NEW YORK (AP) – In the end, Rachel, Ross, Joey, Phoebe, Monica and Chandler had a lot of friends.

An estimated 51.1 million people tuned in for the final “Friends” on NBC Thursday night, watching the crowd-pleasing story line of Ross and Rachel declaring their undying love for each other.

That makes it the fourth most-watched television series finale ever, behind “M-A-S-H” (105 million in 1983), “Cheers” (80.4 million in 1993) and “Seinfeld” (76.2 million in 1998), according to Nielsen Media Research.

It was also the most popular entertainment program on television since the concluding episode of the first “Survivor,” watched by 51.7 million in August 2000.

Besides the Ross-Rachel coupling – after a series of last-minute fits and starts – Monica and Chandler’s characters were surprised by the birth of twins as they prepared to move to the suburbs. The series ended with the new parents moving out of the impossibly large New York apartment that was the show’s primary setting.

Of more than 30,000 people to respond to an America Online poll, 77 percent said rekindling Ross and Rachel’s romance was the perfect ending for the show.

“I just finished bawling my eyes out,” one AOL member posted. “I am sooo glad you got off the plane, Rach. I should have done the same thing a long time ago.”

The show received mixed reviews from television critics.

“It went out as it came in 10 years ago – as the blandest, most artless comedy series ever to top Nielsen charts in the history of television,” wrote an unsentimental Adam Buckman of the New York Post.

Eric Deggans, TV critic at the St. Petersburg, Fla. Times, said the finale displayed much of the mostly crackling comedy that viewers had come to expect.

“So comfortable was Thursday’s finale that it didn’t really feel like a goodbye,” Deggans wrote. “Grounded in all the things that made the show great, it left us feeling like we could expect to turn on the TV at 8 p.m. next Thursday and see our televised buddies waiting for us.”

While the finale was “formulaic,” Aaron Barnhart of the Kansas City Star said it “at least avoided the ignominious end of other more critically acclaimed sitcoms, like “M-A-S-H’ and “Seinfeld.”‘

Frazier Moore of The Associated Press was unimpressed.

“Lots of group hugs,” he wrote. “Lots of tears. Then everyone, including the newborns, were off to the Central Perk for one last coffee. What this finale served viewers was a mighty weak brew.”

Nielsen estimated that just under 36 million people warmed up for the last episode by watching highlights of the past 10 seasons during the hour preceding Thursday’s finale. The “Tonight” show, where Jay Leno interviewed the six cast members, had its highest rating in big cities since the “Seinfeld” finale.

NBC’s promotion of the show was relentless, including “Dateline NBC” specials the night before and after.

“Can I tell you something honestly?” Jon Stewart said on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” on Thursday. “I never watched that show – and I’m sick of it.”

AP-ES-05-07-04 1503EDT

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