The Rewatch: Friends - Season 1

A metric ton of internet ink has been spilled about Friends over the years. And yet, I'm not sure if the following sentiment has ever been applied to it: Friends is somewhat of a mystery to me. Whether or not you like it, it's established fact that it's one of the most influential sitcoms of all time. If it didn't invent the hangout comedy, it certainly became the standard-bearer. The television landscape is littered with the corpses of shows that tried to copy its success and failed. Everyone I've ever talked to about it either loves it to the point of memorization (no judgment - this is something I've done for another show that will be showing up on the Rewatch) or sniffs at it as cookie-cutter pabulum.

I have a different relationship with it. Every time I ever run across it on TV, I'll sit and watch and laugh. I've actively sought out specific scenes on YouTube to revisit. And yet, if anyone ever asks me about my opinion of it, I give it a shrug. I don't think of it as particularly great in terms of writing or acting. This isn't an active choice, like I'm embarrassed to admit to others that I enjoy the show; in that moment, it never occurs to me that I do. Odd.

I never watched the show religiously when it was on, and the episodes I run across in syndication are jumbled, so it's a new experience for me to watch them in order. But Netflix has just made the series available for streaming, so this is a good opportunity for some research. How do I actually feel about Friends? How has it aged? And why does Ross, the largest Friend, not simply eat the other five?

Rather than going episode by episode, let's just talk about the first season as a whole. It aired in 1994/1995, and "Pilot" is the only episode of the entire series that doesn't start with "The One With..." or "The One Where...", which I'll just refer to as "TOW" from here on out. Speaking of the pilot, it's not great. And I'm not just talking about the wretched fashion and haircuts. But hey, pilots are often not great, so I don't hold that against anyone. It has to introduce all the characters, make the audience familiar with their personality types, and set some stories in motion, all in less than a half-hour. Where the evidence of success is really found is how soon after the pilot a show snaps into the patter that is recognizable as the format everyone grew to love. For Friends, that happens as soon as Episode 2, "TOW the Sonogram at the End". By that point, the writers already felt comfortable making jokes about Monica's fastidiousness, Ross' inability to deal with women, etc. It takes cojones to treat characters as familiar so soon, and it paid off.

Not everything works, of course. Friends occupies that short time in the '90s where television shows could introduce and discuss the issues surrounding gay characters, and still reached for lazy gay panic jokes for a cheap laugh. It's very strange and off-putting to have Chandler talking casually with a gay coworker in one scene, and then have someone chided for extending a hug or holding their wrist a certain way in another. Also, can we talk about Marcel the monkey? What the hell, you guys? No matter how good an episode was otherwise, scenes with Marcel are where comedy went to die (I will allow there was one funny Marcel-related joke, when Rachel says about Marcel's inability to stop humping things, "Let's just say my Curious George doll is no longer curious").

The series (including this first season) was also heavily layered with what I'd call conformist encouragement, not to get all psycho-babbly on you. I just mean that in the world of Friends, everyone's end goal is OBVIOUSLY marriage and children. Ross and Rachel's will-they, won't-they relationship represents the show's highest stakes. All men are assumed to be either working towards monogamous commitment, or just haven't yet discovered that that's what they want. All women are assumed to have biological clocks that go berserk whenever they're around a baby. It's a very 1950s attitude to take, if you think about it.

Notable Guest Stars: The first season establishes some great secondary characters. Christina Pickles and Elliot Gould establish themselves early as the perfect choices to play Ross and Monica's parents. Maggie Wheeler proves immediately why she was so invaluable to the show as Chandler's annoying, on-again, off-again girlfriend Janice. On the other hand, the first season relies too heavily on You May Know Me From Such Places As... guest stars. Here's George Clooney and Noah Wyle as doctors! Get it?!? Here's a well-known model playing a model! GET IT?!? Other notable names to show up include Jennifer Grey, Leah Remini, Jonathan Silverman, and Jon Lovitz (see below).

What's Keeping Ross and Rachel And Their Apparently Greatest Love in the History of the Earth Apart This Time: Mostly Paolo (Cosimo Fusco). Played as a suave, Italian hunk, though his archetype didn't age well. He seems kind of gross from the start, now. He's dealt with when he makes a pass a Phoebe for contrived reasons, and gets dumped.

Best Episode: There are several good ones. "TOW the Birth" is an honorable mention, though it does indulge in some of that weird conformist fetishism mentioned above. "TOW Nana Dies Twice" is also notable. Still, the episode that probably captures the best that Friends could be in their debut season is "TOW Underdog Gets Away", in which Monica attempts to make everyone the traditional Thanksgiving meals of their childhoods, and ruins them all, and Joey is horrified to discover that he's the face of New York City's venereal disease problem.

Worst Episode: Though I like Jon Lovitz, and he does a fine job of playing a guy stoned out of his gourd, "TOW the Stoned Guy" is probably the least successful. Turns out people who are high like to eat a lot. That's the source for about half the jokes in this episode. It's also a Marcel-heavy episode. Ick.

It was very easy to binge-watch this first season. It was comfortable and comforting, and made me laugh out loud more than once. And yet, something about these characters still gets under my skin. So the mystery isn't solved yet. On to Season 2!


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