Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time #14 - Friends

10 Seasons (1994-2004)

10 years ago, this show would have been much higher on the list.

But either the characters don't hold up as well or I got older and lost my patience with their immaturity.

Regardless, Friends still has a lot of excellent qualities as a show.

When it first came onto the scene in 1994, it had a quicker wit than anything on television.  The banter was fast and funny in a way that wasn't common at the time.

The show also hit a chord with the people growing up in that era.  There was an experience of extended adolescence as post-college young people found their way through the world.

And the ensemble cast had a fantastic chemistry.  There was something honest about they way they related to each other as they teased and taunted each other, though still held by a deep bond of affection.

But as I said, the show has lost a good deal of its luster.  While there is real affection, there is also an inherent self-centeredness in each character.  They are self-involved in a way that most younger people are.  I am reminded of the episode where Rachel lets a relative stranger babysit her child so that she can do a business presentation.

They are also way over-sexed.  This is not an uncommon problem even in the best of shows, but it is so saturated that it becomes tedious.  Every other joke is about sex.  Now, you can have some very funny sex jokes, but Friends never seemed to get past its adolescent fascination.

And early on it was very in-your-face about trying to buck convention.  In "The One with the Boobies" (1x13) the show has a particularly repugnant theme, where Joey is decides that encouraging his father's infidelity is what will make both his parents happier.  And then there was "The One with the Lesbian Wedding" (2x11) that not only promoted gay marriage but had Newt Gingrich's sister as a minister saying "Nothing pleases God when two people, any two people, come together in love."

And while all the actors did a good job, the stand out was Matthew Perry.  Many of them grew as performers, most noticeably Matt LeBlanc.  But Perry's Chandler was the tone setter of the show.  I honestly believe that without Chandler, the show would not be anywhere as close to the comedy achievement that it is.

Friends also has a strange distinction as the only show I can think of that has Jumped the Shark and then Un-Jumped it.  As I will describe momentarily, Friends began to lose steam already in the second season and was heading towards obscurity.  Ross and Rachel kept seesawing their relationship, but nothing important ever seemed to really happen.  But that changed when the show became re-invigorated by putting two other leads, Monica and Chandler, together.

It is a fascinating development because originally Monica was supposed to be coupled with Joey and Chandler was intended to be gay.  Luckily both of those things did not pan out and we got a relationship that was fresh and funny.  I'm spending so much time on this element because it really was a game-changer for the show.  A lot of humor was mined exploring two characters we saw as friends for so long become lovers almost out of nowhere.  It took the focus of the show in a much funnier direction and the characters finally began to show some growth.  I truly believe this gave the show its longevity and helped it survive for an entire decade.


"The Pilot" (1x01)
This is one of those rare shows that really fires on all cylinders during the pilot.  In it, you get a strong sense of each of the characters, their relationship to each other, and the type of humor that you are going to find along the way.  If you are not sold on this in the pilot, the series is going to not be your cup of tea.

But the episode starts off with tiny conversations at the coffee house that have the tempo of everyday life conversations.  It introduces Rachel and how she enters into the group dynamic and she is our vehicle for entering into this social circle.  It sets up the romance between Ross and Rachel, which is at the heart of the show for the next few seasons.

1.  "The One With the Prom Video" (2x14)

This was the episode that finally brought Ross and Rachel together.  It is touching and funny, but it led to a common problem: Ross and Rachel were more interesting apart than together.  The romantic tension as one fell for the other and pined for the other was fun to watch.  But their relationship was much less so, even to the point of watching them horribly breakup over the course of an entire episode the following season.

2.  "The One with Monica and Chandler's Wedding pt 2" (7x24)
As I wrote earlier, Friends got a second wind when they put Monica and Chandler together.  But the wedding episode set the stage for the final leg of the Friends journey.  Seasons 1-4 are primarily about Ross and Rachel.  Seasons 5-7 are centered on Monica and Chandler.  But Seasons 8-10 are focused on Rachel (and to a lesser extent Joey).  The final moment of this episode reveals that Rachel is pregnant, resetting the spotlight onto her character.  But she was never as funny or engaging as Monica and Chanlder.  The producers tried to create a romance/love triangle by having her and Joey fall for each other.  This might have worked if they hadn't dropped the ball on this and gave up on the idea way too early.  The show would have been much better served if they had taken a chance on these two and let two camps develop around them like they did on shows like Dawson's Creek.

"The One Where No One's Ready" (3x02)
There are a lot of great episodes of Friends.  I love the episode where they play trivia for the apartment.  I love most of season 5.  I love the episode where Chandler proposes.  There are a lot of fun moments.

But for me, the best episode was a real-time bottle episode that takes place almost entirely in one setting (something very unusual for this show).  Ross is going to a special gala at the museum and is desperate to get there on time, but none of his friends are ready to go and one thing after another causes the situation to deteriorate and escalate.  It all culminates in Joey doing the opposite of Chandler stealing his underwear.

I've seen this episode dozens and dozens of times and it makes me laugh every time.

Friends is show of its day.  As a result, it doesn't have a universal, timeless quality that I hope it would.  But when I watch it captures a time in life that, though gone, I remember fondly.

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