Are we Friends again?

After Friends went off the air, producers of the spin-off Joey kept reminding us that Joey was not going to be another Friends. That was unfortunate, because Friends was one of my all-time favourite shows, but Joey not so much. Two shows debuted this season (one in the fall and one in January) which are also ensemble comedies about young Manhattan singles looking for love and learning life lessons. Friends clones are hardly unique, but since the original is no longer around for comparison (except in endless reruns) How I Met Your Mother and Four Kings will get a chance to build some steam with the Friends legacy.

How I Met Your Mother
The stronger of the two, How I Met is a genuinely funny show built on an incredibly weak premise. The episodes always begin in AD 2030 with an unseen father telling his two teenage children the story of how he met their mother—the episode is an enactment of that story. Of course the series would be over in one episode if it weren’t for the fact that he makes numerous detours along the way, talking about times when he met other women, etc.

Present-day Ted is the central character—a young single architect who has finally decided that he’s ready to settle down and meet Miss Right. Also hanging out at his favourite bar are his longtime friends Marshall and Lily (newly-engaged) and self-styled womanizer best friend Barney. After Ted’s first-date with TV reporter Robin fumbles she joins the group and they enter the Ross-Rachel zone of romantic tension. As I’ve said before, Barney is a non-stop riot of hilarious lines and mannerisms. However, the rest of the group hold their own in situations that range from the ridiculous (Marshall and Lily vs. the “cockamouse” brings back repressed memories of stupid Friends plot lines like when Phoebe thought that her mother was reincarnated as a cat) to the uproarious (New Year’s Eve finds the gang shuttling between parties in a limo to the sounds of Barney’s “get psyched” mix, picking up musician Moby—not really Moby, just a crazy bald guy—and all manner of hijinks along the way)

The writing on this show is smart and occasionally quotable (especially Barney’s lines). The ensemble has chemistry and you need that not only so that we will buy it when they poke fun at each other, but also for the more heartfelt moments. Friends was generally able to strike a good balance between shtick and schmaltz and I think this show can pull that off just as well.

Four Kings

Imagine Friends minus Phoebe, Rachel and Monica; add one more guy, and you’ve come pretty close to Four Kings. My pop culture bible, Entertainment Weekly, keeps complaining about how derivative and formulaic this show is—and I’d have to say that it’s fair criticism. No new ground is being broken here, and maybe some of the storylines have been done before, but I still think the characters and dialogue are funny and enjoyable. Barry, played by Seth Green of Buffy and Austin Powers fame, is like Chandler with less sarcasm but more bitterness (plus a dash of hipness, since he works for a rock musician). Ben is the most normal of the four, and most like Ross (complete with embarrassing high school pre-prom video). It’s his apartment (left to him by his grandmother) that they’re all staying in. Jason, also like Ross, but with a bit of Chandler (business-type job) and Joey (confidence with women) thrown in. Finally, Bobby is the Oscar (I’m mixing my sitcom metaphors here) to Jason’s Felix. Bobby is like Joey (back to my Friends comparisons)–kind-hearted, yet dim—but with a California rather than Brooklyn vibe.

Living together allows the characters to interact at breakfast and banter as they get ready to go out. As you’d guess, four guys living together like to pull pranks on each other and goof around. After only four episodes there’s already been mention of putting Barry in the dryer, paying Bobby to eat anything, Ben fixing up Barry with a crazy lady, and a violent game of sneak-attack punches called “Chest”. What redeems this show from Beavis and Butthead domain are the themes of friendship and growing up. These guys have been buddies forever and they’re going to help each other through life. I know that sounds overly sweet, but the show is produced by the people behind Will & Grace, who are pretty good at avoiding the syrupy stuff while remaining both funny and heartfelt.

I admit I’m not a fan of new-style sitcoms like Arrested Development, The Office, or My Name is Earl. After having watched all the Friends episodes umpteen times in reruns and DVDs, I gladly welcome similar new shows, even if they are recycling from Friends a bit. After all, what’s a Friends addict in withdrawal to do, eh? As long as I know they’re derivative that’s OK, right? It’s like that time on Friends when Rachel dated a guy named Russ who looked and acted just like Ross….

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