13-ish because there’s a few two-parters in here.
First, mandatory disclaimer, this is an opinion and I appreciate any and all people who disagree to voice it. Sometimes all it takes to change my mind on an episode is watching it with someone who likes it. Case in point, The Where Joey Speaks French is not on this list, but some six years ago, it would’ve been.
Second, I’m not including any clip shows. For anyone unfamiliar, clip shows are episodes that may have an original story but the bulk of the run time is made up of recycled footage; flashbacks; the “greatest hits”. Production wise, it’s usually when they don’t have enough time (i.e. due to scheduling) or to conserve budget, especially if they’ve gone over-budget elsewhere (say moving the entire cast to London). And if I’m being honest… I like a lot of the clip shows on Friends. If I’m bingewatching, I’ll skip, but taken independently, I’m on-board.
So what’s the criteria?
For me it’s fairly basic. How watchable is it? This is also why of the 236 episodes, there’s only 13 that I continually skip (or skip parts of) during a rewatch.
Usually what predicates me skipping the episode is how true the characters are to themselves. While not on the list, when Chandler doesn’t like puppies, that’s an example of something that’s fairly uncharacteristic of him and feels like someone had an idea for a storyline so they shoehorned it in.
Something that makes an episode unwatchable — even if the characters are behaving like themselves — is what “shade” it shows of them. I don’t like it when the friends are needlessly cruel or mean-spirited. Phoebe’s character in later episodes is known for this where she rips into her friends and it’s difficult to watch. I don’t mind episodes where characters have conflict. Chandler and Joey arguing over Kathy or Ross and Rachel breaking up (the first and second times) are beautiful and well-articulated. What’s difficult to watch is when the characters intentionally damage one another or are petty for no significant reason.
With that said, let the countdown (to 2021) begin!
#13. The One With The Baby On The Bus (S2E6)
Let me get this out of the way right now, this episode has one of my favorite jokes of all time.
Chandler: We have to assign heads to something.
Joey: Right. Ok, ok, uh, ducks is heads, because ducks have heads.
Chandler: What kind of scary-ass clowns came to your birthday?
However, this episode, has one of the strangest decisions ever. It has a musical guest star (like something out of a late show) play a dramatic song for 2 and a half minutes — it might be 40 seconds in the “edited” versions but even that’s too long.
While Joey and Chandler’s story-line is great:
- Joey and Chandler use baby to meet women.
- Women think the two are gay and they lose the baby.
- Joey and Chandler pretend to be gay to get the baby back.
The Monica/Ross storyline reduces the two to a shallow, infantile relationship (as the writers often do when it’s just the two of them) and it’s not fun to watch especially when you don’t have a third friend pointing out how juvenile they’re being.
Meanwhile, the Phoebe/Rachel storyline feels like it was written for a different show, in that it weirdly features Rachel’s boss, (the pre-Gunther) Terry, and a plot around Phoebe’s playing as though the writers thought that would be her main job.
Two highlights however are the introduction of Smelly Cat and the brief (and still easily canon) cameo of Giovanni Ribisi (Phoebe’s brother).
#12. The One With The Holiday Armadillo (S7E10)
I don’t hate this episode, but I do frequently skip it. Anytime Ross’ dogma is the focal point of an episode, I have a tough time watching because it feels like he’s forcing something on someone he doesn’t believe himself — thereby making it uncharacteristic of him. It’s not the hypocrisy that kills it, but how adamant Ross is about something that’s seemingly out of nowhere.
For other examples of Ross pushing his dogma, see when Ross is trying to convince Ben to give up the Barbie (TOW the Metaphorical Tunnel) or convince Phoebe her mom isn’t a cat (TOW the Cat) or when he needs Phoebe to believe evolution is real (TOW Mr. Heckles Dies) or nannies should be women (TOW Phoebe’s Rats). In a modern day, Ross’ behavior in these episodes is more akin to that friend who will watch a documentary and change their values for a few months based on its thesis. A “docma,” if you will.
That said, while the visual gag of Ross as an armadillo is funny, Ross pretending to be a different character (holiday armadillo) for the majority of the episode is not. Same with Chandler. It’s a lot of bellowing voices and visual gags that go on for too long.
Additionally, Ben’s not a great character and 8yo Cole Sprouse doesn’t have the charisma his 28yo future self.
The thing that makes this slightly more entertaining is the side plot with Phoebe, Rachel and Joey wherein Phoebe’s trying to get Rachel to move back into their apartment by buying gifts for Joey that will annoy Rachel — it’s perhaps the most sitcom-y plot imaginable and therefore balances out some of the costume shenanigans next door.
#11. The One After Vegas (S6E1)
I’ve droned on about this episode before, so I’ll try to keep this one brief, but my main issue with this episode is it takes the momentum of the previous season’s finale and pulls the emergency brake. Monica and Chandler were ready to get married and suddenly both back out. Additionally, Joey was still thinking this was his big break, but pivots hard to the ludicrous identical hand twin idea and Ross and Rachel wander try to figure out what the audience already knows.
The other facet of this episode that bothers me is the attempt at another “new location finale”. Vegas is not as exciting as London and part of that may be because they were actually in London whereas Vegas, despite best efforts, never feels like Vegas. Everything feels like a set; like a Polly Pocket landscape. And the flat sitcom styled lighting doesn’t translate the vibrant, neon slot machines of a casino. Essentially what I’m saying is, Central Perk feels more like a real location than the Vegas in Friends. And this consistently pulls me out of the episode.
The one thing I can give this episode credit for is I do appreciate that this lays the groundwork for the ongoing joke of Ross having “3 divorces”. However, after a two-parter in makeshift Vegas, I was eager to get back to the purple apartment.
#10. The One In Barbados (S9E23&24)
If Vegas felt cheap, Barbados is bankrupt. I’ll get to the characters and storylines in a minute, but first and foremost is the set design for Season 9. I remember watching these on DVD and thinking the windows must be an error. I truly believed that when the episodes aired, they must’ve had the beaches in Barbados streaming live in the window and they must’ve lost the rights once coming to DVD so they put in placeholder images — but no. More effort went into the Season 3’s beach house than Season 9’s Barbados.
They have still images of waves and obvious indoor plants outside the windows. All this might’ve sounded good on paper, but there’s a callout in the script to look out the window which draws the attention to these cheaply made backdrops.
But the set is nothing compared to the behaviors of the main cast which feels more like embittered writers than the characters. Even if you’re a Joey/Rachel shipper (I’m not), neither behave as they normally would. They dumb down Rachel in these episodes and Joey suddenly becomes a child. It genuinely makes me cringe when Joey behaves like a middle schooler, poking Rachel’s belly, begging her to tell him who she likes. (I refer to these as mantis-moments where the cringe is so bad my arms fold up like a mantis.)
Regardless of where you stand on the Rachel/Joey lines, neither character acts like themselves, besmirching both camps in the process. I get the Joey/Rachel shipping, I think their storylines as roommates are perfect, finally providing a perfect replacement to Joey/Chandler storylines of yore. But it’s like the writers said, if you like these two together, we’ll remove everything you liked about them and force them together and if you don’t like these two together, we’ll shamelessly add behaviors on them to make you see it. It’s rough, which is a bummer because I actually like the last 30 seconds of this episode — with the music playing, Charlie and Ross getting together and Joey making a confident/determined return to Rachel’s room to steal a kiss.
Within this two-parter, there’s also the final appearance of David (the Scientist Guy) who gets a raw deal. I wouldn’t mind a storyline where David proposes and Phoebe reveals she’s not the same person she was 9 years ago and she’s fallen out of love with David.
(Maybe even wrap up the Ursula storyline with David so he can exit the way Julie and Russ did.)
But rather than have some sentiment for David’s sendoff, he’s the butt of the joke, which begs the question, why bring David back at all? And of course, the answer can only be because it worked with their Season 6 finale when Richard returns to Monica’s life. It feels like David was brought back, not because they had a plan for him, but because they thought they could recapture the magic of the Season 6 finale with Monica and Richard.
Yes, David has a history with the show, but not to the degree Richard did. Richard is present even in seasons where Tom Selleck never appears. Plenty of episodes feature references to Richard which is part of his legacy. David has no such acclaim and this is partly why their story falls short.
Then there’s a ping-pong match with Mike and it’s okay.
#9. The One Where Nana Dies Twice (S1E8)
This episode is one of the strangest. It doesn’t feel like a Friends episode. I get that it’s season 1 and they’re still finding their footing. I’d also heard (somewhere) that season 1 was built upon unused Seinfeld scripts, but as far as my criteria goes, the whole episode feels uncharacteristic of the series.
Part of the issue is the set pieces and timeline. Despite being fairly standard/linear, it leaps from one location to the next without offering a satisfying conclusion or return to previous scenes. It starts at Chandler’s work, goes to the coffee house, then into the hospital, followed by Nana’s home, followed by a cemetery stroll, followed by the wake, followed by reconvening in the coffee house and Chandler’s office. I get that the premise of the episode is “Nana dies twice” but it seems like they should’ve gone from:
Coffeehouse -> Wake
You could draft shenanigans and hijinks limited to both locations.
The other thing that makes this episode feel off is how each scene is buttoned with a moment full of sap. Be it Ross being rained on by Sweet N’ Lows or the ensemble looking at photos on the coffee house couch and commenting on “me and the gang at Java Joes” … “Huh looks like a fun gang.”
That sequence in particularly is a mantis moment, where the gang stares down as the camera slowly zooms out to show you “get it?! Do you get it? They’re the current fun gang frozen in a moment in time?!” Yeah, we don’t need the camera to tell us how to feel. It’s the cinematic equivalent of explaining the joke — otherwise known as the Big Bang Theory writers room.
Speaking of jokes though, where are they? I think half the reason they have a scene of Ross falling into a grave is so they can explain why Ross is drugged and add “some” comedy. Being drunk or drugged for a sequence usually squeezes out a few giggles.
#8. The One Where Phoebe Runs (S6E7)
I feel like Phoebe’s some form of wine that just doesn’t pair with the other flavors of Friends. Personally, I adore the Pottery Barn episode, but any episode where she’s going one-on-one with another character typically something doesn’t feel right. Or, as my wife says, “You can’t argue with crazy.”
Anyway, the running thing is silly and while I appreciate physical comedy (and the filming outside), it feels out of place and a little desperate. I gotta give the writers credit, you could see how hard they tried to make Phoebe/Rachel roommationship work… before they burned it down and found better fits elsewhere.
Weighing this episode down further is the introduction of Janine. Another roommationship that would suffice as a one-off joke, but instead serves as a launch pad to the slogging Janine storyline. The conclusion of this individual story is unfulfilling by the virtue of trying to keep Janine around. Had it ended with Joey’s pent up sexual energy coming out and the two of them sleep together, then you could easily wrap up the episode with Joey sleeping on Chandler and Monica’s couch because he can’t go back to the apartment since Janine lives there and he doesn’t want to “live at the supermarket.”
Finally, the C-storyline of Chandler cleaning and putting everything back wrong is okay. In a better episode, it’s a completely passable, first-world problem, C-storyline, but in this episode it drags on an already heavy episode.
#7. The One With Ross’s Teeth (S6E8)
If not for Ross’ teeth and the awkward date that ensues, I think this would be lower on my list. Ross and his bread is the saving grace of this episode.
That said, the plot largely revolves around Joey being effeminate with his new roommate Janine and Chandler having a problem with it for… “reasons.”
Look, I can argue Chandler needs his “guys to be guys” because of his dad and blah blah blah, but the reality is Chandler’s not that guy. He’s full of sentiment and feelings and overthinking. And while he may not like being misconstrued as gay, he wants to know what bracket he falls in if he were gay. Ultimately, Chandler needing Joey to “man up” feels more like a writer needed someone to point out to Joey that he’s changing. It’s not reflective of Chandler’s character, but a writer’s tool… and, especially in 2021, it doesn’t age well.
Meanwhile, they try to make Phoebe/Rachel work by pulling Phoebe into Rachel’s work life. But the whole Phoebe-making-out-with-Kenny-the-Copy-Guy-thinking-it’s-Ralph-Lauren doesn’t make a lick of sense to me. I don’t understand this joke and it’s the foundation of the plot. I have puzzled over the following dialogue exchange for years:
Rachel’s boss: We’ve all been there.
Rachel: You and Ralph?
Rachel’s boss: Kenny the copy guy.
I don’t get it. Is she saying that was Kenny in the elevator with them or she turns to Kenny when she needs a Ralph fix? What is happening? Why is this funny?
Considering Rachel is mostly playing off a “wall” of a character — whose completely changed since TOW Rachel Smokes (S5E18 — it’s a slog to get through these scenes. Plus, if you’re going to rewrite Rachel’s boss, why even bring back the same actress?
#6. The One With Monica’s Thunder (S7E1)
I feel like the joke here was supposed to be, “You stole my thunder,” which is marketable and is still meme’d so I guess, mission accomplished? This episode’s just strange.
It feels like the thought process was “it’s the premiere, so we need to remind viewers Monica’s engaged now. How could we do that? Well, Monica likes to win and being engaged is equal to winning ‘dating’ for her, so she’d literally be screaming it from the rooftops,” then they had a chuckle and said, that’ll be our cold open!
And then they put a pin in that idea, spent their days writing the remaining episodes and then, a week before airing, forgot they needed to finish writing episode 1. The result? They only had the usual “sets” since they’d finished the rest of the season, so they decided to do a “bottle” episode.
The thing with bottle episodes that don’t stay in one location is they feel dishonest. The beauty of TOW No One is Ready has far less to do with it being in one location and everything to do with it being 22 minutes in real time.
All I mean to say is it’s a dishonest bottle episode that’s unfocused. You’ve got Chandler with ED, Joey trying to play a 19yo, Phoebe auditioning to play at their wedding, and Ross and Rachel trying to have a one-night stand.
While Monica being upset comes across as petty, it’s plausible. I mean 24 episodes ago, Rachel and Ross got married before her and she wasn’t jealous, and not 24 episodes later, when Rachel is pregnant at her wedding, she’s not bitter. Monica’s ire is plausible albeit a little uncharacteristic. So that said, this episode has an easy fix: everyone needs the end goal.
Part of what makes TOW No One is Ready work is, despite everyone having their own “thing” going on (Chandler / Joey with the chair; Monica leaving Richard a voicemail), they ultimately all have the same goal: go to Ross’ work thing. If they wanted TOW Monica’s Thunder to work, they should’ve had a collective goal. In this case, everyone wants to have sex.
Chandler keeps trying to pull Monica into their bedroom, but Monica’s frustrated with Rachel. Ross keeps trying to pull Rachel into her bedroom, but Rachel’s frustrated with Monica. Meanwhile, give Joey the ED. You can have the same beats but a better payoff.
- Chandler and Monica head to their room, but get interrupted by Phoebe playing outside the door.
- Ross and Rachel kiss in the hallways, but get interrupted as Monica kicks Phoebe out, thus starting the “stolen thunder” bit.
- All the shouting brings Joey out of his room where he yells at them to “keep it down” — the friends clap back telling Joey he sounds like an old man.
- Monica pulls Chandler back into their room proclaiming loudly to Rachel that they’re going to not use a condom and get pregnant (taking the thunder back), this results in Chandler, not wanting to have sex being terrified of the potential repercussions.
- Meanwhile, Joey confides in Phoebe on the couch about how the “old man” affected him because he’s having an ED moment. It can ultimately lead to the Phoebe saying Joey’s not old, maybe he just needs to spice it up. This gives Joey an idea and he leaves.
- Chandler exits the room saying he won’t do it, they need to take it one step at a time. This admission outside the room leads to Ross and Rachel leaving the purple apartment to to have sex next door. Joey however has setup a camera or trapeze or something unknown that causes them to back out of his apartment.
- Joey chases them all back into the purple apartment, making some old-fashioned comment about how they’re acting like teenagers parading their sex lives and can’t they give the seasoned souls some privacy. Phoebe asks him how it went and Joey says “adding spice” isn’t working, so she suggests music, i.e. playing outside his apartment.
- Monica and Rachel finally have it out in the living room going through the dialogue of “you’ve stolen my thunder before” etc. But it ultimately leads to their resolution i.e. I wanted to sleep with Ross because I was sad. They hug it out. Ross won’t be having sex tonight, etc.
- Joey reenters and Chandler has that same scene (from the actual script) but with slightly different context wherein Chandler claims to have heard about Joey’s problem and asks if Phoebe’s singing helped. Of course it didn’t, so Chandler asks what Joey did to cure his ED and he says, “I did it anyway.”
- Then the stinger at the end of the episode where Phoebe is playing outside Monica and Chandler’s room has a double meaning wherein Phoebe thinks she’s helping the romance, but Chandler comes out to give her money to stop.
I’m sorry to fanfiction that episode, my point in doing so is to illustrate that you can make a more functional story with better payoffs. There’s a missed opportunity in this episode and in some ways, that makes it worse. It’s as low as it is on this list because unlike other episodes where there are sections I like, all 6 friends plots in this one leave me wanting more.
#5. The One Where Monica Sings (S9E13)
I don’t like this episode for a few reasons, but here’s the main two:
First: the infantilization of characters (in this case Ross and Rachel).
Rachel pretending to be sick to not confront Gavin as well as not telling Ross from the get-go is a means to an end. It’s written to fill the need of the episode and not the character. Same with Ross inviting a random (and crazy) woman up the apartment to pretend he’s moved on. I understand why this episode happens, it’s to have Rachel move out, but this didn’t need to be a juvenile blowup, it could’ve been something more which leads to the second reason I don’t like it.
Second: squanders the Gavin opportunity.
Gavin’s never given a chance to make an impact on Rachel’s love life. My assumption is they thought they could either go the Gavin route or Joey route and they chose Joey so Gavin had to go, but it’s truly a missed opportunity we don’t see a full fledged Gavin/Rachel romance. This is Gavin’s final episode and even his departing line dialogue where Rachel asks, “Rodeo clown?” and Gavin responds, “One of the best, ma’am” is the ultimate teaser. There was a lot lurking under the surface. Gavin challenged Rachel, wasn’t subservient to her, and the breadcrumbs were laid out for how he and Rachel wouldn’t work out.
Rachel cuts her maternity leave short to go back to work and spends an episode struggling to balance work with motherhood. Meanwhile, the baby doesn’t bother Gavin in the slightest and even volunteers to babysit, but he doesn’t know how to be a father; he goes to shake the baby’s hand for chrissakes.
In the same vein of Monica and Richard breaking up because they want different things, there could’ve been a real romance between Gavin and Rachel that doesn’t work out because she realizes she’s a mother first and has to consider not only what’s best for her, but Emma as well.
Considering the later episodes of Friends didn’t shy away from heavy subject matter (such as infertility), this could’ve been Rachel’s big romance outside of Ross or Joey (or Joshua). Unlike a Janine whose introduction is always a reminder we’re in for a slog for the next 4 episodes, Gavin’s introduction is glorious and his departure comes too soon.
As for the other storylines, Chandler doing Joey’s eyebrows is strange and is a forgettable storyline. The only other story is Monica’s nips showing during karaoke. Even if I could get behind the song (I can’t), it showcases the worst side of Phoebe (especially into the later seasons) where she can’t be bothered to help a friend out, just watch them crumble. She and Mike serve as a peanut gallery snarking at their friend. If Mike’s tip jar became a bigger part of the plot, I could see this storyline working where Mike and Phoebe are simultaneously criticizing Monica for not wearing a bra but also ashamed that it’s bringing them in money. This way, it plays out more like when Phoebe’s “jogger” boyfriend had his genitals popping out. She won’t say anything because it’s covering the rent, but is frustrated Monica hasn’t realized this yet, because the sooner she does her conscience will be clear.
But Delta Dawn sucks.
#4. The One After The Superbowl (S2E12)
I get it, it’s after the superbowl, it’s an honor, it’s multi-million (billion?) dollars in advertising and premium time slots. It’s a big deal… but you can feel the bloat. This is episode is the visual equivalent of how a 30yo digestive track handles a Little Caesar’s $5 pizza. Not only are there are barrage of cameos, but every scene feels anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes too long.
For instance, there’s no excuse for how long Ross spends talking to the janitor at the zoo; moreover, there’s no excuse for how long Ross spends at the zoo. 3 scenes. THREE!! And they’re not good. With “jokes” ranging from:
But y’know, there’s an old saying, ‘Sometimes monkeys die.’
to attempts at seemingly improvised observational comedy
Word on the street — well, when I say street, I mean those little pretend streets they have here at the zoo.
^which breaks his character/fourth wall considering this guy thinks the zoo is a conspiracy-laden coverup.
to a montage with Marcel and Ross roaming around the city.
It’s a lot of episode. And while I actually enjoy Joey dating his stalker (and its resolution) as well as Chandler dating Susie Underpants, neither storyline makes up for the fact that this is a looong episode with a lot of fat that could’ve been trimmed.
Also, there’s something off-putting about the Drew Barrymore wanting to be in a threesome joke. Like, Jean Claude Van Damme jokes that he can break a walnut with his butt and it seems like he’s in on the joke. But when you claim Drew Barrymore disappointed she can’t have a threesome, it feels like they’re making a joke at her expense. It feels spiteful. I don’t like it.
To make matters worse, the whole fight between Monica and Rachel is as shallow as it is petty. Even the destruction of their sweater and purse seems way too extreme for someone they’re both attracted to. I don’t like it.
And Phoebe with the librarian is so strange, partially because it seems like this is taking place in the same day, but some lines imply it’s happening over the course of the week? It’s unclear and partially because realistically, what parent would put up with these songs for more than 15 minutes?
It’s a bloated mess and makes me think TOW All the Football was their redemption episode. It’s what, given a do-over, they should’ve played after the superbowl.
#3. The One With The Cake (S10E4)
I won’t dive into much more detail on this one. I’ve gone over it at length in my Seasons 1-5 vs 6-10: Staying Together, Growing Apart review as I believe this is the inverse of TOW No One Is Ready.
A quick summary though (for those who don’t want to click around), is the friends act like they don’t want to be friends. None of them have time for one another and rather than all of them having a good time hanging out in the apartment, they are all at each other’s throats to leave.
What’s more is it’s a dishonest bottle episode in that it almost takes place entirely in one setting, but they felt the need to showcase Ross and Rachel in the car.
I truly believe this episode has meta-narrative weight, as though this was the episode that the creators used to project their feelings of being done with the series.
#2. The One Where No One Proposes (S9E1)
This is another I mentioned at length in my Season Finales into Premieres analysis, so I’ll refrain from going into too much repetitive detail here, but the thing that drives me nuts with this episode is how cartoonish each scene plays out. It’s not just that the characters keep getting interrupted and therefore continue to believe and spread false information, but even when they have 1-on-1 time, they play coy to pad the running time and conflict.
I hate how long this scene goes before someone states what we’ve been waiting 20 minutes to hear:
Ross: Listen, I um… I heard about the engagement.
Ross: And confused. Rache, sweetie, I…I didn’t propose to you.
Rachel: I know.
Ross: I don’t think you do.
Rachel: You didn’t propose to me. Joey did.
Ross: Poor baby, you’re so tired. Rache, I didn’t propose to you, Joey didn’t propose to you, and Chandler didn’t propose to you.
It should be known that this might be one of the most subjective ones on this list. I hate this episode for the same reason I didn’t like The Catcher in the Rye. I hate when characters are too stubborn. Any other hamatia, and I’m typically on board. Selfishness? Sure. Anger? Absolutely. Stubbornness? No. That’s where I draw the line. And believe you me, I get it, it’s a fantastic writer’s device that can prolong the truth and increase audience anticipation, but it makes me want to pound my head against a wall; or better yet, crane my neck in front of a revolving door and let rush hour do the trick.
TOW No One Proposes is a copout and it trips over itself like a newborn giraffe trying to place in the 100m dash.
#1. The One That Could Have Been (S6E15)
Given my thesis, I’m sure this comes as no surprise. The “What If” episode is my least favorite episode of Friends. I haven’t watched this episode in 10 years. It’s a waste of time and not because it’s not “canon” but because we witness the characters we know, just skewed enough that they’re unrecognizable. This episode plays like a dream, full of situations and people you know, but somehow unfamiliar.
And it doesn’t help that it’s an obnoxious 44 minutes.
The biggest issue I have though is it’s a missed opportunity. I’m no stranger to “what if” episodes in long-running shows. Hell, some of my favorite Hercules: The Legendary Journeys episodes are when Kevin Sorbo threw his back out so the episodes take place in the 1990s with the cast trying to figure out how to do an episode without Sorbo, but I digress.
With the exception of Phoebe, none of the cast’s “what if” scenarios are changed enough to make them interesting or engaging. They either fall into old tropes/jokes that we’ve already seen played out (Rachel/Joey/Monica) or foreshadow comedic elements that work better canonically later (e.g. Ross’ karate into the Unagi episode; Chandler quitting his job and going into marketing; Joey getting back onto Days of our Lives and pursuing Rachel).
It’s that the episode simultaneously stays too close to home and doesn’t veer far enough from the status quo.
From the onset, the episode’s premise is flawed, if none of the things that brought these characters together happened, would they still hang out? The answer is no, but they play fast and loose with history.
For instance, we know Monica lives in the purple apartment due to some rent controlled, inherited, illegal loophole. We can assume “canonically” this led to her telling Chandler, “hey there’s an apartment across the hall from mine that’s available” when she found out her brother’s friend was looking. Given that once Monica became skinny, she caught Chandler’s attention, if she never became skinny, the implication is she wouldn’t have caught Chandler’s attention. And if she told him there’s an apartment across from hers, it’d probably play out with Chandler saying, “H’oh kay.”
Meanwhile, Rachel’s character becomes the trust fund, spoiled princess joke that’s been played out. We’ve seen this behavior in Rachel in Season 1, we’ve seen it with her friends who cameo and, not 1 episode prior, we saw this with her sister Jill (Reese Witherspoon) for 2 episodes (S6E13 & 14). The joke is played out, but we get yet another 2 parter featuring the same joke. Given that Rachel, moreso than all the other characters, has grown exponentially since the show’s inception, all this episode does is remind us this version of Rachel is terrible. And while a fat, virgin, nerdy Monica has some charm, the spoiled rotten Rachel does not.
Joey in this case makes for a good foil to Rachel as part of Joey’s charm comes from him being broke and unsuccessful in his career. It’s humbling. So the premise of, “what if he was never humbled?” effectively translates to, what if Joey was unrelateable? He becomes one-dimensional, lucky in love, lucky with women. He has no obstacles to overcome, making him a JCVD (in Friends canon) icon. And, look, I get this was 18 years ago… but imagine they maintained the thing that Joey was insecure about when he landed the Days of our Lives job, i.e. he got the job because he slept with the producer. What if Joey was actively pursuing indie, art house movies and TV shows because his role on DOOL was built upon a sexual exchange? It’s a sitcom, so you don’t need to explore the Harvey Weinstein MeToo aspect, but you can easily build an entire episode around a career that was “gifted” rather than “earned.”
Moving on to Chandler. The thing with Chandler’s storyline is it works in opposition to to their premise. The idea being, “hey, if Monica was still fat, you two never would’ve gotten together.” It’s intriguing, but rather than explore that, they reveal, “yes, if Monica was fat you two never would’ve gotten together… unless you were a shlubby, out-of-work comedian struggling to make rent.” This could’ve been interesting if Chandler still had a high paying job but he doesn’t. So how would you fix this? Simply make his “what if,” what if his parents had never broken up? i.e.
“When my parents got divorced, I started using humor as a defense mechanism.”
It’s Chandler except he doesn’t make jokes. You’d get Matthew Perry acting against type and maybe what eventually pulls Chandler and Monica together is he makes her laugh. That makes Chandler feel good and that’s what causes them to spending more time together and falling in love. It’s a two-parter, you can spend time doing that.
Ross’ scenario was always strange to me. I get that his “what if” is more of a Monkey’s Paw, i.e. “imagine if Carol hadn’t realized she was a lesbian” instead of “imagine if Carol wasn’t a lesbian.” I mean I understand why they did this. They wanted Ross to continue being the dreary character we met in Season 1 except it’s because he’s in a loveless marriage. And while I get that he’s sympathetic because he’s pathetic, again, Ross we know from watching the previous 5 seasons that Ross is a cheater. Typically, he only cheats with one person (Rachel), but why not play that up. Ross is in a happy, loving marriage. Maybe they’ve got three kids, but the minute Rachel reenters his life, he starts thinking “what if…” You could have some incredibly poignant (as well as comedic) moments where Ross debates with himself whether or not to pursue Rachel. On the one hand, this is a girl that always saw him as Monica’s geeky older brother, on the other, it’s Rachel. Is it worth risking everything he’s built for a chance to date her? I’m not saying this would make Ross likeable — I’m almost certain it wouldn’t — but it would make his story compelling. And in the end, his story could play out much more like Rachel’s in the actual story, where he comes home and finds out Carol is cheating on him, but rather than be crushed by this revelation, Ross reacts positively to this and sees it as a sign he should try with Rachel.
To be fair, I think Phoebe and Monica’s what if scenarios are done well. I think Phoebe is a completely different character and her segments are hilarious. And Monica is an example of “what if” but done within the canon we know. The problem is it’s a two-parter and the rest of the characters are too frustrating for these two characters to elevate the scenes enough to merit watching.
And that’s my list. What better way to celebrate 2020s conclusion than with the worst episodes of my favorite tv show? If I’ve learned anything from compiling this list, it’s that, I don’t like Monica and Rachel are fighting and apparently, I don’t like musical numbers in Friends. Go figure.
All of this is leading me on a new spiral though in which I’m curious about the actual writers of these episodes, I wonder if there’s some overlap between episodes I don’t like and the writers behind them and likewise — since it is a new year dawning — if there are some writers responsible for my favorite episodes, but alas, I’ll save that for 2021.
Happy New Year!