NEW YORK – Ross and Rachel, together again as "Friends" (search) fades into history. Were you expecting anything different?
Television's most popular comedy went for the crowd-pleasing finale on Thursday night, with Rachel getting off a plane to stay with Ross just as she was about to leave for a new job in Paris.
The hour-long episode marked the end of 10 years for the sitcom, which followed six New York coffee shop regulars as they moved from post-adolescence to something approaching adulthood. NBC privately predicted some 45 million viewers.
Monica and Chandler were surprised by twins and prepared for their move to the suburbs. Phoebe was already married, and Joey headed west to get serious about his acting career (and star in an NBC spinoff starting in the fall).
Thursday's suspense involved Rachel's plan to take the Paris job and whether Ross would try to stop her -- or join her. The couple's tortured romantic past included a quickie Las Vegas wedding and a baby, born during last May's season finale and seldom seen since.
Despite a few twists and turns, including Ross' frantic trip to the wrong airport, the two declared their undying love for each other.
In the final scene, the six friends gave up their key to Monica and Chandler's apartment.
"This is harder than I thought it was going to be," Monica said, before the six friends left for one last cup of coffee -- babies in tow.
In New York, the final episode was beamed on a big screen in Times Square, and some 3,000 people sat on blankets and watched in a park overlooking the Hudson River in Tribeca.
"I'm a New Yorker, so I understand the whole lifestyle," said 33-year-old Joann Joseph. "I find it funny. I love how they all have different personalities, but they all come together."
The "Friends" finale was likely to be the second most-watched TV show of the year, behind the Super Bowl, which had almost 90 million viewers.
Television's most popular series finale ever, "M-A-S-H," was seen by 105 million viewers in 1983, according to Nielsen Media Research. The last "Cheers" was seen by 80.4 million people in 1993 and "Seinfeld" had 76.2 million for its 1998 ending.
The number NBC likes best is $2 million, which advertisers were paying for a 30-second commercial on the final "Friends."
It's also 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.
The six actors involved -- Matt LeBlanc (search), Jennifer Aniston (search), Courteney Cox Arquette (search), Matthew Perry (search), David Schwimmer (search) and Lisa Kudrow (search) -- 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.
But it's a franchise NBC will surely miss. Its spinoff starring LeBlanc's character, Joey Tribbiani, will take the mother ship's Thursday time slot next fall.
The network has hardly been shy promoting the "Friends" finale. It was the subject of a two-hour "Dateline NBC" on Wednesday and a one-hour preamble of old clips Thursday. Jay Leno filmed Thursday's "Tonight" show from the "Friends" set.
"Today" show anchor Matt Lauer sardonically noted all the attention Thursday while previewing coming attractions on his own show.
"Join us tomorrow as we begin a 12-step program for getting over 'Friends,'" he said.
There will be no more new episodes, but the six friends will still hang out in perpetuity as the show plays out in syndication.
"I'm gonna miss the friends, I mean, because we used to watch them once a week," comedian Ellen DeGeneres said on her show Thursday. "And now, we're only gonna get to see them every day at 3, 5, 7 and 9 -- right after 'Golden Girls,' 'Seinfeld' and 'Law & Order.'"