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‘Friends’ 20th Anniversary: 11 Shows That Tried to Replace It (And Failed)

On the 20th anniversary of the "Friends" premiere, here are 11 shows that tried to duplicate the formula (and came up short).

“How I Met Your Mother” (2005-2014)

Why it’s Like “Friends”: Premiering just a year after “Friends” ended in 2004, “How I Met Your Mother” tried to take the best aspects of the NBC classic and wrap them around a mysterious reveal: Who’s the mom? The CBS crew traded in a coffee shop (Central Perk) for a bar (MacLaren’s) and Ross & Rachel for Ted & Robin, but otherwise held to the same principles as its predecessor (they even kept the multi-cam format, complete with laugh track, despite being sold as the “modern” “Friends”). “How I Met Your Mother,” at its best, wasn’t a show about Ted meeting anyone. It was about how he got there with his friends.

Why It’s Not “Friends”: Yes, both “Friends” and “How I Met Your Mother” used a central romantic through-line to help sustain 10 and nine years of programming (respectively). But Ted/Robin was no Ross/Rachel. Their overly complicated romance — adjectives applicable to the show in general — faltered more times than it flourished. First we were told she’s not the mother. Then there was a long romance that ultimately failed on its own terms (not because they were “on a break”) — only to be rekindled, seemingly at random, again and again until the final result: an ending that left most people feeling betrayed. “Friends” saved its best for last, and made getting there incredibly fun (even if the last two years had some bumps). “How I Met Your Mother” couldn’t compete in its prime, and certainly couldn’t close.

READ MORE: Why this Fan’s Ending to ‘How I Met Your Mother’ Is the Right Way to End the Series

“Happy Endings” (2011-2013)

Why It’s Like “Friends”: “Happy Endings” began as a show about how a group of friends can stay together after two of the members break up under the worst circumstances imaginable (well, the worst within reason — they still had to be in the same room). It quickly shed that premise, though, moving into more comfortable territory. Alex (Elisha Cuthbert) and Dave (Zachary Knighton) realized they needed to hold the group together, and the rest of the gang helped them move on through a series of joyous shenanigans. “Happy Endings” worked best because it was a true ensemble comedy (like “Friends”). No one stole the spotlight, and everyone held their own — and then some.

Why It’s Not “Friends”:
Though it’s the best of the “new” “Friends” series, “Happy Endings” couldn’t compete on one of the most crucial levels: popularity. Whether or not you liked hanging with Penny more than Monica becomes irrelevant when comparing their cultural footprints. “Happy Endings” only made it three seasons, and those were pretty low-rated. “Friends” lasted 10, with the best ratings in the biz. If only we knew what would have become of ABC’s cult hit, had it lasted as long.

“New Girl” (2011-2014)

Why It’s Like “Friends”: It took some time getting there, but what started as a spotlight for Zooey Deschanel’s quirky comedy morphed into a six-person ensemble comedy by the end of its third season. It didn’t put all the pieces together at first, but then “New Girl” created multiple scenes in which its group dynamic grew past its individual love stories. They’re also still trying to follow the “Friends” model of pairing up and breaking up their most popular couple — Nick (Jake Johnson) and Jess (Deschanel) — in less than three years.

Why It’s Not “Friends”: “Friends” never suffered the early growing pains “New Girl” did. With the addition of Damon Wayans Jr. in Season 3 (after he appeared in the pilot before leaving for “Happy Endings”), “New Girl” has inched closer to having the quality actors needed to hold together a true ensemble sitcom, but the writers (namely creator Liz Meriweather) haven’t found the right circumstances to piece them together (yet). Season 4 is off to a promising start, but “New Girl” needs to up the laughs and cut the drama if it ever wants to achieve “Friends”-level status.

READ MORE: 5 Reasons Not to Give Up on ‘New Girl’ Before Season 4

“The Big Bang Theory” (2007-2017?)

Why It’s Like “Friends”: Like it or loathe it (we’re definitely with the latter), “The Big Bang Theory” is the most popular sitcom on TV today. While not as evenly split in its time allotment per character, it’s still very much a multi-cam ensemble comedy about, well, nothing. The many pop culture references, with a skew toward the geeky, often mask that CBS’ highest rated sitcom is simply about what these group of developmentally-challenged nerds do with their spare time. (Sadly.) It rivals “Friends” in popularity, a fact all the more apparent after the cast’s recent salary negotiations (deals that will carry “TBBT” into its 10th season, equal to the run by “Friends”).

Why It’s Not “Friends”: “Friends” didn’t squabble over money. Technically, the gang was divided during “The One with Five Steaks and an Eggplant,” when monetary issues threatened to break up the group’s affinity for always doing things together. But when it came to off-screen financial matters, nothing could tear them apart. The six actors famously chose to negotiate as one unit, forcing NBC to pay them all the same high — but justified — salaries rather than risk losing the show over one or two cast members’ greed (and market popularity). Sheldon & Co. could have learned a thing or two instead of alienating their co-stars and delaying production to get a larger piece of the pie. Oh, and “Friends” is also 10 times more witty, original, endearing, important, and generally likable than that awful CBS wannabe.

“Cougar Town” (2009-2014)

Why It’s Like “Friends”: Courtney Cox got together with “Scrubs” creator Bill Lawrence to create a new group of friends just five years (and one failed drama) after the original crew left Central Perk for good. The Florida-set gang felt a lot like a retired, patched-together clone of the Manhattan crew, only drinking wine instead of coffee. Its unfortunate title soon became a badge of honor as Lawrence twisted the show from a star vehicle for Cox into a party made of many players. “Cougar Town” couldn’t sustain itself while housed at ABC, which was slowly becoming the family network, but strong affection for the very likable cast helped Jules find a new home on TBS. (Also — in an attempt to draw in “Friends” fans, Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry both made guest appearances on the show.)

Why It’s Not “Friends”: That “strong affection” hasn’t translated into more than cult status for “Cougar Town,” making it a cousin to “Friends” at best. Also, Cox kept “Cougar Town” on a specific, romance-related path (Jules and Grayson take up a lot of screen time) and also made sure she stayed in the spotlight. Cox is in almost every scene, mainly because the other cast members, while affable, can’t shoulder too heavy a load on their own.

READ MORE: Courteney Cox On How David Fincher Helped Shape Her Directorial Debut, and Why She Won’t Crowdfund

“Joey” (2004-2006)

Why It’s Like “Friends”: “Joey” was an experiment audiences instantly knew wouldn’t work because it was trying too hard to be “Friends.” Unlike other successful spinoffs, like “Frasier,” “Joey” didn’t distance himself at all from his old show (despite diagetically flying from one coast to the other to start anew). He tried to form a new group of friends and repeatedly referenced what it was like back home, but couldn’t draw any of the just-departed cast over to his new West Coast home (the “Friends” actors repeatedly appeared on each other’s shows, but not this one). “Joey” as a whole kept a lot from its predecessor, too, including its look, feel, lighting, and structure.

Why It’s Not “Friends”: All of this combined to make “Joey” feel like “Friends” without the friends. It’s not that Joey or Matt LeBlanc couldn’t hold together a show of his own. It’s that “Joey” came too soon after audiences were used to getting the whole package. None of the new cast members could compare to the old ones (though Jennifer Coolidge was a step up in terms of agents for Mr. Tribbiani), and audiences couldn’t help but wish for more of what they used to have instead of being drawn to something new. “Joey” wasn’t new. It was the same show, with one-sixth of the cast.

“Go On” (2012-2013)

Why It’s Like “Friends”: Of the four “Friends” cast members who’ve returned as series regulars on TV (David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston have not), Matthew Perry has had the toughest go of it. “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” “Mr. Sunshine” and “Go On” all failed to lure the legions of fans who claim Chandler as their favorite “Friend.” “Go On” came the closest to replicating the success of Perry’s best role, and not because it was his return to NBC’s sitcom lineup. The show lasted a full season and earned mostly positive reviews, thanks to Perry’s slightly darker version of Chandler — radio host Ryan King, who was coping with the loss of his wife — and a supporting cast who became much more than just peripheral players.

Why It’s Not “Friends”: Like “Joey” and “Cougar Town” (not to mention Lisa Kudrow’s “The Comeback” and “Web Therapy,” which were very much not like “Friends”), “Go On” kept its star front and center, even while it brought in plenty of great supporting talent to help Perry out. Also, the dark subject matter (for a sitcom) kept episodes from being as light and fluffy as a bunch of well-off whiteys sitting around sipping coffee. The single camera setup and lack of a laugh track didn’t help with comparisons, either (even though they did help the show).

READ MORE: Brett Gelman Tells Us Why He ‘Drew from Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke as Much as Bill Murray’ for Adult Swim Show

“Perfect Couples” (2010)

Why It’s Like “Friends”: Six people. Talented cast. Half-hour comedy. NBC. Shows like this don’t coincidentally come together. NBC and the other big three have been looking for the perfect “Friends” replacement for a long time, and countless pitch meetings have undoubtedly occurred where the phrase “the new ‘Friends'” has been tossed around. “Perfect Couples” wasn’t quite cut from the same cloth, but it was a similar material. It focused heavily on how couples interacted with couples, developed over time, and functioned in modern society while also sporting at least two cast members who moved on to bigger and better things. (David Walton is now in “About a Boy” and Olivia Munn moved to “The Newsroom.”)

Why It’s Not “Friends”: Wedding bells and a death toll are often the same sound for romantic sitcoms. Once someone gets married, the suspense an audience felt every week dissipates. “How I Met Your Mother” tried to buck that stereotype with Lilly and Marshall, but couldn’t resist breaking them up once (before an early wedding in Season 2). “Perfect Couples” didn’t mess around with waiting, and ultimately it paid the price. “Friends” wasn’t built solely on romantic relationships. While they certainly played their part, from Ross & Rachel to Monica & Chandler, but keeping single friends in the mix opened up many more topical avenues. Enough so that even when Monica & Chandler got hitched at the end of Season 8, “Friends” still had enough juice to get through two more seasons (even if we all want to forget Joey and Rachel ever happened).

“That 70’s Show” (1998-2006)

Why It’s Like “Friends”: Arriving just four years after “Friends” started, “That 70’s Show” may not be a perfect example of a “Friends”-inspired TV show. At the time, it felt fresh and funny and different, with a very young cast poised to break out and become stars. While Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis and Topher Grace have all certainly done well for themselves — like pretty much everyone on “Friends” — otherwise “That 70’s Show” now feels very much like a “Friends”-style sitcom. The crew is all there, only younger (with two parents completing the sextet). Problems related more to growing up, but that’s also very much what the Central Perk crew dealt with, just at a later stage in life. The humor was a bit more off-color and the setting more stylized, but “That 70’s Show” essentially swapped out a coffee shop for a basement and coffee for weed.

Why It’s Not “Friends”: Overall quality raises its hand yet again. “That 70’s Show” was fun while it lasted, but never impactful. Fan fervor can’t compare to that of the “Friends” following, despite running just as long (and ending two years after “Friends”). It, too, struggled with maintaining its core romances, ultimately serving as an example of how hard it is to keep viewers engaged in a couple’s “will-they-or-won’t-they” plot over an extended period of time. “Friends” did it so well, others may have thought it would be that easy. Turns out, it’s not.

READ MORE: Why Netflix Being Shut Out at the Primetime Emmys is a Loss For Creators Everywhere

“Coupling” (U.S. 2003)

Why It’s Like “Friends”: Literally marketed as a friskier version of “Friends” (the above shot of the original British version — which was actually pretty good — was ripped directly from a famous shot of the “Friends” cast), the American “Coupling” aimed to take over for the series while “Friends” was still on the air. NBC executives (and everyone else) knew their cash cow was about to expire, so like all intelligent businessmen, they tried to replace it with something similar. After all, what’s the difference between one group of 20- and 30-year-olds talking about hooking up and another?

Why It’s Not “Friends”: Actually, there’s plenty different. Casting was such a key element of “Friends'” success — in fact, it’s often given too much credit as critics argue it only succeeded on the likability of its cast. Clearly, the structuring, jokes and overarching plot lines had plenty to do with “Friends'” success, but looking at the failures of the U.S. “Coupling” also shows us how crucial the six “Friends” were. Forgettable to downright bad actors weren’t the only flaw in “Coupling,” but the new six certainly didn’t compare to the old ones. Try again, guys.

“Friends With Better Lives” (2014)

Why It’s Like “Friends”: Because try, they did. “Friends With Better Lives” is the most current example of a failed “Friends”-like sitcom. And, boy, did it fail. Despite gathering together a hodgepodge of well-liked TV actors (James Van Der Beek, please find a better show), “Friends With Better Lives” had no chemistry amongst its six-person cast. None of the relationships sparked (and it’s hard not to spark with Brooklyn Decker), but, worse, none of the jokes landed. It was quickly canceled after only five episodes aired. The world was better for it.

Why It’s Not “Friends”: For all the above reasons and more. “Friends With Better Lives” was a lazy money grab; an impersonation rather than a performance. “Friends” was a labor of love from start to finish. You could see it in every aspect of the production and even in the off-camera actions of its stars, creators, and crew. “Friends” may have been about nothing, but it meant something to everyone involved, audiences included.

READ MORE: Best to Worst: Every Steven Spielberg TV Project Ranked

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