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.
Prior to this survey, I thought Season Nine was Friends’ weakest. But because this study has crystallized my belief that the state of character is more endemic of failure than a year’s story interests, I consider Ten the weakest for, even with added growth, it more regularly deals with the broadest, least emotionally true and investment-worthy depictions of the regulars. (Yes, it’s broader than Nine, which features similarly large characterizations crusading for laughs, but to a degree less extreme.) Certainly, Nine’s issues are also lamentable (based on standards previously established), but this reduction in character integrity — either for story or comedy — isn’t new, and even though the descent continues, Nine no more slides us to Ten than Eight slides us to Nine. That is, the basic problem with every season after, let’s say, the fifth (being generous — I think one could argue, and I have, that the characterizations peaked earlier), has been the declining consistency with which the show offers believable, nuanced depictions of its regulars. At this point, annual heightening is a given — and Nine’s rate of broadening isn’t worse than Ten’s…. But that’s actually tangential to the reason (I’ve found) that so many dislike Nine, whose weakened reputation actually has more to do with the utilization of specific story constructs (which, sure, hinder the characters situationally, but not fundamentally); more on this below… Notably, most of these concerns can be traced back to the denial of the natural conclusion towards which Eight had been building, as the series’ renewal forced another temporary pause on emotional growth, which was then resumed and later paused AGAIN once it was decided that Friends would be returning for yet another season. Just as Eight was billed as the goodbye year, Nine was also to be Friends’ swan song, until November-ish (midseason), when the deal was made for Ten, following the series’ Emmy win… However, unlike Eight, which didn’t suffer for postponing the expiration date except within its cliffhanger-driven finale, Nine takes a hit in the whole last quarter (maybe even the last half), as story interests guide the show to one more May Sweeps cliffhanger… at the expense of some characterizations.
Obviously, the big concern is Ross/Rachel, Friends’ emotional core, which had been sidelined (because the show considered them endgame but didn’t like writing for them as a couple) until Season Eight’s supposed conclusion forced the series to finally work towards reuniting them. Of course, when another year was guaranteed, their well-crafted happy ending was delayed. The tool used to delay it, a.k.a. Eight’s cliffhanger, was Joey, whose crush on Rachel had served earlier as a character-rooted but aimless (it couldn’t go anywhere) diversion that hadn’t actually come close to creating the triangle suggested at the end of the season — when Rachel accepted (what she thought was) Joey’s proposal of marriage. As noted last week, it’s a terrible hook — one that’s resolved after two episodes when the intended pausing and prolonging has been achieved… Now, we expect that, as a rom-com, Friends is going to offer these kinds of narrative gimmicks, with characters being led by emotion and story conventions paving their way. But we still need some aforementioned emotional truth to ground and help explain why even these rom-com developments are beneficial to the characters, and both the end of Season Eight and early Nine fail to properly justify why that cliffhanger happens. The finale tried to use Janice to convince Rachel that Ross was not coming back, but that didn’t work. Not only did it ask the audience to buy Rachel’s fears about Ross, but also that she could be in such a state that she’d marry Joey, whom she doesn’t love… and who… loves her? Well, he says he does… but after week two, we don’t hear about it again (just as Eight dropped the idea and only addressed it again upon necessity for the finale). You see, it’s not handled well on either end… but while it’s bad, it’s also (thankfully) short-lived, and after those two opening entries, Nine goes about re-laying pipe… building another exit plan for Ross/Rachel…
Once again, the timeline of when creative decisions were made alongside the business deals is unclear, but it seems the official word was made earlier than last year — around this season’s midpoint. I believe the drama with Gavin (another temporary roadblock, yet one with a bit more personality than usual — contrast him against the unbelievably cheery Mona, for instance) and the phone message from the guy in the bar, were conceived before renewal was certain. Then, somewhere around the year’s 13th episode (when this drama indeed comes to a head), Ross and Rachel are pushed further apart, and after one more entry that deals with their possible reunion (“…The Blind Dates”), there’s, as expected, no movement in their relationship until the back half of Season Ten. As has always been the case when these two are put on hold — like in Six and Seven — the show suffers and people lose interest; regardless of whether we personally root for them, the show does, and when it can’t demonstrate as much, there’s a sense of not just stagnation, but regression of intent — in character, in story, in everything… The clincher though, and the real reason people seem to hate this year, is the plot that temporarily fills the regression (and drives the show into its final season finale cliffhanger) — another bout of Rachel/Joey drama, now with actual consideration of them romantically… I went into my thoughts on this storyline last week, yet I have to reiterate that no matter what the show tries to pretend, it still believes Ross/Rachel are meant-to-be. Emotional investment in Rachel/Joey is thus tough, because the series would have to convince us that it’s rejecting its thesis… nine seasons into the run. Also, as noted last time, with two couples already formed in this group of six, the idea of a third is a stretch. Even if the show could motivate their pairing via character, it just seems too convenient structurally, even for a rom-com. And, unfortunately, the notion of the show being able to motivate their pairing is a moot one — it can’t.
Also, there’s nothing of value here that hasn’t been found elsewhere. Joey’s already experienced a deep love for her — and given her up, both because she didn’t like him and because he believed she was meant for Ross. He’s gotten everything he’s going to get from this arc. Rachel’s interest in him, meanwhile, seems purely physical (perhaps because the actors were insistent that it not be too serious), and just as when she’s pursued men in the past — Ross, Joshua, Danny, etc. — it forces Aniston into a heightened mode of playing that, again, forsakes honesty… Meanwhile, as the character rewards remain non-existent, the true intention of the arc becomes clear with the push towards the year’s two-triangle cliffhanger in Barbados, set-up with the introduction of Charlie (Aisha Tyler) as Joey’s love interest and Ross’ crush, whom the press rightfully recognized as Friends‘ first major black character. This speaks as much to the show’s prior lack of people of color in major roles as it does to the fact that… once again… this temporary love interest doesn’t have much of a personality, and therefore can’t be defined by anything but externals. She’s used for story — to (briefly) keep Rachel from going after Joey, to (even more briefly) keep Joey from following through with Rachel, and (at the same time) to distract Ross. The goal is to get us to root for Ross/Charlie, which is easier because there’s less at stake emotionally (there’s more Ross/Rachel baggage with Joey than Charlie) and they’re more obviously depicted as compatible. And if we’re rooting for Ross/Charlie, then we’re subliminally rooting against Ross/Rachel, which makes us more amenable to Rachel/Joey… However, Charlie is bland, the Rachel/Joey thing doesn’t make sense (she likes him now — all of a sudden — really?), and it’s not worth investment anyway, for the show is just stalling until it can get her back with Ross. These triangles are straight soap opera, too — few laughs, all story. It’s shameful that Joey’s being used as a pawn and Rachel’s depiction is jeopardized in the process, making for the worst example of story > character.
Interestingly, the Rachel/Joey/Charlie/Ross mess is only present in these last six episodes, but it’s been allowed to define the whole year because it represents that prolonging — worse, regression — from Nine’s latter half. Yet no other character experiences it as ostentatiously, for the Chandler/Monica arc of him moving to Tulsa (an odd idea that makes Oklahoma the butt of jokes and is only used to put Chandler in a more satisfying career) is resolved before the mid-year pivot. The only thing that seems changed because of the renewal is their quest to start a family — the real sign of their growth (her pursuit of something she’s long wanted; his adoption of greater commitment). The added time yields necessary complications, but that’s good — it gives them more to play, and doesn’t impede upon this year’s quality… Meanwhile, there’s Phoebe’s arc, which I believe is the only legitimate reason to praise Nine. If you’ll recall, her individual objective was finding a family, but it was abandoned after she had her brothers’ triplets in Season Five, the last and only time she had a dynamite arc-minded story. Since then, she met her father and had a multi-episode romance with a cop (both in Five), but that’s it; Six and Seven limited her to episodic comedy, as did Eight (when everyone else saw their growths resumed). So, Nine finally decides that its raison d’être is giving Phoebe the start of a family… Enter Mike, played by Paul Rudd, who’s an amiable presence — lighthearted and comedically capable, without being overbearing. Mike’s not 100% defined, but we learn enough about him to believe that he exists, and coupled with the actor’s palpable humanity, we can appreciate his value for Phoebe. He loves her for being abnormal but could give her something resembling the “normal” life she’s always wanted; she’ll grow with him. The David (Hank Azaria) triangle, then, is a complication that doesn’t hit the mark, for we’re more invested in the guy we’ve not only seen more, but who has also been more instrumental in her growth…
That said, it’s still a victory, for it finally puts Phoebe back in the center of arc-related story. And for its intentions, this is a good season for her (and for Kudrow) — dedicated to building an endgame. If you want a real way to appreciate Nine, that’s how to do it, for aside from Phoebe, it’s hard to claim that there’s a lot of other worthwhile stuff — yes, it’s still possible to enjoy an episode here and there unequivocally, like the Thanksgiving show with former Jesse star Christina Applegate (who won an Emmy for her work) as Rachel’s funnier sister, but there’s a lot of unevenness within most of these installments (as one or two ideas work, but another is just so terribly misguided that it pulls down the whole entry). And based on the standards previously established, Nine is a BIG comedown from Eight, which had the unique benefit of evolving the characters for the first time in several years. Ten will be similarly progressive (for it’s undoubtedly the final season), and it will OF COURSE seem better than Nine, for narratively, it’s more consequential: there’s growth. But the characterizations and the quality of the weekly storytelling are going to suffer… However, as we’ve seen, this rom-com prizes character progression — it’s essential to the show’s functioning — and because Nine stops it, starts it, and stops it again, it’s a rough season and an easy candidate for being among the series’ worst. (In fact, this was one of the toughest lists to make — I don’t have ten that I love…) Still, I think Friends at its lowest remains worthwhile because of our deep investment in the characters, even when they’re strained from comedic damage and terrible story-minded interests. And we’ll still love them in Season Ten, too. So, in that spirit — of loving the characters — 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, Hit 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 Peter Tibbals (The Weber Show, iCarly, Angel From Hell).
01) Episode 196: “The One Where Emma Cries” (Aired: 10/03/02)
Rachel tries to get Emma to stop crying; Joey and Ross come to blows; Chandler makes an unwitting career decision.
Written by Dana Klein Borkow | Directed by Sheldon Epps
As with the season premiere, Nine’s sophomore outing boasts a teleplay that’s stronger than any of its narrative interests. That is, the telling is better than the story, for the year’s two opening installments exist solely because of Eight’s cliffhanger, representing a trilogy merely designed to delay the series’ primary thesis-born endgame: Ross and Rachel’s reconciliation. (Following this episode, which handily deconstructs the happy ending to which Eight was building, the year begins setting up another ending, which is merely a variation of the one prior — it still means Ross/Rachel reunited.) So, this offering has to contend with the Joey and Ross drama brought about by the cliffhanger, and its answer is to combine broad physical comedy (that Schwimmer does well) with heightened moments of heart between two characters (and performers) who’ve really formed a unique bond in the latter half of the series’ run. Despite the contrivance of this plot, and the fact that Joey’s feelings kind of evaporate from here without explanation (that’s not this entry’s problem though — that’s the fault of the show for implementing a cliffhanger with which it simply couldn’t follow through), their scenes provide a welcome sincerity. But, there’s also a decent, mostly believable, and right for this era story involving Rachel as a new mom, and some actual arc progression as Chandler accidentally accepts a job in Tulsa… which launches a new storyline for Season Nine. (It, too, won’t pay off terribly well, but it gets Chandler into a new profession, which seems to make him better fulfilled in the long-run…) Thus, despite the narrative issues inherent to stripping away growth, the above-average text is fortifying.
02) Episode 197: “The One With The Pediatrician” (Aired: 10/10/02)
Rachel learns that Ross still sees his pediatrician; Chandler prepares for Tulsa; Joey forgets to find Phoebe a date.
Written by Brian Buckner & Sebastian Jones | Directed by Roger Christiansen
This is an installment with three unique, memorable stories that are each flawed, yielding an episode that, in order to be included, has to be better than the sum of its parts. Fortunately, following two shows whose sole function was to move the series away from its last cliffhanger, this outing again sets about progressing most of its characters — creating a stretch of excursions, lasting until somewhere around February Sweeps, that (like Eight) are building towards a believed series finale at year’s end. Now, this installment doesn’t actually further Ross/Rachel, instead letting them “cool off” for a bit with a gaggy eponymous story where Rachel (behaving hyperbolically herself) discovers that Ross still sees his pediatrician. Okay. It’s a funny idea, but I struggle with it because it asks we believe that Ross, a doctor himself and one of the smartest regulars, still behaves like a child and goes to see his pediatrician. I think it’s a dreadful leap… but, as much as I hate to say it, it does find its laughs — mostly in the follow-up scene where Ross tries to flirt with a woman in the waiting room. Meanwhile, as that terribly broad story is all comedy, the entry has other character interests, like continuing what was started in the week prior, as Chandler’s job in Tulsa is used to delay his plans for a baby with Monica, who decides to stay in New York. It’s a difficult story point because it’s all motivated by plot, but we accept it because we don’t want any of the six friends to move. (One is bad enough.) Yet, the best and most notable story, which I should add is nevertheless a bit clichéd and familiar itself, has Phoebe and Joey agreeing to set each other up on a double date. When Joey forgets, he has to find someone at the last minute — shades of Sam, Diane, and Andy Andy, anyone? — and that’s how we meet Mike… Phoebe’s endgame love interest and a character who not only helps further her arc but provides a lot of humanity, too. Already, because Phoebe is being well-attended to here, it’s a worthwhile story… and for its relevance to her, it does a lot in making the “sum” of this episode’s parts seem more worthwhile, as well.
03) Episode 199: “The One With Phoebe’s Birthday Dinner” (Aired: 10/31/02)
Phoebe and Joey wait for the others at her birthday dinner; Monica and Chandler fight; Ross and Rachel are locked out.
Written by Scott Silveri | Directed by David Schwimmer
There’s a basic broadness to this installment that would be condemnable if it wasn’t endemic to the season as a whole. Because Nine operates with an elevated comedic resolve — and a success rate that hasn’t risen alongside this aesthetic heightening, as in most of the years past — this feels very much of its era, and it can thus only be enjoyed for what it is within the context of Nine. I say this to note that it is one of the funnier outings here, and it’s relatively small, too — for the multiple stories are united under the same basic narrative idea: that everyone is supposed to meet Phoebe at a fancy restaurant for her birthday dinner. This makes it easier to enjoy all the stories, because they belong together: Joey and Phoebe stuck waiting at the restaurant with the snooty waiter (Dan Bucatinsky), Rachel and Ross locked out after she doesn’t want to leave Emma, and Monica coercing Chandler into sex even though she’s mad that he smoked while in Tulsa… And yet, one of the reasons this offering may be off-putting is that it’s anti-romance and somewhat cynical: four of the Friends are incredibly late to Phoebe’s birthday dinner, and after she screams her head off like a banshee, she leaves them to go see Mike. This is sort of anathema to the positive idealistic aura the series used to project, especially regarding the sanctity of friendship. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that, on a fundamental level, this bothers me… However, the entry has big laughs — Judy at the bar is hysterical — and, given the structure’s simplicity, it pushes the characters to the fore. They may be broader and harsher than usual, but in Season Nine, I’ll take any episode that, on its own terms, prioritizes the players… because there aren’t as many that, from A-story to C-story, actually do.
04) Episode 200: “The One With The Male Nanny” (Aired: 11/07/02)
Rachel hires a male nanny; Phoebe is torn between David and Mike; Monica says a guy is funnier than Chandler.
Written by David Crane & Marta Kauffman | Directed by Kevin S. Bright
Kauffman and Crane, the series’ creators, are credited with the script for the show’s big 200th episode, which was Supersized in its original broadcast (it was November Sweeps, after all) and didn’t end until 8:47. But aside from the length, this isn’t really the BIG EVENT that you’d think it would be; I mean, the 100th contended with the birth of Phoebe’s triplets! No, this is basically a normal offering… just elongated. And as is usually the case, I don’t think the extra time (it’s about 34 minutes on the first DVD release) is beneficial to the comedy. Yet this is one of the stronger Supersized affairs because every story is a Victory in Premise that kind of propels itself and can sustain 11 or so minutes of air time. The weakest, for me, is the title story with Freddie Prinze Jr. as Sandy, the male nanny that Rachel hires for Emma, to Ross’ chagrin. I don’t think it’s difficult to buy that Ross would be bothered by this — perhaps because Ross himself isn’t the most “masculine” of men, this therefore hits close to home — but I do think the climax of the storyline, where he has a heart-to-heart with Sandy, doesn’t quite satisfy; it doesn’t successfully turn the funny idea into a great character-driven narrative, and I think the whole storyline, not to mention the entry, suffers for it… More successful, though, is the Phoebe triangle with Mike and the returning David (Hank Azaria), and that’s due both to Kudrow’s playing and the scripting, which finds comedic moments (just like in the Sandy story) that allow it to rise above the contrivance. As I noted above, I don’t think this triangle works at the end of the season — we’ve spent more time with Mike and have, and believe Phoebe to have, a better connection with him, meaning there’s no real suspense or drama. But here, Mike is newer, so there’s a greater sense of possibility that she’ll prefer David to Mike, and that makes the whole thing more interesting to watch… Meanwhile, as a funny C-story, Chandler is out of sorts when Monica claims to have met the funniest guy ever; that hits her husband exactly where he lives and is a great character-rooted source of comedic conflict. It’s small, it’s based in what we know of him, and it’s the perfect subplot for this basically good episode.
05) Episode 201: “The One With Ross’s Inappropriate Song” (Aired: 11/14/02)
Ross and Rachel sing a rap song to Emma; Phoebe meets Mike’s folks; Chandler and Joey find a tape at Richard’s.
Written by Robert Carlock | Directed by Gary Halvorson
In this year of reduced quality, where fans must limit their expectations in accordance, an outing like this is able to make a list of favorites… simply because it engages with one single Victory in Premise that stands out among the season’s most memorable, and thus elevates the entire episode. Yes, I’m referring to Ross’ (and later Ross and Rachel’s) performance of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” to little Emma. As noted months ago, I find this a nice parallel to when Ross sang The Monkees‘ theme song to Carol’s stomach when she was pregnant with Ben (although that’s never specifically called back) in Season One. I also like that it’s a unique, specific idea that therefore isn’t bland and generic. Naturally, it’s a funny notion that isn’t necessarily born from (or a great exploration of) character, but hey, when I’m a beggar, I can hardly be a chooser… The subplots, meanwhile, are adequate. Chandler and Joey finding a tape with Monica’s name on it at Richard’s house is a labored Victory in Premise — but they’re always a good pair — while Phoebe gets the most emotionally resonant story when she meets Mike’s parents. It’s not sublime, but it’s another example from Nine where one funny idea + some form of emotionally progressive story for Phoebe is enough to improve an otherwise so-so segment.
06) Episode 202: “The One With Rachel’s Other Sister” (Aired: 11/21/02)
Rachel’s sister shows up for Thanksgiving and starts an argument over who gets Emma if Ross and Rachel die.
Written by Shana Goldberg-Meehan | Directed by Kevin S. Bright
My choice for the best episode of the season, this is Nine’s contribution to the catalogue of Thanksgiving offerings, and as is often true with these shows, simply by putting the leads all together for a narrative (or several) that play in a unity of time, place, and action, Friends is able to deliver something resembling a classic, for the six Friends are never better than when they’re all interrelating and bringing out each other’s comedy. This excursion is like Eight’s in that it’s also built around a special guest appearance, but this time, the character stakes are greater, as the show introduces Rachel’s other sister (not Jill, played by Reese Witherspoon, who was unavailable to return as first intended), Amy, who’s been mentioned in passing and is now brought to life by Christina Applegate, with whom the executive producers had worked previously on their short-lived MSTV flop, Jesse. Applegate is much more instinctively funny than Witherspoon (night and day — truly), and she helps direct the text into an entirely different characterization of a Green sister — one who isn’t just defined by her spoiled sense of entitlement (like Jill, and early Rachel), but by her completely thoughtless, and thus sometimes cruel, self-centered drive. She’s hysterical and makes for big laughs and big conflict, as the script shrewdly crafts a story about who would be Emma’s guardian if Ross and Rachel died.
This allows for the incorporation of Monica and Chandler within the A-story, tying into their larger arc about exploring the possibility of starting a family of their own. So, it’s an incredibly efficient and effective narrative usage of them, too. Also, while Monica’s subplot involving the plates seems to be a throwaway gag that paints her in a particularly broad light (to which, by now, we’re accustomed), it’s later used for a legitimate dramatic purpose — as Chandler steps up to the plate (pun intended). So, in addition to the inspired casting of Applegate — who won an Emmy for her work here and, in a rarity for this series, is a guest star who’s AS funny as the six leads — and the inherently appealing Thanksgiving ensemble structure, this installment boasts a strong sense of character that fuels the comedy and makes it the only one from Season Nine that should be considered a Friends classic (and one of its best Thanksgivings). If there’s one episode from this list that you’re looking to see, make sure it’s this one.
07) Episode 203: “The One With Rachel’s Phone Number” (Aired: 12/05/02)
Rachel and Phoebe go out to a bar while Ross tries to bond with Mike; Chandler and Monica lie to Joey.
Written by Mark Kunerth | Directed by Ben Weiss
Although I seldom see this installment singled out even among those discussing the best from this lesser ninth season, I think this is a pivotal entry that succeeds at doing what it wants to accomplish, offering worthwhile laughs in the process. The most inconsequential story involves Chandler and Monica’s lie to Joey (they say that Chandler’s out of town and can’t accompany Joey to a game, when really he just wants to spend time with Monica, who’s ovulating), for while there’s some comedy wrought from the farcical circumstances of Joey thinking Monica is having an affair, it’s all a bit easy and convenient — stuff we’ve seen before, without much character enlivening the proceedings. However, I do think it holds some interest, for the story comments on the fact that Chandler/Joey don’t spend as much time together as they used to, and given that their friendship was one of the series’ most important in its strongest seasons, this self-awareness suggests a play towards an important emotional bond (that Nine seems to want to use more)… But, more notable here is the story for Ross/Rachel; at the time this was produced, Nine was looking to be the last — and this offering is once again designed to progress their arc, as Rachel reluctantly gives out her number to a man in a bar and regrets it because of Ross. The simple movement on this front, after a cliffhanger and several episodes that were used to merely prolong the inevitable, creates an excitement — the show is connecting to its roots again. Also, this outing tries to explore Mike more, as the B-story involves his attempted bonding with Ross — housing many laughs and serving an ideal narrative purpose when Phoebe insists that Mike stay and make sure that Ross doesn’t get a call from the man in the bar. Smart.
08) Episode 209: “The One With The Mugging” (Aired: 02/13/03)
Ross learns that Phoebe mugged him as a teenager; Joey prepares for an audition; Chandler starts an internship.
Written by Peter Tibbals | Directed by Gary Halvorson
One of the funniest character combinations — and one that only blossomed after Monica/Chandler were paired and shifted all the ensemble dynamics, forcing the other four to interact more often in one-on-one stories — is Ross and Phoebe, and this installment, which features three basically good ideas worth noting, is most worthwhile for the nuance it provides to their relationship. Now, I’m always reluctant to appreciate when a show — especially one with so much on-screen history at this point — decides to force an additional backstory, sometimes for a good joke or a good story, but at the expense of character believability. And, to be fair, the idea of Phoebe and Ross having met each other prior to their becoming friends is a bit forced. But we go along with it because the script makes the case, for in addition to the simple comedic joys of pairing them — two of the most unalike members of the regular cast played by perhaps its two funniest — the story contends with established parts of their personas: Ross as the geek (something that he certainly was back in high school) and Phoebe as the street kid left to fend for herself. That latter characterization, although always present (and suggested in a key monologue in the pilot), didn’t exert itself regularly until the second half of the show’s run, when Phoebe became tougher, harder, and sometimes meaner — no longer as carefree and sunny as she was at first. (That juxtaposition was the comedy originally.) This gives us a more tangible example of Phoebe’s past, though, and better explains who she is; that’s why I think it works. Meanwhile, Chandler finds himself an intern in an amiable (if forgettable) subplot that furthers his career arc, and Joey gets a comedic story where he learns that holding in his pee before an audition gives his performance an urgency that a famous actor, played by Jeff Goldblum, likes. It climaxes just as you might expect. Funny, good for certain characters.
09) Episode 211: “The One With The Memorial Service” (Aired: 03/13/03)
Chandler falsely declares on an alumni website that Ross has died; Joey and Emma fight over a stuffed animal.
Story by Robert Carlock | Teleplay by Brian Buckner & Sebastian Jones | Directed by Gary Halvorson
Okay, this is an offering with which I struggle. I think several of the characters are depicted so broadly that they’re emotionally alienating, while two of the stories coast on an easy source of idea-based comedy that, alone, contorts certain characterizations unfavorably. But the entry is here, frankly, because it delivers its laughs and it’s more worth discussing than any of the Honorable Mentions below. The most character-rooted story has Phoebe asking Monica to make sure that she doesn’t weaken and get back with Mike, from whom she split in the previous episode when they argued over marriage. It’s simple, addresses Phoebe’s character arc both for the season and the series, and doesn’t ask for a different characterization of her — or Monica — than what we already know. The Joey-Rachel story is more difficult, for while it’s a funny idea to have Joey trying to get back his beloved stuffed penguin from Emma, it requires us to emotionally equate Joey with a toddler. That may be an accurate assessment, given how too many scripts in these final years (especially Ten) use him comedically, but it’s so exaggerated here that we divest from Joey and resent the show for suggesting that it’s being truthful about his depiction. Chandler and Ross, meanwhile, are shown as larger-than-life too in their A-story where, in a war on their college alumni website, Chandler declares that Ross has died, giving the show the opportunity to employ the old Tom Sawyer funeral routine, where Ross listens at the door for what mourners have to say. It’s a broad story even for Ross in this era (who is broad now by definition), and while I go back and forth, I think my problem is more with the cumbersome nature of the clichéd story than his depiction. That is, I blame the story, not the character… and I can appreciate the hyperbolic situational laughs for what they are.
10) Episode 212: “The One With The Lottery” (Aired: 04/03/03)
The group decides to pull their money for a chance at winning the lottery.
Story by Brian Buckner & Sebastian Jones | Teleplay by Sherry Bilsing-Graham & Ellen Plummer | Directed by Gary Halvorson
Truthfully, this is an outing that’s more theoretically notable than good based on the quality of its actual execution — it’s the kind of show that usually works well, and that one wishes Nine could offer in more abundance: an entry with all six of the regulars at the same place and at the same time. Conceptually, it’s got a decent footing — the Friends are going in together on lottery tickets, hoping to win the jackpot. That’s fun, relatable, and is going to get them all together at Monica’s place for a singular evening event — just like the old days. Indeed, there are laughs that exist simply by virtue of having all these wonderful (if, these days, too broad) characters congregated, where their most comedic, honest depictions usually surface. Here, though, some of the bigness is just too ridiculously unintelligent to be believed — like Phoebe’s voicemail as the pigeon. It’s not funny, we don’t believe that she would believe it would work, and it further drags down an episode that had already exaggerated all of the regulars’ greed to the point that the series’ optimistic romanticism, as in “…Phoebe’s Birthday Dinner,” is strained by a cheap-laugh-motivated cynicism. So, this one’s on the list because it’s well-conceived, not well-written — it’s built like the kind of show Friends should be, while the state of the characterizations bely the problem. And, again, in Season Nine, beggars can’t be choosers — it was either this or something (uneven) below. Because this entry has the right intent, I’ve bumped it up.
Other notable entries that merit a look include: “The One Where No One Proposes,” which, as the premiere, has to extricate the characters from the terrible cliffhanger, and, as such, is narratively strained, despite an elevating teleplay with plenty of funny moments, “The One Where Monica Sings,” which delivers some satisfying drama in the Ross/Rachel storyline (with Gavin, a temporary roadblock who’s better defined than most) and has decent Victories in Premise for Monica/Phoebe and Joey/Chandler, “The One With The Blind Dates,” which features the year’s last Ross/Rachel moment as Phoebe and Joey decide to put them on purposely bad blind dates, leading to the return of Jon Lovitz — I really want to love this one, but it’s a rare case where the ideas are all better than the teleplay, which is one-dimensional and predictable (it nevertheless was the closest to the above — again, beggars, choosers) — and the uneven “The One With The Boob Job,” which has a rotten A-story with Joey, Monica, and Chandler, but some important character beats for Phoebe, who breaks up with Mike over his refusal to consider marriage, which she wants, because she’s always wanted a “normal” life.
The Island of Better-Than-Their-Episode Stories:
- “The One With The Sharks” – Ross interferes in Phoebe’s relationship with Mike
- “The One Where Rachel Goes Back To Work” – Phoebe is an extra on Joey’s show (broad, but funny)
- “The One With The Soap Opera Party” – Chandler is stuck at a one-woman show
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Nine of Friends goes to…
“The One With Rachel’s Other Sister”
Come back next week for Season Ten! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!