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Ciò che Friends ha e che mancava a X-Files e Ally McBeal

What 'Friends' Has That 'X-Files' and 'Ally' Lacked

In the life of a long-running series there are a few unmistakable signs of desperation: a wedding, a baby's birth, a season-ending cliffhanger. But when Rachel gave birth to her and Ross's baby on the season finale of "Friends" Thursday, in an episode that ended with a cliffhanging marriage proposal, the series got the second-highest ratings in its history (beaten only by an episode that followed the Super Bowl). Heading into its ninth and most likely final season this fall, "Friends" has taken every cliché from the "very special episode" handbook and through some alchemy of good writing and performing turned hackneyed ideas into funny, energetic, fresh shows.

Ally McBeal gained a daughter this year, too, but that wasn't nearly enough to save the series, which finishes its five-year run tonight. Although its creator, David E. Kelley, was graciously allowed to pull the plug himself, the disastrous ratings made the decision unavoidable. Viewers had lost interest in "Ally McBeal," which will happen when you give a character a child who seems to have dropped in from an alternate universe: once upon a time Ally had her eggs harvested for a scientific study, and one was mistakenly implanted in another woman. This year, a 10-year-old girl appeared out of nowhere, announced she was Ally's daughter and moved in.

"The X-Files" toyed with the idea that Dana Scully's son, born last season, actually was from another planet, and even that couldn't resurrect interest in the show. After David Duchovny left the cast two years ago, the series limped along and finally ended last night.

The difference between "Friends," whose ideas seem awful on paper, and these failures, which at least sound inventive, suggest that there are no rules for how to keep a series alive except one: the show has to maintain the essential connection between the viewers and the characters on screen. "Friends" has gotten better than ever over the past two seasons because its comedy works on the level of small observations; it is the new "Seinfeld." The pregnancy story became vibrant because of the realistic moments its characters lived through. In one episode Rachel visits her obstetrician and looks at her baby's image on the ultrasound screen. At first she responds with the awe expected of every mother, only to burst into tears because she really can't make out the image at all. "I'm a terrible mother!" she wails.

Jennifer Aniston has brought to the mommy plot the timing of a heroine from a classic screwball comedy. And the season ended with a screwball romantic twist. Rachel, fearing she would have to raise her daughter alone, said yes to Joey's marriage proposal, although Joey didn't mean to propose. He does love her, though, so why take it back?

Like "Seinfeld," what happens on "Friends" is often this outrageous. A few years ago, Phoebe became a surrogate mother and gave birth to triplets for her brother and his wife. That is only slightly less plausible than Kramer's dropping a Junior Mint into a body on an operating table. But the exaggerated behavior is always rooted in the characters' personalities and maintains some tether to the details of real life. Ross (David Schwimmer) was embarrassed by the way Rachel dressed during her last days of pregnancy, her skirt slung under her enormous bare tummy; Rachel was obviously so uncomfortable she didn't care what she looked like and was ready to kill anyone who glanced at her the wrong way. The birth episode brought out how much she fears raising a child alone, and how much Ross, divorced three times, once from Rachel herself, is afraid to admit he still loves her.

"Friends," like "Seinfeld," smartly plans to end its run before viewers get tired of it. But the show has taken greater risks by sending its characters on to marriage and parenthood.

"Ally McBeal" seemed to be sending its heroine into a more mature phase of her life, too, but that was only on the bare-bones level of plot. In the writing the series strained to be outrageous, bringing a transvestite client to Ally's law firm, then having one of her male colleagues fall for him-dressed-as-her. (This is not to be confused with Dame Edna Everadge's delightfully funny guest appearances this season, although the show has gone to the cross-dressing stockpile a little too often.) The series had always put reality alongside Ally's fantasies played out on screen, but increasingly the supposedly realistic drama had the feel of fantasy. The imaginary dancing baby Ally kept seeing a few years back became the daughter so ridiculously hatched from her egg.

When it first appeared, of course, "Ally McBeal" touched a cultural nerve and was so attuned to its moment that Calista Flockhart's character (the smart, attractive but lovelorn career woman) became a symbol of how old-time feminism had failed. But that burst of significance came and went in a flash. The show has been virtually absent from all the talk-show hand-wringing provoked by Sylvia Ann Hewlett's recent book, "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children," about career women who wait too long to have children, although the addition of Ally's daughter seems ready-made for that conversation.

Looking back, the turning point in "Ally McBeal" came when Billy (her colleague and the love of her life, married to someone else) dyed his hair blond, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died. As long as Billy was around, Ally was tied to genuine emotions. When he went, desperation set in. Billy's blond hair was the series' "jump the shark moment," an increasingly common phrase that signals the point at which a series begins its descent. (The term comes from a "Happy Days" episode in which Fonzie waterskies and jumps over a shark. The Web site is devoted to viewers' naming moments when series took that leap.)

"Ally" made a detour back to reality last year when Robert Downey Jr. played her new love, but that inspired casting went wrong when Mr. Downey's drug problems caused him to be dropped from the show. Ms. Flockhart carried on, gamely playing out absurd plots, but Ally had long ago ceased to be a model real women could identify with.

Like "Ally McBeal," "The X-Files" was built on a certain amount of fantasy, unless you believe the mother ship is out there. And similarly it failed not because it lacked imagination but because it severed the connection between the characters and the viewers. When Mr. Duchovny left, it turned out that the Mulder and Scully team was irreplaceable, even though Scully (Gillian Anderson) stayed on and hung around with the new team, whoever they were. Technically we know who they were supposed to be: Robert Patrick was the skeptical agent, John Dogett; Annabeth Gish was the more open-minded agent, Monica Reyes. No one cared. They were colorless and too obviously a shadow Scully-and-Mulder, their beliefs reversed. And where Scully and Mulder's muted sexual attraction linked them to reality, Doggett and Reyes's chemistry was nonexistent, even as platonic partners.

In the new season plenty of aging series will struggle to stay energetic. After eight years it seems that every character on "ER" has slept with or been infatuated with every other character; hasn't anyone told them Chicago is a big city? Even new characters often enter such a hermetic atmosphere that they breathe the old stale air. The sour-pussed Abby (Maura Tierney) is fairly new, but it seems she has been around forever. But the ratings for "ER" remain huge, and creatively it hasn't hit the wall that "Ally" and "The X-Files" crashed into.

Just as Mr. Duchovny came back for the "X-Files" finale, so characters from Ally's past, including the dead Billy, will return tonight. And as in any relationship, it's easy to be sentimental after the fact. We had our moments, didn't we? As any friend or divorce lawyer will tell you, that's the time to remember: this relationship is dead for good reasons.

(22 Maggio 2002 - NEW YORK TIMES)

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