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 Eight is widely considered Friends’ comeback, and to understand why, it’s also important to know what exactly viewers thought the show was coming back from. As we’ve explored over the past few weeks, the series’ commercial longevity fostered a period of overarching emotional stagnation, during which none of the characters’ individual arcs meaningfully progressed. Joey’s need for love and Phoebe’s quest for family were hardly explored, Monica and Chandler spent two whole seasons ahead of their arc — ready for the commitment of marriage without actually being married — and Ross and Rachel, whose reconciliation the show had been prolonging since their first break up in 1997, went from overuse to obscurity. In Eight, there’s once again real growth: Monica/Chandler are wedded, Joey experiences some of the most intense feelings he’s ever felt for a woman, and Ross/Rachel are back as the show’s rom-com center — not so all-consumingly as before, but enough so that their long-buried emotional connotations have returned to the figurative driver’s seat. (That is, the possibility of their reconciliation is explicit in the weekly narratives and not something reserved only for cliffhangers.) With Season Eight, Friends not only “comes back” from creative decisions not conducive to character-driven comedy (or even satisfying romantic comedy, since nothing was blooming), but also a continual decline in ratings that seemed correlated to waning emotional investment, a new backlash following another round of intense contract negotiations (which essentially encouraged viewers to resent the actors and question the show’s actual value), and a rise in competition from CBS, which put up a show in the spring of 2001 that finally beat Friends (Survivor). Accordingly, the series went into this year — after setting the table in Seven’s finale — expecting it to be the last.
My thoughts on the seventh season are already well-documented. However, I’ll reiterate that I consider it no more troubling than Six and think the series’ decreasing popularity (which, by the way, was ongoing) has been erroneously used as evidence to frame the idea that Eight is the series’ big comeback. I’m not interested in re-litigating Seven (again, it has the same issues as Six, yet doesn’t hurt the characterizations as much as its predecessor), for I think this “comeback” narrative can be formed without looking at the numbers. Yes, it is important to note that Eight was indeed MUCH better received — it finished the year #1 in the ratings, earned the series its first Emmy Win for Outstanding Comedy, and was deemed by the creators among the show’s best (if not the actual best) — but it’s more interesting to discuss why Season Eight was, and is, so popular… Frankly, I believe it goes back to the above notions of what the prior years weren’t offering: emotional growth for the regulars and, specifically, a heavy helping of Ross/Rachel. For starters, most viewers (I’ve found) love a focused narrative, especially a pregnancy, for the structure is familiar and easy to digest, channeling story in a way that doesn’t require much on behalf of the characters; they can, theoretically, exist within the construct amiably and without needing to propel plot, which is already a given. Thus, Rachel’s pregnancy is probably the best cliffhanger of the entire run — not because it’s the most jaw-dropping (the overblown London season-ender is grander), but because it supplies the most opportunity for the following year: an engine for story, and a way to pivot the show and these characters into a new, needed era. It’s unparalleled, for unlike most cliffhangers, resolved by the next Sweeps, this development is going to change the show forever. More importantly, it’s also the tactic used to resume Ross/Rachel after years of teasing and pausing their trek back to one another…
You see, even before the reveal, there’s a certain rom-com certainty that Rachel must be pregnant by someone we’ve already met, and if it’s not Ross (which would mean the baby is a stepping stone to their reunion), the baby and its father are still going to dredge up Ross/Rachel conflict and feelings. And even if you don’t consider yourself someone who roots for the pairing, the show always encourages you to do so. (Or at least, in Seasons Six and Seven, doesn’t actively discourage you.) So, following nearly two years of ignoring them — and three years of using them only for Sweeps (especially cliffhangers) — this textually overt re-engagement with their dynamic in episodic story is a literal “return to form,” invoking the Golden Age and rekindling the show’s romantic comedy tonal intentions (which had been mitigated for broad comedy in Six and Seven); circling back to them now is a rededication to one of the most pronounced tenets of Friends‘ thesis — and it makes sense for a series getting ready to close up shop. Because of those lowering ratings — and the stars’ high negotiated price ($750k per Friend per week) — the creators felt they were nearing the end and could stop prolonging the inevitable: Ross/Rachel (who were always viewed by the show as endgame, but because the crew preferred writing for them apart as opposed to together, couldn’t reunite and fulfill their individual character arcs until the series’ end.) This, of course, was the goal of the pregnancy — launched at the close of Seven — and no matter if it’s gimmicky or story-heavy or predictable or emotionally easy (it’s all of those things), it’s still inherently more character-based than past arcs, for it’s the means by which Ross and Rachel are finally allowed to move forward. Thus, it’s satisfying. (And I think the strength of the storyline helped net Aniston an Emmy — in the Leading Category — a suggestion of both this year’s popularity and Ross/Rachel’s prominence.)
But, again, character growth and the resumption of arcs is a directive for the season at large, since everyone involved went into the year assuming that there was a high probability of it being the last. In fact, Phoebe is the only character whose endgame objective — her search for a family — isn’t directly revisited in Eight (one could imagine that if the show really had ended in May 2002, the final episodes would have rectified these concerns). But her use isn’t worth kvetching about here, for there’s already so much narrative stuff happening — during which everyone else is well-progressed — that the year isn’t left wanting. For example, Monica/Chandler are finally un-stalled and allowed to progress into marriage, which is a legitimately new dynamic for them with potentially different conflicts — unlike the past two years of same-old, same-old. (Hurray!) Joey, meanwhile, gets his best and richest arc of the entire run: his crush on Rachel… Now, this is a loaded topic about which fans are opinionated; I have mixed feelings. I think Joey was set-up, back during the unenjoyable-but-important Kate story, on a quest for the kind of selfless love that he so rarely experiences (outside of friendship). So, his falling for Rachel, with whom he’s formed a terrific bond over the past two seasons, lives exactly in that sweet spot for his emotional growth, and not only does it make sense for him, it also expands his pronounced heart while giving weight to his increasing comedic broadness (which has him getting dumber and dumber, especially when a scene needs a quick joke as its blow). As a result, I think some of the early episodes in this story — their date, in particular — represent the best stuff ever afforded to Joey. And for all the problems discussed below (and over the next two weeks), we should remember that Joey, initially, isn’t only unscathed by this idea, but he’s also dimensionalized in accordance with his personal arc.
The problems are hard to ignore though. Fundamentally, the series can’t offer anything meaningful for a Rachel/Joey coupling without rejecting the terms of its thesis, and that’s not going to happen because Friends has never stopped projecting its belief that Ross/Rachel are meant to be. Thus, Joey’s crush on her feels like a dead-end, and our hearts go out to him; the show is against his want… But for the purpose of analysis, let’s say that we believe the show is interested in shaking itself up and would actually consider a romance with Rachel/Joey. Given that he’s a regular, it’d be the most multi-dimensional and investment-worthy love interest for Rachel (next, of course, to Ross) ever, and would therefore complicate Ross/Rachel better than anything else could. And yet… even if we believed the show believed this, their pairing would still be an innate stretch to credulity, for in a group of six friends, there’s already been two couples; with each additional permutation, our faith in the group’s emotional integrity diminishes from the self-indulgence born of an inability to conceive worthwhile love interests outside of the six regulars. Meanwhile, there’s also our fear that story interests will supersede the initial character ones… a worry that’s soon proved valid, for even though this arc first comes from Joey’s own emotional objective, it quickly becomes a tool for one of the most poorly designed cliffhangers in the series’ run, as a triangle is unnaturally formed with Ross/Rachel. This unnatural premise comes after weeks of having forgotten Joey’s crush while the show was building towards a likely Ross/Rachel reunion; in the bait-and-switch for story’s sake, what starts as a character-rooted arc with no place to go, finally gets to go somewhere: to a cliffhanger designed to keep Ross/Rachel apart… And, uh, haven’t we been here before?
These issues all stem from the renewal. It’s hard to know the timeline exactly — what creatively happened when — but it seems that negotiations for another year (with the famed $1 million salaries) began around November 2001 (mid-season) and were finalized in February (about six weeks before the end). Would Joey’s crush have still existed had Eight been the last? Because it was about his arc, I think so; the only big difference would’ve been that Ross/Rachel would have gotten together at the birth of their child — you know, at the most natural moment of reconciliation, which the year was crafted to offer. That this development is once again denied is the largest leap we’ve had to make with these two, simply because the year does a great job of corroborating their inevitability. (In other words, after evolving them towards a reunion, this cliffhanger feels the most like an unearned cop-out.) However, by November ’01, concluding seemed crazy, especially because the series was suddenly popular again. And, in this case, there’s an external force beyond Ross/Rachel that helped foster such a dramatic reversal — sadly, 9/11… In the wake of our country’s tragedy, Friends was a beacon of romantic, feel-good, American optimism. It was familiar, featured characters we loved, and offered a retreat from reality, for this series’ always rose-tinted positivity — its fundamental belief in love’s triumph — was exactly what viewers wanted, and they made their appreciation known by elevating the show’s Nielsen returns… Now, again, I don’t think numbers = merit (and they probably would have increased anyway due to the rom-com arc progression), but the show’s cultural permanency was cemented in the wake of this tragedy, and likely reinforced by the decision to return. If 9/11 had not happened, I think a ninth year was still possible (because of NBC’s own standing), but Friends earned its tonally suggested good-will when it seemed to go forward for its viewers… even if this would be to the detriment of its characters.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. Eight’s character-forward design (a function of its possible finality) poises it, from the jump, for a level of success not seen since the regulars first stopped growing. And while I think comedically, Eight’s terms are comparable to its predecessor’s, the engagement with their emotional objectives re-emphasizes the show’s heart and makes it, in the classic rom-com tradition, more worth our time and attention… On the flip side, the characterizations are still broadening, as the ongoing pursuit of bigger laughs continues to contort and jeopardize our beliefs in their (nevertheless once-again palpable) emotional truths. It’s mostly the same players who pose the most concern — Phoebe is meaner, Monica is shriller, Joey is dumber, and Ross is more manic, especially in stories with Mona, another relatively bland and undefined non-Rachel love interest… Yet, this broadening means less believability, so just as the emotional stakes are rising from a resumed focus on their growths, it’s also coming in tandem with tensions surrounding whether the show’s ongoing crusade for big laughs and new story (as a function of how long it’s run) will finally injure them for good. This is creating a figurative bubble that’s soon to burst when they’re briefly regressed again at the start of Nine and the “comeback” narrative is no longer valid. (We saw the same thing happen with Season Six, folks — after another “reinvigoration.”) But again, we’re ahead of ourselves… Where does Eight fit? Well, the creators have suggested it’s their favorite, but as we’ve seen, the show’s commercial reception has influenced their opinions before. Had this indeed been the last, I’d say it was on par with the Golden Age of Two through Five. But because it’s not — and the season loses momentum in its second half before further hurting itself in the cliffhanger-led finale — I’ll instead say it’s the best following the fifth. And it IS a comeback — for the creators allowed the show to be emotionally satisfying once again… So, as usual, I have 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), 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), Sherry Bilsing-Graham & Ellen Pummer (Veronica’s Closet, Joey, The New Adventures Of Old Christine), Brian Buckner (Spin City, Joey, True Blood) & Sebastian Jones (Spin City, Hot In Cleveland, One Day At A Time), Mark Kunerth (Veronica’s Closet, About A Boy, Speechless), Dana Klein Borkow (Becker, Friends With Better Lives, 9JKL), Robert Carlock (30 Rock, SNL, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), and R. Lee Fleming, Jr. (One Tree Hill, The Lying Game).
01) Episode 171: “The One After ‘I Do'” (Aired: 09/27/01)
At Monica and Chandler’s wedding reception, Phoebe covers for a pregnant Rachel, and Ross pursues an attractive blonde.
Written by David Crane & Marta Kauffman | Directed by Kevin S. Bright
Season Eight’s premiere was pushed back a week — along with most of the new TV season — following 9/11, and two weeks after the tragedy, this was the first new Friends episode that NBC broadcast. As with the previous year’s premiere, it picks up almost immediately after its respective finale and benefits from a close affiliation with the Aristotelian Unities (of time, place, and action), as the entire show takes place right before and during Monica/Chandler’s wedding reception. This theatrical quality, even with several disparate (and small) story threads, helps make this a cohesive affair. Also, the scripting, credited to the show’s two creators, keeps the characters from feeling any broader than they did the previous season. (The second offering, however, reveals what a feat this is, for they all do broaden in that installment.) The most labored narrative beat here is Phoebe pretending to be pregnant to cover for Rachel (it goes on too long and doesn’t solve any problem — even temporarily), but I think it’s balanced by the excitement of Rachel’s news and the mature way in which Monica takes it — unlike last year’s opener, she doesn’t accuse Rachel of “stealing her thunder.” This is a more honest Monica than the broad characterization we’ve seen before and will see again (in the following episode, even). Meanwhile, the entry introduces Mona, a bland temporary roadblock for Ross/Rachel, in a story that uses Schwimmer comedically. All-in-all? Solid premiere for a comeback year.
02) Episode 173: “The One Where Rachel Tells Ross” [a.k.a. “The One Where Rachel Tells…”] (Aired: 10/11/01)
Rachel breaks the news of her pregnancy to Ross; Monica and Chandler compete against another honeymooning couple.
Written by Sherry Bilsing-Graham & Ellen Plummer | Directed by Sheldon Epps
This installment features a relatively big development as Ross learns that Rachel is pregnant with his child — something the audience discovered in the previous entry (which, as indicated above — and below — maintains a strong sense of excitement about this arc, but suffers from broad depictions of everyone). It’s an important scene and the episode does a fairly amusing job of handling it — with a socially conscious edge (by making it clear that Ross and Rachel THOUGHT they were being “safe”). I think the gravity of this new story, which has reinvigorated the show by giving it a sense of momentum missing since, heck, the initial lead-up to Ross/Rachel’s coupling, makes the episode worthwhile — especially because now the series is redirecting its rom-com focus to Ross/Rachel, which means that it’s once again fulfilling a primary tenet of its thesis and no longer delaying a narrative occurrence (reconciliation) that the show believes is essential to their individual arcs. Frankly, their material alone makes this worthwhile, but I also should note that the Monica/Chandler subplot (of them competing with another newlywed couple on their honeymoon) was hastily rewritten and re-shot when the original story — of the pair being detained at the airport when Chandler says the word “bomb” in the security line — was deemed unusable following 9/11. The show was absolutely right to sub the subplot given the time it was broadcast, but had the tragedy not occurred, it would have made for a much better narrative, because the comedic conflict is predicated on Chandler’s characterization — as opposed to Monica’s (in the broadcast version). And because he can motivate this type of idea-based subplot without being pushed, like (the now often over-the-top) Monica must be, his was the more believable character idea.
03) Episode 174: “The One With The Videotape” (Aired: 10/18/01)
Ross and Rachel argue over who came onto whom on their infamous night — and there’s a tape to prove it.
Written by Scott Silveri | Directed by Kevin S. Bright
My choice for the best of the season, this installment was the second produced following 9/11, and while the energy of that first outing after a hiatus (“…The Halloween Party”) is lacking, the heavy Ross/Rachel thesis-born stylings in this episode pick up the proceedings and inlay the entire production with a wonderful sense of romance… And it’s all the more impressive because this is sort of an anti-romantic offering, for Ross and Rachel are still blaming each other for their unplanned pregnancy and have to turn to a videotape to settle the score. In the DVD commentary, the producers talk about toiling to contrive a reason for Ross to set up the camera in the first place, but because they motivate it by him seeking dating advice from Joey, they’re able to pay it off amazingly with the erotic European “backpacking” story — which proves that Rachel came onto Ross — and make the narrative machinations seem well-earned (or at least, purposeful and justified). The show’s smarts in this matter are impressive, as is the parallelism of having Ross/Rachel start their relationship with a videotape (the famous Prom Video) and start their parenthood with another one. This is a callback that helps refresh those initial feelings, cementing the year’s intentions of pivoting back towards Ross/Rachel, and revving up for their romantic reconciliation near season’s end. In this way, the entry also serves as an important marker, for just as the series turned back into the past — invoking Prom Video memories — in Season Five for “… All The Thanksgivings,” so that it could hand off the romantic comedy “torch” to Monica/Chandler, this excursion recalls the Prom Video with a diegetic Ross/Rachel videotape and gives them back the focus they lost during those stagnant years. So, this is a meaningful, symbolic episode. And fortunately, it’s aided by a smart script (in addition to the “backpacking” story, the “fake names” bit in the Monica/Chandler subplot is called back brilliantly in the climax) that boasts many laughs. Easily Eight’s best.
04) Episode 178: “The One With The Stripper” (Aired: 11/15/01)
Rachel tells her dad that Ross refuses to marry her; Monica hires a stripper for Chandler’s belated bachelor party.
Written by Andrew Reich & Ted Cohen | Directed by David Schwimmer
The pacing of this episode bothers me — and there’s some quick-cutting back and forth between storylines that feels atypical of the series at this point. But despite any perceived structural issues, this offering is actually one of the most plainly amusing from the first half of the season. Sure, the eponymous story with Monica throwing a belated bachelor party (for just him and Joey) and hiring a hooker instead of a stripper is a Victory in Premise — amusing simply because of the idea, irrespective of execution (or the character beats) — but the teleplay mines enough comedy from it to make it worth our while. (Incidentally, though, I’ve always suspected, but never proven, that this was the original Chandler story for last year’s “…Ross And Monica’s Cousin,” during which Perry was only in one picked-up scene because he had entered rehab, forcing the writers to quickly slot in a rejected story from Season Two that featured Joey and Phoebe, replacing the latter — ham-fistedly — with Monica.) More relevant for character and a counterbalance to the above gimmickry, is the story where Rachel finally tells her father about the pregnancy — in a comedic scene that wisely tacks on Phoebe for some additional laughs (you’ll notice she always tags along for scenes like this, because she’s best when bouncing off others) — yet can’t bear to admit to her dad that she doesn’t want to marry Ross. This is a great narrative way to get the information out to Mona, whose purpose is arc-based conflict. The scene where Ross is caught between Mona and Dr. Green, having to appeal to both their competing interests, is a tour de force and makes the whole outing.
05) Episode 179: “The One With The Rumor” (Aired: 11/22/01)
An old friend with a grudge against Rachel attends Thanksgiving dinner.
Written by Shana Goldberg-Meehan | Directed by Gary Halvorson
Brad Pitt, then married to Jennifer Aniston, appears in this excursion for another stunt casting gimmick just in time for November Sweeps. (Sean Penn had done two earlier outings that same month.) His inclusion is of an obsequiously commercial nature, and while we can say today that it’s fascinating to see the formerly wedded pair acting together, the star wattage radiating from a big-time movie star slumming it on a situation comedy (in 2001, there was still more of a professional delineation between actors who did major films and series television) is so blinding that it doesn’t add to the entry’s value, particularly with regard to character. Now, I think this would still be an enjoyable, well-liked episode if the show had taken its tongue out of its cheek and cast a lesser-known performer in the role, but I’d guess that it was written for Pitt — the “I hate Rachel Green” club derives some of its comedy based around the audience’s show-superseding knowledge of the actors’ real-life situation — and that’s partially why I don’t think the offering is as successful as past, more character-driven Thanksgivings. That noted, the show puts all six of its regulars together (but with a movie star) and tries to find its Ross/Rachel core. So, with this smart design and sprightly scripting (contrasting against last year’s mediocre Thanksgiving), this is a segment of Friends that’s easy to enjoy. It’s overhyped (and a few of the characterizations, like Joey’s, are a bit too big), but it’s also fun and laugh-filled.
06) Episode 182: “The One Where Joey Dates Rachel” (Aired: 01/10/02)
Joey takes out Rachel; Phoebe buys Chandler and Monica a Ms. Pac-Man machine; Ross teaches a new class across town.
Written by Sherry Bilsing-Graham & Ellen Plummer | Directed by David Schwimmer
I suspect this episode is undervalued, in large part, because it introduces Joey’s crush on Rachel, and therefore represents the first actual reference in the series to a storyline that temporarily works for Joey’s individual characterization but doesn’t really have a solid pay-off for him (or anyone else), and later, is regrettably used to provide logic-lacking, cliffhanger-driven (and Ross/Rachel prolonging) finales. But the offering itself — which has Rachel and Joey going on a friendly date and swapping tactics — is surprisingly well-written, and it’s loaded with believable, comedic, human moments for those two characters. In fact, I maintain that Joey’s crush on Rachel is one of the best narrative manifestations of his selfless love super-objective and that this installment may be the most simultaneously enjoyable and revealing indication of his arc. Additionally, the excursion boasts a lighthearted subplot for Monica, Chandler, and Phoebe, where the latter gifts the newlyweds a Ms. Pac-Man machine, which spawns an interesting, original (and to wit, perhaps truth-based) story where the trio has to erase the dirty names that Chandler has added to the “top scores” list… before Ross’ young son comes over to play with it. It’s a Victory in Premise, to be sure, but it’s motivated believably by Chandler. Also, Schwimmer clowns again in a hilarious C-story where Ross tries to teach two classes on opposite sides of town, which means more broad, physical comedy.
07) Episode 185: “The One With The Birthing Video” (Aired: 02/07/02)
Chandler and Monica are scarred by a birthing tape; Ross doesn’t tell Mona that Rachel moved in with him.
Written by Dana Klein Borkow | Directed by Kevin S. Bright
My reservations regarding the depiction of Mona have been previously expressed, but now I’ll reiterate that her relatively cheery and personality-less demeanor is both helpful and not. It’s not helpful in that she makes it hard to invest in her, her relationship with Ross, and more specifically, his feelings for her. Thus, we disconnect from him a bit, too. (We’ve seen this before with other love interests for Ross and Rachel, who lack definition because the show doesn’t want us to root for them at the expense of Ross/Rachel.) On the other hand, I get the sense that Mona is supposed to be a version of the “perfect woman” — very understanding and easy-going — and that she’s therefore built for both the conflict, as it’s harder for Ross to get back with Rachel if the woman he’s currently with has no flaws, and the comedy, for now everything Ross does looks more heightened and outrageous in comparison to her. This episode, which least deserves to be here but is elevated because of its balance of hahas and arc-progression, finds Ross trying to keep Mona from discovering that he invited Rachel to move in with him. It feels a lot like “…The Stripper,” where Ross kept something from Mona and had to do damage control when it was inconveniently revealed, but this doesn’t pack quite the same punch — for it becomes more heightened (and less believable) now that it’s repeated. However, it moves the Ross/Rachel arc forward in a way that’s comedic and not lubberly, while Chandler and Monica get an amusing (albeit one-joke) subplot that’s memorable and gives the entry its title, and Joey’s crush turns into some serious drama, that, fortunately, is the next entry’s albatross…
08) Episode 188: “The One In Massapequa” [a.k.a. “The One With The Zesty Guy”] (Aired: 03/28/02)
At the Gellers’ anniversary, Rachel and Ross pretend to be married, Monica gives the toast, and Phoebe dates a happy guy.
Story by Petter Tibbals | Teleplay by Mark Kunerth | Directed by Gary Halvorson
Alec Baldwin guest stars in this installment as Phoebe’s one-episode love interest, Parker. She doesn’t get many of them — her prior was a character earlier this season played by Sean Penn — so there’s still a novelty value in seeing her pursue her overall emotional objective by dating. And it’s fun, in this case, that the show crafts a boyfriend whose flaw is that he’s too optimistic — even for Phoebe, who, at one point in the series’ life, might have indeed embraced Parker’s positivity. But now that her characterization is notably harsher (and Season Eight features some truly nasty moments in this regard — many of them funny, if still puzzling based on the rather abrupt shift in this direction several years ago), there’s legitimate conflict to be found here. And in this way, there’s a bit of commentary also about Phoebe and her own view of the world (and, for us, how that’s changed since the series began). In other news, the outing benefits from a single focus — the Gellers’ 35th wedding anniversary party — which unites all the stories at the same location. The Monica subplot, about her giving the toast and hoping to make everyone cry, is too uncomfortably broad for yours truly, but it plays into the sibling rivalry and parental preference established way back in the first season’s sophomore showing. Additionally, the Ross/Rachel story seems to be putting them closer to a reunion and is notable for this fact — it’s something the show has been promising and denying for five years now!
09) Episode 192: “The One Where Rachel Is Late” (Aired: 05/09/02)
Rachel gets more irritable the more she goes past her due date; Chandler falls asleep during the premiere of Joey’s film.
Written by Shana Goldberg-Meehan | Directed by Gary Halvorson
There’s a sense of discomforting antsiness about this offering, reflected and instilled by Rachel, who herself is uncomfortable and antsy waiting to go into labor, which we, of course, know is going to be fodder for the big May Sweeps finale (in which it has become mandatory to now contain some big event). Pre-finale shows can be rocky because there’s a lot of reserved energy and set-up in advance of the bigger production, but the focus granted to this year by the pregnancy arc guarantees a sense of build and momentum that this episode, by making us wait for the finale development, seems to embrace. Also, the A-story is comedic, as just like Phoebe at the end of her pregnancy, Rachel’s outright moodiness — primarily directed towards Ross — gives the soon-Emmy-winning actress license to have a ball, sinking her teeth into some really juicy comedy. Additionally, the ultimately denied, but narratively possible (and anticipated) reunion of Ross/Rachel is furthered and reaches a near-cresendo as the pair almost has sex… just before her water finally breaks. Meanwhile, as Phoebe and Monica have a small subplot related to Rachel’s pregnancy, the show throws a story to Joey and Chandler about their friendship. This is a welcome rarity at this point in the run, for the two, constituting one of the series’ best and most romantic combos, haven’t been able to spend a lot of time together lately, especially not in story. Thus, it’s simply good to see them together one-on-one again.
10) Episode 193: “The One Where Rachel Has A Baby (I)” (Aired: 05/16/02)
Rachel sees many women come and go in her hospital room; Monica and Chandler decide to start conceiving.
Written by Scott Silveri | Directed by Kevin S. Bright
As always, I don’t have to choose both parts of the finale because I have the opportunity to discuss them both, for, truthfully, if I’m recommending one half, I’m also recommending the other. This week, however, Part II is not an installment that I ever could have considered for this list, because it’s so consumed by its sprint to the cliffhanger that all the moments of character and comedy on display here in Part I are pushed aside in deference to commercialized narrative concerns. I don’t buy that Rachel would say “yes” to a “proposal” from Joey because Janice puts the idea of Ross not being “there” for her in Rachel’s head — not just because of the ambitious Janice scene (which attempts to break her away from being a broad caricature and find the humanity underneath so that she can speak from “experience”), but because of how well the show has previously laid out the terms for a reconciliation; Rachel has seen Ross throughout the season, so why does she doubt him now? I digress… Part I doesn’t have to deal with that, because its main concern is delaying the birth, and that means, for us, great comedy, as Rachel endures a string of women who come and go in their shared room — including Debi Mazar (“Evil Bitch”) and, of course, Janice. There are a lot of laughs and Aniston is, again, terrific in these scenes… Meanwhile, as Chandler and Monica decide to start trying for a family — in a progression of their arc that’s sweet (if convenient) — Phoebe finds a potential new love interest (Eddie McClintock), who won’t be back, but does suggest a primary focus for Season Nine: finally giving her an “endgame” mate. Her scenes work well, and the use of Joey (as Dr. Drake Ramoray) is appropriate. If only Part II didn’t feel so beholden to a contrived cliffhanger — going OUT OF ITS WAY to avoid the most logical character happenings — I’d call this, as the series’ creators do, one of the best finales. As it stands though, that’s half true.
Other notable episodes that merit a look include: the closest to the above list, “The One With The Baby Shower,” which features an easy “game show” construct with the guys and the happy return of Marlo Thomas as Rachel’s mom, along with several memorable Honorable Mentions, “The One With The Red Sweater,” which builds the excitement for Rachel’s pregnancy arc, but suffers for some broad characterizations (like Monica’s) and the contrived use of Phoebe as she continues to “cover” for Rachel and allow for an emotionally ostentatious suggested pairing with Joey, “The One With Ross’s Step Forward” [a.k.a. “The One With The Creepy Holiday Card”], in which Schwimmer has fun playing Ross as the perennial loser and Rachel gets a small, amusing C-story in which she finds herself very horny, and “The One Where Chandler Takes A Bath,” which is labored narratively — there’s more unnecessary Joey/Phoebe toying — but features some fun stuff revolving around Chandler and the tub. (Also, I feel I must mention “The One With The Halloween Party,” which was the first produced after 9/11 and is well-liked, even though the energy is off, the Sean Penn guest appearance is forced, and the primary story, Ross vs. Chandler in arm-wrestling, isn’t motivated.)
The Island of Better-Than-Their-Episode Stories:
- “The One With Rachel’s Date” – a co-worker calls Chandler the wrong name
- “The One With The Secret Closet” – Chandler wonders what’s in Monica’s closet
- “The One With The Tea Leaves” – Ross tries to retrieve a sweater from Mona’s
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eight of Friends goes to…
“The One With The Videotape”
Come back next week for Season Nine! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!