing well because viewers crave the familiar in a time of stress — the comfort food theory. Crane believes that shortchanges the producers, writers and actors.
“We have something to do with it,” he said. “We’re not just cozy.”
The show does seem infused with a new energy. New York Daily News critic Eric Mink called the new season’s episodes “creative gems — funny, touching, crisply performed and produced and consistent with the characters’ long-established personalities.”
Last spring, when a lackluster set of “Friends” episodes was beaten regularly in the ratings by “Survivor,” there were real questions about a comeback.
“It kind of felt like the series was done — it had said what it had to say, it was good while it lasted but it was time to fold it up,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
And it was introducing two plot devices — marriage and pregnancy — that for many television series are signs of creative desperation, he said.
Instead, viewers who have figuratively “hung out” with the six main characters in their carefree youth have chosen to watch them grow up.
“They tapped into a story line back in May that was terrific, and that America clearly wanted to see,” said NBC entertainment president Jeff Zucker. “We know that when Ross and Rachel hooked up for the first time five years ago that it was their single biggest year. Clearly, America loves the Ross and Rachel combination.”
Does that mean the ratings-hungry Zucker will order that the characters played by Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer — currently on the outs romantically — get together again? He said he’s leaving it up to the creators. They’re not tipping their hands.
“Friends” has never finished a television season atop the Nielsen Media Research ratings. Its peak was a second-place showing in 1998-99. The show was the fifth most-popular series during the last two seasons.
For a series set in New York City, “Friends” has made only subtle references to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11: Joey wore a New York Fire Department T-shirt in one scene, and “I Love NY” was scrawled on a bulletin board in the background.
Anything beyond that really doesn’t have a place on the show, Crane said.
“If we had something fresh to offer, we would,” he said. “But there’s also something escapist about the show. It’s a half-hour where you’re laughing and not thinking about what’s going on in the world. That’s providing something, I think.”
The program has always existed in a fantasy version of New York anyway, with impossibly beautiful friends living in impossibly large apartments.
”‘Friends’ doesn’t really take place in New York,” Thompson said. “It takes place on another planet.”
The Syracuse professor is curious about whether viewers will embrace a “married with children” “Friends.” It’s a rare show that can change its basic premise and thrive, he said.
They may never get the chance. With the six stars’ contracts expiring after this season, it has been conventional wisdom that this would be the last year.
Crane resists that talk. Zucker wants the show to continue. There’s some hope that Schwimmer, Aniston, Courteney Cox Arquette, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc and Matthew Perry — whose movie careers aren’t thriving and who may be enjoying the show’s new roll — would want to stay.
The six actors banded together in past contract negotiations to demand more money. If they do it again, NBC might have a wrenching decision to make with the collapsing advertising market making money tight.
Look for a real-life cliffhanger next May.
“Could we do another year?” Crane asked. “Oh, yeah, in a second. If, for whatever reason, this is the last season, knowing we went out on top also feels really good.”