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Gary Younge
And it's goodbye from them ...

The NBC website suggested artichoke dip and either ginger ale or cranberry juice to toast its passing.

At the chainstore, Target, a ready-made party kit with coasters, invitations and menu ideas for just $29.99 (£16) has been on sale since March for the special occasion.

Whether they were dipping, sipping, watching alone or at one of the thousands of "viewer parties" taking place across the country, last night millions of Americans tuned in to the final episode of Friends.

After 10 years and 236 episodes the "six friends in their 20s" who "pursue careers, love and happiness in New York city", as the pilot episode put it, are calling it a day.

And the final episode, screened in the US last night, is provoking the sort of media nostalgia not seen since, well, since the end of Sex and the City last month, the last long-running sitcom to go off air.

With an anticipated 85 million viewers - the equivalent of the combined population of all 10 new entrants to the European Union plus Ireland, Finland and Luxembourg - no wonder that commercials for the finale were priced at $2m for 30 seconds.

So absolute was Friends' expected dominance of the airwaves that Cable Land, a TV nostalgia channel, said it would show no programmes during the hour-long finale, instead screening live pictures of its staff watching Friends on the NBC network.

But viewers who tuned in to the finale expecting a guest star-studded denouement were in for a disappointment.

When Seinfeld finished it went out with a bang, with guest stars galore; but aficionados felt it was a different programme and was not a fitting end to the series. The creators of Friends promised to be low-key in their send off and to stick to the formula.

"Our goal was that we wanted it to feel like the show, in every way," co-executive producer David Crane told Reuters, promising that the finale had "no bells and whistles".

But goodbye is never really goodbye in television. In the same way that Cheers spawned Frasier, so Friends has already spawned a spin-off, with Matt LeBlanc's character Joey having his own programme, likely to occupy the same primetime slot being vacated by Friends. Joey, as the show is called, will probably take his Friends catchphrase "How you doin'?" with him, as well as a few of his co-stars. In the new show Joey leaves New York and moves to Hollywood to further his acting career.

And in a slip that has had Friends websites buzzing, David Schwimmer, who plays Ross, revealed this week that he and Rachel, played by Jennifer Aniston, would visit Joey in his new home.

Friends sleuths have deduced that this means the series will end with the on-off romance between the two back on.

Many are prophesising that Friends is one of the last of a dying breed. The end of Frasier, which finishes its run a week after Friends, and the recent departure of Sex and the City have all added to the sense of gloom among sitcom producers.

"It's clearly a genre in desperate need of reinvention," Doug Herzog, president of the Comedy Channel told the Associated Press. "They're just old-fashioned," he said. "They're all shot the same way. All have the same look, feel and tone. I feel as a viewer that they're horribly predictable. There's a whole generation that they don't speak to at all."

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