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'Friends' end painful, cast says

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- They won't be there for us, following an hourlong series finale in May that's already rivaling "Seinfeld" in the department of long goodbyes.

But they were there for TV critics on Tuesday: all six of the "Friends" stars and their executive producers, to talk about the intensity of their emotions during these final weeks of shooting. Sitting on Warner Bros. Stage 24, where they've filmed the show since 1994, the "Friends" gang looks as though it could benefit from a long session with grief expert Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.

"As Matty described it, we're like china," Jennifer Aniston said. "We're like very delicate china right now, and we're speeding toward a brick wall. Inevitable pain. So that sounds fun, huh?"

"It's a deeper loss than I was expecting," said Lisa Kudrow. Playing Phoebe, she says, has been liberating: "It lightened me up a lot, to be able to be her."

On Monday, the cast read through the last script, and during the next week and a half they will film it, some with a live audience, some -- final plot twists, presumably -- without.

The "Friends" cast and producers had little to divulge about exactly how the show will end and how the sextet will live for eternity in our memories. The goal in creating the series finale, says executive producer Marta Kauffman, was to "stay true to what the series was," rather than superimposing "some sort of gimmick."

What we know for sure: The finale will air May 6 at 10 p.m., preceded by an hourlong retrospective and followed by a special "Tonight Show With Jay Leno," set around the orange couch at the sitcom's coffee shop, Central Perk. Leading up to the finale, Phoebe will marry Mike (on Feb. 12), and viewer-selected episodes from the series' 10 seasons will air March 4 through April 8.

Will Ross and Rachel (and Emma) skip into the sunset together? We'll just have to wait until May sweeps.

Speaking of NBC: Despite the coming loss of "Friends" and "Frasier" (which will end on Thursday, May 13, in a two-hour retrospective-finale special), network president Jeff Zucker was aggressively positive during a session with TV critics yesterday. "NBC is once again on track to be the top-rated network every single day part -- early morning, Sunday morning, daytime, evening news, prime time, and late night, for the third year in a row," he said.

Noting that Carson Daly's late-night talk show is "on fire," that "Scrubs" is a "powerful weapon," that NBC will counterprogram the Super Bowl with a "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" marathon, and that Paris Hilton will guest star next month on "Las Vegas" (which is "clearly the breakout drama of the new season"), Zucker cheered his network's past, present, and future. Spinning ratings numbers and demographics, Zucker also explained that he is undaunted by NBC's 9 percent ratings drop over the past year.

Zucker said the network will air the Summer Olympics from Athens in August, then leap directly into its fall premieres. "We are not going to wait until late September, after the Emmy Awards, for the traditional launch of the next season," he said. "Because of the way the Olympics fall, we are going to take full advantage of that platform."

NBC's fall slate will include the "Friends" spinoff "Joey," another "Law & Order" series, and a new drama from Jerry Bruckheimer.

In the meantime, Zucker said, the network is going to serve up plenty of reality, including more seasons of "The Restaurant" and "For Love or Money," and something called "Average Joe: Adam Returns." The surprising success of the "Average Joe" shows has inspired the network to create "Adam Returns" so that the man who lost the first installment of the series has his chance to choose from among a bevy of beautiful babes. Amid laughter by critics who assumed he was kidding, Zucker quickly added, "Seriously."

Globe on NECN

Here's what's happening on "Around the Globe" today on NECN:

* 12:30 p.m.: "Globe at Home" -- Living writer Bella English and Daniel Bruce, chef of Meritage restaurant, show and tell wines and dishes being featured at the Boston Wine Festival.

* 4 p.m.: "Around the Globe"

* 6:30 p.m.: "New England Business Day"

* 8 p.m.: "NewsNight"

Schedule is subject to change.

Talk of the dial

8:30 a.m. WBIX-AM (1060) -- "Early Exchange" with Dave Anthony & Bonnie Bleidt. Guest: David D'Alessandro, chairman & CEO, John Hancock Financial Services.

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