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.
Season Six marks the first time in Friends‘ history that a collection of episodes is obviously weaker than its predecessor’s. For this reason, it’s the first year that actually disappoints. This shouldn’t come as a complete surprise though; the end of Five braced the show for a fall via corroding characterizations and another ill-motivated, character-subjugating cliffhanger. However, not even the end of Five could quite predict all the problems of Six, the most glaring of which relates to even more pronounced character broadness, which starts to impede not just upon believability, but also on the comedy. (There are times I cringe this year — more than before — because of how the show temporarily contorts one of the regulars while reaching for a joke.) This broadening exacerbates narrative concerns that would have already made Six harder to enjoy. For instance, the novelty suggested last year by Monica/Chandler’s newfound relationship — which was brilliant because it serviced both of their individual arcs and allowed them to evolve while also granting the series license to move away from having Ross/Rachel project the romantic comedy aesthetic on a weekly basis — is no more. To stay invested, what we need from them is what the show has promised us on behalf of every character: growth. The year’s ability, or inability, to deliver this — not just for them, but for all six of the regulars — is troubling, especially now that Monica/Chandler no longer have the “newness” to distract us from something that would have otherwise been clear last year: Ross/Rachel, Friends‘ thesis-born couple, isn’t progressing towards an obvious endgame reunion and their characters are therefore not progressing either. Six’s penchant for broadness only highlights this lack of forward momentum — no growth, just heightening: two trends that threaten character.
Let’s talk Monica/Chandler and the nature of their evolution here in Six. First, I think that while the year doesn’t really grow its characters, it tries to suggest a form of maturation by changing the physical particulars: who lives with whom. This, of course, is started by Monica/Chandler and is meant to be an external shorthand that their relationship is evolving. But as we briefly discussed last week, Chandler already showed his willingness to commit to Monica in Season Five — like in the terrible and nevertheless story-driven cliffhanger-sculpting finale, which didn’t motivate his decision but still showed him making it. In this regard, cohabitating is merely a small step towards the more ultimate symbol of adulthood (and for Chandler, commitment) that both the show and the character has promised. Because of how much he was actually allowed to develop in Five, Chandler’s emotional journey is beyond these narrative constructs, so Friends is just buying time now until they catch up to him. (Monica, of course, has been ready for marriage since the first season.) As a result, there’s a sense of stagnation that won’t only be confined to this “live together” season, but also for Seven’s stretched out “engagement.” Again, once the show indicated that these two were willing to marry, however hasty and ill-supported by the text, the tension surrounding whether or not they would evaporates. Furthermore, Friends treats their dynamic as much more stable and reliable than Ross/Rachel’s. They do have episodic conflict and the finale contrives some drama for its own storytelling purposes, but by and large, Monica and Chandler’s relationship is an anchor in two senses of the word: it provides grounding substance and resists movement. This underscores all the year’s character concerns.
As for Ross and Rachel, Five’s finale went for broke… and nearly broke them. Let’s rewind… The show has spent the last three cliffhangers teasing a development that, in any realistic narrative, would lead to their reunion. (This is a rom-com, so we don’t expect “realism” exactly — just a brand of it motivated by the characters.) But with each cop-out, my interest in them has dwindled, for the show continued to jeopardize its own integrity; we no longer trust Friends when, like Lucy to Charlie Brown, it holds out the football for us to kick and then yanks it away. And this isn’t just about story, it’s about growth. At the start of Four, the ball was yanked because neither character had grown enough from their split; while their temporary re-coupling seemed to only exist for the cliffhanger, at least there was some genuine character insight that explained the development, setting a benchmark for when we should expect a reunion. Yet even with the show committed to not repairing Ross/Rachel, that year eschewed growth to set up another a rom-com centerpiece and “football yank” for Five — one that also weakened our investment. That is, even though the fact that such an ostentatious story (Emily) would not lead to a reunion is a contrivance by itself (because it highlights how narratively manipulative the show is being — going out of its way to have story drive character, as opposed to the inverse), had they reunited, the cliffhanger alone wouldn’t have been enough to motivate it. They still needed to grow. Thus, we cared less about them… primarily because Monica/Chandler was fulfilling the premise’s rom-com obligations and could keep us distracted (not forever, but for a while)… Well, after a year of ignoring Ross/Rachel in favor of a new romantic bedrock, Friends trotted them out again for a May Sweeps finale. The playbook was the same: utilize a non-character-driven cliffhanger that would nevertheless make motivating a reunion easier than motivating a non-reunion, and then deny it, never providing growth to support the pairing or highlight the absence of it, which would explain the forced separation.
But we’ve seen this all too often now and Friends either has to s*** or get off the pot. It’s not enough to say that they can’t be together because of (no) growth anymore, for that only reveals just how little they’ve actually been allowed to evolve in the years where they were cliffhanger-bait — and that’s not on Ross/Rachel, that’s on Friends. In this case, given how story-led, gimmicky, and character-starved this Vegas cliffhanger was, the only thing that could justify its existence would be genuine movement for the pair. This doesn’t even have to yield a re-coupling (although, for the sake of the audience, who’s heard the same dog whistle now three times in a row, it would be wise), but it has to be something that changes the characters… offering more than just a running joke about Ross’ three divorces. Sadly, there’s nothing. Following November, the show goes back to the same status quo of Four and Five… but with consequences far greater, for now our investment is depleted again and it’s going to be even harder to tease them in another Sweeps finale. It’s so bad that even Six recognizes it has to cool it with Ross/Rachel. Other than a small moment in February, involving a potential triangle with Rachel’s sister, the year is done with its thesis couple (by necessity). In fact, Six is the first year since their break-up to not push them within the finale… Unfortunately, it’s a double-edged sword; even though the show has backed itself into a corner and can’t realistically use them again for a Sweeps hook (unless the two are finally going to reunite), the fact that the year dispenses with them almost entirely is one of the reasons, I think, that it’s less enjoyable. You see, the show has strung along Ross/Rachel for three years of Sweeps (with never a true intention of pairing them) and has hurt their ability to stay emotionally engaging. But, by downplaying their importance to the show — even if necessary now — Friends is letting its thesis down, for it believed and still believes they are endgame. So, like Monica/Chandler on their way to wedded bliss, this year is, again, just killing time with Ross/Rachel — watching them broaden, but not evolve.
Now, in the absence of satisfying rom-com pursuits — because both of the couples are slowed to the point of stagnation — Six turns outward for romantically tinted gimmicks, like the self-indulgent and sentimentally frivolous “…Could Have Been” two-parter for February Sweeps (more below), and major guest star arcs, including one with Rachel’s aforementioned sister, played by Reese Witherspoon for two episodes that same month. (Witherspoon is out of her depth comedically and the triangle is limp. Christina Applegate will prove a much better provider of comedic and narrative opportunity.) Meanwhile, another arc casts movie star Bruce Willis as the father of Ross’ new girlfriend, Elizabeth, a college student. I’m not fond of this storyline — I think Ross’ interest in Elizabeth is a situationally comedic notion that doesn’t do much for his character, and it doesn’t provide the show with many great episodes. (In fact, you’ll notice how the back half of the season is less represented on my list in general — tired stories, worsening characterizations.) Regarding her father (Paul) and his relationship with Rachel, the Bruce Willis arc is the most ostentatious big-name celebrity guest stint the show has ever done — far worse than Selleck, whose Richard was a legitimate stepping stone in Monica’s emotional growth. Oh, sure, Willis performs his material adequately (and was memorable enough to the Academy to win an Emmy), but the material itself is only adequate (read: not character-driven, particularly for our regulars), and can thus only excuse his gimmicky inclusion so much. More to the point, with his arc’s (and Elizabeth’s) irrelevance for the regulars — by the next premiere, there’s no indication that either of these two existed — there’s not enough to justify its value. And that’s ultimately why I feel these episodes, and the Elizabeth/Paul storyline, is a bust: it’s neither hilarious enough or character-based enough. It’s… well, it’s only there for May Sweeps. And, true to Six’s form, nobody grows or changes.
The best guest star arc from the sixth season actually belongs to Elle Macpherson, who plays Joey’s hot roommate and eventual girlfriend, Janine. Macpherson can’t be called an expert comic performer, and the stories she’s thrown aren’t necessarily well-crafted. But her storyline works for its principal, Joey, who gets his first semi-serious relationship (read: multi-episode love interest) since Kathy in early Season Four. If you’ll recall, Five didn’t do much with him individually, as he was often used as a narrative tool for the start of Chandler/Monica. So, circling back to his emotional development — and his own arc, predicated on his quest for selfless love, which he exhibits with his friends but hasn’t really found with a woman — is a smart move and something that the writers rightly knew Season Six could offer. The storyline moves along lifelessly and without great purpose — allegedly she asked to be let out of her contract early, too — but the abrupt end of it holds some truth for the show and these characters. (More below.) Beyond Janine though, Joey probably has a better season than his friends — for after the Janine arc is wrapped, his career comes back into focus as he takes a job at the coffee-house and then books another TV show, which gives him new story and augurs possible growth, even if it’s not romantically driven… However, this all comes in the absence of Chandler/Joey, whose friendship is de-emphasized in episodic plot when Chandler moves in with Monica and the ensemble dynamics alter irrevocably. We discussed some of this last week, for with Monica and Chandler now living together and coupled alone in plot, not only does their apartment become seen less frequently (the group no longer hangs out there as a collective as often), the remaining characters all develop stronger bonds once more regularly paired.
Again, there are some personality shifts that arise in tandem with these changes. Here’s what I noted, succinctly, last week: “For instance, when Joey is with Ross, he becomes dumber in contrast; when Ross is with Joey, he becomes hyper in sympathy; when Rachel is with Joey, she becomes sillier for compatibility; and when Phoebe is with Rachel, she takes on a harder edge as a means of attitudinal delineation.” But everything in Six is more heightened and extreme; as before, with the exception of Chandler, whose portrayal has become more measured and nuanced than it was at the series’ start, everyone performs bigger. As an example, Monica becomes more shrill and obsessive to provide conflict opposite Chandler, as the show tries to give Cox more broadly comic moments, since, of all the leads, her initial position as the “straight woman” precluded her from earning the biggest laughs. (The broadening doesn’t help though, for it’s not earned.) At the same time, Ross inches further into cartoon territory, and it’s only by virtue of Schwimmer’s deft capabilities as a clown that he pulls it off. His skills are becoming more noticeable in this era, especially when he’s paired more frequently with another of the show’s best comics, Kudrow’s Phoebe, who treads water until Season Nine and only serves other characters’ arcs. At the start of Six, Ross and Phoebe are embroiled in the cliffhanger-resolving shenanigans with Ross/Rachel that do no one any favors — it’s thesis-connected, but highlights their broadening characterizations without enough redeeming worth. Unfortunately, there’s real strain in the Phoebe characterization during this time, as her transition from hippie to harpy is complete. No longer the sweet girl whose own quirky brand of optimism flew in the face of her tragic past, Phoebe is now an off-kilter woman whose tragic past defines her perspective. Both are valid, funny portrayals. Yet the drift away from the former to the latter, sans explanation, doesn’t make sense and encourages divestment.
Meanwhile, Joey and Rachel are losing IQ points. With Joey, it was always a slippery slope, for he’s always been used to provide the jokey “blow” to a scene, sometimes at the expense of his truth. I cringe every now and then, but I’m not as bothered by him as I will be in Season Ten (or as I was in last year’s finale), partly because he’s the character who comes closest to getting growth here. Rachel, however, has become less grounded over the past few years — due to the way she was contorted romantically. Being paired with Joey and Phoebe only brings out her broader and less intelligent side, and this feels like a regression, for the advancement in her external situation (like her career) is not mirrored in attitude, as she seems to now be less mature. In this way, her regressive progression and lack of maturity clashes against the growing up that, by the intended symbols of adulthood (namely, the apartment swaps), Six seems wont to suggest. But she isn’t alone — in the marriage of comedic broadening alongside narrative stagnation (with the slowed-down Monica/Chandler, the forever prolonged Ross/Rachel, and the arc-less Phoebe) — the show is truly slow-walking its own evolution, for the first time in its history. This is a problem that I have with the last half of the run in general, for even though there will be big narrative beats that portend growth, the characters’ depictions will often continue to be counterintuitive, making any emotional development (which the series has long-prized) less obvious. And, to bring this full circle, that paused evolution is why Season Six is even more of a disappointment than it probably would have been just by design (with little Ross/Rachel and a no-longer-new Monica/Chandler). We’ll see similar ideas persist in Seven, when commercial interests assert themselves more forefcully than they do here with Willis, but perhaps not so detrimentally… Yet that’s for next week. In the meantime, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify Six’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), Adam Chase (Veronica’s Closet, The Weber Show, Better With You), Greg Malins (Veronica’s Closet, Will & Grace, How I Met Your Mother), Seth Kurland (Mad About You, 8 Simple Rules, Melissa & Joey), Shana Goldberg-Meehan (Mad About You, Joey, Better With You), Scott Silveri (Mad About You, Joey, Speechless), Ted Cohen (Mr. Rhodes, Work It, Veep) & Andrew Reich (Mr. Rhodes, Romantically Challenged, Work It), Gigi McCreery & Perry Rein (Becker, Yes Dear, Wizards Of Waverly Place), Sherry Bilsing-Graham & Ellen Pummer (Veronica’s Closet, Joey, The New Adventures Of Old Christine), and Brian Boyle (Veronica’s Closet, American Dad).
01) Episode 125: “The One Where Joey Loses His Insurance” (Aired: 10/14/99)
Joey’s health benefits lapse; Ross puts on a fake accent for his students.
Written by Andrew Reich & Ted Cohen | Directed by Gary Halvorson
After three episodes that deal with the aftermath of a terrible story-driven cliffhanger and, through their scripting, reveal the intense uptick in broadening that Six inflicts upon all the characters, this installment is a (somewhat) return to form. It doesn’t really lessen the heightened portrayals of the regulars, but it channels them in engaging episodic plot bolstered by a funny teleplay that simply works more often than not, thereby mitigating the usual character concerns. The Ross subplot, in which he fakes an Australian(?) accent to keep his students’ attention during a lecture, is a typical late-seasons Friends story, where Schwimmer gets to be goofy and go for broad laughs that he easily secures. Also, the title story with Joey is hilarious (it’s situational — he’s sick, needs money fast) and it works because it doesn’t force the issue of empty arc progression, like the year’s first few entries. In other words, this episode seems better in relation to its neighbors because it’s the only one (out of the first five) that doesn’t contend with the Ross/Rachel cliffhanger drama in story (this one ends on it — but that’s it), and because of the pair’s forced usage in the early part of the season — along with the show’s refusal to put them back together, thus rendering the arc unnecessary — this outing is a breath of fresh air.
02) Episode 128: “The One Where Phoebe Runs” (Aired: 11/11/99)
Rachel is embarrassed by Phoebe’s running; Joey gets a new roommate; Chandler cleans.
Written by Sherry Bilsing Graham & Ellen Plummer | Directed by Gary Halvorson
In an earlier (better) season, this offering might have been a prime candidate for the “Island Of Better-Than-Their-Episode Stories,” for the eponymous sight gag of Phoebe running is another iconic Friends moment, and basically the only reason that this episode isn’t a forgotten chapter from Friends‘ middle. Okay, I’m not exactly being fair — this entry does introduce Janine, who is Joey’s new love interest and one of the only indications of possible character exploration (and growth) in Season Six; and while it doesn’t use her or the idea well (heck, what else is new?), this does have a legitimate relevance that perhaps elevates the show from that aforementioned island. Also, the Chandler subplot is decent — it works for him, and finds conflict based on our knowledge and expectations regarding Monica (which are admittedly broad, but in this case, she doesn’t actually stretch credulity because the comedy is predicated on comedic hypotheticals)… Still though, it’s the Rachel/Phoebe story that drives our attention, for now that they’re roommates — thanks to Monica/Chandler — they’re going to start being used more often together in plot, and as we noted above, that’s going to bring some changes of its own…
03) Episode 130: “The One Where Ross Got High” (Aired: 11/25/99)
Monica and Chandler plan to tell her parents about their relationship; Rachel makes a trifle.
Written by Greg Malins | Directed by Kevin S. Bright
My choice for the season’s MVE, this installment doesn’t have a lot of competition on this week’s list. As the annual Thanksgiving outing, the excursion naturally benefits from the templated structure of having everyone in the same room at the same time. Yet this is actually one of the best Thanksgivings — out of all ten seasons — for a variety of reasons. First, unlike last year’s gimmicky flashback show (which was nevertheless enjoyable in its own right), this entry goes back to a simpler, more low-concept construction, with no one but the six regulars, Janine (at the beginning and end — out of the action, thank goodness), and Jack and Judy Geller, two hilarious recurring guests in whom we already have some investment and who have palpable emotional ramifications for the characters (particularly Ross and Monica). And to that point, this episode also thrives because it gets to present one of the year’s only genuine progressions in the Monica/Chandler relationship, for it’s learned that she hasn’t yet told her parents about him. This is the offering’s engine and sparks the conflict, which involves Ross, uses the Geller kids’ well-implanted sibling rivalry, and ties into the history between Chandler and Ross. It’s all character-based, arc-moving, and funny. And then, the subplots are… well, they’re extra layers on a trifle, if you will, as Rachel’s notorious attempt at dessert yields a lot of big laughs — a chance for some physical comedy that doesn’t disappoint. (And it’s impressive how the show is able to make its slapstick king, Ross, heavily involved in this story, too.) Meanwhile, Ross and Joey’s quest to get out and go with Janine maintains the era’s Joey arc. And Phoebe’s crush on Jack, while silly, is an amusing jokey time-filler that helps build to a delicious charactery crescendo, filled with revelations through which Judy Geller has to sort. It’s a gem — the best of the season. Heck, it may be the best from the entire second half of the series.
04) Episode 131: “The One With The Routine” (Aired: 12/16/99)
Ross and Monica appear on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Joey and Janine.
Written by Brian Boyle | Directed by Kevin S. Bright
More physical comedy for Ross? Check. More of Joey’s arc with Janine? Check. More story based around the Geller siblings and their history? Check. This show contains many elements characteristic of the surrounding installments — including interesting character combos, as the C-story here features Rachel, Phoebe, and Chandler (a rare trio!) – and puts them together to create another one of the most memorable episodes of the season. While the Joey-Janine stuff doesn’t work in full (because we’re not invested enough in her), it’s a stabling emotional objective — from a character in whom we are invested (Joey) — that helps ground the near-lunacy that is the broad stylings of Ross and Monica, who do their infamous “routine.” Now, that segment doesn’t disappoint, and though it is broad (insisting we believe that BOTH of them are completely lacking in self-awareness — which is easier to do with Ross, and harder to do with Monica: former “straight woman”), it roots itself in their shared past, which is always a way to suggest motivation for anything that’d otherwise be harder to explain. And indeed, the idea of both Ross and Monica being foolishly geeky is well-established, and with the outrageous laughs eventually delivered, it’s well worth the leap. One of the series‘ most memorable.
05) Episode 132: “The One With The Apothecary Table” (01/06/00)
Rachel lies to Phoebe about their furniture; Janine says she doesn’t like Monica and Chandler.
Story by Zachary Rosenblatt | Teleplay by Brian Boyle | Directed by Kevin S. Bright
There are only two plots in this oft-overlooked entry, and with Rachel, Phoebe, and Ross (a new character combination, born from Monica/Chandler, and reinforced later on this year) anchoring the titular A-story, it’s easy to forget about the B. That is, given the pivot in Ross’ characterization, Phoebe’s innate comedy, and Rachel’s loosening when around Phoebe, there’s a lot of humor that comes from their association… even if the story itself, driven somewhat by character but without rom-com or growth-suggesting merit, is only of episodic interest. What does have meatier implications though is the other story, in which Janine, now officially dating Joey, reveals that she doesn’t like his best friends: Monica and Chandler. Not only is this a fascinating idea for a series literally predicated on the “friends are family” notion, it’s also a great angle to end the Janine arc in a way that makes sense for Joey; we’ve seen him pick his friends over a woman before, and while it’s not necessarily new, it does point towards the root of his emotional development: love. He loves his friends more than Janine, and that’s why the story makes sense for him and gets him out of the arc respectably. (It’s so fitting that it almost makes the whole odd Janine plot worthwhile.) So, this forgotten outing in the middle of a mediocre season actually can claim some real character exploration, and that’s rare.
06) Episode 135: “The One Where Chandler Can’t Cry” (Aired: 02/10/00)
Monica learns Chandler can’t cry; Joey discovers that Ursula is doing porn as Phoebe; Rachel worries about her sister and Ross.
Written by Andrew Reich & Ted Cohen | Directed by Kevin S. Bright
Some of my thoughts on this two-part Sweeps stunt involving the casting of Reese Witherspoon as Rachel’s sister were shared above, but here, in the second half of that two-parter for Sweeps where Reese Witherspoon plays Rachel’s sister, I’ll be more direct: this is a gimmick that doesn’t outright fail, but doesn’t live up to the hype either. Neither Witherspoon nor her character can make the material as emotionally or comedically gripping as needed. In fact, I think this offering, Part II, works because it puts less emphasis on her, and more on Rachel, who can better carry the story, which circles back to a Ross/Rachel moment in the end (and for the last time until Seven’s premiere, which will be the last time until Eight). But that’s not why it’s here. It’s here because it employs two other Victorious Premises that earn their laughs — Ursula doing porn under Phoebe’s name (which grants the script license to do a lot of killer, if easy, jokes in this vein), and Monica’s attempts to make Chandler cry, after learning just how repressed he is emotionally. That latter story is notable, not just for laughs, but also because Friends has always prized feelings, and Chandler’s inability to exhibit them is actually a thesis-rooted flaw that the episode, and the series, is designed to fix. For Six, this is smart.
07) Episode 138: “The One With Unagi” [a.k.a. “The One With The Mix Tape”] (Aired: 02/24/00)
Ross tries to prove that Rachel and Phoebe don’t know self-defense; Monica and Chandler celebrate Valentine’s Day late.
Story by Zachary Rosenblatt | Teleplay by Adam Chase | Directed by Gary Halvorson
As with “…The Apothecary Table,” this installment utilizes a story featuring the comedic trio of Ross, Rachel, and Phoebe, and just like many of the strongest outings from this list, it gets to take advantage of their physicality — especially Schwimmer’s. Indeed, when I hear or see fans talk about the series, “Unagi” is a reference that’s commonly cited, and it’s not hard to figure out why, given the laugh-heavy nature of its portion in the teleplay. It’s broad, but it’s fun and no one gets hurt. (That is, no characterizations are hurt — they’re no more heightened here than they are elsewhere in Six.) Similarly amusing is the subplot where Chandler and Monica both forget that their Valentine’s Day gift-giving arrangement was to make each other’s presents, but its big hahas come in the pay-off, where Chandler’s mix-tape for Monica reveals its actual origin during an inopportune moment. (Yes, Janice!) Yet this is an uneven excursion overall, and while I can enjoy both those stories (even with the broadness), the Joey subplot, where he tries to pass off an actor as his twin so he can make money from a medical study, is an aesthetic companion to the wretched “hand twin” idea from the end of Season Five. It paints Joey as exceptionally stupid, can’t be believed, and encourages emotional divestment. It’s dreadful, and if not for the decent Monica/Chandler story, “Unagi” would have ended up on the “island.”
08) Episode 143: “The One Where Paul’s The Man” (Aired: 05/04/00)
Ross and Elizabeth wind up at the same cabin as her dad and Rachel; Monica puts her name down for a wedding venue.
Story by Brian Caldirola | Teleplay by Sherry Bilsing-Graham & Ellen Plummer | Directed by Gary Halvorson
Second in the trilogy with Bruce Willis as Paul, the father of Ross’ young collegiate girlfriend, Elizabeth, this is the best outing that makes use of the Emmy-winning guest star. But, I must reiterate that this isn’t high praise and my criticisms above are serious. His casting is a gimmick of the worst kind, for he doesn’t bring much more to the role than a lesser name theoretically could have — and that’s unfortunate, especially because the storyline itself is dire, having no bearing on the characters. You see, the Ross/Elizabeth relationship is inconsequential (we don’t care about her and we don’t believe Ross would be with her — it’s a contrivance) and that therefore doesn’t make it vital or worthwhile for us to invest in her father and the supposed consequences he suggests. However, it’s the situational nature of this episode’s premise, which gets a bit farcical with Ross hiding from Paul in a cabin where both men have brought their two dates, that earns enough laughs to make this one of the funnier installments from the last half of the season. (Frankly, beggars can’t be choosers in Season Six!) Meanwhile, the Monica story sets up the year’s finale — finally some movement for this era’s rom-com core.
09) Episode 144: “The One With The Ring” (Aired: 05/11/00)
Chandler goes ring shopping with Phoebe; Rachel tries to get Paul to be vulnerable.
Written by Ted Cohen & Andrew Reich | Directed by Gary Halvorson
This script was built to service two goals: end the Paul arc and lead into the season finale. To the first point, the entry crafts a lot of its comedy around Bruce Willis and the amusing, gimmick-based idea of seeing this famous action star cry like a baby. As with Chandler’s own previously opened floodgates this year, the subject of emotionality is a good fit for this series and it’s inherently funny to see an actor of Willis’ prominence play against type. But, the simple truth remains: Paul has no narrative bearing on our regular characters beyond these shows and is emotionally irrelevant. And in this case, he’s given too much to do; it’s not Rachel who’s driving the laughs. So, aside from being comedically ill-structured (for the gimmick, not the substance), the episode, as usual, doesn’t benefit the characters. (Rachel is not going to receive any form of growth or exploration here.) Thus, whether he’s coming or going, it really doesn’t matter; we haven’t invested. However, the Chandler story actually works, for it pairs him with Phoebe, who’s become quite broad this year but nevertheless hasn’t forsaken her comedic chops. Their scenes, as he shops for a ring, are a hoot and legitimize the entire excursion.
10) Episode 146: “The One With The Proposal (II)” (Aired: 05/18/00)
Chandler fears that Monica has left him for Richard; Rachel and Phoebe discuss “back-ups” with Joey and Ross.
Written by Andrew Cohen & Ted Reich | Directed by Kevin S. Bright
Season Six’s finale, which aired in a one-hour block in its original broadcast (and could have possibly been the series’ finale had NBC and the cast not come to terms just a few days before), is overblown — the story that this entry sets out to tell is stretched too far and loses some of its emotional punch as a result. Obviously, the show has to conclude with Monica and Chandler’s engagement, but in the quest for conflict, it throws in Richard, Monica’s most serious love interest prior to Chandler. It’s textbook rom-com; his inclusion may be a story-driven and contrived delaying tactic (we all know darn well that she’s not getting back with him at the expense of a regular), but one supposes that the ghost of Richard — the man Monica loved and gave up in favor of the life she wanted (kids and the whole white picket fence dream) — has to be invoked before she can really be with Chandler, the man she now loves but who may not give her those things either (due to his flaws). So, it’s fitting… even if the dramatic stakes, not helped by Chandler’s “throw her off the scent” through-line, aren’t potent enough to sustain the necessary tension. As for why I’m choosing to highlight only Part II (when I could have featured both and dropped one of the above middlers), it’s because I not only get to discuss both halves anyway (that’s the benefit of picking any part of a two-parter), but also because the others are better utilized in Part II, as their low-concept “back-up” plan is more rom-com oriented and tonally compatible with what’s going on in the A-story with Monica and Chandler, who, by the way, end the season on a romantic note. There’s no cliffhanger (thank goodness those Elizabeth pregnancy plans were dropped), and for once, no Ross/Rachel either…
Other notable episodes that merit a look include the two closest to the above list, “The One With Joey’s Porsche,” which has three stories that basically work, and only suffers because the conclusion of the misguided Ross/Rachel cliffhanger can’t reconcile its jokiness with some needed character-based emotionality (in other words — the script can’t overcome the arc), and “The One With Rachel’s Sister,” which introduces Witherspoon as Jill and features amusing subplots for both Monica/Chandler and Joey. Of more “Honorable Mention” quality are “The One With Ross’s Denial,” in which Ross’ feelings for Rachel put him in the middle of Monica/Chandler’s contrived argument over what to do with their soon-to-be-vacated bedroom (it’s an amusing idea with some fun moments, but in an uneven teleplay with a couple of glaring concerns), “The One On The Last Night,” which is low-concept and theoretically has character moments, but forces its comedy from REALLY broad characterizations, and both parts of “The One That Could Have Been,” which nevertheless are gimmicky, comedically average, and narratively contrived — not to mention unworthy of investment. (Irrelevant!)
The Island of Better-Than-Their-Episode Stories:
- “The One Where Ross Hugs Rachel” – Ross meets with his divorce attorney, Ron Glass, for one hilarious scene
- “The One With Ross’s Teeth” – Ross has glow-in-the-dark teeth (an aesthetic warm-up for his funnier spray tan)
- “The One With The Joke” – Phoebe says she’d rather date Rachel than Monica
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Friends goes to…
“The One Where Ross Got High”
Come back next week for Season Seven! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!
boring season but a few good eps . u picked the right mve . no contest .
i like bruce willis but did not like paul and eliazbeth stuff . janine is hot though .
glad u like finale . thought u might not . .
Hi, BB! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Quite frankly, in a better season, I probably wouldn’t have had to highlight the finale.
I wish you had included The One with Joey’s Porsche, but I do understand what you’re saying about the Ross/Rachel arc in general. I’m glad that the Thanksgiving episode is your MVE. This season and the next are stagnant, but there are still laughs to be found.
Hi, Charlie! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Yes, I think “The One With Joey’s Porsche” suffers because it accurately embodies the issues within the entire Ross/Rachel arc, particularly, in this case, the tonal juxtaposition of big, situational laughs alongside the need for some grounding character truth. I think the script tries to manage both aesthetics and doesn’t quite get there.
Stay tuned for my thoughts on Season Seven — next week!
You can count the number of good episodes here. And for what its worth, Janine was kind of inconsequential and unfunny but I agree that ‘The One with the Apothecary Table’s is really interesting and worthwhile for Joey.
Otherwise I really dislike this season. The Rachel-Ross stuff at the beginning is forced and unfunny. Ross looks stupid, Rachel looks like a bitch and those early episodes like ‘The One With Joey’s Porsche’ are a mess with crazy, all over the place characterizations. They’re some of my least favorites. And the end with Paul and Elizabeth just feels forced too. So glad we didn’t have a cliffhanger this season. Last year’s was too much.
Hi, Elaine! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I agree that a quiet ending, without an outrageous cliffhanger, was most welcome this year — especially after last season’s Vegas debacle!
I think this is the weakest season from FRIENDS’s middle but it’s still better than the last few.
Hi, Nat! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I might have to agree with you; stay tuned…
Hmm…”commercial interests” –> Supersize me! Bill Carter’s book “Desperate Networks” tells in great detail how a weak “Must See TV” sitcom led to this weird Season 7 phenomonon, if you haven’t read it yet.
I’m hoping you’ll get to address the execrable wannabe FRIENDS replacement COUPLING in one of your Wed. entries before you’re done w/ FRIENDS here. Also JOEY deserves a good look, but I vaguely remember you may have already done this not too long ago.
As I mentioned before when you posted about Thanksgiving episodes, I loved the trifle subplot from “TOW Ross Got High”. It was believable to me both that Rachel could make that mistake w/ her trifle and Joey could love it anyway.
Here’s a question that you may want to address if you have time, since you’ve written about character growth here: How can characters “grow” and still be funny at the same time? It seems that most of the “com” of a sitcom comes from character flaws, so if a character grows too much, he/she isn’t as funny except against a “less grown” character.
Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I have no plans to discuss COUPLING or JOEY, but I considered and rejected them both. (I even scheduled the latter before realizing it wasn’t worth my time and energy. CURSED, coming next week, was enough of a chore.)
Thanks for the great question. You’re right that character flaws are the situation comedy’s engine, for they spark conflict (read: story) and define comedic perspectives. A good sitcom wants its characters to change over time as a result of the things they experience — just like humans — but not lose the points-of-view that have proven comedically fertile.
But those goals aren’t the natural enemies you suggest, for while we (as humans) tend to talk about “growth” and “evolution” and “progression” and associate the terms with inherently positive developments — i.e. the mitigation of character flaws — growth doesn’t actually have to be for the better; it just has to be motivated and forward-moving (that is, building on what’s come before) change.
Every show is different with what it promises on behalf of growth. We don’t expect the characters on, say, GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, to evolve. They’re archetypes meant only to propel comedy. But FRIENDS, in contrast, set growth-expecting parameters in the first episode by establishing a thesis involving Rachel’s newfound independence, Ross’ interest in Rachel, and Monica’s search for love.
From there, we’ve seen each regular get an emotional objective — rooted in the show’s rom-com tonal conceit — and those have become metrics by which we can measure growth for them: how they go about trying to get what they want, and change in the process. In this case, when we discuss slow or paused growth on FRIENDS, we’re talking about how the show fails to keep its characters moving forward in the pursuit of their interests.
Season Six doesn’t provide a lot of great material by these standards… and that’s troubling because the show told us from the beginning that this was essential to its functioning. In other words, the show isn’t fulfilling its thesis here. (Also, it feels worse in Six because the characterizations are *heightening* — sans narrative motivation — at the same time: broadening, but not in relation to any textual goals.)
I’d agree that FRIENDS, because of its optimism, usually does equate growth with explicitly positive change (which, I must reiterate, isn’t always the case — 21st century cable dramas are obsessed with exploring the opposite). But I don’t think it’s true that as these characters evolve in motivated response to what they experience, they lose the traits that make them funny because, typically, the things they’re pursuing aren’t the things that’ll fix their flaws/quirks.
Rather, I simply think that characterizations naturally shift over time — usually by getting more extreme to account for the genre’s perpetual need for new stories and bigger laughs. When these character changes are motivated, there’s no problem. (Example: Ross’ rage and mania in Season Five after losing a wife, an apartment, and a job.) But when they’re not motivated, it is a problem. (Example: Phoebe going from an optimistic individual to a cynical one.)
That’s a distinction that helps define what growth should be considered in this medium — motivated change, not unmotivated change — and it’s one that proves how it doesn’t have to be positive, and how it can, and does, occur independently of fluctuations in comedic prowess.
^ That was kind of brilliant, BTW.
Hi, Deb! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I appreciate that. And thanks again to Jon for the question.
Your commentary is great as always. This year and the next didn’t grow the characters as much as some others, which is why they’re not as good. And the broadening doesn’t help matters.
Personally, I like Monica and Chandler but they were boring. We needed Ross and Rachel but we needed them to be much better written than they were at the start of this season. I agree with you about about those first few episodes–too much story at the expense of character.
I like season seven better though even though there isn’t a lot of growth either. It was funnier IMO.
Hi, GaryK328! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Stay tuned for my thoughts on Season Seven — next week!
I thought last year was a decline but this one is even worse! Monica and Chandler are a snoozefest and I don’t like how all the characters are getting absurd. Just not as good. And there are some shockingly bad shows. TO That Could Have Been is a lowpoint, IMO.
Hi, Eboni! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Yes, I’m not a fan of that superfluous Sweeps two-parter either.