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Wednesday, May 15, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Baby episode could make 'Friends' TV's top show

The Associated Press

NEW YORK — One character is unmarried and pregnant, the father her on-again, off-again lover. Another character — not the dad — awkwardly professes his love to the pregnant woman and is rebuffed.

Sounds like the plot to a particularly steamy soap opera, the kind that's so over the top it provides inadvertent comedy.

It's not, of course. It's Ross, Rachel and Joey, your "Friends," and they managed to pull off the convoluted story line with aplomb in the midst of the NBC series' most successful year ever.

The eighth, and penultimate, season of "Friends" concludes tomorrow with the birth of Rachel's baby, an old-fashioned, "sweeps" month TV event.

Producers have taken the predictable steps to keep plot twists a secret. They've distributed scripts that leave the ending out, and filmed the final few minutes on a closed set, without an audience.

The birth episode will likely cement the sitcom's status as the most popular show on television for the 2001-02 season, its first time with that distinction. "Friends" has been running neck-and-neck with CBS' ascendant "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" for the top spot.

"It's funny. You're always told, 'don't mess with the franchise too much, don't change too much,' " said "Friends" executive producer David Crane.

"Obviously, it was scary for us to introduce the idea that Joey might be interested in Rachel, let alone pregnant Rachel who's carrying Ross' baby," he said. "It's incredibly inappropriate, yet we knew it would be exciting."

The show's producers usually outline an upcoming season early the previous summer, yet this story line wasn't set until halfway through the year, Crane said.

Creators knew they didn't want Ross and Rachel to get together — at least not right away — and were looking for a romantic impediment.

Then someone piped up at a writer's meeting: "What about Joey?"

What about Joey? The cast, Crane said, was against it. They all want their characters to be likable, and were worried that people would resent Joey for going after a pregnant woman, or resent Rachel for rejecting him, or resent Ross for standing between the two of them.

The rejection was handled quickly and seemed, up until the season's final episode, to have no lingering aftereffects.

Crane and his partners will convene next month to talk about the ninth, and last, season of "Friends" with Rachel's baby a potential seventh cast member. The baby could be an important part of the story or could be like the children on "Everybody Loves Raymond," who are rarely seen and even less often heard.

"We're going to have to play it by ear," Crane said. "Obviously, we don't want it to become a show about a baby. On the other hand, we don't want to pretend that there isn't one. The fortunate thing is that it's an infant, so you don't have to give it lines."

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