Warner Bros. // 1994 // 5300 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 26th, 2012
All ten seasons in stunning high definition!
"I grabbed a spoon."
Theme song intro starts...
From 1994 to 2004, Friends delighted audiences with the ongoing saga of six young adults helping each other navigate life's endless complications. Over the course of ten seasons, Rachel (Jennifer Aniston, Horrible Bosses), Ross (David Schwimmer, Madagascar), Chandler (Matthew Perry, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), Monica (Courtney Cox, Cougar Town), Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow, Paper Man) and Joey (Matt LeBlanc, Episodes) each go through a wide variety of personal highs and lows. Regardless of what's happening, these six friends are always there for each other.
Theme song chorus kicks in...
Neither the world nor this website needs yet another detailed rundown of the many things Friends achieved over the course of its decade-long run, so I'll keep this relatively brief. Along with Seinfeld, the show was one of the definitive sitcoms of the 1990s, establishing a template that many would imitate but few would come close to matching. That's largely because the success of Friends is about something more elusive than technique. Yes, the writing was generally smart and funny, but the show worked as well as it did thanks to sublime casting and exceptional chemistry between the cast members. Sure, it lacks Seinfeld's acidic genius, but it compensates for that with a double-dose of likability. There are plenty of laughs, surprising plot developments and iconic moments to be had along this 236-episode journey, but ultimately the appeal of the show can be boiled down to the fact that we like these people nearly as much as they like each other. The actors portraying the six central characters have all accomplished other things worth noting in the years following the show's conclusion (some more than others, to be sure), but each individual's work on the show is so distinctive that their respective obituaries will all undoubtedly begin, "The star of the hit show Friends..."
I promised to keep the fond memories brief, so let's dig into the reason for this review's existence: the fact that Friends: The Complete Series has been given a hi-def upgrade. Does the show look better than ever? Is the hi-def overhaul a stunning revelation? Is the show presented in its original Full Frame/1.33:1 format? Is the packaging appealing? Are there lots of cool new supplements? Well...yes, no, no, yes and some.
Let's start with the new transfer. Friends: The Complete Series (Blu-ray) has been given a 1080p/1.78:1 transfer, which is a significant change from all of the standard-def presentations of the show. Of course, the series was originally broadcast in a full-frame format, but the good news is that the image hasn't been cropped and stretched to fit your HDTV screen. The series was originally shot in 35mm in a 1.78:1 format and then cropped for 1.33:1 screens, so you won't miss any visual information. However, it's more than obvious that the series was shot with 1.33:1 screens in mind, so there are plenty of shots in which the characters seem oddly jammed together in the middle of the frame with plenty of empty space on the sides. If you can get over that oddity (and it does take a little while), you'll eventually come to appreciate the fact that on some occasions the widescreen format does allow certain sequences to feel a bit more immersive. Additionally, a bit of editing has carefully removed cameras or other equipment from the edges of certain shots.
So, how does the show look? Well...better than ever, but also not that great. Back in the mid-1990s, no one was even considering the possibility of Friends being shown in widescreen, much less in hi-def. The original footage just isn't that great, and there's only so much that can be done to improve it. In contrast to the DVD releases, it's a sizable upgrade. In contrast to hi-def releases of older television shows in general, it looks mediocre. The detail fluctuates a great deal from episode to episode (and shot to shot, for that matter), excessive grain comes and goes, depth varies considerably, DNR is employed to varying degrees (sometimes barely noticeable, sometimes quite distracting), flesh tones are pretty inconsistent, certain shots seem muddy or smeared, colors range from vibrant to flat...basically, the overall video score ping-pongs all over the place, though it's worth noting that things gradually improve from season to season. There's plenty to be cranky about if you're a hardcore videophile, but short of a really loving and exceptionally expensive overhaul (which the series will probably never get, as it doesn't lean on visual design nearly as much as something like Star Trek: The Next Generation), this is likely as strong as it was ever going to get. Frankly, I'm a little amazed (if quite grateful) that Friends got a Blu-ray release at all.
The audio is a much less dramatic story, as the Dolby 5.1 Surround track really doesn't represent much of a leap forward from the standard-def releases (I did a quick comparison with a handful of episodes and couldn't tell a distinguishable difference in this department, though it did permit me to really appreciate what a leap forward the flawed transfer is). Dialogue is clean and clear and the peppy soundtrack is reasonably robust, but there hasn't been much effort in terms of creating an immersive mix (more often than not, it could easily be mistaken for a simple stereo mix). Friends isn't really a show that has a whole lot of note going on in this department, but a better mix (not to mention a lossless one) would have been nice.
While the DVD release of Friends: The Complete Series simply recycled the handful of audio commentaries and featurettes that had been offered on the individual season DVD releases, this Blu-ray collection at least makes an effort to add a bit of new material (all of which is housed on a single bonus disc). "Friends From the Start" (28 minutes), "When Friends Became Family" (29 minutes) and "The Legacy of Friends" (11 minutes) are thoughtful, well-produced retrospective featurettes that include compelling comments from the crew and some supporting cast members...but all six of the main cast members are nowhere to be seen. Without the show's assorted central players, these otherwise fine productions feel pretty incomplete. For comments from the cast, you'll have to dig through the older items the disc offers: 22 minutes from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (in which the whole cast is together) and 16 minutes from The Ellen Degeneres Show (in which Ellen interviews individual cast members separately). Finally, you get the original, unedited version of "The One Where Rachel Tells Ross" (which had to be altered due a bomb joke -- the show was set to air shortly after September 11th), a gag reel and a music video.
Almost all of the pre-existing material is still here (spread across the other 20 discs in the set): a pretty lightweight array of audio commentaries, behind-the-scenes featurettes, gag reels, music videos and promos for upcoming seasons (most of which feature Gunther). However, missing in action are most of the extended episodes that were offered in the DVD set. These seem a curious omission, but it's not one that I find particularly bothersome (though I certainly understand that some fans may be upset).
All 21 discs are housed inside an attractive cardboard book of sorts, with each disc resting inside a little cardboard sleeve. It's a pretty sturdy design that doesn't seem likely to lead to many disc scratches. The cardboard book itself is housed inside a larger cardboard box that seals magnetically. Also contained within the box: a full-color softcover book containing photos, behind-the-scenes info and individual episode descriptions. It's a handsomely packaged set that should class up your "lavish box set" shelf just a bit more.
Yes, the Blu-ray release of Friends: The Complete Series has flaws. It doesn't really look spectacular, the audio is merely adequate and new supplements aren't really extensive enough to merit much attention. Even so, the fact of the matter remains that this set still represents a rather significant visual upgrade from the DVD collection. The nature of the source material demands that the technical aspects of this collection be graded on a curve, and under the circumstances it's good enough to warrant an upgrade. It's still a kick to hang out with these folks, and this new collection provides a fine excuse to do just that.
Review content copyright © 2012 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 5300 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Extended Episodes
* Archival Footage
* Gag Reels
* Music Videos