March 20, 1995 12:01 AM EST

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Out of breath from ER? That shaky camera in NYPD Blue making you nervous? On Friends, NBC’s hot new sitcom, life is considerably more relaxed. In one recent show the characters are lounging around their neighborhood coffee bar, pondering one of those sophomoric questions that even most sophomores have outgrown: What would you do if you were omnipotent? (Says Phoebe, the spacey blond: End hunger, save the rain forests and get bigger boobs.) Later on, the show’s three women spend most of an evening trying to catch a glimpse of George Stephanopoulos, who is supposedly eating pizza in an apartment across the street. By the end of the half hour, the whole gang is back together, playing–talk about time on your hands!–a game of Twister.

Sitcoms have never exactly been beehives of productive activity. No one ever saw Ozzie Nelson or Ward Cleaver at work, and the Cheers gang spent endless seasons gossiping over their beers in Boston. But even on Cheers, half the regulars at least worked for a living wage. And there was always something purposeful about Norm’s and Cliff’s drinking. Trying to forget your troubles is a job too.

In TV’s newest batch of coffee-klatch sitcoms, however, no one seems to be doing much of anything except hanging out. On Friends–which has entered the Nielsen Top 10 after being moved to the high-profile time period following Seinfeld–a group of indolent twentysomethings seems to have unlimited time for gab and games of Pictionary. Pig Sty, which made its debut in January on the new UPN network, revolves around five mismatched roommates (a rube from Iowa, an Italian mama’s boy, a guitar-playing layabout and so on) trying to get along in the same cramped New York City apartment–a task that is especially hard since they all seem to be home all the time. The title character in ABC’s Ellen runs a bookstore-coffee bar, but it must be the least demanding job in America. The series established its lazy pace on its first episode last spring, in which Ellen (played by stand-up comic Ellen DeGeneres) had to renew her driver’s license. Waiting in line all day at the motor-vehicle office is most people’s idea of hell. Ellen actually got a friend to wait there with her. Anybody here got a life?

Sitcoms have traditionally been set in one of two places: home or the workplace. But Seinfeld, the prototypical hang-out show, moved the genre into a third realm. Jerry and his friends have apartments and jobs (most of the time, anyway). But they deal with their embarrassing predicaments each week in a kind of in-between world: in halls and doorways, in the backseat of taxicabs, in a booth at the local coffee shop.

Which is to be distinguished from the coffee bar. Life on Seinfeld may be laid back, but its characters always seem to have someplace to go. In Friends the crowd is always around to share their latest personal woes or offer a shoulder to cry on. But who would want advice from these dysfunctional morons, with their obsessive pop-culture references? “Guess what?” says Rachel, bursting in with good news. Cracks Chandler: “The fifth dentist caved, and now they’re all recommending Trident?”

Where Seinfeld is smart and appealingly free-form, Friends is inane and gimmicky. The characters are constantly abusing that most bogus of sitcom conventions–playing out their intimate personal crises in front of the largest possible group. The worst offender is Ross (David Schwimmer), a gawky shlub whose wife has left him. Ross seems incapable of making any move in his love life without polling everybody at the coffee bar. In one episode he is flustered when a new girlfriend wants him to talk dirty to her. For advice he goes to studly friend Joey, who coaxes him into “practicing” some lewd love talk on him. “C’mon, if you can’t talk dirty to me, how you gonna talk dirty to her?” says Joey. “Now tell me you want to caress my butt.”

No TV viewer in America could have been surprised when another friend, Chandler, wandered in on this cozy scene. Or at the sneaky smile that crept over Chandler’s face. No, he didn’t really think Joey and Ross were getting it on. He was just imagining all the great conversation it would provide at the coffee bar next morning.

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