Let The Backlash Begin!

If only they hadn't done the diet Coke ads. Then maybe we could have forgiven "Friends" for the hundreds of fawning magazine covers, for Jennifer Aniston's ubiquitously cloned haircut, the inescapable theme song, even that Jean-Claude Van Damme cameo. After just two seasons, NBC's huge sitcom about a sextet of demographically desirable singles is already insanely overexposed. Stop them before they endorse again! We know what happens to media darlings who get too big too fast. Put it this way: with "Friends" like these, who needs Quentin Tarantino?

"I can't take them anymore. Let the backlash begin," writes a disaffected former fan in The Richmond Times Dispatch. After a recent "Friends" puff piece by the "Today" show's Matt Lauer--"It's a lovefest on the set!"--two local New York anchors could barely contain their boredom. "Fascinating story," said one. "I was hanging on every word," her deskmate giggled. You know things are bad when people from your own network are taking potshots.

Pepsi wanted "Friends," too. But Coke triumphed with an estimated $10 million deal for use of the show's name and cast, who were purchased for somewhere between $250,000 and $500,000 each. In the ads, set in a police station, a voice-over intones, "Someone stole a Diet Coke from Monica and Rachel's apartment." The key is that the six Friends respond to the accusation in character, their lines scripted by the show's own writers. Viewers were exhorted to send in bottle caps for a chance to win--yes--a trip to L.A. to watch a taping of "Friends." The line between program and ad hasn't been this fine since the '50s, when actors (and journalists) regularly hawked their sponsors' products, telling you how Winstons tasted good like a cigarette should. Coke has taken "product placement" one insidious step further by not only placing their product on "Friends" but placing "Friends" in the ads for their product.

The campaign was tied to the alleged "Super-Friends" that aired in NBC's coveted post Super Bowl slot. This hourlong exercise in celebrity butt-kissing wasn't so much a sitcom as a '70s-style variety show, with movie and pop stars looking for a career boost by slumming in TV. Van Damme's idiotic violence-and-may-hem flicks ("Sudden Impact," "Time Cop") were breathlessly listed by Courteney Cox's Monica. The other special guests were singer Chris Isaak, Brooke Shields and Julia Roberts. Julia was the one throwing herself at Matt Perry, the Friend with whom she's lately been snapped in various tabloids. Whether their romance is real or a promotional stunt is impossible to tell, and probably an irrelevant distinction. The point is, "Friends" was conceived as a show about typically conflicted young adults looking for love and gainful employment. When was the last time Julia Roberts asked an average, loserish twenty something guy to put on a pair of her panties? Tom Selleck is Monica's cheesy celebrity hunk this week. Next they'll all be line dancing with Billy Ray Cyrus.

The ratings are still inexorably high. The east oozes sex and crackles with comic timing. The writing can be smart, when it isn't being plotted around a B-list action hero known as "The Muscles from Brussels." What's most annoying is the relentless greed and overhype around the show. It cheapens the franchise. Seeing actors cashing in and selling out so young is depressing. Matt LeBlanc, the ex-Levi's model, has signed up with Saks Fifth Avenue. Aniston and Perry will be shilling for Microsoft. Enough already. "None of this has ever happened to us before," says "Friends" executive producer Marta Kauffman. "We're like kids in a candy store." She says she convened a meeting of the cast last week to declare a moratorium on media interviews. "We said, let's try to be a little cool right now." Year, let's. The head of publicity for a rival network explains the mentality behind shameless PR-mongering: "You can never do enough. You gotta milk it for all it's worth." Literally. Two female cast members have actually appeared in milk ads.

A little restraint, please. You never saw the "Cheers" gang praising the free taste of Bud Lite. Their idea of a hot guest star was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Mad TV," Fox's naughty sketch comedy series, has scored a lot of mileage dissing "Friends." But now the abuse is coming from less predictable sources, like "Murder She Wrote." This season, CBS moved the Angela Lansbury whodunit from its rest home on Sunday night to Thursday, opposite "Friends," where it gets murdered weekly in the ratings. Angela's revenge? A plot in which the evil producer of a sitcom called "Buds" is killed by a member of her too-cute cast because one of them is getting dumped from the show--and the gravy train that goes along with it. Of course, such a thing would never happen in real life, now, would it?