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 Seven is essentially an aesthetic companion to Six, and in projecting many of the same unideal qualities as its predecessor, the year is often regarded as NOT one of the show’s best. As with last season, the same issue of stagnated growth for all the main characters continues. Monica and Chandler, having committed to one another at the end of Season Five (in a story-heavy outing that didn’t motivate a potential marriage, but ensured that the development, when it inevitably occurred, would feel familiar because the emotional stakes had already been raised), are too far ahead of the show — closer to their endgames than the narrative developments will allow. What’s more, an important event like the wedding of two regulars can’t be saved for anything but May Sweeps, so after a whole season of waiting for a proposal, we’re forced to spend another whole season waiting for the “I do”s — and based on what the characters have already done, we have to do so with a lack of suspense. Additionally, while Joey and Phoebe’s respective arcs see little attention, the long cooling dynamic between Ross/Rachel is at its coldest. With the exception of a flare-up in the premiere, they’re not contended with at all — not even in Sweeps. If you’ll remember from last week, I find this a mixed blessing. By not overusing them, the show isn’t straining our emotional investment — as it did three seasons in a row by pretending to bring them to a reconciliation during a cliffhanger, and then denying it before (or within) the next Sweeps — but at the same time, the series needs Ross/Rachel in order for the thesis to feel fully realized, and this is true regardless of whether Monica/Chandler are stalled. Seven’s biggest problem, then, is the same as Six’s: the characters aren’t evolving.
Beyond slowed growth though, Seven also claims the same type of characterizations as Six, and works within the same general ensemble dynamics. To the first point, that intense broadening we saw at the end of Five (and then more forcefully at the top of Six) is maintained here — no one becomes more realistic and believable. Meanwhile, to the second point, those previously discussed shifting ensemble bonds as a result of the Monica/Chandler relationship gain more traction. While we’ve already seen Rachel become closer to Joey and Phoebe (who themselves have retained a unique friendship), this year offers many more story and scene combinations with both Ross and Phoebe, who are temporarily roommates, and Ross and Joey, who are paired more often now that Chandler is usually stuck in story with Monica… Now, Ross with Phoebe and/or Joey is a recipe for elevated laughs. After all, Schwimmer is the performer to whom Friends throws the most physical comedy, and when he’s with either Phoebe or Joey, two of the show’s funniest presences, the humor is maximized. Thus, though I typically balk at how BIG everything is these days, again, it’s no more heightened than Six, and in fact, I think Seven better offsets these concerns via character pairings like the above… Frankly, in perhaps one of my least conformist opinions regarding Friends, I also think this year is funnier than its predecessor, with stronger episodic ideas. Yes, they may be Victories in Premise (inherently amusing based on the notion, not necessarily the character strokes), but they’re comedically successful — with memorable and more creative combos, and a sense of story that hastens neither their emotional regressions nor persona broadenings. In other words, Seven is no worse for character than Six, and by only being an extension of stagnated growth and comedic heightening, it’s not a descent. Accordingly, I think it’s theoretically easier to enjoy this year than the one prior.
One of the reasons Seven claims more episodic success is that its concerns are more episodic. Although this is indicative of the emotional stagnation discussed above (no arcs) and is therefore an equal rejection of the series’ growth-requiring premise, it also means that the regulars aren’t being contorted for story goals. There’s no Vegas divorces or Bruce Willis trilogies here. (The only things really threatening character now are one-off concerns: a stretched subplot or a strained joke.) Besides the overarching Monica/Chandler wedding backbone, which is solid without being intrusive, the only characters who see multi-episode developments are Joey, who starts the season in a cheesy detective drama and winds up back on Days Of Our Lives during February Sweeps, and Rachel, who has a half-season romance with her young assistant, Tag (Eddie Cahill). Joey’s arc has nothing to do with his love life, which is this rom-com’s view of how he’ll grow, so his development is still limited. But it does provide him with fresh stories, and allows his circumstances to change — while others’ aren’t. Rachel’s arc also inspires mixed feelings. Tag is a shallow character played by someone who isn’t comedically excellent — as we’ve seen before and will see again, the show doesn’t want to give either Ross or Rachel a love interest with even a fraction of each other’s emotional complexity. However, Tag’s lack of depth seems intentional and Rachel’s feelings for him are supposed to be lightweight. Their stories aren’t great because of these limited emotional underpinnings — and for the fact that Rachel has to be less intelligent to be with him — but when she dumps him after turning 30, one could perhaps spin this whole arc as having stemmed from her fears about growing older. And, in this regard, Tag represents another growing up moment for Rachel… the only problem, in this case, is that, much like her 30th birthday, this feels like it should have come two seasons ago. You know, before all the growth went to half-speed.
At any rate, while I’m generally pleased with the season based on how it stands in relation to its predecessor, I’ve noticed that Friends fans, then and now, typically rate it lowly. And I get it. I think this emotional stagnation — the lack of arcs — keeps the show in perpetual wheel-spinning, without many of the big life moments that made our favorite years (Two, Three, Four, and Five) so richly rewarding for character. And it’s therefore not as exciting to watch. Also, it’s the second year in a row with too little growth, so Six may indeed be disappointing, but Seven is disappointing again. Once more, even for those who don’t like Ross/Rachel front and center and/or don’t root for them as a couple, the year’s limited engagement with them — the least of ANY season of the entire run — is also a hindrance, for the show is ignoring a core part of its thesis… However, I think the year’s reputation, like the second, was also influenced by outside factors that forever changed perceptions of its quality. For starters, another public contract negotiation in May 2000, which brought the stars’ salaries up from $125k to $750k, reignited old notions of the show (and the actors) being overpriced and overpraised — not as good or valuable as they’d have you believe. (David Crane astutely recognized, with some validity, that all of Friends low critical ebbs, after the first one in ‘96, coincided with public salary drama.) As for Season Seven, it’s obviously not innocent — coming after Six and embodying everything mentioned above, it definitely allowed such sentiment to brew… and yet, Friends is very commercial, as we’ve seen, and it’s always affiliated creative success with popularity. (Remember how the creators came to dislike Season Two, in large part, because of the “backlash”?) So, of course when Seven’s ratings declined, a narrative was formed, partly by the show itself, that the year was also creatively less distinguished. How much of that was earned? Well… was anyone saying the same about the similar sixth season? No, not really. Hmm…
Here’s what happened. In addition to the turn-offs that Seven projected (by maintaining Six’s energy), NBC began to lose its grip on Thursday. The prior season, 1999-’00, saw ABC beating the Peacock Network in the 9:00 hour by scheduling Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, which bested both the short-lived Stark Raving Mad (discussed here) and Frasier, the latter of which had, to NBC’s detriment, been guaranteed two years in Seinfeld’s old slot in exchange for renewal. As 2000-’01 opened, the night became even more vulnerable, especially at 8:30 with a new comedy called Cursed, which seemed to live up to its title. (Stay tuned for more…) CBS saw an opening and took it — starting in February, their countering Thursday line-up would feature Survivor at 8:00 and CSI at 9:00. Friends took a hit, and while it would finish the season tied as the most-watched sitcom (at #5), Survivor was the most-watched show, and with CSI and Millionaire beating both of NBC’s 9:00 comedies (Will & Grace and Just Shoot Me!), MSTV Thursday was officially a loser. But NBC did put up a fight, implementing a strategy for February Sweeps in which Cursed (now called The Weber Show) was pulled and all of Friends’ broadcasts were extended to 40-minutes — “Supersized” — followed by SNL specials, a blooper show, and on the last week, Supersized broadcasts of the other two comedies. Additionally, the number of guest stars increased. February saw turns from Jason Alexander and Susan Sarandon, while May featured shows with Winona Ryder, Kathleen Turner, and Gary Oldman. The creative merits of these commercial tactics are dubious. The ideas for the Supersized shows are all generally solid and not harmful to character — heck, some of them were initially conceived normally (with a two-act structure instead of the Supersized three) — but the additional length isn’t creatively additive, and it sometimes hinders the comedy, stretching thin jokes. Also, the stars are hit-and-miss. They’re mostly confined to one episode (unlike Bruce Willis), but they are a gimmick… and they don’t buttress the series’ integrity, which is what it always had to exhibit when combating criticism. Thus, the value of these stunts is only episodic… for better and worse.
Meanwhile, another outside factor that influenced the course of the season was a recurrence of Matthew Perry’s substance abuse issues, which led him to rehab at the end of the year, forcing Chandler to be light in many of the last few episodes. (In two of them, specifically, his lack of presence is felt.) The show pulls it off and if you didn’t know what was happening, you likely wouldn’t by just watching. But when you do know, you miss Chandler, and the last few shows feel lesser as a result… until the grand wedding, the point to which the past few seasons have been building. More of my thoughts on it are below, but fortunately, it doesn’t disappoint. It’s well-written, straightforward, and sets up a cliffhanger with the best narrative engine for the following season — something that won’t likely be negated by November Sweeps: Rachel’s pregnancy. Obviously, we’ll talk much more about this next time, but the arc is going to help re-center the show around Ross/Rachel, which is going to poise Friends for a seeming “return to form,” especially now that Monica/Chandler are married and their development is un-paused — growth can finally happen for them, too… Added to this, the worst of all external circumstances, the tragedy of 9/11, would boost the show’s popularity and corroborate this narrative surrounding its “return to form” via a corresponding commercial ascent. But that’s for next week, for you see, with Eight being hailed as a “comeback,” the implication is that the show needed to “come back” from something, and Season Seven, even more than Six (which I deem more culpable for these reputational issues), became further maligned… Well, I’m here to reiterate that Seven has very few (if any) creative dramas unique to this year alone, and even if Eight is superior, that doesn’t take away from the fact that Seven, while not great for character, still offers more to enjoy than not… So, as usual, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s strongest. (They are listed in AIRING ORDER.)
Writers this year include: Marta Kauffman (Dream On, The Powers That Be, Grace And Frankie) & David Crane (Dream On, The Powers That Be, Episodes), Greg Malins (Veronica’s Closet, Will & Grace, How I Met Your Mother), Wil Calhoun (Caroline In The City, What I Like About You, Whitney), Shana Goldberg-Meehan (Mad About You, Joey, Better With You), Scott Silveri (Mad About You, Joey, Speechless), Ted Cohen (Mr. Rhodes, Veep) & Andrew Reich (Mr. Rhodes, Romantically Challenged), Sherry Bilsing & Ellen Plummer (Veronica’s Closet, Joey, …Old Christine), Brian Buckner (Spin City, Joey, True Blood) & Sebastian Jones (Spin City, Hot In Cleveland, One Day At A Time), Patty Lin (Freaks & Geeks, Desperate Housewives, Breaking Bad), Brian Boyle (Veronica’s Closet, American Dad), and Zachary Rosenblatt (Jesse, Whitney, American Dad).
01) Episode 147: “The One With Monica’s Thunder” (Aired: 10/12/00)
Monica thinks Rachel is stealing her thunder on engagement night by kissing Ross.
Story by Wil Calhoun | Teleplay by David Crane & Marta Kauffman | Directed by Kevin S. Bright
Season Seven opens almost immediately after the events of Six’s finale, and while many of the actors’ appearances have changed over the summer hiatus (like Perry, who was then in another bout with his addiction), the characterizations are still basically who they were the previous year. Yes, Monica is shrill, Phoebe is nasty, Ross is a loser, and Joey’s intelligence is very thin, but I don’t get the feeling here — like I did in Six’s premiere — that the year has descended with regard to the believability of its main players. Perhaps part of this can be attributed to the fact that this show is just about the six of them and takes place almost in real-time, with a heightened theatricality that the series would trot out a couple of times per season in the early years, but in Six, only really used in its Thanksgiving offering, “…Ross Got High” (which is, incidentally, that year’s best show). As always, we just want to see the six of them interacting, and with all the action taking place in both apartments and the conjoining hallway, there’s no room for pomp or circumstance that isn’t connected to character. Also, aside from being an “aftermath” for the latest Monica/Chandler development, this episode contains a potential reunion (at least, sexually) for Ross/Rachel, which hasn’t been teased in a LONG time (they weren’t a meaningful part of Six) and won’t be teased again until next year’s pregnancy arc. By this time (three moot cliffhangers), we know the show is going to delay them for as long as possible, but the flare-up, not knowing when it will next flare up again, gives the show an excitement, and a connection to its origins that other entries this year lack. A favorite — and a throwback to an earlier era.
02) Episode 152: “The One With The Nap Partners” (Aired: 11/09/00)
Joey and Ross take a nap together; Phoebe and Rachel vie to be Monica’s maid-of-honor.
Written by Brian Buckner & Sebastian Jones | Directed by Gary Halvorson
There’s a broadness here with which I have to make due, for, by Seven’s standards, it’s worth it. Ironically, the narrative that’s the most grounding and is supposed to supply the “heart” is probably the least notable — as Monica learns that Chandler once dumped a girl for becoming too fat. Of course, this is a sore subject for Monica, given her history, and it’s also tied into her desires to become pregnant. The fat jokes, however, are… well, they’re funny, but meaner than Chandler’s norm, and they feel like a story contrivance as a result. So it only works because of Monica (which is a rarity). There’s a similar strain on Phoebe and Rachel when they try to decide who should be Monica’s maid-of-honor, but that has to do with the broadness of their competition. And yet, because the idea deals with the inner dynamics of the Friends and their varying relationships (and it’s always interesting when the show plays upon those), the character interests aren’t entirely let down either… Frankly though, the real reason everyone remembers this offering is the A-story, where Joey and Ross wake up to find themselves sleeping on top of each other, and decide that they like it, having both had the best naps of their lives. The joke is that they “slept together” and it’s meant to parallel an illicit affair. It’s idea-based, but it also portends the narrative (and comedic) relationship that these two are forming in the wake of Chandler now being used most of the time in story with Monica (and not them anymore). It’s so funny — and they do it so well — that the whole excursion is made better.
03) Episode 153: “The One With Ross’s Library Book” (Aired: 11/16/00)
Ross monitors the part of the library that houses his book; Rachel and Phoebe find Joey the perfect girl; Janice returns.
Written by Scott Silveri | Directed by David Schwimmer
All three stories in this episode work in their own respective ways, and thus, even though I don’t think I’ve heard many Friends fans list this outing among their favorites, I think it’s one that legitimately can boast a more even construction. The closest to a Sweeps gimmick here is the subplot where Monica runs into Janice, who invites herself to the wedding and can only be gotten rid of, apparently, by being told that Chandler still has feelings for her. As always, it’s an amusing idea, and Janice is innately funny, but it’s a lot. Is it because she’s exponentially broader than necessary? You bet. The last time she was this BIG was in Season Four, but now the lack of self-awareness is more than just situational; it’s endemic of her character, and that’s harder to “buy.” I think the laughs clinch it, but this is the last time, for me, that Janice’s presence (by itself) can serve as a comedic selling point… Fortunately, more grounded and arc-connected (surprisingly, also) is the story where Rachel and Phoebe refuse to let Joey jilt his latest one-night stand, played by Sex And The City‘s Kristin Davis, who doesn’t get the chance to truly be funny — which is a weakness — but nevertheless helps further Joey’s deepening, for he almost gets his heart broken (again), and could seem one step closer to finding the romantic love that he’s always emotionally wanted, yet never actually sought. Meanwhile, the titular A-story brings the great hahas, as Ross learns that the library corner holding his book is the place students go to have sex; but when he decides to guard the area, he ends up in a tryst himself. It’s a Victorious Premise — funny for the thought alone — but Schwimmer makes it sing, and it’s hilarious.
04) Episode 156: “The One With The Holiday Armadillo” (Aired: 12/14/00)
Ross tries to teach Ben about Hanukkah; Phoebe worries that Rachel won’t want to leave Joey’s.
Written by Greg Malins | Directed by Gary Halvorson
Truthfully, I struggle with this installment, for aside from the basic broadness that underscores both the A-story and the bigger of the two subplots, there’s a huge leap in believability that one has to make in order to accept the comedy in the second act crescendo. We have to believe that Ben is stupid enough not to recognize his father in an Armadillo suit, Chandler in a Santa suit, and Joey in a Superman suit — and I’m not sure that I can. However, taking a step back, in comparison to all the other entries mentioned below as almost having made the list, this is the most memorable outing and the one that I feel I’d miss most were it not highlighted. Schwimmer is great at this physical comedy and an episode like such, supported by a weightier objective — teaching his religious holiday to a son that hasn’t experienced it — gives him a variety of things to play. Also, the subplot, with Phoebe scheming to drive Rachel out of Joey’s apartment (out of a fear that Rachel won’t want to move back with Phoebe) is a little “typical sitcom,” with her trying several different “gifts” meant to aggravate Rachel, and it’s led by a functional objective: to make Rachel’s place with Joey more permanent. (It was always more likely that she’d stay with him, because the series needs the “across the hall” construct.) But the show finds a way to justify it honestly — and the charactery moments for Phoebe help.
05) Episode 157: “The One With All The Cheesecakes” (Aired: 01/04/01)
Rachel and Chandler get hooked on stolen cake; Monica makes Ross bring her to a cousin’s wedding; David returns.
Written by Shana Goldberg-Meehan | Directed by Gary Halvorson
This is one of the most unforgettable outings on this list, for the A-story with Rachel, Chandler, and the stolen cheesecakes that they keep eating, is a great visual idea that imprints several iconic images. But it’s actually enjoyable, too, and what I appreciate most about the plot is that it’s a pairing of two characters who seldom get to interact one-on-one together. (I think the last time they had a story — just the two of them — was in Season Four.) Also, it’s a fresh, unique idea that wouldn’t be an obvious one to conceive, meaning that there must be some basis in truth here, and as such, that sense of honesty and originality, especially during this period of stagnation, is most welcome. Unfortunately, the other two stories are less interesting, but Phoebe and Joey do get a grounded, worthwhile subplot when she makes him feel bad for canceling their plans in deference to a date and then does the same when she runs into David (Hank Azaria), a character who appeared just once in Season One (in an offering that tried to convince us of his and Phoebe’s great love, but didn’t succeed because of the quick time constraints). This episode only works if we believe the feelings between the two of them, and I think we do, given the sincerity of the final moments… There’s no sincerity, however, in the story with Ross and Monica at their cousin’s wedding, for Monica is depicted obnoxiously and over-the-top… all for a jokey revelation at the end. The less said about it, the better.
06) Episode 158: “The One Where They’re Up All Night” (Aired: 01/11/01)
Monica and Chandler can’t sleep; Joey and Ross are trapped on the roof.
Written by Zachary Rosenblatt | Directed by Kevin S. Bright
Earlier we noted that it’s easier to enjoy every story in an episode when they’re all united in some way (either narratively, thematically, or locationally) and this installment is a great example, for there are four subplots and they all directly stem from the same narrative origin — the group staying up late to watch a comet with Ross on the roof — and then contend thematically with their being unable to fall asleep. This sense of cohesion is a “rising tide” that lifts all boats, from the weakest storyline, with Rachel and Tag going into the office to argue over whether or not she gave him a document (we just don’t care about them, and aren’t surprised that she’s wrong — there’s nothing meaty for her to play if he’s wrong), to the best storyline, which is Ross and Joey struggling to get down from the roof after the door locks. Again, this is evidence of the show building their bond (in the absence of Chandler, to whom both used to be closer), and they have a great comedic chemistry, primarily when doing physical stuff, like the naps above, or here, while dangling from a fire escape. The other stories, meanwhile, are solid — Monica and Chandler trying to fall back asleep has some charactery laughs, and Phoebe against her fire alarm is a very funny “woman vs. machine” bit that works for its simplicity and how it fits in with this thematically sharp showing. Another one of my seasonal favorites.
07) Episode 160: “The One Where They All Turn Thirty” (Aired: 02/08/01)
Rachel’s 30th birthday prompts memories — including Monica’s surprise party and Phoebe’s discovery that she’s really older.
Story by Vanessa McCarthy | Teleplay by Ellen Plummer & Sherry Bilsing | Directed by Ben Weiss
Rachel’s 30th birthday is a milestone that deserves to be played up, given that her individual arc at the beginning of the run was about her growing into adulthood. This would be a marker of her development even if it didn’t come attached to any emotional or professional growth… although, in this case, it does, for she dumps Tag (who, one could reason, was probably a manifestation of her desire to cling to her youth), and like Monica did with Richard (which nevertheless was a MUCH more serious relationship), realizes that she’s starting to need things that he’ll never offer… thus setting the stage for a bigger change in her life — one she wants, but has to be pushed into… In the meantime, I maintain that Rachel should have turned 30 two years ago (based on what we thought their ages were), and all the stuff above feels too belated, courtesy of some evolutionary pausing and prolonging. But, at any rate, the episode, with its structural flashback “anthology” gimmick (and let’s note this was a Sweeps broadcast and the second entry marketed as being “Supersized”) has its fair share of laughs — Ross’ “Lift! And Slide!” is a cousin of “Pivot” — and while some ideas work better than others (Phoebe’s story is sweet, but Monica’s is one-joke and hits only in moments where it doesn’t rely on Cox to do the broad comedy — that’s not her strong suit), the thematic cohesion, again, elevates everything. In effect, this is a segment that’s better than the (otherwise connected) sum of its parts.
08) Episode 161: “The One With Joey’s New Brain” (Aired: 02/15/01)
Joey is replacing an actress on Days Of Our Lives; Rachel and Phoebe both call dibs on a mystery guy; Ross plays the bagpipes.
Story by Ellen Plummer & Sherry Bilsing | Teleplay by Andrew Reich & Ted Cohen | Directed by Kevin S. Bright
As the third of this year’s February Sweeps Supersized excursions, this offering led into a special with Conan O’Brien that’s notabe for featuring bloopers, including some from this offering — the famous scene where Ross plays his bagpipes for the group. It’s one of those iconic Friends bits, and while the story is rather inconsequential — and feels like a retread of an earlier, more character-based idea in Season Four regarding Ross and his keyboard (the differences reveal the evolving relationship between the show’s use of character and its use of comedy) — its broad humor is hard to deny. But the other plots work well, too, as Phoebe and Rachel share an easy, breezy story where they find a cell phone and debate who gets to pursue the man who lost it. These two have built a fun chemistry in the Monica/Chandler era, and their depictions in this installment keep them both fairly believable. Meanwhile, there’s a big development in the A-story, as Joey finally returns in a main role to Days Of Our Lives, after he learns that he’s going to have a brain transplant from a character played by the show’s long-reigning diva (in an homage, it seems, to Susan Lucci), played by Susan Sarandon, who is surprisingly funny and makes the most of her material. There are a lot of laughs, and although the Supersized structure doesn’t seem to be a creative benefit on its own, this one doesn’t have the same sense of being “stretched” that many of the other Supersized outings do.
09) Episode 168: “The One With Chandler’s Dad” (Aired: 05/10/01)
Chandler and Monica go to Vegas to reconcile with his dad; Ross goes on the road with Rachel.
Story by Greg Malins | Teleplay by Brian Buckner & Sebastian Jones | Directed by Kevin S. Bright & Gary Halvorson
This is the first entry in a while to make heavy use of Chandler, whose portrayer entered rehab near the end of the season and had to be minimized as a result. Although this fact wouldn’t necessarily be obvious, it’s nevertheless a jolt of energy when he returns, especially because the year is gearing up for his wedding to Monica and therefore needs him narratively. This particular episode is a GREAT Chandler showcase because it finally offers the physical manifestation of a part of his past that we’ve long heard about as a punch line: his father. Kathleen Turner is inspired casting and by making Mr. Bing exactly as larger-than-life as he’s been described, he doesn’t disappoint. Meanwhile, the subplots, while less notable, are also enjoyable. Joey and Phoebe have a lighthearted runner, building to a single gag of Joey wearing women’s underwear (it’s easy and not terribly charactery, but the two actors always bounce off each other well, and this script exhibits that), and Ross and Rachel get a rare non-romantic one-on-one story when they go driving together. Their different approaches to the wheel make for great character-driven comedy, and it’s welcome, no matter how broad. (Their depictions are big — seeing them together affirms just how much they’ve heightened since being coupled — but they’re not, here at least, terrible.) It’s a roundly solid example of how this era balances stagnation alongside a couple of developments, like meeting Mr. Bing, that can be considered forward-moving.
10) Episode 170: “The One With Monica And Chandler’s Wedding (II)” (Aired: 05/17/01)
Ross and Phoebe have to keep an eye on Chandler, as Joey tries to make it to the wedding.
Written by Marta Kauffman & David Crane | Directed by Kevin S. Bright
My choice for the year’s best, this is the second half of the season finale, which originally aired in a one-hour block. Regular readers of this blog know that I don’t often choose any part of a two-parter as my MVE, let alone a season finale, for they too often have story concerns (like cliffhangers) that either influence or distract from the honest presentation of character. But, in this instance, I can think of no episode here that fires on all cylinders like the finale does, and okay, it is shaped by a story objective — one that, as I’ve argued, the characters have been stuck waiting on for the past two years — but because this is a narrative that also suggests tangible growth for them (again, on which they’ve long been waiting), it feels more connected to their arcs than most finales. Additionally, the text fleshes out the plot’s circumstances with some of the best comedy of the season, aided by both the Gellers and the Bings (who really have some killer one-liners). Now, as usual, by highlighting just one half, I’m actually recommending both, but I have to point out that I prefer Part II because it doesn’t have to motivate Chandler’s bout with cold feet, which was conceived partly in case Perry wasn’t yet out of rehab and needed to be written even lighter. This is a development that seems appropriate and would feel organic to the character five years ago when he was a mess (and I guess it still relates to his arc about commitment), but it loses some of its power now given how forthcoming he’s been about committing since Season Five. Again, his character is a little ahead of the story, and since Part II merely has to get him back to the wedding, it doesn’t have to strain as much. (Also, Part II’s Joey story, where he’s working on set with a drunk actor played by Gary Oldman, is better connected to the main action than Part I’s spitting V-I-P, so the writing feels more cohesive.)
Part II also delivers some great stuff at the event in preparation for the wedding — the scene where Ross tackles Chandler is a hoot — and benefits from the earlier establishment of the pregnancy tease. I’m not sure how well the script makes us believe that it’s indeed Monica who’s pregnant, because our hindsight knowledge has now corrupted our ability to make the distinction, but the Rachel reveal at the end is nonetheless the show’s best finale “seed,” for while it may not be as grand and hype-able as Ross’ wedding name gaffe or as simply character-rooted as the earliest season-enders, it plants the best roadmap for the upcoming year — one that, most likely, can’t be brushed away within the first six weeks and is going to circle around (in some way) to Ross/Rachel, for it’s going to involve her love life. As such, Season Seven’s finale not only resumes evolving its characters, but it also pivots back to its rom-com origins. And that’s just what was needed in order to give the series a “comeback”…
Other notable episodes that merit a look include: “The One With Rachel’s Book,” which has a stronger and more comedic teleplay than some of its thin story threads (but does boast a fine pairing of Phoebe and Ross and a TERRIFIC scene with Monica, Chandler, and her folks), “The One With The Truth About London,” a Supersized outing that tries to find dramatic relevance for Monica/Chandler by suggesting the possibility that Monica would have hooked up with Joey — a notion that feels like another self-indulgent “what if” play and isn’t helped by a logic-starved text, and “The One With Ross And Monica’s Cousin,” which is popular for the one-joke A-story with Denise Richards as the Gellers’ hot cousin, but features little Chandler and instead shoehorns Monica into a rather risqué plot where Joey pretends to be uncircumcised to win a role. (This was originally intended for Two’s finale, but was cut because of the censors.) I find a lot of other entries good-but-not-great, including “The One Where Chandler Doesn’t Like Dogs” and “The One With The Cheap Wedding Dress.”
The Island of Better-Than-Their-Episode Stories (there are a lot this year) —
- “The One With The Engagement Picture” – Phoebe and Ross (a great pairing) date a divorced couple
- “The One With All The Candy” – Ross teaches Phoebe how to ride a bike
- “The One Where Rosita Dies” – Rachel breaks Joey’s chair (Note: the gimmicky Jason Alexander appearance in the Phoebe story is only adequate)
- “The One With Joey’s Award” – Ross thinks a male student has a crush on him
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of Friends goes to…
“The One With Monica And Chandler’s Wedding (II)”
Come back next week for Season Eight! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!
surprised u picked finale as mve . i think its one of the better finales but my fave is tow the nap partners . glad 2 kno u like it aswell
Hi, BB! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Yes, the finale un-pauses character growth — we haven’t seen that since Season Five!
I appreciate your commentary here because I agree that Season Seven is better than Six. I think Eight makes this one look worse and because of all the character stagnation stuff you shrewdly pointed out.
As for episodes, I really love your list. I like all the Honorable Mentions and “Island”-bound ones, but they’re deficient in some way. Like TOW The Truth About London really bothers me because of the Joey and Phoebe stuff, which is really dumb.
Anyways, I think you picked the best and most memorable, including TOW The Holiday Armadillo and TOW Chandler’s Dad. (Great minds think alike I guess!!!)
Can’t wait for next week–one of the last good seasons!
Hi, GaryK328! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Stay tuned for my thoughts on Season Eight — next week!
Yeah, I agree that S7 is funnier because I think there are more classics. David Schwimmer is so good in so many of these.
Could you expand on what you like/dislike about ‘The one with the Cheap Wedding Dress’? I’m meh on that one myself but I’d love to hear your thoughts.
And thanks for the tidbit regarding ‘The One with Ross And Monica’s Cousin.’ I hadn’t put it together about Chandler being out and why the Monica/Joey story felt so weird and out of place!
Hi, Elaine! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Sure. I like that the A-story with Monica attempts to force a character revelation as she has to sacrifice part of her personality (her competiveness and need for perfection) in favor of marrying Chandler, but I dislike how little the script actually utilizes him.
I also think the B-story with Ross and Joey fighting over Gabrielle Union is driven by its narrative, with nothing emotionally substantive in support of their “competition” (which is also a tired beat — we’ve seen the FRIENDS guys compete over women before).
I do wish you had included TOW Rachel’s Book and TOW Rosita Dies, but am glad you at least mentioned them here. Your correlation between the show’s popularity and reception quality-wise is astute and accurate. This isn’t the best season, but it still has a lot to offer.
Hi, Charlie! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I think “The One With Rachel’s Book” has a stronger teleplay than most of its stories (the Joey/Rachel idea is one-joke and has nowhere to go; the Monica/Chandler plot works hard to contrive very temporary drama), and “The One Where Rosita Dies” is burdened by its Supersized structure — Phoebe’s narrative (built around a former MSTV star) drags, as does the Ross/Monica story, which would be easier to enjoy if it wasn’t hitting the exact same relationship beats that we’ve been hearing since Season One.
I think the former is legitimately more recommendable — as an Honorable Mention — while the latter is simply too uneven (in the wrong direction).
Always interesting to read your thoughts, even when (or especially when?) they differ so greatly from my own. Count me in with the crowd that believes Season 7 is easily the weakest. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that ratings fell over the course of the season, and viewers dropped into the teens in the second half, which they hadn’t done regularly since Season 1 (other than 6’s Thanksgiving episode–taking a hit by airing on the holiday–and clip show). The season had its moments, but God, that back half of the season–the whole string of episodes from …Up All Night through …Rachel’s Big Kiss is the worst of the entire series.
Watching the season as it aired, the show just seemed exhausted–completely lacking in any energy or comedy. The lack of any story-driving engine really hurt it. The guest casting and stunts seemed more desperate than usual (I remember the fuss they made on the entertainment shows about Gabrielle Union being cast. “Look, we’re casting a black woman as a love interest! We won’t give her a character or any funny lines, but…she’s black! We heard all your criticisms about how white the show is! A black love interest! For one episode!” When that’s what you’re turning to in an attempt to get people tune into your show, things are pretty dire.)
Plus, the main thing that sticks out to me is just how gross this season is. They pressed down so hard on all the sexual subject matter in a way that really seemed tawdry, especially having it all come at once. The gay panic of the nap partners. The sex in public in the library. Ross being sexually attracted to his cousin and actually trying to make a move on her. The cheap titillation of Rachel’s lesbian kiss. (Tee hee! Tune in! Rachel once kissed Winona Ryder!) (Meanwhile, the idea that Chandler once kissed a guy his a shocking secret. Gay panic! Yay!) The faked foreskin. Wearing women’s underwear.
And it has the worst Thanksgiving episode! They couldn’t even get that one right! If I recall correctly, Malins and Calhoun, were the showrunners this season? Neither returned for season 8, and if this was what the show looked like with them at the helm, no wonder it was better off without them.
Hi, PJW! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Of course it’s no coincidence that the ratings fell in the back half of the year — FRIENDS was up against SURVIVOR, which in its first season — on Wednesday — averaged more weekly viewers than FRIENDS had in every year but its second.
Also, don’t forget that FRIENDS lost more viewers during Season Six than Seven. (It just wasn’t as big a concern to the network until it started losing its timeslot, too.) Does this mean Six is weaker than Seven? I personally could make that case, but I wouldn’t use the numbers to do so, because that’s always a tenuous argument. That’s why I reject the show’s forced affiliation of commercial success with creative success — it’s not a given.
However, this is the lowest-rated season, and I think you’re absolutely right that there’s some degree of correlation between FRIENDS’ *ongoing* commercial decline and a descent in its perceived quality. To wit, faithful viewers who were dissatisfied by FRIENDS would be more likely to flip to SURVIVOR than those who still found the former as engaging as they had five years before. And those who left at this time were joining the many viewers who’d already jumped ship.
As discussed over the past few weeks, I believe the creative problem for FRIENDS, driving most of the dissatisfaction during this entire middle era, is that it couldn’t progress its characters at a healthy rate and was therefore buying time between cliffhangers, broadening the regulars’ depictions while trying to keep the viewers’ attention via narrative gimmicks.
To that point, I think you’re also right that the series was becoming more outrageous in its depiction of sexuality — for the benefit of securing eyeballs. But, to me, that (along with the agenda-driven casting of Gabrielle Union) is a minor concern compared to the underlying cause of all that pomp and circumstance: again, the lack of forward momentum with the characters. When the show couldn’t progress, it heightened and looked outward. We’d been seeing it since late Season Five (at least).
Also, I maintain that this year is easier to enjoy than the sixth, because its episodic concerns trap the ideas that don’t work and shine a spotlight on the ones that do. It also doesn’t broaden the *characters* at quite the same rate as its predecessor. For me, that’s most instructive.
But your view is more common than mine — then and now — and I surely understand it; gimmicks without growth is *never* ideal for a situation comedy predicated on emotional development, and this year has more gimmicks and less growth. Frankly, had the degree of broadening among the characterizations been as drastic between Six and Seven as it was between Five and Six, I too would consider Seven the weaker year of the two.
Also, yes, Malins, who’d been one of the EPs since Season Five (a year many fans love), and Calhoun, who’d returned this year after being promoted to showrunner of Bright/Kauffman/Crane’s JESSE, both departed before Season Eight. I’m sure we could agree that this was no coincidence either.
Nah, S6 is the weakest from FRIENDS’s middle years. I’ll take the one-off casting gimmicks from this year over S6’s annulment, Janine, and Bruce Willis episodes any day. No way are those any better than what was produced this year because even if the characters didn’t grow here at least they weren’t changed and maligned like they were in S6.
I SO agree with this article that declining viewers have impacted others views of quality. Cause the decline was ongoing… so are they blaming the other years too? No. Give me a break.
Hi, Nat! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I share your thoughts on why Season Six’s treatment of character is worse than Seven’s treatment of character, but because the latter is largely an aesthetic extension of the former, it’s natural that a second year with the same core problem — no growth — would be considered more representative of a lesser quality than the first year guilty of that charge.
Season seven has always been my least favorite season of the series. I thought it was a huge step down from the previous season (which was a step down from the season before that). I’m eager for your thoughts on season eight next week. That is tied with seasons three and four for my favorite of the series.
Hi, Jimmy! Thanks for reading and commenting.
As noted above, I believe your opinion — not that this year is the weakest (we’ve still got Nine and Ten to get through), but that it’s at least weaker than Six — is more common than mine. I get it. Gimmicks without growth is *never* ideal for a situation comedy predicated on emotional development, and Seven has more gimmicks and less growth.
Frankly, had the degree of broadening among the characterizations been as drastic between Six and Seven as it was between Five and Six, I too would consider Seven the weaker year of the two.
As for my thoughts on Season Eight, there’s a taste of them in this above post — but stay tuned next week for more!
i find your inclusion of the up all night episode interesting (even if the basis for comparison was an era or a season) because i saw it when it first aired and thought then that the show was starting to run out of steam. this was of course before the show’s second creative resurgance the following season.
i can’t recall having seen it since, so it’s possible i’ll feel different about it 17 1/2 years later (yikes!).
Hi, TV Talking Heads! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I think you should revisit the episode — I know my thoughts on the works covered here are always changing based on my evolved experiences!
As for the entry in question, I think it’s one of the hardest to use when making your argument (there are others here — even above — better suited for that thesis), for the low-concept engine feels like a throwback to an earlier era, and the thematically cohesive teleplay doesn’t ask us to suspend disbelief regarding any of the characters’ depictions (unlike many stories in Seasons Six and Seven).
If it feels narratively atypical, that’s because the ideas are smaller and less ostentatious than this era’s norm.