The Ten Best FRIENDS Episodes of Season Three

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.

In last week’s post, we discussed how Friends‘ commercialistic tendencies gave rise to a “backlash” that was enabled because the first half of the show’s incredibly popular sophomore season wasn’t 100% up to the hype. Quality then improved in the second half of the year, when Ross/Rachel’s emotional trajectories were allowed to progress (via their coupling — finally) and the other characters began getting emotional objectives of equal weight. But by that time, Friends had lost some of its audience, which perhaps contributed to the producers’ (Bright/Kauffman/Crane’s) decision to label Season Two not one of their favorites, despite the significant strides made in (and after) February Sweeps. Now, I personally don’t have a single favorite season of Friends, because I think the second, third, fourth, and fifth years each make an argument for being the best. Yet if the pure presentation of character is the benchmark by which we judge excellence, then the finest period for the show is the second half of Two and the first half of Three — a.k.a. the episodes broadcast in 1996. Sure, many of the later seasons will be palpably funnier, and the episodic success rate will remain fairly high (if not improve — there are some years that, by the evolved standards of their own eras, are gem-laden). But the ongoing broadening that contributes to a loss of integrity — humanity — within the characterizations, each of varying and debatable degrees of seriousness, feels like a hard blow, even as it moves slowly, for it’s too often compounded by the stagnation or regression of emotional development. And just as we’ve already seen, Friends can’t function if its regulars don’t grow… Fortunately, in comparison to what’s ahead, Three is still above the baseline, and those aforementioned concerns are only suggested situationally here in the last 15 episodes of the year (from January 1997 onwards) by the contortion of certain characters for the benefit of story. And as usual, the most glaring example has to do with the central couple: Ross/Rachel…

First though, let’s address Three’s other arcs — and preface the following with a reminder that, although the romantic-comedy tenor of the series requires a couple like Ross/Rachel at the center (as does the show’s narrative interests, given what was established in the pilot), Friends‘ ensemble design has always made a case for moving towards a more equitable story structure. Two still kept Ross/Rachel as its “heart,” but it also began supplying emotional lives for characters previously less explored. This year, the creators’ belief in Two’s inferiority (again, fostered by a backlash… which persisted at the start of Three due to the first public, and publicly disdained, all-cast contract negotiations) and their conviction that Three needed to be a “comeback” season, helps deliver more episodic development for every character. It still wouldn’t be fair to say that anybody is treated more importantly than Ross/Rachel, because they aren’t; the season is still largely defined by what happens to the two of them — their break-up. Yet, in addition to more weekly engagement with the other leads, we start to see a shift in how the best episodes are designed — they aren’t just about the primary couple anymore; they’re about the ensemble as a collective, suggesting that, while Ross/Rachel may still be on a higher tier, the “six of one” unit is now of equal import. This, I think, helps explain why 1996 is so rich for character; it isn’t because Ross/Rachel are “happily” coupled — which is part of their endgame arc — it’s because they are fulfilling the show’s rom-com intentions while also not obstructing the other four from asserting their own values… individually and together. Every year from now until Ross/Rachel are officially back-burner’ed is “transitional” based on how it uses the ensemble, which is constantly shifting. Here in Three, it’s small… but noticeable.

Let’s start with Phoebe, a character whose comedic powers work best in response to other members of the ensemble, which makes it difficult for her to anchor weighty weekly stories alone. She’ll have a banner year in Four with a plot born out of necessity that actually becomes the apex of her individual emotional arc. But Three sets the stage for this greatness by strengthening her relationship with her half-brother (Giovanni Ribisi), and at the end of the season, introducing the woman whom she learns is her birth mom (played by Teri Garr — inspired casting). These threads will both do a lot to build Phoebe a gravitas (rooted in an objective: the quest for family) that matches her innate ability to procure laughs. And while Phoebe’s about to become a more compelling character in Four, Three keeps her connected to the original depiction developed that first year — the spacey weird chick whose hard-knock life has given her a slightly off-kilter perspective, but without the street rat fangs she’ll display with frequency ahead. I prefer this Phoebe, because she’s less prone to extremes (which can inspire disconnection), and even if she’s not getting the best stories, her usage within them impresses… Meanwhile, Chandler, another strong comedic presence who nevertheless has a better time in story — mostly because of how well-integrated he is with the ensemble — has a notable year, spending the first third of it in a relationship with Janice, the series’ most famous recurring character, introduced way back in Season One and revisited at the end of Two as part of its surprise cliffhanger. Now she’s back with a purpose: to be Chandler’s first serious girlfriend.

The show sets itself up for a challenge here, for even though Janice has heretofore been a hilarious additive enjoyed in small doses (and therefore someone with whom we have a basic affection, rooted in comedic familiarity), these opening scripts have to successfully transform the character from one-joke annoyance to an investment-worthy partner that can inspire growth in Chandler, whose journey has been about commitment and vulnerability within romance. Happily, I’d say this arc is successful in reaching its ultimate goal — Chandler feels better explored, and as a result of the added dimension, his own comedic one-joke essence is nuanced. He makes a commitment, has his heart broken, and gets his outlook tweaked ever-so-slightly when he realizes that, even with the heartbreak, it’s worth it. This is trackable, motivated change. And rather than seeming like a dilution of his sharp humor, it’s actually evidence of growth for a character who uses comedy as a tool to deal, or not deal, with the world around him. (Incidentally, I don’t think Monica/Chandler could have been successful had the show not modulated Chandler’s depiction in Three — keeping his comedic perspective intact, but rounding out the edges with a palpable heart.) Janice, for her own part, has a tougher time — the depiction of her in these episodes is incongruous with what we’ve seen previously (and that was a characterization expanding in broadness) — or what we’ll see ahead, where she becomes a caricature whose comedy is derived only from the walking, talking history she represents. Additionally, the narrative machinations used to wrest Chandler from the relationship feel forced… But, she, and the story, are tangential to our real interest: Chandler, who counts Three as a good showcase (even as the actor was visibly struggling with his own inner demons), paving the way for his greater prominence in the years to come.

Joey also gets a similar arc that’s meant to emotionally challenge him – the first time he gets his heart broken, courtesy of Kate (Dina Meyer), the actress. It comes in three episodes near season’s end (after the Ross/Rachel break-up, where Friends toils to find explicit romantic pursuits now that its thesis-born couple can only be a simmering concern). But in contrast to the year’s Chandler/Janice story, there’s more contrivance. Kate isn’t unique enough to secure our investment, meaning that we don’t quite understand Joey’s. And their scenes aren’t funny enough to inspire a reduction in these reservations either, for like Phoebe, who also narratively works best when paired with another regular, Joey’s a character whose dramatic presence will improve over time — in tandem with his comedic prowess, too. However, while everyone else got individual arcs in Two, Joey’s emotionality was mostly defined in relation to Chandler (cementing their bond as integral), so this storyline is designed to break him out of those confines, and give him a unique “heart”-filled purpose of his own. If we view the Kate arc like this, we realize that the lack of immediate value is offset by the long-lasting depth suggested from the establishment of Joey’s own personal journey: for selfless love, which he has for his friends (specifically Chandler), but hasn’t yet exhibited romantically. (When he treats his love interests better, we can mark it as a sign of growth…) So, I’m willing to let the positives outweigh the negatives here. But that’s only with the caveat that this necessary arc still feels like it’s a story goal (breaking Joey’s heart) imposed upon the character, as opposed to a character goal (Chandler committing) developing with the story. This portends a concern to which we should pay attention: a reversal in how narratives are built.

Additionally, the last quarter of the season has another contrived story ambition… this time for Monica, who spent the first part of the year mourning her relationship with Richard, which was a similarly imposed dynamic in Two, but ultimately proved its worth by furthering her arc and leading to a realization about herself and what she wants. (She needs a family so bad that she’ll forsake love in order to have one.) As the ensemble’s initial anchor, whose centrality has been clear even when her characterization still demanded tweaking (especially on the comedic front), Monica is walking a fine line… successfully. She remains grounded enough to play the straight woman off others, but is reliable at offering comedic moments of neurotic mania — inspired by the given circumstances, yet supported by our growing understanding of her personality. It still seems, however, that the series doesn’t really know how to use her in weekly story, and putting her in a relationship is merely the easiest way to keep her well-engaged in plot. As noted last week, this suggests failings within her initial depiction, but should be given a pass because it also addresses the objective that was established for her… That said, this year’s plot with Pete (Jon Favreau), the easy-going millionaire, doesn’t offer the same growth as her relationship with Richard, for after a slow start and a gaggy, abrupt ending, Monica feels no more evolved at the close of her six-episode romance than she did at the open; thus, what’s the point? Episodic story, I suppose, but even then, like the Joey/Kate arc, it doesn’t make for the most gripping (or comedically salient) scenes either. Here, without justification borne out in a progression for the character, this story objective actually subjugates her, prognosticating a growing trend where plot becomes more cumbersome and supplants the regulars as the series’ driving force.

Now, this is a romantic comedy. We must have a higher tolerance for predetermined narrative constructs. But this doesn’t extend to something we’ll see more regularly in Four: when story constructs don’t just guide character, but contort them in such a way that their emotional fidelities are compromised in the process… Season Three, stuck between the lower-concept notions of Two and the heavier narrative trappings of Four, offers an early look at what happens when the characterizations are indeed altered at the behest of story. For this, we turn our attention to the show’s emotional nucleus, that rom-com centerpiece, Ross/Rachel… Here, I have to be honest and say that, even though I’d love to tell you that Three is my favorite — because up until now, my criticisms are minor in relation to similar concerns I have with the other best seasons (Two, Four, Five) — its depictions of Ross and Rachel limit my ability to make such an affirmative statement. As you know, the big development for their relationship in Three is the break-up, and to explain why I don’t think it’s entirely successful, I’d like to draw a comparison to a television couple with which Ross and Rachel are regularly associated — and which director James Burrows invoked right from the pilot: Cheers’ Sam and Diane. (I don’t like doing this comparison usually — it’s apples and oranges — but I have a specific point.) Regular readers know what I think of Cheers, but I’ll reiterate: its first two years are brilliant. Season One made us root for a coupling and Two made us root against it. Later on, Cheers realized that Sam/Diane were narratively better for the show apart, but it also knew that the relationship had to, like Ross/Rachel, remain a nucleus for the show. So, in order to keep this design, future stories pretended like Sam/Diane were meant to be together even as, tonally, the show probably believed the opposite. This created a fascinating tension.

In contrast, Friends is a romantic comedy, and it always believes Ross and Rachel are destined to be together. But it, too, narratively prefers them apart — and even in this era of seemingly heightened quality, co-creator Kauffman has admitted that it was hard to write for the couple outside of conflict. (Also, remember, Ross/Rachel’s coupling was associated with the backlash — another reason to downplay and move on from it…) So, the most important task bestowed upon Three, following the decision to split up the primary pair – timed for February Sweeps, of course — was to justify their break-up. We don’t have to root for the split, like many of us do with Sam/Diane in the second season of Cheers, but we have to understand it… Frankly, I don’t think the year gets high marks here, principally because its rationale doesn’t hold; the Ross characterization is bastardized through an extreme depiction that doesn’t track and isn’t earned. His jealousy of Rachel’s friendship with Mark, who gets her a new job (as the start of another spurt of growth for her — a facet of her own arc) is so hyperbolic and unmotivated that it directly pierces Ross’ humanity — the believable, relatable heart that should be flawed, but not false. Similarly, his choice to sleep with another woman falls flat, too — not because we don’t buy his sadness, but because the show puts the onus on the “other woman” and then depicts her one-dimensionally. Ultimately though, Ross feels more like a character than a human, and that’s a real threat to our ability to identify emotionally with him. (What do we miss? More initial support for Ross’ reaction to Mark. It was too big and unwarranted from the jump.) And because this deals with the show’s emotional core (Ross/Rachel), the decision to split the couple within just a year of pairing them, and then without the proper motivation, is a double punch. (Incidentally, I think we do get a good explanation for why Ross behaves the way he does, but it comes in Season Four, when the women accurately point out that Ross’ trust issues stem from Carol. Yet, again, that’s only reconciled in hindsight. Here in Three, we’re left not understanding why.) Well, the show has its reasons, even if the characters don’t…

But the fact that this season does contend heavily with the Ross/ Rachel relationship, before they blend more within the ensemble and their inevitable reconciliation is pushed further and further away (heck, the last seven years of the series are one big stall tactic to delay their conjoined endgames — stay tuned), makes Three feel like the end of an era. And while the post-break-up episodes already indicate concerns we’ll raise next year about how the show can maintain its rom-com street cred without having Ross/Rachel episodically engaged, Three’s cliffhanger reasserts what this year holds dear: the series’ thesis-born source of narrative heart. Yes, the show will dangle a Ross/Rachel reconciliation at the end of the next two seasons as well, forming a trilogy of teased-up finales (which weaken the pair’s pull by destroying the audience’s faith in the genuine possibility of their re-pairing, thereby depleting our interest, but I digress…); yet here in Three, the stakes are higher and it seems more likely that a reunion could happen, because the show remains more connected to character — not story. There will be more exciting idea-based cliffhangers ahead, but for Ross and Rachel, this is the strongest mutual season-ender for their dynamic. And in this character-centric way, Season Three is special, because it doesn’t quite have the novelty of One and Two, but it’s overcome the first “Friends backlash,” and unlike later years, where the quality of the characterizations is not just situationally troublesome, but more fundamentally indicative of a weakened posturing, this season basically deals with the characters we watched being defined in 1994. Just like Two, there’s heavy Ross/Rachel material at the center of the best entries, but now the truly greatest offerings understand the importance of the ensemble as a whole. This is a continual evolution that Friends will spend years trying to navigate… In the meantime, 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), Michael Borkow (Flying Blind, Malcolm In The Middle, Mom), Alexa Junge (Veronica’s Closet, The West Wing, Grace And Frankie), Adam Chase (Veronica’s Closet, The Weber Show, Better With You) & Ira Ungerleider (Jesse, How I Met Your Mother, Angie Tribeca), Michael Curtis (Dream On, Veronica’s Closet, Phil Of The Future) & Gregory S. Malins (Veronica’s Closet, Will & Grace, How I Met Your Mother), Wil Calhoun (Caroline In The City, What I Like About You, Whitney), Seth Kurland (Mad About You, 8 Simple Rules, Melissa & Joey), and Shana Goldberg-Meehan (Mad About You, Joey, Better With You) & Scott Silveri (Mad About You, Joey, Speechless).

 

01) Episode 49: “The One With The Princess Leia Fantasy” (Aired: 09/19/96)

Ross has a fantasy for Rachel; Chandler wants Joey to bond with Janice; Monica misses Richard.

Written by Michael Curtis & Gregory S. Malins | Directed by Gail Mancuso

Following a finale by which many were underwhelmed (you can revisit my dissenting opinion here) — Friends returns for its third year with a similarly small, narrative-lite premiere and a sense of confidence that’s quieter than the cocksureness many perceived in the show’s previous season, which actually began, qualitatively, far rockier than Three. But this episode’s job is to link Two to Three, which means dealing with the aftermath of Monica’s break-up with Richard (something the year explores for several weeks, establishing welcome continuity that reinforces the arc’s importance) and Chandler’s new relationship with Janice — a concern that this installment smartly filters through Joey, thus reaffirming the primacy of the Joey/Chandler friendship. It’s the entry’s best story too, for it finds a way to keep Janice comedic while holding Chandler’s growth paramount; the solution is focusing on Chandler independent from her. Meanwhile, Ross and Rachel are happy and settled, anchoring the titular narrative in which he tells Rachel of a sexual fantasy — Princess Leia in the gold bikini (perfect for Ross) — which, in a memorable sight gag, he can’t enjoy because (thanks to Chandler) he can’t stop picturing his mom. It’s a funny start to a strong season where character looks to be the top priority.

02) Episode 50: “The One Where No One’s Ready” (Aired: 09/26/96)

Ross is anxious to get everyone out of the apartment on time for a museum banquet.

Written by Ira Ungerleider | Directed by Gail Mancuso

There are two offerings this season that are outstanding — better than the two prior MVEs from Seasons One and Two — but because I can only choose one favorite, I have to be decisive. So, my MVE is this, the series’ 50th episode, in which the show turns to a gimmick used occasionally by other MSTV Thursday hits (Frasier, Mad About You, Seinfeld, etc.) but only once on Friends: real-time. Yes, while future installments will operate within the Aristotelian Unities (of time, place, and action), generally — like on Thanksgiving — this is the series’ only actual real-time outing, meaning that everything from the start of Act I to the end of Act II takes place in as many minutes as the broadcast itself. Regular readers know what a fan I am of this design — it’s theatrical, intimate, and forces the show, even in spite of a structural gimmick, to rely more intensely on its characters to carry the audience’s interest. The series doesn’t disappoint here, and it’s not just because everyone is in character; it’s also because it doesn’t forsake the normal Friends construct: there are still multiple plots, like always. There’s the big A-story, with Ross trying to get everyone ready (primarily Rachel, with whom he has one of their best non-break-up arguments), the B-story where Joey and Chandler fight over a chair (it’s wonderfully childish, but it makes sense for them and is justified by the comedy — like the sight gag where Joey wears all of Chandler’s clothes), the C-story where Monica frets over a voicemail message she left for Richard (in some more continuity with her trying to move on), and a tiny little D-runner where Phoebe, the only person ready on time for Ross, gets a giant humus stain on her dress and has to cover it. The way the teleplay incorporates all these stories is masterful — it’s always hard to find four plots that each work, let alone four plots that each work and can be woven together simultaneously. And even more than the other entry I consider among the series’ finest (this year’s Thanksgiving show), I think this is the best representation of Season Three: a great character-rich ensemble piece that nevertheless puts Ross/Rachel at the core. One of the series’ classics — just the six of them together in the apartment.

03) Episode 54: “The One With The Flashback” (Aired: 10/31/96)

Janice inspires memories of Joey’s move-in, Phoebe’s move-out, and the last night at a hang-out.

Written by David Crane & Marta Kauffman | Directed by Peter Bonerz

As with the above, one could look at this installment and say, even though it also uses a structural gimmick common to most sitcoms — the eponymous and now, I fear, ubiquitous, flashback — it also intends to push character to the fore, developing the regulars’ collective backstories and physicalizing their pasts, for the first time since “…The Prom Video.” However, I don’t think it’s as good for character by design, and unlike that aforementioned second season gem, the scenes from long ago aren’t born from a physical medium within the show’s present — i.e. a video tape — and instead we have to go along with the flashback convention. To that point, though, there’s a fan-fictiony “what if” quality to this entry, like in the much more ostentatious “…Could Have Been” outings from Season Six, which makes investment difficult. That is, it’s hard to care about these “almost” romances (alternative couples), because the show is not actually positing them for genuine use. There’s a lot of unevenness, too. While Rachel/Chandler feels shoehorned and Joey/Monica is over before it starts, Kudrow and Schwimmer get to display their fine chemistry, and the series exhibits a strong sense of foresight via Monica and Chandler. To wit, the show isn’t genuinely exploring anything right now… but it is testing the figurative waters, “trying out” potential couplings, particularly for Monica, who, as we’ve noted, has her growth (and her use in story) predicated on her being in a relationship. This emotional blue-balling (for lack of a better term) is disconcerting, and the possibility that the show is using this Sweeps episode for its own purposes, not the characters’, is foreboding. Nevertheless, it’s too memorable to exclude from this list, and for the moments that do work (the Monica/Phoebe stuff is also truly interesting), it’s more Must See TV for fans of Friends.

04) Episode 55: “The One With The Race Car Bed” (Aired: 11/07/96)

Monica buys from Janice’s ex; Joey teaches acting for soaps; Ross tries to bond with Dr. Green.

Written by Seth Kurland | Directed by Gail Mancuso

Admittedly, this is one of those lists with eight absolute must-includes and two over which I deliberated; this offering belongs in the latter category. In contrast to the Honorable Mentions and other outings noted below that have one or two excellent stories but suffer in the periphery, this is an installment that’s pretty good all the way around, using the regulars believably and not forcing unwanted divestment due to too-heightened characterizations. I prefer that to unevenness (for the most part…) While the titular story where Phoebe signs for Monica’s bed, which turns out to be different from the one she ordered, is basically just a sight gag, it does lead to arc-minded interests for Chandler, as it sets up Joey seeing Janice with her ex-husband (the Mattress King), and thus serves a larger purpose that doesn’t overwhelm character and instead supplies more weight to something that is otherwise trivial. (I just wish this episodic story did more with Chandler/Janice — perhaps Wheeler’s evident cold precluded that from happening.) More immediately gratifying, meanwhile, are Ross’ attempts to bond with Rachel’s curmudgeonly dad and Joey’s subplot (the entry’s best), where he teaches a class for soap opera acting and screws over a student who’s up for the same part. It’s a great use of Joey’s history, his flaws, and his ability to earn quick laughs. More than anything, that’s why this is better than other similarly solid excursions (of which Three has its fair share): the character work.

05) Episode 57: “The One With The Football” [a.k.a. “The One With All The Football”] (Aired: 11/21/96)

Ross and Monica coerce the group into playing football on Thanksgiving.

Written by Ira Ungerleider | Directed by Kevin S. Bright

The other gold-star series classic on this list, which in any other season would be my MVE, this outing shares a lot of things in common with the equally stellar “…No One’s Ready.” Not only are both teleplays credited to the same author, but they also focus on all six regulars playing off one another at the same place and at the same time. (And, even though the show is set outside and could have theoretically been shot on-location and with no audience, the series decided to stay consistent with its style and build a terrifically realistic park on a soundstage. This definitely maintains the energy and the comedy, which is buoyed, as always, by the presence of an audience.) Now, this entry doesn’t quite play in real-time — hours elapse over the course of 20 minutes — but it’s concerned with one singular event: a football game that erupts between team captains Monica and Ross, both of whom have been shown as competitive in previous shows. (“…All The Poker” is a prime example.) This is a great comedic engine for story, and it’s worth celebrating because, although the game could be considered a structural hook, it’s actually motivated by personality traits already well-established. They’re slightly broader than in prior entries, but this seems to be a happy medium, for the extremes are situationally buyable and humorously supported (which may not always be the case ahead)… Yet this is really an ensemble showcase, just like the MVE and all the best episodes from this era, and everyone is well-serviced, including Joey and Chandler as they compete for the affections of a woman, and Rachel, who scores (what some say is) the “winning” touchdown. Also, Ross/Rachel matters less here than the individual characters’ collective unity as a group, but as the last episode before she quits the coffee shop (a big step in her own maturation) and the show begins its conscious crusading towards their break-up, this is the final hurrah from Friends‘ innocent era.

06) Episode 61: “The One Where Monica And Richard Are Friends” [a.k.a. “The One Where Monica And Richard Are Just Friends”] (Aired: 01/30/97)

Monica tries to be friends with Richard; Joey and Rachel swap books.

Written by Michael Borkow | Directed by Robby Benson

Even though Season Three is not without its weaker offerings, and is saddled with the narrative issues discussed above (like motivating Ross’ jealousy — which is a concurrent arc temporarily suspended for this particular outing), it actually contains a healthy number of solid episodes where every story works and is confidently scripted — even in ’97, after the period where I think Friends is most regularly successful with its characters. This installment is one among those uniformly strong shows — like “…The Race Car Bed” — that may not stand out as being equally memorable alongside the others on this list, but is itself such a capable sample that it’s equally ideal. Again, there are several from Three that fit this bill (see below), and the reason this entry gains favor is simply for its individual narrative successes. While the A-story for Monica/Richard is a way to engage with her super-arc without needing a new development (and therefore works because it hits the right themes and doesn’t have to contort her depiction in the process), laughs are delivered in the subplots; Phoebe and her boyfriend with the flashing problem is good for easy hahas, and the Joey/Rachel book swap story is unique and charactery. In this period, it’s rare to have Rachel paired with anyone but Ross or Monica, so it’s a novelty in and of itself. The fact that it’s amusing and character-revealing for both is an added bonus. It’s all just really solid — after this most recent survey, I can’t imagine not including it.

07) Episode 64: “The One With The Morning After” [a.k.a. “The One The Morning After”] (Aired: 02/20/97)

Ross and Rachel officially break up as the rest of the group is stuck in Monica’s bedroom.

Written by David Crane & Marta Kauffman | Directed by James Burrows

Ah, this is the famous episode where the show’s primary couple, Ross and Rachel, officially splits — after the previous outing, in which the pair took “a break.” By design, this is a show that can’t ever be as effortlessly hilarious as the others on this list, and to many fans, even those who don’t consider themselves champions of the Ross/Rachel relationship, it’s a hard installment to watch, for the drama between the two characters is allowed to play out sincerely, as the palpable humanities that the show and the actors have established for their characters invites vicarious sympathy and pain from the audience. Fortunately, though, even with Ross/Rachel driving the action and being the entry’s most important component, the year’s commitment to the ensemble persists, as the other four characters are more than just grouped together in the same place at the same time (which could inherently be a comedic tonic to the drama) — they’re also INCLUDED in the A-story, by virtue of their having no choice but to stay in the room and listen to their anguished friends’ fight. It’s a genius choice, and the teleplay finds as many laughs as it can from this notion. Okay, the first half struggles to properly move us to the inevitable second act crescendo, but it uses Gunther’s crush on Rachel, a comedic running gag that’s never been featured in story before, to great advantage. And, while I never feel that the show motivates Ross’ actions — starting with his extreme jealousy six offerings prior and concluding with the previous week’s tryst, which feels narratively contrived — this is a classic episode of Friends (humor + heart), and for the characters, it’s a seminal half-hour. Unforgettable.

08) Episode 65: “The One Without The Ski Trip” (Aired: 03/06/97)

Rachel invites everyone on a ski trip except Ross, as the group tries to deal with their break-up.

Written by Shana Goldberg-Meehan & Scott Silveri | Directed by Sam Simon

An underrated excursion, the inevitable drama of the Ross/Rachel break-up — which can’t believably be cleared away within a few weeks, even though it may not make for the lightest and brightest offerings — is dealt with directly here, as the script’s ambition is to grapple with the aftermath before ultimately arriving at a place where, once this individual story has passed, the group can remain intact, even if Ross and Rachel are still angry with one another. (This creates an interesting energy that stands throughout the rest of the year — reiterating their prominence, even as functional void-filling romantic arcs are explored with other characters.) Essentially, then, this is an ensemble show by intent, and by narrative too, for everyone minus Ross goes on a ski trip with Rachel and is stranded at a snowy rest stop. Who can they call for help? Why, the man who Rachel purposely didn’t invite… Ross. It’s a textbook example of effectively and efficiently handling a major story point that’s naturally going to cause shifts within the group dynamic but still cannot alter it (lest the premise itself be altered). It’s tough, by default, and not everything works beautifully. However, the script gets the show to where it needs to be — the six of them okay together. (Also, Carol appears and Ross first uses a trademark laugh-getter: “WE WERE ON A BREAK!”) So, it’s a unique affair — one-of-a-kind.

09) Episode 66: “The One With The Hypnosis Tape” (Aired: 03/13/97)

Phoebe objects to Frank Jr.’s fiancé; Monica is pursued by a millionaire; Chandler tries to quit smoking.

Written by Seth Kurland | Directed by Robby Benson

There’s some unevenness here with regard to story, but the elevated scripting makes it altogether worth highlighting. First, I’ll start with the outing’s namesake, the smallest subplot, in which Chandler, who took up smoking in the previous entry to handle the stress of Ross and Rachel’s split (in a very smart, funny, character-rooted runner), seeks to quit with help from a hypnosis tape that he plays while sleeping. The gag is that the tape is exclusively for women, and so when the affirmations on the tape seep into Chandler’s subconscious, he then acts more “feminine.” These are easy laughs from circumstances beyond Chandler’s control, illustrating an unideal relationship between character and story. Also, the hacky idea (which some might say reinforces just how precisely a period piece Friends is — something I’ll forever celebrate) lacks a big comedic crescendo. Meanwhile, the Monica/Pete storyline is launched earnestly here, and true to form, it’s not particularly engaging… mostly because Monica doesn’t seem that engaged herself. What does work about the installment though, and what’s even strong enough to supersede the fine laughs in the otherwise shaky subplots — is the Phoebe storyline, as her quest for family generates some conflict when Frank Jr. shows up with a fiancé who Phoebe believes is not age appropriate. This is another plot with both humor and heart — something Phoebe stories have trouble balancing — and with Debra Jo Rupp’s Alice debuting, it’s a hit.

10) Episode 73: “The One At The Beach” (Aired: 05/15/97)

The gang goes to the beach, where Rachel hopes to reunite with Ross and Phoebe looks for answers about her mom.

Story by Pang-Ni Landrum & Mark Kunerth | Teleplay by Adam Chase | Directed by Pamela Fryman

My thoughts on the season finale were briefly covered above; as the first of three consecutive cliffhangers centered around teasing a possible Ross/Rachel reconciliation, this one works the best. Part of this comes from what we know via hindsight. We know that after Three’s, Four’s, and Five’s finales, the circumstances for Ross/Rachel are quickly removed the following fall and everything returns to the status quo, indicating a cliffhanger for cliffhanger’s sake, having no tangible effect on the characters, and once they become more frequent, a counterintuitive tactic to maintaining the audience’s investment in their coupling. (The more times the football is figuratively yanked away from us, the more our interest in their reunion, trust in the characters’ beliavabilities, and faith in the series’ storytelling capabilities, are reduced.) Three’s finale is the smallest of these teased reconciliations and it’s the one that holds the most weight — for it’s the closest to their initial break-up and the stakes are higher, as the possibility of a reunion is greater. Additionally, while this is attached to a last-minute triangle involving Bonnie, a two-joke device introduced in the penultimate outing for these purposes, the lack of grand narrative shenanigans helps keep the proceedings more connected to character. Meanwhile, with regard to Monica and Chandler, their low-concept storyline of discussing why he wouldn’t be a good boyfriend for her takes on added meaning given the events of the following finale and suggests the writers were already toying with the idea… Yet even without this hindsight knowledge, the episode works because it gives Phoebe an objective rooted in her overall goal (finding a family), features the indelibly fresh Teri Garr, and puts all six regulars at the beach — a place where they can, as in the best entries, bounce off one another as part of a true ensemble.

 

Other notable episodes that merit a look include: “The One With The Giant Poking Device,” which is one of the most memorable offerings of the season and almost made the list in place of its predecessor (“…The Race Car Bed”), but is simply too broad in both story (from the maudlin Chandler/Janice stuff to the labored Monica plot and the Victory in Premise of poking Ugly Naked Guy) and characterization (Joey is especially dumb, and we’re also asked to accept a lot on behalf of both Monica and Phoebe’s depictions, too) to be included as one of the show’s best, and “The One With The Dollhouse,” which like “…The Race Car Bed” and “…Monica And Richard Are [Just] Friends,” is one of the MOST solid of the entire year, with an A-story predicated on the contrasting personas of Monica and Phoebe, the most emotionally resonant material in the Joey/Kate arc (for it’s the moment where his heart breaks), and another rare, delectable pairing: Rachel and Chandler. Worth mentioning but never fodder for the above list are: “The One With A Chick And A Duck,” which is best remembered for introducing more classic iconography in the form of poultry and also boasts a sweet Ross/Rachel subplot, while suffering from some terrible scripting in the Monica/Phoebe/Pete story and the basic one-joke sketch-like quality to the Joey/Chandler scenes (in case you’re wondering, I view the chick and the duck like Marcel — a gimmick that doesn’t make sense and isn’t paid off), “The One With The Screamer,” which includes Ben Stiller as Rachel’s secretly rage-filled new boyfriend, a fun appearance from Estelle, and an amusing Phoebe gag-plot, and “The One With The Ultimate Fighting Champion,” which takes a hit because of the A-story and how it broadly concludes the half-baked Pete arc, but also has an amusing Chandler office subplot (the butt-slapping) and capably sets up the finale with Rachel, Ross, and Bonnie.

 

The Island of Better-Than-Their-Episode Stories:

  • “The One With Frank Jr.” – The “freebie” list (Isabella Rossellini guests)
  • “The One Where Rachel Quits” – Rachel quits her job (a symbol of growth)
  • “The One Where Chandler Can’t Remember Which Sister”  – Chandler makes out with one of Joey’s sisters

 

*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Friends goes to…..

“The One Where No One’s Ready”

 

 

Come back next week for Season Four! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!

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