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51 million tune in for ‘Friends’ finale

David Bauder Associated Press

In the end, Rachel, Ross, Joey, Phoebe, Monica and Chandler had a lot of friends.

An estimated 51.1 million people tuned in for the final “Friends” on NBC Thursday night, watching the crowd-pleasing story line of Ross and Rachel declaring their undying love for each other.

That makes it the fourth most-watched television series finale ever, behind “M*A*S*H” (105 million in 1983), “Cheers” (80.4 million in 1993) and “Seinfeld” (76.2 million in 1998), according to Nielsen Media Research.

It was also the most popular entertainment program on television since the concluding episode of the first “Survivor,” watched by 51.7 million people in August 2000.

But the number NBC likes best is $2 million, which advertisers paid for a 30-second commercial on the final “Friends.”

The show’s departure marks the end of an era for TV comedy. With “Frasier” finishing next week, HBO’s “Sex and the City” gone and CBS’ “Everybody Loves Raymond” expected to end next year, television is losing some of its best and most popular comedies with little to replace them.

“Joey,” a “Friends” spinoff starring Matt LeBlanc’s character, Joey Tribbiani, will take the mother ship’s Thursday time slot on NBC next fall.

Besides the Ross-Rachel coupling — after a series of last-minute fits and starts — Monica and Chandler’s characters were surprised by the birth of twins in Thursday’s finale as they prepared to move to the suburbs. The series ended with the new parents moving out of the impossibly large New York apartment that was the show’s primary setting.

“It was really emotional,” said Matthew Perry, who watched the finale with the other five cast members. “I pride myself on being a real man, but I shed a few tears.”

Of more than 30,000 people to respond to an America Online poll, 77 percent said rekindling Ross and Rachel’s romance was the perfect ending for the show.

“I just finished bawling my eyes out,” one AOL member posted. “I am sooo glad you got off the plane, Rach. I should have done the same thing a long time ago.”

But the finale received mixed reviews from television critics.

“It went out as it came in 10 years ago — as the blandest, most artless comedy series ever to top Nielsen charts in the history of television,” wrote an Adam Buckman of the New York Post.

Eric Deggans, TV critic at the St. Petersburg, Fla. Times, said the final episode displayed much of the crackling comedy that viewers had come to expect.

“So comfortable was Thursday’s finale that it didn’t really feel like a goodbye,” Deggans wrote. “Grounded in all the things that made the show great, it left us feeling like we could expect to turn on the TV at 8 p.m. next Thursday and see our televised buddies waiting for us.”

The sitcom followed six New Yorkers as they moved from post-adolescence to something approaching adulthood. The actors involved — Perry, LeBlanc, Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox Arquette, David Schwimmer and Lisa Kudrow — maintained an all-for-one spirit off-screen, even negotiating contracts together.

Not everyone was a fan, with critics noting the incongruities of a New York setting with few ethnic minorities and struggling 20-somethings who could afford huge apartments.

The network had hardly been shy promoting the finale. It was the subject of a two-hour “Dateline NBC” on Wednesday, another one Friday and a one-hour preamble of old clips Thursday. Jay Leno filmed Thursday’s “Tonight” show from the “Friends” set.

Unlike when the cast of “Cheers” was on “Tonight” 11 years ago, everyone from “Friends” appeared sober. The one big change: Kudrow’s now a brunette.

“It was overwhelming, it was fulfilling, it was satisfying, funny and sad,” LeBlanc told Leno. “It was too much to process.”

But not everyone was heartbroken to see “Friends” go.

“Can I tell you something honestly?” Jon Stewart said on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” on Thursday. “I never watched that show — and I’m sick of it.”

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