The Rewatch: Friends - Season 4

Well, this is surprising. I usually assume that seasons of scripted television will follow one of two pretty predictable patterns: Either they'll start out great and get incrementally worse as time passes (Heroes), or as is more common, they'll form a bell curve by starting out OK, becoming great somewhere in the middle, and then declining (30 Rock). Friends refuses to follow these trends. Maybe I'll put my mad phat scientific skillz to use at the end of this Rewatch and do a line graph to see if any sort of pattern emerges, but for right now, it's all over the damn place. All this to say that Season 1 was pretty great, Seasons 2 and 3 dipped into less-than-good, and here we are at Season 4, which is, in a word, terrific.

I have no idea how they accomplished this sudden spike. Did they get new writers or something? How on Earth did they go from Mopey Possessive Ross to Charming Hapless Ross so fast? How did they deepen the friendships between the central characters without getting all syrupy about it? How did they incorporate pregnancy in a way that wasn't instant comedy death? Whatever animal sacrifice the producers made to the pagan gods of their choice, it was worth it, because Season 4 was firing on all cylinders.

In this one batch of episodes, we get a ton of the bits that Friends fans cite as the show's most classic scenes: Chandler trying to quit the gym, Ross trying to date a girl who lives too far away, the sudden appearance of free porn on Chandler and Joey's television, Monica getting mocked for dating Richard's son and immediately dishing out some mockery of her own, Phoebe's agonizing over what name to choose for one of her brother's babies, etc. etc. You'd think, given that this season was so good, that choosing the best episode would be difficult, but even with all that's wonderful about Season 4, one episode effortlessly rises to the top (see below).

No season is perfect, of course. I like Friends the least when it indulges in its schmoopy, accelerated love stories. Within a few weeks in the show's universe, Kathy is Joey's girlfriend, Chandler's soulmate, and a cheating shrew in rapid succession. Ross and Emily's relationship is even speedier; the Japanese maglev train would take a look at how fast Ross and Emily go from meeting to wedding altar and be like "Whoa, settle down, crazypants."

But for the most part, there just isn't much to complain about, here. Emily was a worthy obstacle to the show's Grand Romance, the show indulges in some fun meta-humor by having audience-surrogate Hugh Laurie tell Rachel just how awful her motivations are, and did I mention Monica's five seconds of mockery? I did? Well, here. Watch it now. And I haven't even mentioned the season's pinnacle yet.

Notable Guest Stars: I have a confession to make: Until the Rewatch, I was 85% sure that Emily was played by Emily Mortimer. Not so! Emily is played by Mortimer's doppelganger, Helen Baxendale, who actually sells her whirlwind romance with Ross, so good for her. Paget Brewster, who is absolutely killing it these days on Community, is also a welcome presence as Kathy, the girl who comes between Joey and Chandler. Tate Donovan is fairly milquetoast as Joshua, but that's not really his fault (see below). Other flashes of star you'll see this season include Michael Vartan, Olivia Williams, Rebecca Romijn, Jennifer Saunders, and even Fergie (the original one).

What's Keeping Ross and Rachel And Their Apparently Greatest Love in the History of the Earth Apart This Time: Oh, so much! You might remember Ross having to choose between Rachel and Bonnie at the end of Season 3. He chooses Rachel, but their happy reunion is brief, as Ross falls asleep while reading a letter from Rachel asking him to shoulder the blame for everything that went wrong in their relationship. When he realizes it, he blows up, and they're kaput again. For now. Sigh. The two go their separate ways, Ross to Emily, and Rachel to Joshua. As I've mentioned, the Ross/Emily thing moved too fast (so fast I believe Rachel's last name is misspelled on the wedding invitation - YOU HEARD IT HERE, FIRST), but it was at least well-developed. Joshua is a non-entity. A bland hunk - hey, just like Mark! - for Rachel to crush on, successfully land, then drive away with a bit of patented Rachel Green lunacy. We end the season Ross accidentally saying Rachel's name at the altar, so I guess the Grand Romance Cliffhanger is officially a trend? Boooo.

Best Episode: Easiest choice ever. I haven't mentioned it yet, but far and away, it's "TOW the Embryos", which is not only the best of the season, but will be a strong contender for best episode of the entire series. It's got a misleading title, because while Phoebe and her brother's embryos do take up a chunk of running time, this one is really TOW the Trivia Game. Monica/Rachel and Joey/Chandler make increasingly high bets over which pair know each other better, resulting in the trivia game where the winner will either have to give up their pet birds or give up the huge, rent-controlled apartment. Ross plays game show host to the hilt, and the entire sequence is a perfect summation of these characters' personalities.

Worst Episode: It would be difficult to choose an out-and-out terrible one, since this season was so great, overall. Luckily, "TOW the Invitation" sticks out like a sore thumb, combining the fact that it's a clip show with the fact that it's a clip show devoted entirely to Ross and Rachel And Their Apparently Greatest Love in the History of the Earth. Bleh.

Now comes the big question: Will Season 5 be a continuation of the high quality that Season 4 exemplified, or will it sag back into the disappointment that Season 3 brought? I'm hoping it's the former, but there's only one way to find out! Onward!


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