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‘Friends’ tribute to director James Burrows falls short: Critic’s review

Director James Burrows, center, with the cast

Director James Burrows, center, with the cast of "Friends," from left, David Schwimmer, Matt LeBlanc, Jennifer Aniston, seated, Courteney Cox and Lisa Kudrow during the taping of "Must See TV: An All-Star Tribute to James Burrows," which aired Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016, NBC. Credit: AP / Chris Haston

What did you learn Sunday from the much-anticipated “Friends” reunion during the James Burrows tribute? Honestly, anything over those 12 minutes? That the “Friends” were friends, still are, that Jen Aniston’s favorite episode was “Drunk Ross and Rachel get Married”? That the cat was funny?

Moderator and host Andy Cohen lead this reunion down the obvious path strewed with the obvious questions -- favorite episodes, moments, times together -- with scarcely a nod to the real reason for this party: The man sitting down in front, director of a thousand episodes of classic series dating back to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and probably the single most influential maker of television in the world.

Even Matthew Perry’s absence was felt -- and not just not keenly but absurdly. He was in London for his play, but hasn’t anyone ever heard of a satellite hookup?

In fact, there is little doubt, no doubt really, that “Friends” would have never been “Friends” without Burrows, but get a director and cast to explain his art, precisely and with details, and watch millions of TV sets blink out in the night, or switch to other channels. Burrows over 50 years is one of the grandmasters of this art, but Cohen would rather ask whether the cast had contracts forbidding them to sleep with each other. (David Schwimmer had the right reaction -- a withering sideways glance which not only spoke volumes but perfectly clarified what this celebration was really all about. )

Burrows did a great deal over 236 “Friends” episodes but certainly one contribution began even before he joined the show, which was to recognize what was so special here, and unique, in the pilot’s script. “Friends,” he said in an interview some years ago, “was vignettes. ’Seinfeld’ had them, too, but the ‘Seinfeld’ vignettes are against the world, where the ‘Friends’ vignettes are interrelationships of the characters. They also had three stories going on [in sitcoms, most often there are just two]which is unusual and they were interwoven so well that you cared about all three.”

Burrows was and is also master of the four-camera setup. He didn’t pioneer it -- Garry Marshall did for “Mork & Mindy” after recognizing that he’d need an extra camera over the usual three to capture Robin Williams’ physical comedy, which tended to jump out of the range of a stationary third camera. Four cameras allows flexibility but also means four times the amount of film that a single-camera setup offers. Decisions -- brutal ones -- have to be made in editing to reduce the mountain down to a 21-minute show. But Burrow’s genius was setting up those cameras precisely to capture the beat, rhythms, style and personalities of each of the protagonists. It made “Friends” more intimate and more expansive: Burrows and his small army of cameras could capture everything, but Burrows and his editors could also cut most of that out and left exactly the right thing.

Yes, other directors could do that -- and do -- but Burrows brought still another more intangible element to the process, which was to get what he wanted out of this actors, while imposing a certain atmosphere of camaraderie in which those actors would want to give him their best, too.

Of necessity, a Burrows production is also fast and furious -- you don’t get to a thousand episodes by being languorous. Shows taped in front of a live audience -- as “Friends” was -- test the patience of audiences as much as actors. A “Friends” shoot could take hours, with constant do-overs until Burrows got precisely what he wanted. But remember that the audience still had to laugh, still had to react as if it was seeing it for the first time. Burrows somehow made that happen, too.

Burrows was also part of the creative process for this show -- Marta Kauffman and David Crane may have created “Friends,” but Burrows added his own essential creative touches, too, which were highly specific to the way “Friends” ultimately turned out -- one example, turning Matt LeBlanc’s Joey into the Joey he would ultimately become. (Original idea was the have Joey a little more Chandler-like.)

And so it goes. Great directors do many things to make enduring cultural fixtures. Those things are interesting -- too bad Sunday’s “Friends” tribute didn’t get around to any of ‘em.

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