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.
Although the eighth season of Friends came in as that year’s #1 show, Season Two of the NBC comedy boasted the series’ highest number of average viewers per week, making this, the actual most-watched year of the entire run. This ascent in the Nielsens had been foretold by the first season, in which the series — on Must See TV Thursdays — had bested its 8:00 lead-in, earned a temporary post-Seinfeld slot to drive up its numbers even further, and then ended the year with over 30 million weekly viewers (beating, temporarily, Seinfeld). Holding onto this popularity over the summer, Friends went into its second season as a smash hit… Now, I don’t want our search for quality to be distracted by the external minutia — the “Rachel” haircut, the overplayed theme song, the inferior copycat sitcoms that sprang up as MSTV hammocks (like The Single Guy and Caroline In The City), the grossly commercial Diet Coke campaign, the eventual talk of a “Friends backlash” due to “overexposure,” etc. — but in this case, I think there are instances where the show’s most popular season is indeed affected creatively by its mounting success, as NBC, and the series’ own producers, leveraged Friends’ developing cultural cachet among desirable demographics for commercial purposes that did NOT concern the show’s quality. Therefore, the response to the series — this outside noise — is worth discussing. In fact, the producers would later deem the second season the year where they “learned” what they could and couldn’t do, featuring regrettable decisions correlated to these commercial prospects, which led Bright to label Two “not one of” their favorite seasons… And yet, to address a question you may be wondering — which year do I consider Friends’ best? — I actually believe Two launches a consecutive four-year stretch of relative consistency above the rest of the run’s baseline.
I’d love to be decisive and tell you that I prefer just one year — Two, Three, Four, or Five — above the others, but it’s not so simple. Each of these four seasons offers something uniquely superior, while at the same time, indicating elements that the other years do better. So, before I share my list of favorite episodes from the second season of Friends, I want to discuss both why Two is exceptional and why it’s lacking — and how the show’s popularity existed in relation to these notions… As we discussed last week, Friends’ rom-com sensibilities fueled a narrative construction that emphasized the ensemble design, while also pushing forward three characters onto a figurative upper tier of narrative import: Ross, Rachel, and Monica. Ross and Rachel constituted — and still constitute — the primary coupling for which the audience is supposed to root, and Monica remains a grounded centripetal presence that’s bolstered, following work done in Season One, by a clearer comedic perspective. Here in Two, every character becomes better defined, as the supporting regulars from One get more emotional hooks that dimensionalize them for the audience. (More below.) With regard to plot, however, the show’s focus remains definitively on Ross/Rachel (again, more below), and tangentially, Monica, whose added definition still hasn’t made story as effortless or rewarding as it has already become for say, Joey or Chandler. Thus, Season Two’s solution for this issue with Monica, after diminishing returns with an out-of-work storyline (sated at year’s end by an amusing Victory In Premise — Monica in the diner), is the same answer for Ross and Rachel: a romantic relationship. Sure enough, in the latter half of this season, starting in February Sweeps and concluding in May’s, Monica dates Dr. Richard Burke, played by Tom Selleck.
I have mixed feelings about this arc. I think the need to couple Monica to offer her story of substance indicates a weakness in her design, and I wish the scripts with Monica/Richard did a better job of using her persona to fuel both the laughs and the conflict, instead of letting the situation (the May/December & family friend circumstance) carry the load. Additionally, Selleck’s casting is a gimmick — part and parcel of the year’s problems. On the other hand, I believe the pilot set up an emotional arc predicated on her quest for a fulfilling relationship, and as such, this newfound romance is an exploration of the series’ thesis. (Also, the show’s tone guarantees an emphasis on relationships — it’s always going to be Friends’ go-to story.) So, she benefits from its existence – because this addresses her emotional arc – even though it’s not the fix that makes her more conducive to great episodic story… Meanwhile, none of the others get quite as much romantic exposure, but there are obvious efforts to similarly explore their emotional underpinnings (their “heart”). As Chandler’s commitment issues come to the fore early in the year — giving him a tangible goal — Joey’s depth is cultivated via Chandler when the year commits to honing in on one of Friends‘ greatest friendships. What really fleshes out their “bromance” is an arc in which Joey is cast on Days Of Our Lives, falls out with Chandler and moves into his own apartment, and then comes back home after he’s killed off the show (while Chandler realizes that his new roommate, Eddie, is a psychopath — see more of my thoughts in the list). This cements their friendship as one of the series’ core bonds — aside from the romances — and is seminal in letting us see the extent of their love for one another; it’s not a romantic kind of love, but it’s a love that’s treated romantically. (How can you tell? The series finale includes a story designed to give closure to them specifically.)
Phoebe, though, like Monica, doesn’t have quite the same luck with story. She’s a great character for laughs and is played by one of the cast’s strongest, but as a purveyor of plot, it’s harder to reconcile her comedy alongside heavier narratives. The second season, to its noble credit, tries to exercise her story muscle by introducing an ex-husband, a grandma, a half-brother, who’ll play a bigger role in expanding Phoebe’s depth down the line, and an off-screen father whom she considers meeting. Okay, these aren’t great A-stories (Phoebe works best in really funny B-plots), but just as with everyone else this year, Kudrow thrives because of the careful, dedicated, and generally smart exploration afforded to Phoebe, who, accordingly, retrieves a super-objective of her own: the quest to find a family… To this point, the principle reason I like Season Two so much, and consider it a candidate for the series’ finest, is that I think it offers, the best depictions of the characters as a collective: they’re defined — all six now have fully fledged emotional lives — they’re believable — not yet broadened to the point of caricature — and they’re evolving, for the show isn’t yet afraid to let them grow. There are years ahead with funnier scripting and perhaps even more engrossing arcs, but mounting issues of truthfulness within some of the characterizations, either caused by or reflected within story, will take a toll — episodically and institutionally… Yet, there’s a caveat here; the second half of Season Two is far better than the first, and when I say that Two offers the best depictions of the regulars as a collective, I have to clarify that this is confined to the material on display in the second half of Two – and more specifically, again, from February Sweeps to May Sweeps. I also like the top of Three by this criteria, indicating that the calendar year 1996 sees Friends at its most satisfying with regard to character. (This is the same time that Ross/Rachel are coupled. However, the characterizations aren’t great because of the pairing; they’re great because, while the primary couple fulfills the terms of the show’s thesis, everyone else can go off and grow, too.)
As for the first half of Season Two, it’s still seeking to build complexity for characters like Joey, Chandler, and Phoebe. So it can’t meaningfully compete with what’s to come for them, even in the latter part of the year. But, more obviously, Two is blessed and burdened early on with that aforementioned focal point — Ross and Rachel… Ah, the Ross/Rachel arc: forever present either explicitly or implicitly (even when they’re paused, prolonged, or seemingly ignored), and the best embodiment of the series’ optimistic, aspirational rom-com brand — the reason that I most believe Friends was so popular. It’s no coincidence that the most-watched season of the series is the one that puts Ross/Rachel front and center. To wit, no other year regards Ross/Rachel quite as narratively important as Two, for One was still defining itself, and Three, as we will see next week, already uses the ensemble more equitably. (I think there’s a reason for that though…) First, I have to confess that I don’t personally consider myself someone who “ships” Ross and Rachel; I merely think the show is fulfilling its initial promise to the audience (made in the pilot) when it engages, this year and every year following, in the rom-com-inspired machinations of their dynamic. (And it always believes them to be meant-to-be, even when their arc is, again, paused, prolonged, or seemingly ignored.) Therefore, many of the best episodes of the series relate to what’s going on with them, and Season Two has several true gems because of it — “The One Where Ross Finds Out” and “The One With The Prom Video” among them. Nevertheless, a look at the plotting of this relationship, specifically here in Season Two, reveals how the show contorted its thesis-born couple for non-creative gain, regretted it, and then didn’t quite learn all the necessary lessons… First, the premiere introduces the Julie obstacle. She’s around until November Sweeps, during which Ross and Rachel almost get together — but, naturally, don’t, as another conflict (the list) is manufactured to delay their coupling until the next Sweeps (February), when the show can no longer deny the inevitable.
You see, every Ross/Rachel movement comes when NBC (and the series) would most benefit financially, and Friends — more than any show we’ve covered — seems to go out of its way to satisfy these external, non-creative concerns. I don’t bring this up as a complaint by itself; every series is a commercial enterprise, and just because Friends is more obvious about it, that shouldn’t invite criticism… unless it hinders the show, the characters. In Season Two, it does, for the tactic used to maximize the profitability of Ross/Rachel — that is, to delay them — jeopardizes their honesty. As always, we’re not seeking 100% realism here — just character-based truth, and for that to exist, their humanity has to be supported by a certain amount of sincerity. It’s missing from the start, for the Ross/Julie relationship is never believable; the show does not craft for her a discernible personality that can make us regard her as anything other than a temporary, weightless, writer-ordained ploy. And it won’t be the only time something like this happens; although the show appears to have recognized this as weak (years later perhaps, after others told them), it didn’t quite learn this particular lesson, for Friends always has a terrible time defining its guests, and as this Julie arc first gives an indication of the problem, we also infer an explanation: the show never wants us to root against Ross/Rachel (even when their reconciliation, the show decides, must be slow-walked). Yet, in making sure we root for them at all costs, it shortchanges their recurring love interests, which shortchanges Ross/Rachel, too, and while it’s classic rom-com that just as Rachel loves Ross, Ross loves another, this is a genre contrivance that could have been massaged by a better depiction of Julie. Because that doesn’t exist, these Julie episodes don’t work as well as they should.
In fact, I think one of the reasons for the “backlash,” aside from the externals separate from the work being produced, is that in the first half of Two, the show is not as good as its meteoric rise indicated, giving credence to the critics’ slings and arrows. The Julie arc is Exhibit A… The irony, then, is that the show does become as good as its meteoric rise indicated in the latter half of the year, when Ross/Rachel are allowed to come together and the show can stop delaying their earned emotional growth — just as Monica and the others are evolving, too. (Remember: the show is always best when the characters’ arcs are allowed to progress.) But this comes only after a dreadful turning point: the two-part Super Bowl installment, which is stuffed with guest stars – Brooke Shields, Chris Isaak, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Julia Roberts. Not only is it overblown and self-indulgent, but it lets the gimmick get the best of the regulars, superseding our investment in them. It’s a crass commercial pull of the worst kind – one that seems unnecessary given that the show already had the spot behind the Super Bowl and was going to be watched by a record audience, anyway. Why didn’t the series realize that all it had to do was what it did best: present buoyantly comedic, feel-good characters in whom it’s easy to emotionally invest? It’s almost as if the Friends crew believed the negative hype (that was just then developing and would EXPLODE following these episodes) — which opined that the series wasn’t as substantial as its reputation suggested — and instead tried to compensate for its shortcomings with reasons to watch that were indeed insubstantial. Naturally, this cash-ploy backfired, creating an uneven outing that legitimized the complaints dogging the series in this era… However, that sharp turn for the better happens immediately after the Super Bowl, when Ross/Rachel progress honestly, Monica gets an arc related to her thesis, and Joey/Chandler’s friendship is deepened. It begets a serious elevation in episodic quality.
Character, in this period, becomes Friends‘ most prominent concern — again, marking, I think, the start of the best era for them. However, by then, the “backlash” was in full force, and the creators took all the criticism to heart. Years later, it’s still impossible to tell how much of Kauffman/Crane’s disdain for Two was shaped by the way this year was received, for despite the improved character centricity in the back half of the season — best evidenced by this year’s finale (discussed below), which is the antithesis of the Super Bowl two-parter — they also associated elements of this creatively successful stretch with Two’s weaknesses… specifically, the Ross/Rachel pairing, which the show would quickly decide was still “endgame,” (that is, a development that would symbolize the end of both characters’ emotional arcs), but not functional on a weekly basis. As we’ll see, de-empahsizing Ross/Rachel is good for the others, which is good for the show, but that romance is part of the series’ thesis and vital to Friends‘ identity, too. Charging it for Season Two’s problems misses the point — their pairing wasn’t why people started being turned off (and were eager to tune out when “overexposure” gave them a good excuse); it was how the pairing was delayed prior to their coupling that, in part, alienated viewers. Thus, for as much as Season Two learned about character (and how vital it was to prioritize them above gimmicks like the Super Bowl), the producers still remained in a mindset that left open the opportunity for future “Julies” — other rom-com contrivances that could symbolize a forced prolonging of emotional growth for Ross/Rachel. And that’s why Two’s commercialism was so troubling in the first place… At any rate, I maintain that the back half of Two is one of the show’s finest eras, particularly for character, and regardless of all the concerns earlier in the year, the characterizations are still pulling us inward, making us laugh, and justifying the phenomenon that propelled the series through creative ebbs and flows. So, I count Season Two as a fascinating, complicated success story, and, as usual, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify the year’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), Betsy Borns (George & Leo, All Of Us, Roseanne), 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), Jeffrey Astrof (The Wild Thornberrys, The New Adventures Of Old Christine, Trial & Error) & Mike Sikowitz (The Wild Thornberrys, Grounded For Life, Rules Of Engagement), and Brown Mandell (Hiller And Diller, Men Behaving Badly, Encore! Encore!).
01) Episode 25: “The One With Ross’s New Girlfriend” (Aired: 09/21/95)
Ross returns with a new girlfriend; Phoebe cuts Monica’s hair; Chandler is groped by Joey’s tailor.
Written by Jeffrey Astrof & Mike Sikowitz | Directed by Michael Lembeck
As indicated above, the first half of the second season is rockier than anticipated, as unevenness stemming from contrivances with regard to the prolongation of Ross and Rachel’s inevitable coupling and the more routinized implementation of multiple stories per episode (where it’s likely that not all three plots will be excellently realized), hamper overall episodic quality. The season premiere is an honest reflection of these shortcomings in story; although the Phoebe/Monica subplot is a clever and amusing way to explain the actors’ hiatus haircuts, the C-story, where Chandler is molested by Joey’s tailor, is too cynical for this series. (We’ll see Two, early on, struggle with its tone in entries like “…Heckles Dies” and “…Five Steaks And An Eggplant.”) At the same time, the opener is also an indicator of the great excitement surrounding the year and its prioritization of Ross/Rachel, which is now driven by her, putting the comedic burden onto Aniston (who is up for the challenge, but not yet as adept as she’ll become), even though, as last year’s finale indicated, the entry introduces a classic rom-com roadblock: Julie. My thoughts on this character (or rather, her lack of one) are already detailed above; suffice it to say, while the teleplay has individual moments that fall flat, the outing doesn’t indicate the problems in writing for Ross/Julie, so the episode doesn’t yet feel the weight imposed by a mediocre arc — just the boost of energy arising from the use of a new conflict.
02) Episode 31: “The One Where Ross Finds Out” (Aired: 11/09/95)
Rachel reveals her feelings to Ross; Monica works out with Chandler; Phoebe seeks Joey’s advice.
Written by Michael Borkow | Directed by Peter Bonerz
After the first November Sweeps episode — which derives its gimmicky “specialness” from guest stars — this is the first of two consecutive installments dedicated to progressing a show-specific element: Ross/Rachel. That’s the crux of this offering’s appeal — forget the subplots, although the respective pairings of both Monica/Chandler and Phoebe/Joey are quintessential dynamics in which all four of the performers thrive. No, this is a classic Ross/Rachel showing with an iconic moment that forms a benchmark in the series’ depiction of their relationship: their first kiss (at Central Perk, after hours, in the rain — peak rom-com stuff here, folks). Aniston, again, carries both the action and the comedy, driving the show’s perspective and willing the audience’s investment in their potential coupling through her specific objective. As a performer, she’s already grown since the premiere, and her drunk turn (while on a date with a man played by Ellen‘s Arye Gross) is stellar; so is the physical bit when she tries to tackle Ross to keep him from hearing the previous night’s drunken phone message where she revealed her true feelings. Delayed gratification is the best kind, and while the Julie arc has not lived up to its full potential — because some of the characterizations didn’t foster enough believability to support the delaying tactic — this entry houses a moment the show has promised since the last scene of the pilot, and even if you willfully decide to go against the series’ intent and not root for them, this is a realization of the show’s thesis, and it’s satisfying as a result. MVE contender.
03) Episode 32: “The One With The List” (Aired: 11/16/95)
Ross makes a list comparing Rachel and Julie; Monica works with “mockolate.”
Written by David Crane & Marta Kauffman | Directed by Mary Kay Place
Following an episode that brings Ross and Rachel one step closer to their guaranteed coupling, the rom-com staple of quickly dashed expectations occurs once again in this entry penned by the series’ creators. There’s some great drama in this offering, and it plays believably — thanks, in large part, to the humanity with which these actors have already supplied their characters. And I love the originality of the device used to push Rachel away from Ross — a list of pros and cons, which initially comes from his own confusion as a result of these circumstances, but then becomes a trigger for her own self-criticism. (“Just a waitress” is related to Rachel’s own “making it on her own” arc.) This outing is pure rom-com (or rom-dram), and it’s Friends at the apex of the projection of its identity. Sure, I could quibble that the list doesn’t seem to be a strong enough device to stop Rachel’s crusade for Ross dead in its tracks, after months of her pining for him, simply so that their pairing can be held off until the next Sweeps period, but that’s an issue with the episodes after this one, which try to make us buy the fact that she doesn’t want him and he won’t directly pursue her. Here, though, everyone’s emotionally true, based on what happens in this figurative moment. Also, Michael McKean guest stars in a memorable Monica subplot (“mockolate”) that the script tried to tie in with Thanksgiving at the last-minute. (This is the only year without an official Thanksgiving show.) MVE contender.
04) Episode 35: “The One With The Lesbian Wedding” (Aired: 01/18/96)
Ross deals with Carol and Susan’s wedding; Rachel’s mother visits; Phoebe is possessed by an old woman.
Written by Doty Abrams | Directed by Thomas Schlamme
Even though this is a big event (and therefore feels like it belongs in February), this outing actually comes during that awkward period between Sweeps where the series is just buying time until it returns to its thesis (Ross and Rachel) and is instead doubling both its popularity and the responding backlash (via the overblown Super Bowl show, which this offering preceded). More importantly though, the bigness of a wedding — for peripheral players who only matter to us based on how they matter to Ross — surprisingly doesn’t take away from our regulars. While the Ross stuff is sweet (and it’s a chance for NBC to subliminally hype Friends‘ lead-out, The Single Guy, which also starred Susan’s Jessica Hecht), it’s the subplots that really hit. As Phoebe is thrown an amusing and appropriately strange story in which she believes an elderly woman has inhabited her body — it’s a great idea for this character as she exists in this era: a spacey and ethereally sunny oddball — Rachel gets added nuance from a visit by her mom, played by Marlo Thomas, best remembered as another iconic TV character looking to make her own way in NYC. She’s the kind of stunt casting that doesn’t seem character-rooted, but unlike if the gimmick had been used on say, Mad About You (which paid tribute to classic TV more often), the sanctity of character truth isn’t jeopardized. It is Marlo Thomas, yet her resumé isn’t noted with a wink. She’s simply playing Rachel’s mom… whose presence brings us closer to Rachel.
05) Episode 38: “The One With The Prom Video” (Aired: 02/01/96)
Joey gives Chandler a friendship bracelet, and a video from Rachel and Monica’s prom night reveals a secret.
Written by Alexa Junge | Directed by James Burrows
It perhaps comes as no surprise that this is my MVE, for it’s the precise moment towards which the entire first season (and a half) was building: the inevitable coupling of the show’s primary emotional focus, Ross and Rachel. Regardless of the quality of the episode itself, the inclusion of this development guarantees a sense of fulfilled purpose, for the show has done a very good job of creating main characters in which the audience has become invested. And from both the clear establishment of their goals (his desire to be with her in the pilot, her desire to be with him in last year’s finale) and a corroborating romantic comedy tone, this is guaranteed, no matter what, to be a victory for the characters and the series. Fortunately, it’s a great offering, too — focusing on what has so far been the seminal relationships; aside from Ross/Rachel, there’s a fun subplot for Joey and Chandler, which speaks to how important their friendship is to the show (and indeed, it presages the arc ahead that crystallizes their bond as depicted here). Also, the choice to use history to not only justify Ross and Rachel’s belongingness (we saw this with Wings, which used a spoken-about personal back story to legitimize a coupling and make the audience root for it), but also to bring them together, is genius. In going back — via a home video from prom night, which is a diegetic source for a flashback (unlike future flashbacks, which are inherently more contrived) — the excursion also gets to explore two other core relationships, Monica’s with Rachel, and Monica’s with Ross, while also using the well-defined Geller parents (and introducing “Fat Monica,” a recurring gag that grants Cox the chance to clown). And, lastly, Phoebe’s support of Ross/Rachel gives her a stake in the story that will be followed up at various times later on (like in the finale). A classic — but, as the first to air after the Super Bowl, it was also the first to endure the brunt of the “Friends backlash”…
06) Episode 39: “The One Where Ross And Rachel… You Know” (Aired: 02/08/96)
Ross and Rachel try to begin dating; Monica starts a romance with her parents’ friend; Joey and Chandler watch TV.
Written by Michael Curtis & Gregory S. Malins | Directed by Michael Lembeck
Coming after Ross and Rachel’s big kiss that officially launched their togetherness, this outing has to deal with them being an actual couple, starting with, naturally, their first date. That’s February Sweeps material alone, and it basically lives up to the hype. Yes, the giggling while kissing bit feels a little forced — we’re asked to buy that the two are better friends than they’ve been shown to be. But the narrative requires some sense of conflict before its rom-com “under the stars” ending. That’s actually secondary to the episode’s main objective, though, for the show now has to set up another arc that it will explore for the duration of the year — Monica’s relationship with an older man, Dr. Richard Burke. My thoughts on this whole story are well-discussed above, but I’ll note here that, however labored (the story goals are obvious), character-subjugating (he has little definition beyond circumstance), or uncomedic (the romance is trumping the humor), we’re invested from the jump because it’s tied into Monica’s emotional arc, which like Ross/Rachel (but not as prominently), was established in the pilot. The fact that they share chemistry, and this rom-com needs another focus now that Ross/Rachel are going to be “happy,” only adds to the feeling that this is a storyline worth exploring. Meanwhile, Joey and Chandler have a gentle runner that showcases their friendship, adding laughs to what is otherwise one of the series’ most romantic, and therefore, tonally ideal, installments.
07) Episode 40: “The One Where Joey Moves Out” (Aired: 02/15/96)
Joey decides to move out; Monica tries to hide her relationship; Rachel and Phoebe want to get tattoos.
Written by Betsy Borns | Directed by Michael Lembeck
As the start of a four-episode arc in which Joey, after getting cast on Days Of Our Lives in January, moves out of Chandler’s apartment and gets his own place, this installment makes use of an undercurrent of genuine drama between those two characters (something, at times, almost reminiscent of the Ross/Rachel angst earlier in the year, which this storyline invokes in the following entry with a memorable gag involving Joey’s rain window). This is substantive and satisfying (and more pronounced here than in the ensuing excursions), especially when the two have to “play” for the foosball table, which has become a symbol of their relationship. Meanwhile, more fun is had in the new Monica/Richard romance as the series wastes no time getting right to the point and forcing the issue of her parents, to whom the new couple decides to reveal the truth after an embarrassing encounter where Monica is trapped in the bathroom while her parents fool around. The Gellers bring the laughs, and this is an effective use of natural conflict to suggest story, wherein characters are still given room to play. Now, I can’t say this is the best of this list, though — the Rachel/Phoebe subplot is blah, with the sole joke being inverted expectations: Rachel, the spoiled daddy’s girl, goes through with the tattoo, while Phoebe, the street rat, chickens out. Instead, it’s a fine example of a mostly great episode.
08) Episode 42: “The One Where Dr. Ramoray Dies” (Aired: 03/21/96)
Joey is killed off his soap opera; Chandler bonds with Eddie; the two couples discuss their sexual histories.
Story by Alexa Junge | Teleplay by Michael Borkow | Directed by Michael Lembeck
A Victory In Premise, the A-story in this outing, designed to pivot the Joey-Chandler arc and get them back to the point of reconciliation, contends with Joey being fired from the soap after he discredits the writers in an interview. (Never mess with the writers, kids!) It’s a great idea for story, makes sense based on his established denseness (which isn’t yet so extreme that it’s emotionally alienating), and is an intelligent first step in forcing Joey and Chandler to once again be roomies… after they oust Eddie (Adam Goldberg), a three-episode plot device who manages to ground some of the lunacy into which he quickly descends — in the following entry (mentioned below) — while earning a few broad laughs in the process. It’s really about Joey and Chandler, though, and Eddie’s tenure is so brief that, although the show uses heightened, disconnect-worthy humor as a tactic to disguise his pure narrative functionality, he doesn’t truly tip the qualitative scales either way… Additionally, the offering finds a decent way to utilize the two couples in a single story, as individual concerns over their respective lists of partners (sparked, amusingly, by a comment from Phoebe), lead to disagreements, and then eventually, make-up sex… but by then there’s only one condom left. That’s a great storyline for this era, representing Friends at a high point in its depiction of romantic, believable characters.
09) Episode 46: “The One With The Two Parties” (Aired: 05/02/96)
The gang throws two separate parties for Rachel when both of her parents arrive.
Written by Alexa Junge | Directed by Michael Lembeck
This atypical entry may be one of the show’s funniest. Friends doesn’t often do farces, and the occasions in which the show does have a party as a major centerpiece, bringing all the regulars together under the Aristotelian Unities (of time, place, and action), the routinized structure of several stories per episode still exists and is rather obviously implemented. Here, though, while there are small narrative threads — like Phoebe sneaking people out of Monica’s boring, organized party to go to the fun one across the hall — they aren’t large enough to be stories on their own. Instead, they’re an outgrowth of the larger, single premise: the friends are throwing a surprise party for Rachel’s birthday, but when both of her divorcing parents arrive, the group has to hold two events to keep them separated. There are a lot of people coming in and out of doors (and an appropriate reference to Three’s Company is used to let the audience know that the show is self-aware, which makes us more apt to believe the hijinks) and, fortunately, a lot of laughs, too — from the parents, from Phoebe being a smuggler, and from Monica’s depiction as a control freak, a comedic part of her persona established last year and now becoming more frequently and humorously used. (In Two, it’s amusing; when eventually bigger and over-used, it won’t be.) But all the silliness is anchored, at the end, by a surprisingly sweet moment between Chandler and Rachel, who bond over what it’s like to go through a parental divorce. That’s character-based writing, and that’s why we’re invested in this show. A favorite.
10) Episode 48: “The One With Barry And Mindy’s Wedding” (Aired: 05/16/96)
Rachel is maid-of-honor at Barry’s wedding; Monica and Richard come to an impasse; Chandler meets a woman online.
Story by Ira Ungerleider | Teleplay by Brown Mandell | Directed by Michael Lembeck
Although overlooked and under-appreciated by most fans who seek grander developments and juicier cliffhangers, this is the most character-rooted finale of the entire run. And while part of my opinion may be related to the fact that it’s not stretched into an hour and filled with story — regular readers know I believe story maneuverings have a tendency to overwhelm character — it’s more than just the outing’s relative smallness that reaffirms this quality. Actually, this is an installment that speaks directly to the pilot’s proposed narrative interests, as Rachel is forced to literally confront the consequences of running out on Barry when she is a laughing-stock at his wedding to Mindy. This effectively closes that chapter, and in doing so, we can see just how much Rachel has grown in two years — she’s on her own and doesn’t need to marry a man she doesn’t love — along with how happy she is with Ross, who’s her partner here, revealing that, in accordance with another thread these early years were committed to exploring, he’s gotten exactly what he wanted, too. More solemn and quiet — and perhaps off-putting (Kauffman later regretted that it wasn’t funnier) — is the break-up of Monica and Richard, which seems more a story point than a character point (like their whole relationship).
But it’s nevertheless crucial to Monica’s own pilot-introduced quest, as she learns something about herself: she so wants to have a family that she’ll give up love in order to have one. That’s a huge realization for a character who, upon our introduction to her, slept with a man on the first date. In this way, the finale is loaded with closure, as Monica and Rachel grow up, and Ross and Rachel are indeed partnered. Meanwhile, although the Joey story is an inconsequential replacement for a narrative initially deemed too risqué (it was repurposed and later used in Season Seven), Chandler’s plot — meeting a woman online who turns out to be Janice, a familiar face and therefore someone in whom we’re already invested, even if she’s heretofore only been a joke — contends with his own emotional growth and sets up a new development for Season Three: a commitment… So, this isn’t as big or flashy as most cliffhangers — it’s a reaction to lessons learned after the Super Bowl, which was outsized and not character-based. And (unlike seven of the other nine finales) it’s not heavy on Ross/Rachel drama, which is a primary reason this entry is underrated. However, it’s honest, romantically inclined, and born from the very thing that makes Friends worthwhile: its characters. Another MVE contender.
Other notable episodes that merit a look include: “The One Where Heckles Dies,” which is tonally anachronistic within the series’ established optimism, but is benefited by a more introspective look at Chandler (establishing an emotional journey for him — overcoming his fear of commitment and being romantically vulnerable) and a focus on important ensemble dynamics — Rachel/Monica and Phoebe/Ross, the latter of whom will prove a dynamite comedic duo; “The One With Phoebe’s Husband,” which has several amusing revelations on behalf of character and successfully sustains the Ross/Rachel tension in the wake of Julie, but is burdened by the eponymous A-story with Phoebe; and the other two episodes of the Joey/Chandler arc, “The One Where Eddie Moves In,” which features the rain window gag and a terrific subplot where Phoebe does the “Smelly Cat” music video, and “The One Where Eddie Won’t Go,” which I mention here out of some obligation — truthfully, I think two of the three stories force unjustifiably larger-than-life, investment-rejecting portrayals of the characters, but if your threshold for broadness is wider, it may work for you.
The Island of Better-Than-Their-Episode Stories:
- “The One With The Baby On The Bus” — Joey and Chandler use Ben to pick up women (with Lea Thompson from Caroline In The City)
- “The One After The Superbowl (I)” — Phoebe sings to the kids
- “The One With The Chicken Pox” — Joey plays a character at Chandler’s office
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Friends goes to…..
“The One With The Prom Video”
Also, this is my 1000th post! I didn’t want to make a separate entry honoring this fact because we just celebrated our five-year anniversary last month. So, I’ve made a special page featuring two relevant lists (my speciality)! Check it out here.
Thanks to everyone who’s helped make the last 1000 posts go by so quickly — it’s been an education and a joy!
Come back next week for Season Three! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!