Welcome to Sitcom Tuesday and the conclusion 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.
Although I think one could argue that several different seasons of Friends are its finest, I’m more steadfast in my belief that there’s only one weakest. As we saw last week, Nine suffers for the unfortunate regression, progression, and regression of character arcs due to the show’s second mid-year renewal, but Ten, the third and final year considered Friends’ last, doesn’t have a comparable excuse for its major shortcomings — most of which, to a degree worse than anything thus far, deal with characterizations that are broad beyond belief, challenging the audience’s investment by straining the emotional truths necessary to support the rom-com tone and accompanying narrative clichés. (Remember, we’re not asking for total realism — just fidelity in character.) At this point, we’re with these Friends to the end, but had they not had such a bank of emotional support, then what is offered here in Ten — episodically — would be enough to warrant disconnection. This has been an ongoing trend, but Ten furthers the show’s unstoppable broadening while also claiming to progress its characters, making for the only year where the emotional development of Friends’ regulars isn’t a legitimate tonic for how they are otherwise written. Why? Well, the years of pausing and then double-timing their emotional arcs have taken a toll. Under the duress of sustaining Friends past its natural conclusion (Season Eight), the series finds — just when the end is finally, truly nigh — that the characters marching to their endgames have changed in unmotivated ways, perhaps limiting the potencies of the intended closure. In this case, it isn’t delayed gratification… but weakened gratification, dependent on the audience’s stored up sentiment, and not any merit from how the year actually depicts these characters progressing towards their happy endings.
But the year does provide a sense of closure, which is a focusing tool, so even as some characterizations are rapidly losing themselves, they’re at least being directed into narratives that will take them where we want them to go. So, when looking at the abbreviated final year, I think it’s helpful to divide it into three six-episode sections, based on story goals. 10A is about the aftermath of Season Nine’s prolonging tactics and its cliffhanger — extricating the regulars from those dead-ends and delivering them basically back to where they were before last year’s mid-run renewal. 10B is concerned with setting up some of the larger character arcs that have to be well-established before the finale, particularly with Monica/Chandler, who are starting the adoption process and considering a move outside the city (which is the event that will obviously break up the group and end the series), and Phoebe, who takes a step towards having her “normal” family life when she marries Mike. 10C, then, has to build towards the big events of the finale — the birth of Monica/Chandler’s child(ren) and Ross/Rachel’s reconciliation… Because each section here, as you can see, can easily be defined by the narrative goals, there’s an inherent mitigation of character; even if the stories are intended to serve them, they still take a backseat to the maneuverings. 10A, in particular, suffers from the narrative dross set up the previous year — the two triangles — for even at the end of Nine, it was obvious that this would have to be cleared away quickly in order to reach the ending guaranteed from the start: Ross/Rachel. Thus, Rachel/Joey’s “relationship” and hasty split, coming in the season’s third outing, arises almost as abruptly as it was launched nine episodes prior — all for a cliffhanger.
This is good and bad. It’s good that it’s over quickly — it was never going to work because the show had never changed its mind about Ross/Rachel (and had never convinced us that it had) — but bad that the show can’t commit to a chosen storyline, giving credence to concerns about Friends‘ utilization of narratives for commercialistic cliffhangers only. Some fans try to make lemonade out of lemons here by praising Ross’ involvement, for Schwimmer gets to do some clowning upon his discovery of Rachel/Joey, but his characterization has been broadening by the season — especially in terms of the comedic material he’s been thrown — and now, it’s all so big that I, for the first time really, start to disconnect. It also doesn’t help matters that Charlie has so little definition — as usual for a Ross/Rachel temporary love interest — that their relationship therefore is another not-buyable short-term stalling tactic. In essence, everything about Season Ten that’s correlated to Nine’s cliffhanger drags down the start of this year, too — no matter how quickly it’s removed… As for the characters, while Ross and Rachel move into a six-episode holding ground (10B) until their reunion has to be built towards in 10C, Joey’s emotional arc essentially ends there in 10A with Rachel, for after having experienced real selfless love, the character isn’t given anywhere else to go… well, nowhere except L.A. for his spin-off, which precludes Friends from granting him any individual closure in the actual finale. However, he does get involved more with Monica/Chandler’s arc, thus bringing the show a tiny bit back to the Joey/Chandler dynamic that was so important in the early years but had been lost (not unknowingly — the show has remarked on it periodically) since the Monica/Chandler pairing.
The problem is that, once Joey loses his emotional dimension after Rachel — the only thing tethering him to some form of truth (even if the story was illogical) — he goes off the figurative deep end into a land of heightened stupidity that’s embarrassing, far worse than ever before. In fact, when I went into this survey, I expected to be bothered by Joey earlier, like at the halfway mark. But it really isn’t until Season Ten that the show contorts him so ostentatiously for easy jokes that I fully resent his character and how he’s being used. (Perhaps the worst presentation of him is “… Joey Speaks French.”) And the sad thing is, when I think of Joey, I too often think of the characterization I see here, for this is where the show left him. (For what it’s worth, I’ve seen most of Joey. I considered it for coverage in this week’s Wildcard post, but didn’t think the show was interesting enough to deserve the necessary time and energy. Suffice it to say, Joey is an ensemble player who couldn’t anchor a show that required an anchor, especially given where Friends took his characterization — in Ten, specifically! You’d think they’d have wanted to make him more grounded, since that’s what he’d need, like Frasier Crane, in order to headline his own series.) I think Joey has it the worst this season, but generally everyone is affected, for even as their arcs progress, the episodic use of them for comedy intensifies as well, creating an odd juxtaposition of huge story-led heart alongside a bullish push for big laughs. Phoebe is another character caught in this dichotomy, for while her engagement and marriage to Mike progresses her quest for family, she’s never comedically progressed as a character; Mike certainly softens her harshness (which has been mounting ever since that midway point, post-triplets), but real change isn’t evident in her material. So, though it’s a good arc for the character and we’re glad she gets it, the fruits of her growth aren’t totally evident…
Monica and Chandler also get thrown, on paper, a growth-giving arc — most of which is established in 10B — when they are vetted for adoption, meet a prospective birth mom, and then decide to purchase a house in the country. As noted above, their move is the impetus for the break-up of the group, for it’s the biggest change — no longer will the Friends be hanging out at that apartment (which, it’s always important to say, they did far less of as each season went along). This storyline doesn’t do anything troubling to their characterizations, for most of Monica’s broadening has already occurred and Chandler has actually been tempered as a result of their pairing (but not to his detriment). And while the show continues to try giving Cox material as comedic as her cohorts (even though the Monica character, initially designed as the fulcrum, works best when truthful), that’s not really the concern of these final shows, which are about setting up the narrative beats. If there’s any complaint about their usage here it’s that, again, the story takes over — there are three episodes in a row where Monica/Chandler get some big news in the last few minutes — because they’ve essentially reached peak maturation with commitment in marriage and the decision to create a family. Simply giving babies to the pair now doesn’t do much for them individually, because their work is already done. Again, they’re ahead of the arc. Fortunately, Anna Faris (now showing her chops on Mom) enlivens the story, which works decently and helps give 10B/10C a structure. The only thing that feels more forced than necessary is the “surprise” of twins in the finale; I get it though — it’s an attempt to add some jolt of energy to a beat that’s been a forgone conclusion for two whole seasons…
I have more thoughts on the finale below, but here I’ll note that I used to loathe it; I hated that it was defined by big events (story > character), overly sentimental, and too hyperbolic in every way to be relatable — not a typical half-hour reflection of the series. But I’ve had (somewhat of) a change of heart. Because this really is goodbye and the audience does have ten years of history with the regulars, I think there’s more room for heavy emotion. I typically hate this sentimentality, in general, and I deplored the finale for indulging it so grossly. However, now I realize how in-keeping this all actually is with Friends’ style, implanted in the pilot, and I discovered that, like many who don’t like Friends and never will like Friends, what I didn’t like about the final episode had to do with my own baggage: my preconceived preferences… and if the series was able to justify its chosen aesthetic here (like it had done throughout the run), then I owed it to myself and the show to recognize and appreciate when it was done well. In this regard, the finale is a solid episodic representation of Friends, and if it doesn’t adhere to my individual ideas of what a finale should be theoretically, it does adhere to what this show needed and always suggested it was going to offer. So, I could quibble over how everything is handled — and more specifically, how the lead-up to it is handled — but as a conclusion itself, it’s appropriate for the series: Monica/Chandler move and end the group’s closeness, Joey (who can’t have an individual arc due to Joey) gets some resolution with Chandler, Phoebe is left on the path towards a “normal” family life, and Ross/Rachel, the show’s primary rom-com couple, are back together. That’s pure romantic comedy right there. And that’s Friends.
Yet while the finale itself may be permissible and indeed appropriate, there’s a lot of stuff surrounding it that complexes my enjoyment — for more legitimate reasons than an aversion to exaggerated sentiment — like how the show goes about delivering what it’s always known was going to be endgame but has spent the prior seven years trying to prolong: Ross and Rachel’s reunion. We’ve gone through all the arguments for keeping them apart — they were boring together, there was no place for them to go emotionally if they were coupled (since this was always their end and the symbol of their growth), and like all rom-coms, the lovers “shouldn’t” be together until the very end, etc. But the tools used to keep them apart — which is largely what sparked and led to the whole trend of character stagnation for everyone — have really hurt the show at times, like when cliffhangers weakened our investment (see: Vegas), story subjugated character (see: Emily), and well-supported reconciliations were foolishly denied for the sake of last-minute renewals (see: Rachel/Joey). Thus, the gamble in going back to Ross/Rachel, which was always the show’s intent because it was established in the pilot and never rejected (even with Rachel/Joey), became the fact that the series had strung along the audience for so long, mostly without narrative support (the last time they were coupled was the premiere of Season Four), and that the emotional pull the show needed them to have for the finale could have, by now, been depleted. The principal job of Season Ten, then, was to make sure we root for them again… For this reason, though, waiting until 10C (episode 13) to begin laying the groundwork for their inevitable finale reunion seems unwise. I suppose the show needed to give Rachel/Joey some air, yet with just four half-hour episodes before the two-part finale, can that truly be considered enough time to narratively justify an endgame arc?
Yes and no. First, no, it’s not enough time to narratively justify their endgame, because years of forcefully separating them (or ignoring them) has kept the show from actually indicating how they’d grown since their first split. Is Ross no longer possessive? Does Rachel no longer think she’s better than him? We don’t know because there’s not enough time to get into it in 10C. There was enough time — seven years of it — which speaks to the whole problem with the final year’s use of Ross/Rachel: it’s business as usual for too long. If we agree with the show that they needed to be apart far more than together, that still doesn’t mean their reunion had to be saved for the last-minute… Yes, I know, it’s classic rom-com and it has to be big — it sure wouldn’t have happened in anything but a Sweeps period (this is Friends, remember) — but the damage done to Ross/Rachel during years of stalling tactics necessitated more than just a finale reunion preceded by four episodes of hinting. Friends needed to stop pushing them apart and show us how the two, and why the two, could reconcile. Perhaps if they had been better used throughout the last seven years, this small push to the finale would be justified; because that wasn’t the case, it was more incumbent on Ten alone to support what hadn’t yet been supported… Yet there’s another answer to that question: yes. Yes, four half-hour episodes is enough time to narratively justify their reunion because the show, and the audience (if they’re not willfully going against the obvious), has been rooting for it since Season One. In this regard, we believe it because we want to believe it. Just as everything in a romantic comedy: we buy into the fantasy because we want to. And so, even if Ross and Rachel aren’t believably back together (who’s to say they won’t break-up the next day?), we believe they are because we care to believe they are. We care. That’s what Friends always was able to maintain — even here.
And to bring back in the outside world, Friends’ romantic comedy seemed to be just what the country needed, especially after 9/11. Although not the most-watched show of the ’03-’04 season, the series came in at #4 — as the year’s highest-rated sitcom. Its final season was heavily promoted and nearly 53 million people tuned in for the finale. It wasn’t a record, but it was sizable — a Must See TV event that seemed to signal the end of the already dying Must See TV brand, which technically continued on for two years with Joey and Will & Grace but was effectively over when, in the spring of 2004, NBC — for the first time since 1983 — broke up its Thursday night comedy block (with an hour-long reality series called The Apprentice). Along with Seinfeld and ER, Friends was a signature of the Peacock Network’s most visible night, and when it bowed out (leaving ER, Will & Grace, and a spin-off that didn’t look to be nearly as successful), so did the brand. As Frasier concluded the following week — to great ratings but lower than Friends’, and in a special MSTV Thursday time slot — it was clear that a television era had ended… Today, Friends remains one of the most popular shows in syndication, with a worldwide appeal. As we’ve seen, it was always designed for a mass audience and catered commercially to those accompanying demands, building to Sweeps gimmicks when needed. Yet through it all, there were memorable laughs and rich characters — ones about whom we cared for ten years, even in spite of occasionally bad story decisions and ongoing broadening. The legacy of Friends, though, is that it made us care about its regulars — with the kind of investment we typically reserve for our actual friends. Maintaining suggested intimacy: that’s the power of good TV… So, with only 18 installments, I have picked eight that I think exemplify this season’s strongest. (As usual, 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 Plummer (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), and Robert Carlock (30 Rock, SNL, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt).
01) Episode 220: “The One Where Ross Is Fine” (Aired: 10/02/03)
Ross tries to cope with the idea of Rachel and Joey; Frank Jr. asks Phoebe to take one of the triplets.
Written by Sherry Bilsing-Graham & Ellen Plummer | Directed by Ben Weiss
Let’s be honest: this popular episode’s appeal is driven by a single joke — Schwimmer’s broad performance that reveals the truth behind Ross’ claim that he’s “fine” with the idea of Rachel/Joey as a romantic couple. True to form for these past few years, it’s big, broad, and frankly, hard to believe. But I appreciate that the show recognizes what a big deal it is to convince the audience, the characters, and itself to approve the transition from a thesis-inspired Ross/Rachel mentality to the story-sparked notion of Rachel/Joey. By highlighting this development with heightened comedy from the show’s best purveyor of slapstick, the arc is able to move forward with a greater sense of self-awareness than it would have been able to claim had Rachel/Joey continued on sans any major reaction from Ross. (Heck, the show actually admits that Ross and Rachel haven’t been together in six years — that’s how long the series has been delaying their reunion but suggesting that they still belong together!) In this way, the broad comedy is a commentary on just how forced the Rachel/Joey thing is — not to mention the delaying of the Ross/Rachel reunion — and while proving (to everyone but Ross) just how much Ross still loves Rachel, the show fulfills two objectives: it brings them one step closer to Ross/Rachel and one step out of Rachel/Joey… Meanwhile, the subplots are actually fine — Chandler gets to be the source of comedic conflict in a story that furthers their quest to adopt, and Phoebe gets resolution with Frank Jr., as he asks her to take a triplet — something she considered way back in Season Five when she first had them. Because this connects to her quest for family (and brings up memories of her best arc), there’s a wonderful full circle quality.
02) Episode 221: “The One With Ross’s Tan” (Aired: 10/09/03)
Ross struggles to get a spray tan; Rachel and Joey have their first real date; Phoebe and Monica avoid an old friend.
Written by Brian Buckner | Directed by Gary Halvorson
More clowning opportunities for Schwimmer come in this installment, which might as well be the broader sibling of Season Six’s “…Ross’s Teeth,” in which Ross, the aggressive loser, tries to improve his physical appearance but screws up and takes it to the extreme. In that case, it was teeth whitening. In this case, it’s even bigger: a full body tan. Again, it’s a mere comedic idea that propels the A-story’s comedy and is this offering’s primary appeal, as Ross’ bout with a tanning booth is a man vs. machine comedic notion that just needs a fine comic actor and a good makeup artist. It’s easily conceived — and won’t win any awards for deepening the character or connecting to Friends’ rom-com tone — but it’s funny and takes advantage of a prime asset: Schwimmer. The subplots, meanwhile, are interesting, too, as the Rachel/Joey romance comes to a screeching halt when they discover that they’re better as friends. As always with terrible storylines whose existence can largely be traced to the need for a cliffhanger, even if the ending is hastily, and improperly, handled, we’re at least glad that it’s indeed ending. However, here, I’d argue that the basic scripting keeps the integrities of the characters intact, even as its enacting a contrived story-led premise loaded with familiar and unoriginal beats (her slapping his hand away feels reminiscent of her laughing at Ross in Season Two). Also, Phoebe and Monica have a nice friendship moment in a subplot where they avoid a broad and intentionally obnoxious former friend, played by future Joey regular, Jennifer Coolidge.
03) Episode 223: “The One Where Rachel’s Sister Babysits” (Aired: 10/30/03)
Rachel’s sister moves in with her; Joey writes an adoption recommendation; Phoebe ruins Mike’s proposal plans.
Written by Dana Klein Borkow | Directed by Roger Christiansen
Christina Applegate, who won an Emmy for her first appearance as Rachel’s cluelessly nasty sister, Amy, returns for another go-’round in this amusing outing that coasts, in large part, on her well-drawn character and the expert playing that acts as an energetic pick-me-up to the series. Regardless of the quality of the subplots, Applegate’s presence alone would have earned this episode at least a mention in this post — and that’s a testament to her ability to earn as many laughs as the regulars, something that very few guests can actually claim. However, it’s a strong script from every angle, as the A-story with Amy affords Rachel a lot of wonderful character moments that indicate just how far she’s come (I love a good Barry mention nine years later!), and the subplots further the seasonal arcs without being too cumbersome. The Phoebe story, where she keeps ruining Mike’s proposal, isn’t funny enough to justify the emotional deflation that’s caused by the repetitious nature of the narrative and the fact that, hey, Phoebe has been ready to commit to Mike for almost a season now. (This is, like Monica/Chandler, a case where her character is ahead of the plot.) But it doesn’t offend her depiction… Speaking of Monica and Chandler, though, their adoption arc continues as Joey writes for them a recommendation. Now, following his misbegotten attempted romance with Rachel, Joey is at his broadest (stupidest, most childlike, least believable) in Ten, and the big validating joke to this narrative is based around how childlike he is. Yet because it’s grounded by his love for Monica and Chandler, it’s easier to excuse the characterization and just enjoy the laughs at face-value.
04) Episode 226: “The One With The Late Thanksgiving” (Aired: 11/20/03)
Everyone begs Monica to cook Thanksgiving and then they all show up late.
Written by Shana Goldberg-Meehan | Directed by Gary Halvorson
Season Ten’s Thanksgiving entry is one large callback to the first year’s Thanksgiving entry, also highlighted in these posts. If you’ll remember from that installment, the big comedic climax was the Friends not being able to have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner because they were stuck in the hall, unintentionally locked out of the apartment. Well, this offering does the reverse — as the characters are intentionally locked out in the hall, after Monica (and Chandler) decide to punish the rest of them for being so late. As with “…Phoebe’s Birthday Dinner” and a few other outings from the past few years, the Friends’ lack of regard for another member of the group seems antithetical to the show’s initial brand of positive, “friends are family,” romantic overtones, and indeed, I think it’s more of a stretch to depict them as inconsiderate of each other as opposed to considerate. But, this is an era where, if we’re not dealing directly with the progression/regression of an endgame romantic arc, then we’re dealing with the simple crusade for idea-driven laughs. So, in effect, the narrative aesthetic that would otherwise be disconcerting is projected by the era as a whole, and in order to enjoy these years, we have to adapt. This doesn’t excuse these criticisms — especially because the delaying tactics (Phoebe/Rachel at the baby beauty pageant and Ross/Joey at the game), aren’t comedically worthwhile themselves — but it mitigates their weight, for the simple fact that this is a Thanksgiving outing that puts the six together (well, separated by a door), and evokes memories of better days, means it gets to emotionally benefit from the association, providing a sense of feel-good romance not otherwise offered in the text. (And, also, to its credit, there’s some memorable physical comedy — like the heads in the door.) Ultimately, though, this one is here both because it’s the last Thanksgiving, which makes it special, and because it isn’t terrible, which — in Season Ten — makes it good.
05) Episode 227: “The One With The Birth Mother” (Aired: 01/08/04)
Monica and Chandler lie during an interview with a birth mom; Joey doesn’t like a woman who eats off his plate.
Written by Scott Silveri | Directed by David Schwimmer
The first episode broadcast following the winter hiatus, this installment has an important narrative objective that supplies a lot of heart, moves characters closer to their endgames (and by proxy, the finale), and does so in a way that’s still funny and doesn’t let the story concerns overtake the depiction of the regulars. At least, that’s the case in this A-story, where Monica and Chandler go to meet a prospective birth mother, played by Anna Faris (currently starring on Mom), who mistakenly believes them to be another couple. Naturally, they do the typical sitcom thing and lie, before finally telling the truth, but the pacing is such that we stay invested. And for those viewers who wear their hearts on their sleeves — like the series itself — it’s a plot that can inspire laughter and tears, both of which feel mostly earned… Surrounding the primary story, meanwhile, are two subplots purely designed for laughs. Both are broad and ask a lot from the audience — I basically find them adequate, only because they at least stem from well-established traits. One is Joey’s rage over a woman eating food off his plate, which is a Victory in Premise that demands an exaggerated depiction of him, but is still supported by something that we know about Joey unimpeachably: he loves his food. The second is Ross, who goes shopping with Rachel and, after getting her bag by mistake, wears a top that’s obviously not meant for him. It requires us to doubt Ross’ intelligence — and that’s always a harder leap, no matter how much of a bumbler the show has always simultaneously portrayed him — but it’s an easy sight gag, and if we can buy that Ross, just like with the teeth and the tan, wants to improve his image, then it’s an okay jump. (For Season Ten. That is, I wouldn’t make this leap in any other year, but because Ten is inherently broad, I have to if I want to enjoy anything.)
06) Episode 229: “The One Where The Stripper Cries” (Aired: 02/05/04)
Ross and Chandler look back during a college reunion; Phoebe makes an old stripper cry; Joey goes on Pyramid.
Written by David Crane & Marta Kauffman | Directed by Kevin S. Bright
Credited to the series’ creators, this Supersized episode has everything but the kitchen sink — including Danny DeVito, Donny Osmond, and Ellen Pompeo — and consists of three Victories in Premise that are designed to yield maximum laughter. In this regard, I consider it the strongest, most accurate embodiment of the season. (Ordinarily, this would be my MVE, and in fact, it was a contender, but… see below to find out why it’s not…) Just in time for February Sweeps — which helps explain all the pomp and circumstance (not that Season Ten needed any other reason) — the titular story looks forward to Phoebe’s upcoming wedding by featuring her bachelorette party, during which she implores Rachel and Monica (at the last-minute) to call a stripper, played by Danny DeVito. Unsurprisingly, DeVito is hilarious, and while little that happens actually happens because of who the regular characters are (aside from Phoebe making him cry — that’s in-keeping with her latter era mean streak), the laughs make it fun. The laughs also help justify the subplot for Joey, as he appears on Pyramid, and in accordance with the incredibly dumb depiction that Season Ten so freely offers, bungles the whole game. This is an easy source of story for the sitcom — slotting a character into a known format, like a game, which already has a natural structure. It basically works, but I wish the final gag didn’t seem like such a rip-off of Cliff Clavin’s classic Jeopardy! answer…
Meanwhile, the emotional backbone of the offering comes in the Ross/Chandler story, where they go to their college reunion and we’re treated to another flashback (all the flashbacks are Victories In Premise because we love these characters, even if the need to flash back is an unnecessary gimmick) that attempts to add some history: in between the two Thanksgivings where Monica lost her weight, Chandler kissed Rachel to get back at Ross. This is another example of the show shoehorning in some “history” that doesn’t make a lot of sense — especially because it plays into the fan-fictony alternative couples gimmick that the show has trotted out repeatedly — but it’s the last great “friendship” story for Ross and Chandler, a pairing that’s been important to Friends and is rooted within the dynamics of the ensemble. So, all the stories — idea-driven though they may be, broad in comedy though they may be, and not well character-motivated though they may be — are nevertheless enjoyable.
07) Episode 234: “The One With Rachel’s Going Away Party” (Aired: 04/29/04)
Ross waits for a goodbye from Rachel during her farewell party; Chandler finds an anonymous pair of handcuffs.
Written by Andrew Reich & Ted Cohen | Directed by Gary Halvorson
Okay, the reason I didn’t select the above as my MVE is because I’m choosing this installment, which is the appropriately sentimental excursion prior to the final hour-long broadcast. My explanation is simple: although the outing highlighted directly above is the most accurate, but still enjoyable, reflection of Season Ten, this offering is a throwback, representing the early years in a way that no episode has really been able to do since the first wholesale regression in Five. For while there have been small, simply premised outings that utilize just the six regulars (or here, the six regulars and Erica, the birth mom) on just the few main sets, they’ve not been able to escape the comedic heightening that, along with the emotional stagnation and bouts of alternative progression and regression, has typified this last era and inevitably altered the characterizations. In contrast, this one is a bit of a reset, referencing the history that these characters share — and leaning into the emotionality of having to say goodbye — while restoring for them a sense of grounded humanity that exists more naturally when the laughs aren’t so broad and intruding. Structurally, it’s also a time machine, for it’s an ensemble show with a heavy emphasis on Ross/Rachel as its emotional core… to a degree that we haven’t seen, honestly, since their suggested reconciliation (that was dashed in favor of a series renewal) in Season Eight, or more precisely — given just how aggressively the show is building towards a reunion we’ve been waiting on for years — since their last actual pairing (early Season Four).
Accordingly, this episode is functional; it’s got to make darn sure we’re rooting for Ross/Rachel again (after three prior episodes that crept to this point slowly) going into the last broadcast. And that’s difficult given the seven years of delaying tactics: Emily, Vegas, Joey, Gavin, etc. The fact that it is successful — we don’t just root for them, we root for them like we did way back before they were together — is because of this script’s treatment of them, for the finale would not have worked without the emotional stakes implanted here. But aside from Ross/Rachel, almost everyone is well-utilized and more believable than they’ve been in a long time; this is emphasized by the structure of having Rachel, the character who launched the show’s action by entering its world with us, say goodbye to everyone one-by-one. It’s a brilliant way to explore character. The only regular who doesn’t necessarily feel like he’s been made more believable again is Joey, as his maintained stupidity gives credence to my belief that his characterization suffers the most in Season Ten. Also, it doesn’t help that the entry cheats us out of seeing the Rachel/Joey talk… even though the reason is clear: if we see Rachel with Joey, some of us might not root for Ross/Rachel. Other than that flaw, this is a solid character-filled teleplay that gets Ross/Rachel, and the show, where it needs to be for the finale. That’s no easy feat.
08) Episode 236: “The Last One (II)” (Aired: 05/06/04)
Ross and Phoebe chase after Rachel; Chandler and Joey have to deconstruct the foosball table before he and Monica leave.
Written by Marta Kauffman & David Crane | Directed by Kevin S. Bright
For a long period of time, I loathed the finale. I found it overblown — why did every big event have to be saved for this final hour broadcast? — contrived — putting story concerns over its characters, subjugating them to the preordained plot — and maudlin — too many tears, not enough laughs. In brief, I didn’t think it was a typical representation of the series, which is what the best sitcom finales are: honest showcases of the characters, whose evolutions are highlighted (but not overbearingly) before we leave them in a relatively good place. But I’ve since had a change of, yes, heart; now I think the finale is a typical representation of the series, and what I don’t like about it are my own problems, for the series has never hidden its identity. It’s always loved big events — especially during Sweeps (not to mention finales in Sweeps), so of course the last episode is going to be BIG. It’s also always had narrative objectives that drove character, but that’s often been a function of a well-founded rom-com sensibility. And, no doubt about it, this finale is pure rom-com: the lead couple reunites (Ross/Rachel — seven years in the making; we don’t know if they’ve grown enough from their first break-up to deserve each other, yet we’re sure rooting for them and believe, like the show, that they narratively belong together), the second couple gets a family (it’s not as rewarding, because they’ve been ready for two years now — but it does pack an emotional wallop, because it’s tied to the end of the show, for they’re also moving), a new couple talks about starting a family (Phoebe with Mike — a step towards having the “normal” life she’s always wanted), and the primary friendship gets closure (Joey and Chandler, who literally have to take apart the foosball table, the symbol of their friendship, to rescue a baby chick and a baby duck, another symbol of their friendship).
And, sure, it’s overly sentimental. But, hey, that’s what Friends has been, with few episodic exceptions that prove the rule, since Season One. So, in those ways, this is the perfect finale for this series, and once I realized this, I was able to appreciate other things, too — like that aforementioned decision to have Joey’s closure be about Chandler (because they couldn’t give Joey a permanent love, like his super-objective otherwise required, due to the upcoming spin-off), the use of Phoebe/Ross as a comedic duo when she drives him to the airport to see Rachel (she’s always been the biggest cheerleader for their coupling — back to the “lobster” talk in Season Two), and the show’s commitment to comedy, best evidenced in the “unless we’re on a break” joke that cuts the weepiness of the Ross/Rachel reunion. Today, I think it’s good for Friends, and while I prefer Part II (because the first half is more build-up, less pay-off, and also contends with the birth of the twins, which I think is the least satisfying “endgame” arc — because of how ahead of parenthood Monica/Chandler already seem to be), I obviously recommend both. I never thought I’d say that, but just like the Friends, I’ve evolved.
Other notable episodes that merit a look include: “The One With The Cake,” which is an anti-sentimental ensemble show with a funny first act and a lousy second, “The One With Phoebe’s Wedding,” a BIG EVENT that features broad characterizations and doesn’t really give Phoebe any more growth than she had going into it, and “The One Where Estelle Dies,” which features the final appearance of Janice and builds towards Ross’ final pursuit of Rachel. (Click here to read the original Ross/Rachel subplot — in which they go to Paris.)
The Island of Better-Than-Their-Episode Stories:
- “The One Where Joey Speaks French” – Ross/Rachel is restarted when her father has a heart attack
- “The One With Princess Consuela” – Phoebe changes her name (V-I-P)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Ten of Friends goes to…
“The One With Rachel’s Going Away Party”
Come back next week for the start of NewsRadio! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!