Judge Brendan Babish indulges in some '90s nostalgia with this mammoth box set.
Our reviews of Friends: The Complete First Season (published June 11th, 2002), Friends: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray) (published May 7th, 2013), Friends: The Complete Second Season (published September 16th, 2002), Friends: The Complete Second Season (Blu-ray) (published May 7th, 2013), Friends: The Complete Third Season (published June 18th, 2003), Friends: The Complete Fourth Season (published August 8th, 2003), Friends: The Complete Eighth Season (published February 2nd, 2005), Friends: The Complete Ninth Season (published May 18th, 2005), Friends: The Complete Tenth Season (published November 28th, 2005), Friends: The Complete Series (Blu-ray) (published November 26th, 2012), Friends: The One With All The Babies (published April 26th, 2006), Friends: The One With All The Birthdays (published May 31st, 2006), and Friends: The One With All The Weddings (published May 10th, 2006) are also available.
You can never have enough friends!
When I was growing up, Cheers was the seminal sitcom of its time. Though there was some brief overlap, Seinfeld peaked almost perfectly to become Alpha Sitcom when Cheers went off the air in 1993. And then, after Seinfeld's reign, Friends became the last sitcom with the critical standing and popular support to make NBC's Must See TV truly must see. Of course some sitcoms have come close to reaching Friends' rarified height—Frasier, Will & Grace, Everybody Loves Raymond—but none have permeated so deeply into the nation's consciousness. And considering the sorry state of contemporary sitcoms, none may ever reach that levels again.
(Note: The Office is about as good as sitcoms get, but its ratings—last year it was the 67th most popular show on television—prevent it from serious consideration as the heir to Friends' supremacy.)
Facts of the Case
The premise of Friends is both well known and simple: six urban twixters—three men, three women—share the travails of early adulthood. Though the show occasionally presents absurd storylines, for the most part it sticks to exploring the more prosaic aspects of a quarter-crisis: frustrations with the searches for a suitable career and mate.
The three female lead characters are: the anal Monica Geller (Courtney Cox, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective); the spoiled Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston, The Break-Up); and the spacey Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow, The Comeback).
The three male lead characters are: Monica's uptight brother, Ross Geller (David Schwimmer, The Pallbearer); the sarcastic Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry, The Whole Nine Yards); and the goofy Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc, Joey).
• Season One
Though the show was an almost instant success, the first couple of episodes are surprisingly underwhelming. There are lots of lame sitcomy jokes, and some of the cast members—particularly the women—don't have their comic timing down yet. It really begins coming together with the show's sixth episode—The One With the Butt—in which Joey, a struggling actor, gets hired to be Al Pacino's butt double. This is followed by The One With the Blackout, which features Chandler stuck in a vestibule with supermodel Jill Goodacre ("Gum would be perfection" is still common discourse among my peer group). And from here the Ross/Rachel unrequited love story arc does most of the heavy lifting. This would have been a strong season for any other sitcom, but it only sporadically shows the irrepressible charm and originality that would make Friends a cultural juggernaut for a decade.
Classic episodes: "The One With the Butt"; "The One With the Blackout"
Grade: B +
• Season Two
The biggest immediate difference between Season One and Season Two is that the cast is suddenly much more stylish. The Rachel hairstyle is in top form, Monica has a similar pixie haircut, and all the men have lost their shaggy locks in favor of much sharper close-cropped dos.
The show also incorporates much stronger plots than in the first season: Chandler and Joey leaving Ross's baby on a bus, Chandler getting a new roommate, Eddie (played brilliantly by Adam Goldberg), and Ross and Rachel's burgeoning romance all make for classic television. I remember watching these episodes when they first aired, and at the time I was certain that Ross consummating his crush on Rachel would disturb the whole dynamic of the show. Ah, the folly of youth…
However, there were still some problems with Season Two. Phoebe's annoying folk songs are much more grating than amusing (and would slowly be fazed out of the show altogether). The habit of allowing several cameos from stars of other Must See TV shows like The Single Guy, Caroline and the City, Mad About You and ER is distracting. And Joey's stupidity makes him a one-note character, at this time the weakest on the show. But strangely enough, as the series progressed, Joey would eventually become the anchor of the series.
Classic episodes: "The One Where Ross Finds Out"; "The One with the List"; "The One Where Eddie Won't Go"
• Season Three
There aren't really any big changes between Season Two and Three. The characters continue to be on the cutting edge of fashion, Joey continues his slow rise to the show's funniest character and, shortly after breaking up with Rachel, Ross begins his descent to weakest.
The three-episode arc in which Ross and Rachel break up somehow manages to be both moving and painful and even funny. The strongest of the three episodes—"The One the Morning After"—is probably the best dramatic sitcom episode since Family Ties' "My Name is Alex." I'm sure it had adolescent girls across the country crying themselves to sleep the night it aired. At the time I remember thinking the eventual break up of their relationship would be the ruin of the show. Yeah, wrong again. Season Three manages to be the strongest yet, and the end of the Ross-Rachel relationship actually adds momentum to the show.
Classic episodes: "The One with Frank, Jr."; "The One Where Chandler Can't Remember Which Sister"; "The One the Morning After"
• Season Four
Season Four is the last great Friends season. I will outline later the problems, as they arise, but this year continues doing everything right, largely by focusing on the hilarious duo of Chandler and Joey while maintaining a perfect balance between comedy and pathos. Even in dramatic situations, such as when Chandler steals Joey's girlfriend, the show manages to be funny. In fact, this situation leads to the season's best episode, and one of the best of the entire series: "The One with Chandler in a Box." However, seeds of future discontent are sewn in the two-part season finale in London.
Classic episodes: "The One with the Jellyfish"; "The One with Chandler in a Box"; "The One with Free Porn"
• Season Five
Season Four ended with a great cliffhanger, in which Ross mistakenly says Rachel's name during his wedding ceremony with Emily. However, Season Five ultimately begins a dip in the show's quality that lasts for about three seasons. Make no mistake, over these three seasons Friends was still better than about 90 percent of any other sitcom. Still, the confluence of Ross becoming insufferably annoying, as well as the hook-up of Chandler and Monica (which breaks up the comedy tandem of Chandler and Joey), as well as a dearth of fresh storylines lead the show into its own Dark Ages.
Chandler and Monica's relationship is actually a welcome development in Season Five, and provides plenty of comedic fodder as they try to keep their romance a secret from the rest of the gang. However, this is the season that Ross becomes inexplicably stupid and wacky (see "The One with Ross's Sandwich"), while also completely jettisoning his previously endearing insecurity. Witness this season's worst episode, "The One Where Ross Can't Flirt," in which Ross brags about his prowess with women and then goes on to make a complete ass of himself in front of a pizza delivery girl. What makes the Ross character suddenly so insufferable is not that he suddenly considers himself a stud (perhaps this is derived from his relationship with Rachel), but that this behavior becomes delusional when paired with his consistent failure with women. This is not the Ross we fell in love with in Season One.
Classic episodes: "The One Where Everybody Finds Out"
• Season Six
In addition to previously stated problems with Ross, this season suffers from a hobbled Chandler. Not only is Matthew Perry swollen and puffy throughout the season (later ascribed to alcohol and drug problems), but he seems to lack much of the gusto that made his character one of the show's strongest. Of course, it doesn't help that Monica is nowhere near as effective as a comedic foil for him as Joey. Speaking of Joey, this is the season in which he—who was initially the show's weakest character—has to carry an absurd amount of the comedic load. Two of the season's best episodes—"The One with Joey's Porsche" and "The One With Mac and C.H.E.E.S.E."—both revolve around Joey. I also have to admire the two part episode "The One That Could Have Been," a glimpse into an alternate Friends universe.
Classic Episodes: "The One with Joey's Porsche"; "The One with Mac and C.H.E.E.S.E."; "The One That Could Have Been"
• Season Seven
The beginning of the season is marred by the sudden reemergence of Thin Chandler. While Matthew Perry is to be commended for losing the excess weight between seasons, he went a little too far, and suddenly looks emaciated. Exacerbating the oddity is that in the universe of Friends there is no time lapse between the end of Season Six and the beginning of Season Seven. It's pretty much as disorientating as a new actor taking over the role of Chandler. However, Perry looks better emaciated than puffy, and after a couple of episodes you get used to his new body type.
Additionally, as the season progresses the show begins to slowly reclaim its former glory. It rarely reaches the heights of Seasons Two, Three or Four, but it's much more consistent than the previous two seasons. However, "The One with the Nap Partners" is a good example of the perils of a long-running show that is beginning to run out of ideas.
Also, the show's writers have to be applauded for brilliantly casting Kathleen Turner as Chandler's transsexual father (and big ups to Turner for being a good sport in accepting the role).
Classic episodes: "The One with Joey's Award"; "The One with Chandler's Dad"
• Season Eight
Rachel's pregnancy and Joey's sudden adoration of Rachel provide the two solid, if not spectacular, storylines that propel Season Eight. For fans of Jennifer Aniston, this is likely to be one of their favorite seasons. While Aniston is clearly a talented comedic actress, I still cannot help but lament how funnier Joey is when paired with Chandler as opposed to the comely Rachel. This is evidenced in one of the season's best episodes, "The One with the Stripper," in which Monica thinks she is hiring a stripper to entertain Chandler and Joey, but mistakenly hires a hooker. This season also boasts the best celebrity cameo in the series' history: Brad Pitt, Aniston's real life husband, playing a former classmate of Rachel's who still harbors intense hatred for her.
Classic episodes: "The One with the Stripper"; "The One with the Rumor"; "The One with the Birthing Video"
• Season Nine
The series clearly begins winding down in Season Nine, as it almost entirely moves away from self-contained episodes to overarching storylines involving more adult issues like marriage and childrearing. While these issues are clearly not as fertile comedic ground as the youthful high jinx explored in the series' first half, Friends still manages to ease into old age gracefully. The show must also be given credit for allowing the lives of its characters to evolve gracefully over time—in stark contrast to Cheers and Seinfeld, in which the only difference between the series premier and finale is the extra wrinkles and receding hairlines.
I should add that the amiable Paul Rudd (Clueless) appears in so many episodes this reason in his role as Phoebe's boyfriend that he's practically a seventh Friend. While a bit of new blood is surely welcome, his character is rather bland and ultimately forgettable.
Classic episodes: None (As previously mentioned, while the show remained consistently strong, individual episodes rarely reached classic status in these golden years)
Grade: B +
• Season Ten
It's difficult to watch Season Ten without the niggling realization that this cultural phenomenon is coming to an end. Though this season is probably the show's weakest since Season Six, it still manages to amuse and entertain; it's like an aging athlete who is no longer dominant, but still able to contribute. The glaring weakness here is an unwelcome return of the unfunny, annoying, out-of-control Ross; he single-handedly ruins "The One Where Ross is Fine," an episode wasted on the joke that Ross pretends to be okay with Joey and Rachel dating, but is in fact acting like a complete madman (this is especially unfortunate because the two other subplots in this episode are great). And again, as in Season Eight, the relationship between Joey and Rachel is never really developed or justified. Still, the fact that the show remained relevant and amusing after 10 years is an amazing testament to Friends' almost unparalleled consistency.
While the last episode wraps up in a somewhat perfunctory fashion—like the understated but satisfying finale of Cheers—this is much, much preferred to attempting anything too fanciful—like the absurd, almost traumatizing finale of Seinfeld.
Classic episodes: "The One Where the Stripper Cries"; "The Last One"
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One irksome habit that began somewhere around Season Six was that one or two episodes a year would blend in about five minutes of new footage with 17 minutes of clips. I hate clip shows as much as the next guy, but at least with most clip shows you can skip them and move on to the next episode. In these, you've got to sit through 15 minutes of unsatisfying clips to enjoy the brief snippets of new storyline. For shame.
Sure, Friends is far from innovative, and its astronomical success prompted network executives to green light an abundance of sitcoms featuring young, hip urbanites. But its unthreatening humor and conventional drama somehow managed to captivate a nation, and only cynics and contrarians could deny the series' well-deserved acclaim.
For those who already own Friends on DVD, there will be little reason to upgrade to this set. The only extra that seems to be exclusive to this package is the 60-page collector's booklet. However, if you haven't yet purchased Friends, or you only own a couple of seasons, this set—with its elegant red box and sturdy packaging—will probably serve as both the nicest and most economical way to add the show to your collection.
Could it be any less guilty?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• 60-page Commemorative Book
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