Welcome to Sitcom Tuesday and the continuation of our coverage on the best of Friends (1994-2004, NBC), one of the most popular American television comedies of the past 30 years. The entire series has been released on DVD, Blu-ray, and is streamable on several online platforms. [For these posts, I studied the uncut episodes as they appeared on the original DVDs.]
Friends stars JENNIFER ANISTON as Rachel Green, COURTENEY COX as Monica Geller, LISA KUDROW as Phoebe Buffay, MATT LeBLANC as Joey Tribbiani, MATTHEW PERRY as Chandler Bing, and DAVID SCHWIMMER as Ross Geller.
If you’ve been following my coverage of Friends, you know that I’ve been non-committal about choosing a favorite season, diplomatically asserting that every year between (and including) the show’s second and fifth can be celebrated as the best. Now, I do believe the richest time for the characterizations — when they were all ably defined, yet still at their most believable and investment-inducing — was the calendar year of 1996, consisting of the second half of Season Two and the first half of Three. But when speaking to most Friends fans, the years I most commonly hear cited as “the best” are either the fourth or the fifth, and while I agree that they constitute the second half of a long stretch of relative excellence higher than the whole run’s collective baseline, I have to warn readers that some of the things you love about these seasons — and I’m thinking now of the fourth, in particular — are elements that I believe, critically, suggest strain with regard to the presentation of character, and at times, do limit my own enjoyment of the series. First, though, I want to briefly make the case as to why Season Four has a legitimate claim on being the best. On a fundamental level, the year contains the same characterizations as the ’96 era, but now, with every member of the ensemble explored with a sense of depth previously reserved for only a few (that is, the luxury of having emotional objectives that transcend the bounds of weekly narratives is afforded to all six regulars), they’re all able to illustrate their deliciously well-defined personas in episodic plot… with more regularity than ever before. As usual, the broadening of most of these characters (Monica is a little more obsessive, Joey is a little less bright, etc.), which is generally a gradual process, threatens to jeopardize some of their established emotional honesties. But these observations, and others like them, only ever become concerning situationally — not fundamentally.
Basically, everyone is functioning well on a week-to-week basis, and as opposed to the previous two seasons — even after Ross and Rachel were separated — the diminished importance of the core couple within an overall elevation of the ensemble (which, by proxy, is good for everyone in the cast) makes this a great time for character in a new way. If no one is as purely defined and freshly investment-worthy as they were in ’96, they’re at least funnier and better able to motivate (and often drive) weekly plot. And as for the show’s shifting focus, to prize Four above the prior two years means appreciating the characterizations as they existed in the first half of the series’ run, before Monica and Chandler’s (nevertheless necessary and rewarding) pairing created a new emotional engine that had ripple effects — causing, hastening, or coinciding with big characterization shifts that, for the most part, won’t be laudable (more soon) — while also preferring an episodic structure that makes note of the thesis’ Ross/Rachel relationship but limits and mitigates its weekly prominence in favor of a more evenly weighted focus on the ensemble and everyone in it. I consider myself in this category of fans — these are the characterizations that I prefer within a structural perspective that I prefer: original integrity, evolved structure… But there are other things that keep the year from shining as bright as possible — the biggest of which is the season’s overall use of story, for although I think the characterizations are currently in a place where they theoretically exist well episodically — and, indeed, in the offerings where their given narratives are one-off concerns, this shines through — the application of long-form emotional arcs, as with Ross/Rachel in Season Three, is once again superseding character goals, driving the action, and contorting the regulars’ depictions.
This doesn’t just make us temporarily divest due to diminishing faith in the Friends’ emotional truths, but it also makes us fear that permanent damage may be done to their characterizations going forward, even after the year concludes. Some of this is related to the series’ ever-inflating comedic ambitions, while most of it is the direct result of story — story that’s bigger, more enveloping, and less character-driven than ever before. If last year’s jealousy arc, designed for an express purpose with a clear endgame (splitting up the primary couple), seemed troubling based on what it signified about the show’s subjugation of character for a story goal (and a show goal: freeing Ross and Rachel for easier weekly conflict), that’s proven to be just a “warm up” for this year’s plans. Yes, I’m writing of Emily (and, tangentially, Joshua), who is used as a means to an end — the season’s, that is. In fact, the creators readily admit that they were approached in early ’97 about doing an episode in London — a huge promotional tool that would benefit the UK distributors and reaffirm to NBC just how popular the series was around the globe. As such, the whole Emily arc was created JUST TO GET TO A LONDON EPISODE, which was planned naturally, for the grandest spot in the season — the year’s finale in May Sweeps. So, by the show’s own admission, Ross’ entire job in the back half of the season is to give figurative birth to a gimmick — he’s a vessel, then, for story, and more than that, he’s a vessel for external commercialized purposes that undermine the sanctity of character and could very well prove harmful. Ignoring certain lessons from Season Two? Seems like it… Nevertheless, a few familiar questions must be asked here: is the storytelling harmful to the characters, and if so, do the episodes justify this (Emily) arc via some compensatory value? In my opinion, yes, it’s harmful, and ehhh, there’s some compensatory value, but that statement must be qualified.
To the first point — on how this storyline threatens the characters — we have to go back to the notion that the show, in this era, is desperately trying to figure out how to keep Ross/Rachel (a fundamental part of its thesis and the most important source of pathos thus far) a prominent series contingent, while also minimizing them episodically — both to build up the ensemble and to contend with the fact that Friends no longer wants them paired. (This is after the creators felt stifled with the couple at the top of Three. Personally, I don’t dispute the necessity of a shake-up or that Ross/Rachel are better in conflict; I just don’t like that those accompanying episodes forsook some of the pair’s emotional truth in the push towards a narrative objective.) Heck, that’s basically what the rest of the series is: seven years of attempting to justify why Ross/Rachel aren’t back together, even though the only valid reason (because the show never tells us they shouldn’t end up together — it’s forever a rom-com, and their inevitability is gospel) is that the show doesn’t like writing for them as a couple (perhaps as a partial reaction to the first backlash). We can argue that keeping Ross/Rachel at odds is good storytelling and a classic move from the romantic comedy playbook — as are all these peripheral love interests. Those are both valid points… as long as we understand the characters’ objectives and believe their actions. In other words, if the show wants to keep its main lovebirds separated, it’s gotta sell the audience on why. Future seasons will all but give up, placing them fully on pause, but Four is a unique transition in which Ross/Rachel are no longer more important than anyone else in terms of weekly plot, but still find themselves anchoring the major moments, finding their prominences suggested in arcs (and arc maneuverings) only. The season premiere, which comes after the first in a trilogy of cliffhangers that tease a Ross/Rachel reunion, is successful at this (see more below), but indicates a routine that we’ll recognize with hindsight: build to a potential reconciliation at year’s end, and then erase it at new year’s start, effectively rendering each cliffhanger moot. But we don’t know yet how familiar this tactic will become…
… Here in Four, we’re just getting used to the idea of a delayed reconciliation, and Emily and Joshua are but the first significant post-split manifestations of artificial roadblocks to the main couple’s endgame reunion; they represent delayed growth… Hold up; let’s rewind. Remember how in Season Two we noted that the Julie arc fell short of expectations because it failed to define her and therefore explain Ross’ investment, which then limited our ability to invest in her, thereby keeping the storyline from being as emotionally resonant as the show needed? Well, the same thing happens with Emily, who doesn’t have much of a personality — her British accent constitutes 85% of her definition… Now, I think this lack of nuance is intentional; the show never throws Ross or Rachel substantive love interests other than each other — save Joey, but that’s a whole other can of worms — for fear that the audience will lose preference for Ross/Rachel. But by not throwing them great, believable love interests, the show is actually contributing to a disconnect, for now we lose faith in Ross and Rachel individually and resent the show for not being smarter about how it chooses to explain their mandated separation, which goes against the show’s rom-com thesis. (You know the old saying: the hero’s only as strong as the enemy? The same applies to central couples and their revolving door of peripheral love interests.) This is another significant indication of regular weakness, for here, I doubt Ross’ feelings for Emily, and don’t buy the admitted haste with which they couple and decide to marry (wasn’t he in love with Rachel just four months ago?) — and even in a rom-com where we must permit heightened shenanigans of this nature, a character with as much honesty as Ross deserves to be drawn with more emotional common sense. Diminishing his humanity, to me, is even more egregious than the abstract notion of using character to reach another sensationalistic finale (no matter how exciting — and I admit, this is one of the most jaw-dropping of all Friends’ cliffhangers). It’s pomp and circumstance at the expense of growth.
Okay, so you know where I stand: the Ross/Emily arc is faultily thrown together and reveals the show’s growing worship at the altar of ill-supported, but eventually predictable, cliffhanger maneuverings. Yet the episodes that build to the finale aren’t terribly bogged down by these big-picture concerns; it’s still possible to enjoy some moments, if not the arc as a whole. This is what I meant earlier about the episodes perhaps justifying the narrative through a compensatory value, essentially finding character comedy within the misguided story stuff. (Usually, though, it’s the surrounding parts of the episode that work, and we’re just glad the Ross/Emily cliffhanger-propelled mumbo jumbo doesn’t drag the whole script down.) The same can’t be said about Rachel’s involvement in all this, for her relationship with Joshua — forced on us by the actress (this was Aniston’s real-life paramour playing her on-screen paramour) and the show (which needed some sort of place for Rachel to redirect her romantic focus… you know, until the finale, when it was time to play into the thesis’ requisite Ross/Rachel dynamic again) — doesn’t have any correlating merit and tanks a handful of outings in the latter half of the season simply because of her extreme, cartoonish, and unmotivated depiction. (Most of this comes before she can truly claim to be jealous of Ross/Emily and the quick progression of their “love.”) This reduces her believability and makes us divest from her goals, even when they concern Ross, which the show nevertheless SHOUTS to us as being something about which we still need to care. It’s a sad example of the show wielding plot and bludgeoning character, and while I don’t think Rachel will end up as the broadest of the six Friends, I do think her usage here helps usher in a characterization shift where’s she less intelligent and prone to goofiness (in general), setting her individual arc — her maturation — at a glacial pace (and sometimes paused entirely)… And in contrast to the Ross/Emily arc, the Rachel/Joshua material really does sink its episodes. It’s much worse than anything we saw in Season Three.
But not every arc this year is as overwhelming, nor as harmful to the characters. In fact, the Joey/Kathy/Chandler triangle exists for the regulars, creating substantive drama for a friendship in which we are invested. Now, the usual concern still applies — Kathy (Paget Brewster) doesn’t have quite enough definition to convince us of why these wonderfully defined characters whom we love, love her. Also, we’re in a new era now. After cementing the Ross/Rachel union as part of the premise (and always “endgame”), the previous two years’ establishment of every other character’s emotional objectives helped fuel a lot of Joey and Chandler’s usage; but now that the show knows, basically, what they each need in order to grow up, the job of these middle years is being progressive-but-slow with their growth. (This is true for everyone.) And in the case of this Kathy arc, I’m not sure she gives Chandler something that his previous romance with Janice didn’t. That Janice story was supposed to show Chandler’s discovery that love is worth the commitment, and he displays the exact same understanding with Kathy, without learning anything new about himself… On the other hand, Joey’s quest better addresses his own need: not to find love, but to love others. (Ultimately, because of the spin-off, Friends won’t find Joey his one true love as intended, but will instead settle upon reiterating something we’ve known since Season Two: that Joey’s heart beats best for his friends — Chandler, mostly.) That’s already evident here; the Kathy arc forces Joey to prioritize Chandler, his best friend, over his own ego (which is difficult because there’s a woman involved, and Joey defines himself largely through sex). Accordingly, this arc does more for Joey than Chandler, and the strongest episodes here are the ones where Joey is more engaged. And, thus, the storyline’s fizzle — in an entry with a Ross-like bout of unmotivated jealousy from Chandler — is a tragic end to what had otherwise been a decent story that, at the very least, explored Joey in a few memorable entries.
Meanwhile, Monica — still not the most fertile plot generator — has a mini arc at year’s start with Phoebe and a possible catering business (it’s a better idea on paper than in execution) before taking a new restaurant job. It’s forgettable because it doesn’t involve romance, which is an essential evolutionary metric for her. Yet she’s also the focal point of one of the most beloved Friends arcs: the apartment switch, introduced in one of the series’ best episodes. (More below.) As you’ll note, the drama/comedy of the swap is seen primarily through Monica’s eyes, and it’s mostly her story… That said, while I like the episode, I don’t like the arc. Here’s why: it has no ramifications outside the quick seven shows in which the girls live in the guys’ place. (There’s an immediate consequence: they’re forced to move. But once they switch back, everything’s normal again. No character is different because of it.) You could try to argue that the quality of the era justifies the story, but really, only “…The Embryos” is a gem; there’s no other installment in this stretch that comes close to being as good (not even the return-to-status-quo entry, highlighted below). Furthermore, I think the arc’s existence is troubling, for I see Season Four, not just as the start of the series’ institutionalized prolonging of a Ross/Rachel endgame reunion, the first full year with a true ensemble directive, and the one where a chunk of its story exists only to set up a highly promotable location shoot and cliffhanger, but also, and more to the point, as the season where the show is desperately searching for a shake-up — one that can help fill the void that’s formed after the Ross/Rachel split, which was intended to revitalize the show, but didn’t inspire enough change in the others to offset this perennial need for a new explicit romantic through-line. However, as the valid search for a shake-up is rooted in the question of how Friends can maintain its rom-com identity in a world where Ross/Rachel have to be sidelined (except during Sweeps), the show doesn’t yet have anything else comparable. So, Four buys time while looking for temporary narrative excitement. I view the apartment switch as one such attempt… without anything revelatory for character in support.
Obviously, the ultimate solution for minimizing Ross/Rachel was pairing Monica and Chandler, which the creators love to say was not something they ever intended to be permanent… although, unless they were going to reunite Ross/Rachel for any good period of time, Monica/Chandler now seems more creatively vital than spontaneously fun. Frankly, with hindsight, Season Four already appears to have some consciousness of their pairing (allegedly the creators had been discussing it since Season Two), so this idea of a necessary new angle is truly embedded underneath the whole year, particularly in the first half, which isn’t yet overtaken by its London-mania. There are good episodes in the fall, due mostly to strides made previously in developing the characters, but there’s also a sense of familiarity starting to blossom, and in fact, the energy is at times uneven, as if the show is reaching for something (akin to a Ross/Rachel) and doesn’t have it… I’ve often wondered if some of this was perhaps due to Bright, Kauffman, and Crane’s own reaching out for something else, which they did that season with Veronica’s Closet, a new Kirstie Alley vehicle placed behind Seinfeld at 9:30. Kauffman and Crane are only credited with two scripts for that series, but they were splitting their duties between the two rooms in ’97-’98 (and would helm another show the following year, Jesse, with which they would be less hands-on). Perhaps this reduced focus from the creators, who would eventually turn back to Friends exclusively, contributed to this year’s unique, unfulfilled (until the finale) crusade for something new and grounding — something more permanent than the temporary one that inadvertently serves this purpose: Phoebe’s pregnancy, which came about as the result of Lisa Kudrow’s real-life blessed news… Regular readers know how I feel about babies and kids on the sitcom, but I’m typically skeptical of pregnancies, too, for they often coast on focus-supplying “arc-markers” — reveal, heartbeat, sex, frenzied birth, etc. — and are more story-heavy than character-driven. However, I love this Phoebe arc.
For starters, when Friends decided that it wouldn’t hide its actress’ growing condition (partially because the show knew it would be going overseas in the spring, and if Kudrow couldn’t travel, there needed to be a motivated reason that Phoebe couldn’t either), it also didn’t want to introduce a tot into the weekly proceedings. The writers then were incredibly inventive — she’d be a surrogate for her half-brother and his wife. What I appreciate about this storyline, beyond the fact that it gets to benefit from the focus of a pregnancy without having to deal or make the audience think a baby is going to be added to the cast, is that it actually stems from Phoebe’s own personal arc — her quest for family, begun in Season Two when she went looking for her dad, continued in Three when she deepened her bond with Frank Jr. and accidentally uncovered her birth mom, and then furthered in Four, when she, in an act of love, agrees to help her brother bring a family into the world, thereby getting, in some way, a family of her own (or, because we’ve got more years to go, a taste of what a family of her own would be like). In this regard, I don’t think any other Phoebe arc is as perfectly correlated to her objective, nor do I think any other arc uses her as simultaneously comedically and substantively, offering memorable episodes in the process. And, although we don’t know it yet, this is the last year before Phoebe’s persona pivots (sans motivation) into something markedly different, so Four feels like the apex of the character as she was initially designed. It’s a victory on all fronts then, and happily, Lisa Kudrow took home an Emmy Award for her work — the first statue given to the series from the Television Academy in two years. It’s well-deserved, and speaks to another legitimate reason to appreciate Four more than the others: its usage of one of the show’s finest, Phoebe… So, now that I’ve shared all the major positives and negatives I see within this year, I’m ready to share my favorites — I have, as usual, picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest. (They are listed in AIRING ORDER.)
Regular writers this year include: Marta Kauffman (Dream On, The Powers That Be, Grace And Frankie) & David Crane (Dream On, The Powers That Be, Episodes), Michael Borkow (Flying Blind, Malcolm In The Middle, Mom), Adam Chase (Veronica’s Closet, The Weber Show, Better With You), Michael Curtis (Dream On, Veronica’s Closet, Phil Of The Future) & Gregory S. Malins (Veronica’s Closet, Will & Grace, How I Met Your Mother), Wil Calhoun (Caroline In The City, What I Like About You, Whitney), Seth Kurland (Mad About You, 8 Simple Rules, Melissa & Joey), Jill Condon (Ned & Stacey, Grounded For Life, Me And My Grandma) & Amy Toomin (Ned & Stacey, Townies, Grounded For Life), Shana Goldberg-Meehan (Mad About You, Joey, Better With You) & Scott Silveri (Mad About You, Joey, Speechless), and Ted Cohen (Mr. Rhodes, Work It, Veep) & Andrew Reich (Mr. Rhodes, Romantically Challenged, Work It).
01) Episode 74: “The One With The Jellyfish” (Aired: 09/25/97)
Ross and Rachel reunite under false pretenses; Monica is stung by a jellyfish; Phoebe gets to know her birth mom.
Written by Wil Calhoun | Directed by Shelley Jensen
An effective season opener, this installment makes the best use of the prior cliffhanger’s teased Ross/Rachel reconciliation, even though it’s dealt and dispensed with right away. (The next two years will prolong its return to their status quo, hoping to avoid the sense of negation that nevertheless arises from the lack of any lasting consequences.) However, this directness, which establishes the tenor their dynamic will take for the rest of the season, is a boon to the outing, for not only is the show crafting a “new normal” that for us is indeed new — because last year’s post-break-up stretch felt inherently less permanent — but it’s also revealing something about the characters: for better or worse, neither one has grown from the events of their break-up. Thus, they’re not ready to get their endgame reward: each other. Also, the teleplay is loaded with funny details — especially in the A-story with Ross/Rachel — like “18 pages … front and back” and the most iconic use of “WE WERE ON A BREAK!” Meanwhile, Phoebe’s pursuit of family is further explored via the always delightful Teri Garr as her birth mom (there’s an Ursula cameo, too), and the overly comedic Victory-In-Premise with Monica, Joey, Chandler, and the jellyfish is supported by a surprising Monica/Chandler beat that provides a coda to their tiny story in the finale and acts as a foreshadower of where they’ll end this season. Great fun.
02) Episode 79: “The One With The Dirty Girl” (Aired: 11/06/97)
Ross dates a woman with a messy apartment; Chandler buys Kathy an expensive gift.
Written by Shana Goldberg-Meehan & Scott Silveri | Directed by Shelley Jensen
My feelings about the Kathy arc have been detailed above, but here I’ll reiterate that I generally think the four episodes that contend directly with the storyline are fairly strong. This, the second outing with her character (following an introductory entry that’s so qualitatively similar that it would have been easy to include on this list — see below), turns what is otherwise a Victory-In-Premise, and one that’s more weighted on Chandler’s end than Joey’s, into the key that makes us root for Chandler’s pursuit of Kathy, and more importantly, some kind of growth-generating understanding between the two guys. Meanwhile, the rest of the offering deals with other Victorious Premises — including a catering story with Monica and Phoebe (and a guest appearance from Broadway baby Gretchen Wyler) that ably plays into their differences (and represents, for Phoebe, an early example of the harshness that will become less situational and more elemental starting next year), and the eponymous story with Ross and Rebecca Romijn as the “dirty girl.” This idea is naturally comedic; the execution doesn’t add much other than the chance for Schwimmer to do visual comedy, at which he excels (and of which he’ll do more later), but Monica’s well-supported need to clean the woman’s place is a great final gag.
03) Episode 80: “The One Where Chandler Crosses The Line” (Aired: 11/13/97)
Chandler kisses Kathy; Ross revisits the keyboard; Rachel tries to eat alone (DVD ONLY).
Written by Adam Chase | Directed by Kevin S. Bright
On the DVD, there’s an extra storyline for Rachel that was excised for time in the original broadcast (and the subsequent streaming platforms). It was never repurposed elsewhere, which is a shame because it’s a funny little thread that keeps her more grounded and relatable than most of the stories she’ll receive in the latter half of the year, for it contends with some form of her growing up — being able to eat by herself… However, even without the easily removed C-story, this show is a winner, offering a richly dramatic character story where Chandler kisses Kathy (whom the show stops just short of actually defining in a meaningful way — that is, there are some nifty details provided, but never a genuine comedic perspective that could have better explained her actions) and then must confess to Joey, which is the part that really cements the entry’s value, both because of the depth established in their friendship, and also because of what this arc means for his own exploration. And, as a counterbalance, there’s a purely laugh-seeking Victory-In-Premise for Ross, who revisits the keyboard (something that we learned about years ago — we saw it in the Prom Video, remember?), in a story echoed more broadly in Season Seven, but done more simply and charactery here. It’s a solid, rounded show.
04) Episode 81: “The One With Chandler In A Box” (Aired: 11/20/97)
Joey orders Chandler to spend Thanksgiving in a crate; Monica dates Richard’s son; Ross and Rachel argue.
Written by Michael Borkow | Directed by Peter Bonerz
In a broad survey of the series’ Thanksgivings, this one neither emerges among the best or worst. But, although it’s not tops in this holiday line (due to the perfection embodied by shows like “…The Football”), this is still a dynamite showing, for a healthy dose of earned dramatic tension maintains our investment and supports the comedy — it comes from the Chandler/Joey/Kathy storyline, which the writers so inventively decide to embody by putting Chandler, literally, in a box. It’s a great way to display Chandler’s love for Joey, absolving the former of his earlier error, while more importantly, making ideal use of the latter, whose strict Italian notions of penance (which also stem from a legitimate feeling of betrayal and a bruised ego) inform this narrative hook and then give him something to learn, as he realizes that his love for his friend exceeds a superficial need for anything else. What’s not so strong is the perfunctory Ross/Rachel subplot that’s part of the year’s uneven push to still utilize them as a duo but not prominently, and the storyline with Monica and Richard’s son, which has some laughs (the pirate gags) but stretches emotional credulity and feels too disconnected from the rest of the narratives. This feeling of disconnection is ultimately why other Thanksgivings are stronger, even though, as an episode itself, this is a fine outing and one of the year’s best.
05) Episode 84: “The One With Phoebe’s Uterus” (Aired: 01/08/98)
Phoebe is asked to carry her brother’s kid; Joey works at Ross’ museum; Rachel and Monica teach Chandler about sex.
Written by Seth Kurland | Directed by David Steinberg
The primary story, and the excursion’s namesake, introduces the arc that explains Kudrow’s pregnancy and propels Phoebe into some of her best usage of the entire run. (More thoughts are detailed above.) While the following installment, the pregnancy reveal, is a classic, this entry has the more unenviable task of laying the proper pipe. It, generally, does exactly what it must, for although there’s something bittersweet and oddly disconcerting in the story involving the puppies and Phoebe Sr.’s lesson for her daughter, that character has to make some kind of legitimate point regarding the emotional stakes in this endeavor. We never doubt what’s going to happen (because we can literally see Kudrow already showing), but it fulfills a necessary dramatic function, and through the maternal component, it further ensures that the storyline has a foothold within Phoebe’s quest for family — which is the ultimate reason the arc is worthwhile. Meanwhile, we’ve got more funny Victorious Premises, as Joey takes a job as a guide in Ross’ museum (cute idea already) and tries to overcome the occupational segregation in the lunch room (it’s got some laughs — and the amusingly energetic Sherri Shepherd), and Monica and Rachel, in one of the most memorable scenes of the series, teach Chandler about the seven female erogenous zones. (There are SEVEN?) So, there’s lots to enjoy here.
06) Episode 85: “The One With The Embryos” (Aired: 01/15/98)
Phoebe has her brother’s embryos implanted; Rachel and Monica compete against Joey and Chandler.
Written by Jill Condon & Amy Toomin | Directed by Kevin S. Bright
As already indicated above, I agree with the majority of the fan base that cites this episode as the season’s best. Aside from contending with the emotional gravitas of the Phoebe storyline, which becomes an official pregnancy now, it’s also got a laugh-driven narrative for the rest of the ensemble, which is largely successful by design, for just as we’ve seen in seasons past, putting the six regulars (or even five of the six regulars) in the same place at the same time is a recipe for heightened comedic material, especially now that they’re all so well-defined — and evenly well-defined. My regard for this installment stems precisely from the effortlessness with which these performers, and these characters, play off one another. I don’t think there’s any others this year — and maybe not any from the previous year — that can claim such ably projected characterizations alongside laughs of such stratospheric heights. Now, for as much as I’d like to end this blurb with praise, I also have to indicate that I disagree with those who find this the best of the series. For reasons discussed above, I don’t think this swapped apartments arc offers anything of genuine character merit. I like that the idea is born from competitiveness, Monica’s specifically (which has been well-corroborated by this point) and that the entry doesn’t chicken out of the consequence, but there are no emotional ramifications beyond that which are suggested here, and it seems like a shake-up for shake-up’s sake. (See the above commentary for more on this discussion.) And aside from a dislike of the arc this fosters (despite recognizing that this offering is indeed stellar and makes the best argument for it), I think the design of characters shouting out punch lines about each other, even if they jibe with what we know of their personas, isn’t an effective use of character-driven comedy, for these are jokes that we don’t get to see in action and only get to hear about in the gimmicky structure of a contest… But, these critiques are immaterial to the fact that this is the year’s finest — showing Phoebe in her best storyline, and allowing the rest of the ensemble a great chance to have fun and be hilarious. It’s one that, if you’re new to the series, you won’t want to miss.
07) Episode 88: “The One With All The Rugby” (Aired: 02/26/98)
Ross plays rugby to impress Emily; Chandler regrets reuniting with Janice.
Story by Ted Cohen & Andrew Reich | Teleplay by Wil Calhoun | Directed by James Burrows
This is the only offering with Emily that I actually like because of the storyline in which she participates, and that’s because it’s the only one that tries to make an effective case for the feelings between her and Ross, which are necessary in rationalizing the big Sweeps finale. You see, she’s introduced in the year’s 14th entry, and by the 17th, she and Ross are already saying “I love you.” (Both of these are featured below.) There was a nearly two-month gap in between those two broadcasts originally, suggesting the possibility of a growing closeness to which the audience was not privy. But it doesn’t matter — the show doesn’t just need to make those characters believe they’re good together, it also needs to make the audience believe they’re good together, and that’s the task of the two excursions in between — the second of which is a dreadful show dominated by Rachel’s crusade for Joshua, during which we’re already supposed to accept how much Ross cares for Emily. That leaves this one, the year’s 15th, as the only actual entry where we get to see Ross and Emily build a connection. And, to its credit, while the on-location audience-less footage in the rugby plot is comedically muted, what the characters do for each other is a great indication of their burgeoning feelings. If only we had a month more of shows like this (with more definition for Emily in the process)… Meanwhile, Monica gets a low-concept C-story that works because it’s rooted in her obsessiveness, which is more heightened than it was last year (but not alienatingly so), and the memorable Chandler plot where he reunites with Janice, who’s lost all the dramatic weight with which she was imbued in early Season Three and is back to her caricaturizaed form. This switch would typically be hard to buy, but because it comes so far after the last time we saw her, and the show recognizes that it can only use her in small doses, we’re able to just enjoy her comedy now. And, oh, she delivers.
08) Episode 92: “The One With All The Haste” (Aired: 04/09/98)
Ross and Emily decide to get married; the girls try to win back their apartment from the guys.
Written by Scott Silveri & Wil Calhoun | Directed by Kevin S. Bright
Ah, a mere seven episodes after the show’s ballyhooed apartment switch — which led to some boohooing from Monica, whose competitiveness drove the story in the original superior installment (again, my MVE), and a whole bunch of set redecorating — this outing is designed to return to the status quo, rendering this exciting, distracting shake-up something of surprisingly little importance. That is, once Monica and Rachel have their apartment back at the end of the half-hour, the characterizations continue on as if nothing ever happened. (That’s the sign of a poor and inconsequential arc.) Nevertheless, while my feelings about the storyline have been echoed several times above, this is another offering that benefits from the strong ensemble play. Yes, it pales in comparison to the previous contest show (mostly because that one was so far above the baseline quality), but based on the rest of the year’s competition, it comes out favorably. Also, in another example of disliking the arc but appreciating the entry (for what it is), this show has the unfair task of introducing Ross and Emily’s engagement, and although I maintain that it’s unmotivated, most of that burden is reserved for the episodes prior, which didn’t do their job. Here, actually, their scenes are fairly well-written, addressing all concerns believably and simply pushing forward the plot — the rom-com leap that we’re asked to take.
09) Episode 95: “The One With The Worst Best Man Ever” (Aired: 04/30/98)
Joey loses Ross’ ring at the bachelor party; the girls throw a shower for moody Phoebe.
Story by Seth Kurland | Teleplay by Gregory S. Malins & Michael Curtis | Directed by Peter Bonerz
I think there’s a sense of exhaustion within this offering, as the imminent trip to London is occupying everyone’s mind (even the viewers); yet even though it doesn’t coalesce to become greater than the sum of its parts, the parts themselves offer some value. The guys’ story is the most labored. It starts in an interesting character-rooted ensemble-dynamics place of Ross choosing Joey as his best man (after learning that Chandler wouldn’t pick Ross), but then it devolves into a tacky one-joke premise where Joey fears that the stripper he hired for the bachelor party absconded with the ring he was charged with holding. It doesn’t get any better when they learn the truth: the duck swallowed it. Instead, we have to appreciate the small character moments that are peppered in amongst these unideal narrative trappings… More collectively worthwhile, meanwhile, is the material afforded to the women, who throw Phoebe a baby shower and then get a taste of her mood swings (which, interestingly, also presage the undercurrent of rage that will seep into the characterization on a more regular basis next season). It works not just for placing most of the comedic weight on the capable Kudrow (and at a time when her anger is still a novelty), but also because it deals with a double-edged truth about this unique Phoebe arc: once the babies are out, her direct involvement is over.
10) Episode 97: “The One With Ross’s Wedding (II)” (Aired: 05/07/98)
Rachel tries to make it to London; Ross has to settle a dispute between the parents; Monica and Chandler hook up.
Story by Jill Condon & Amy Toomin | Teleplay by Shana Goldberg Meehan & Scott Silveri | Directed by Kevin S. Bright
There’s no way that I can deny that the fourth season cliffhanger is the show’s most exciting. The finale is set (and was shot) in a foreign land, features the surprise hook-up of two characters we love (there’ll be more on them next week, but I’ve already written a bit about this above — it was a smart and necessary move given the show’s decision to keep Ross/Rachel a peripheral concern, only of importance when the show needed it to be), and is loaded with terrific supporting players, including Tom Conti and Jennifer Saunders as the Walthams, along with June Whitfield, Jane Carr, and Hugh Laurie (along with the always hysterical Geller parents). It’s grand and over-the-top in a way that sets the stage for a jaw-dropping finale… and more than any other season, it doesn’t disappoint (because, as always, it’s rooted in the Ross/Rachel thesis). Sure, other finales will prove to be better engines for story (Rachel’s pregnancy gave the show a whole year of plot — and is also rooted in the Ross/Rachel thesis), but none are quite so spectacular. The show will never be able to be this spectacular again… Fortunately, while Part I is burdened by a lot of unfunny exposition and pointless conflict (not to mention hammy cameos), Part II’s more serious story intentions don’t get in the way of the character moments or the comedy — the rehearsal dinner is a riot. In fact, everyone is well-engaged here — even Phoebe, who’s stuck in the states due to her arc. Thus, even though the extreme and unmotivated machinations that the show employed to get to this moment didn’t work, the moment itself does. This doesn’t excuse all the previous sins, but heck, it may absolve the year of a few. And with a renewed sense of Ross/Rachel (we don’t know yet that Friends never intends to pair them again until the end), and the excitement of a new romantic pursuit in Chandler/Monica, however long it’ll last, Season Five promises to be rejuvenating…
Other notable episodes that merit a look include: “The One With Joey’s New Girlfriend,” which launches the Kathy arc, employs a fun Ross-Rachel-in-conflict B-story, and benefits from a laugh-heavy Phoebe runner (this was the closest entry to making the above list), “The One With The Girl From Poughkeepsie,” which shines brightest for the rare pairing of Rachel and Chandler, but also has decent stories for the other characters as well, and “The One With The Free Porn,” which has a titillating titular A-story without a pay-off and a heavy rom-com story for Ross and Emily (which works episodically, but doesn’t in the bigger picture because we’re not invested enough in them — in her — to care). Also, the first half of the two-part season finale (discussed above) should be regarded as a de facto Honorable Mention.
The Island of Better-Than-Their-Episode Stories (or in this case, scenes):
- “The One With The Cuffs” – Rachel catches Chandler handcuffed in her boss’ office
- “The One With Joey’s Dirty Day” – Charlton Heston offers Joey advice
- “The One With Rachel’s New Dress” – Rachel’s seduction of Joshua is interrupted by his parents
- “The One With All The Wedding Dresses” – Monica and Phoebe hang out in wedding dresses (it’s a GREAT story for them — indicating both of their wants)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Friends goes to…..
“The One With The Embryos”
Come back next week for Season Five! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!