Does that title sound complicated? It is. This isn’t a ranking of season finales, nor is it a ranking of premieres. Essentially, it’s a look at the journey from a finale to a premiere; from Point A to Point B. If you booked a ticket from Los Angeles to New York, it’s not a question of how’s the food is in LA and what shows you’re going to see in New York? This is literally asking the question, “How was your flight?”
What makes a good season finale of a sitcom?
Sitcoms follow a formula where, unlike other genres, failure is welcome and change is bad.
Unlike your “hero’s journey” where character’s leave, transform, and return, sitcoms don’t so much “return” as they “reset.” Characters rewind back to who they were at the start with any ‘change’ being redacted; often to the point where any attempt at change becomes the final punchline of the episode.
An example of this is TOW all the Resolutions — which is a clever play on sitcom structure. No one holds onto their New Year’s Resolutions, so whatever “permanent change” they set forth for the characters to do, can fizzle out without consequence. This is simultaneously a reflection of the sitcom structure and a mirror to society.
But you could pull any episode out and see how often the “attempt to change” results in failure over triumph. In TOW Ross’ Library Book as an example, Rachel (and Phoebe) try to break Joey’s habit of one-night stands. Erin (Charlotte York) is the catalyst for Rachel to challenge Joey’s pattern of behavior. In the end however, both Rachel and Joey recognize that Joey’s one-night stand routine is better left unchallenged.
You can see this whenever Joey auditions, or Chandler tries to quit his job, or Ross tries to tell Rachel he loves her. Failure is funny and more satisfying in a 22 minute runtime. If someone sets out to climb Mt. Everest, it’s less likely you’ll be satisfied if they’re successful in 22 minutes, so their
failure to complete the task works to the runtime’s benefit.
Ultimately, you have a Status Quo -> Problem -> Failure or Triumph -> Reset all snugly in 22 minutes. And that’s how most episodes work. A finale however has a much taller order.
Each season, we grow accustomed to the status quo for 20+ episodes, with each episode comforting the audience by resetting to the way things were. But a finale is a different beast. A finale should threaten to change the norm permanently. And this is what makes the journey to a premiere so interesting. A good premiere should deliver on the previous season’s finale.
What makes a good season premiere of a sitcom?
A good premiere should fulfill the fears and hopes of the previous season’s finale by giving us a look at the new normal.
This is one of the reasons I think Friends struggles with these premieres. For the most part, the premieres take place seconds after the finale. Instead of giving us a look at the new normal, the premieres feel tacked on (especially once Season 4 hits and they start doing 44 minute – 2 part – finales). Then the premiere becomes a 22 minute mad dash – after 44 minutes of buildup – to get back to the status quo. It’s why a finale can be funny, sentimental and inspiring and the premiere can undercut everything the finale stood for.
Moreover we grow accustomed to these 44 minute episodes to be more of a triumph than a failure. Starting with Season 4, look at all this positivity:
- Wedding (4 finale)
- Proposal (5 finale)
- Proposal (6 finale)
- Wedding (7 finale)
- Birth / Proposal (8 finale)
But the 22 minute premieres are typically about failure:
- Marriage is over (5 premiere)
- Redacted proposal (6 premiere)
- Can’t consummate / stolen thunder (7 premiere)
- Pregnancy (8 premiere – bit of an outlier, but you could view this as illegitimate child / stolen thunder)
- Redacted proposal (9 premiere)
Take Season 5 Finale to Season 6 Premiere as an example. Joey was the catalyst for the Vegas finale as he sought his big break as an actor. When he realizes it was a fool’s errand, rather than consider finding a new agent or perhaps even a new line of work – something that would organically follow – Joey instead seeks out his identical hand twin before carpooling back home to forget the whole thing.
Even for Joey, the narrative doesn’t add up.
But I digress. Let’s run through these transitions in no particular order.
A Good Finale-to-Premiere:
Season 1 to Season 2
(TOW Rachel Finds Out and TOW Ross’ New Girlfriend)
This is why Friends Season 1 to Season 2 is a good finale into a premiere. We spent season 1 with Ross and his unrequited love for Rachel with Rachel being oblivious.
Now Season 2 kicks off with the reverse dynamic (our new normal) wherein Rachel has unrequited love for Ross and Ross is oblivious. It’s an un-reset-able change.
Juxtapose that to Season 8 going into Season 9.
A Bad Finale-to-Premiere:
Season 8 to Season 9
(TOW Rachel Has a Baby and TOW No One Proposes)
Season 8 ends with Joey reawakening his feelings for Rachel, and Ross realizing he’s never going to be over Rachel and there is never going to be a more appropriate time to propose than now.
You’re left with hopes, expectations, and anticipation for the dynamics to change. As far as finales go, it’s fantastic… as far as finales-into-premieres goes, it’s the biggest slap in the face.
In TOW No One Proposes, nothing changes and nothing happens. Yes, Rachel has a baby but that was a foregone conclusion from the previous season finale. Instead, the show redacts the finale, refusing to payoff Ross and Rachel getting together, and even backing out of Joey and Rachel getting together.
Ultimately, it’s a psyche out that ends with everything being exactly as it was. While other finales-to-premieres do this, none do it quite to this degree.
Another Good One:
Season 9 to Season 10
(TO in Barbados and TO After Joey and Rachel Kiss)
Regardless of what camp you fall into with the Joey/Rachel romance, there’s no denying that this transition checks all the boxes.
Everyone who gets together in the finale (Phoebe and Mike, Ross and Charlie, and Joey and Rachel) all stay together (for awhile anyway). It shakes up the dynamics among the cast and creates a new normal.
The Joey and Rachel romance in the finale is the only thing that keeps this from being great however. I’m not a Joey/Rachel shipper, but Joey poking Rachel asking, “who do you like, tell me, tell me,” still makes me cringe as it feels like it was written by a 16yo.
Worse, Rachel acts uncharacteristically dumb.
But as far as transitions go, it works.
Season 3 to Season 4
(TO at the Beach and TOW the Jellyfish)
Ross and Rachel breaking up was a huge part of Season 3 with a lot of room for “will they/won’t they (again?)” so to end the season with them maybe getting back together does respect the season cumulatively… the issue is it’s all undercut by the premiere with information we already know, with scenes we’d already seen before. i.e.
My impression is this was the writers’ attempt to definitively say “we don’t want Ross/Rachel to be the whole show,” but, and if you’ll forgive the obtuse analogy, it’s like when The Discovery Channel’s Mermaid mockumentary caused such an uproar that the US government had to come out and say, “No, there is no evidence that mermaids exist.”
Rather than silence the mermaid fanatics however, they responded with “Why did the government feel the need to say mermaids don’t exist, why not dragons and fairies and unicorns, unless they do exist and they’re trying to bury the lead?”
Obtuse analogy aside, that’s how this finale-into-premiere plays out. Ross and Rachel are done – done! But… they just got back together for a hot minute, who’s to say that won’t happen again? That’s what happened mid-season 2 with TOW the List to TOW the Prom Video.
The point is, rather than dive in with a new normal. They just reiterate what was already done mid-season 3 which is Ross and Rachel are broken up. This undercuts the cliffhanger.
Meanwhile, Phoebe connecting with her biological mom is a big deal, but it’s overall impact is low. On some level this aids in setting up Phoebe’s pregnancy (which is her strongest arc) but that’s more due to the revelation that she has a half brother rather than a biological mother.
Another that undercuts the finale is Season 6’s premiere.
Season 5 to Season 6
(TO in Vegas and TO After Vegas)
Monica and Chandler were going to elope but instead Ross and Rachel get married. The premiere undercuts this by having Ross and Rachel get divorced and Monica and Chandler back out.
And I’m not saying Ross being divorced 3 times isn’t comedic gold and I’m not ignoring the fact that Monica and Chandler move in together (thus permanently changing the dynamic as it dissolves the backbone of the show, i.e. Joey/Chandler), but both of those changes were not set up.
In the Season 5 finale, Ross makes a point (when he mistakes Rachel’s naked dancing as a come on) to say this is nothing more than sex between friends.
The premiere however seeks to start Ross and Rachel up again with Ross suddenly being in love with Rachel. It’s inconsistent and while it does lead to humor, it wasn’t setup, so it feels inauthentic.
Meanwhile, Monica and Chandler backing out of getting married does feel appropriate, albeit disappointing. 50% of Season 5 was spent with Monica and Chandler hiding behind their friends’ backs, so to get married behind their backs would pay homage to the season, but it wouldn’t be right… of course, writing a small bit of dialogue where Monica says something like, “I don’t want to hide this from our friends this time,” wouldn’t have killed them either.
The other reason I’m sure they didn’t pull the trigger on this is Richard. Technically, Richard was the catalyst for them getting married, but he was an unseen force, “a harmless bite.” No doubt, they needed the confrontation with Richard to be done in the flesh, hence the subsequent Season 6 finale.
The Middle of the Road:
Season 7 to Season 8
(TOW Monica and Chandler’s Wedding and TO After “I Do”)
As a straight forward example, Season 7 is all about planning a wedding, so of course the finale will be a wedding (a culmination of its season). It threatens a new normal by making Chandler have cold feet and it keeps you guessing with a pregnancy lobbed into the mix. The Season 8 premiere pays off the cliffhanger by having the knowledge of Rachel’s pregnancy passed around and shared among most of the friends.
The thing with this kind of finale-to-premiere is it’s pretty tame. That’s not bad, but by this point in the show, we’ve seen a lot of weddings and a handful of pregnancies, so it’s not unfamiliar territory. A perfectly acceptable transition.
Season 4 to Season 5
(TOW Ross’ Wedding and TO After Ross Says Rachel)
I say Season 4 is a bit of an outlier, because I genuinely think they edited it wrong.
This one has the opposite problem of the subsequent seasons. Rather than undercut a finale with the premiere, it undercuts the finale with the finale of the finale.
Everything that could go wrong does go wrong. The in-laws aren’t getting along, the venue has been demolished, Rachel isn’t going, then Rachel is going but to ruin the wedding, Ross and Emily are fighting about postponing—and yet, through it all, they triumph. Rachel even backs out at the last minute and Ross and Emily wind up at the altar. This should’ve been where the finale ends, leaving fans to speculate “is Ross really getting married? When’s Emily gonna move to America because Ross is a jealous guy. Is it going to be weird for Ross and Rachel?” Anticipation was mounting and tension was ramping up to the very last second of the finale… and then Ross says “Rachel”.
Had they saved that bit of dialogue for the premiere, no doubt people would’ve been appalled. Hell, I’d be here saying, they just undercut the finale with a premiere, but I also believe in hindsight, that would’ve made a much larger impact than what we got. Nothing would’ve enhanced feelings of anticipation more than having Ross and Emily at the altar and fading to black “To be continued…” By having Ross say Rachel, we already know the marriage is doomed. By default then, the premiere is just going through the motions to get us back to the status quo.
I say I genuinely think they edited it wrong because Season 5 premiere starts with that small dialogue. It feels like someone mentioned that they need a “button” to go out on for the Season 4 finale, so they popped it into the finale last minute.
Season 6 to Season 7
(TOW the Proposal and TOW Monica’s Thunder)
Again, I’m strictly talking about transitions. Obviously — OBVIOUSLY — TOW the Proposal is one of the best Friends episodes… minus Chandler’s orange shirt.
But the premiere is wholly forgettable. TOW Monica’s Thunder isn’t bad, just unnecessary. What’s more, if EVER there was a time to replicate Season 2 to Season 3’s timeskip, this was it.
Not only because we just went through an emotional proposal, but Matthew Perry also looks like a different person. It shatters that veil of disbelief when you could’ve easily cut ahead 3 months and made a passing comment to the effect of, “Wow, Chandler, being engaged obviously agrees with you.”
The Best Finale-to-Premiere:
Season 2 to Season 3
(TOW Barry and Mindy’s Wedding and TOW the Princess Leia Fantasy)
A tight 22 minutes and the only season finale to not have a premiere pick up mere seconds after the finale.
The plots are simple:
- Ross and Rachel revisit Rachel’s past attending her wedding and previous life.
- Richard and Monica discuss their future.
- Chandler falls in love with a woman he meets online.
- Joey needs to practice kissing guys.
As far as finales representing a culmination of the season they represent, you have Ross and Rachel — who got together this season (with a flash of their past TOW the Prom Video) — and the overall impetus for Rachel falling back into Ross’ life was she ran away from Barry’s wedding (in the pilot).
In this finale, the Rachel story-line is the main one, but it’s fairly open and shut — which is respectable considering every other finale has a cliffhanger. That said, it’s not entirely a stretch to say that this episode signifies a bit of the passing of the torch. I stand by that Monica was supposed to be the “protagonist” in Seasons 1 and 2, but of all the friends, Rachel winds up going through the biggest change over the course of the series.
Season 3 is when Rachel goes from being a spoiled caricature to a real, grounded individual — which continues Season to Season — whereas Monica starts becoming more of a caricature as the seasons continue.
In any event, Rachel’s story line in this finale is a representation of the life she ran away from (in that sense, a culmination of Season 1 and 2). If she hadn’t run away, she’d have been at that table with Barry joining in on the mockery of some bridesmaid with her butt hanging out. But Rachel has grown, she has a job, and it has been hard, but she’s more fulfilled with who she is now despite it being a struggle. When she sings Copa Cabana, she sings it for her past self and turns her embarrassment (failures) into triumph. It’s awesome!
Meanwhile, Monica and Richard discuss their future and are equally heartbroken when they realize their visions (optometry reference) don’t align. For Monica, who spent the last two seasons trying to understand why the guys she dates keep treating her like crap, you immediately recognize this breakup as something greater. Monica found the guy, and yet she’s the one letting him go.
Even though their breakup is almost certain, it still functions as a cliffhanger, as it leaves enough room for speculation as the two sway on the dance floor and Richard quietly says, “I guess we just keep dancing.”
Chandler’s story is surprisingly foreshadowed quite at bit, most obviously though in TOW Mr. Heckles Dies wherein Chandler realizes he’s been too finicky with women and should see past their flaws. In a panicked state, he reaches out to Janice only to find out she’s pregnant and getting married. However, in the finale, Chandler, isolated from face-to-face confrontation, finds an equal online. She challenges him and he’s able to be objective having never seen her in person (that he knows of). When it turns out to be Janice, suddenly Chandler is fulfilled on a whole different level. It’s the shot he thought he missed.
Joey’s story-line meanwhile isn’t hugely impactful, but it does end with Ross kissing Joey. Given that Ross’ wife got married this season and he finally showed support for his gay ex, this was a big step and, in some ways, an indicator that he was genuinely ready to move on with Rachel. Getting past (some of) his own homophobia and “giving Carol away” at her wedding means he’s ready to go all-in with Rachel.
So, with all that in mind, it successfully pays tribute to the Season (and even the previous season) and sows enough promises (some more vague than others) to leave you to speculate what’s to come.
Then, as though that finale wasn’t enough, the premiere pays it back double.
1. The Time Lapse
The premiere allows everyone to breathe as it’s unclear how much time has passed. It may have been a few days, but could just as easily have been a few weeks or months. Regardless rather than “trying to assemble” a premiere based on a finale (by starting seconds after the finale left off), the show feels like the writers/characters have been living with the consequences of the finale since it happened. Which, whether you’re binge-watching or remember waiting 3-4 months for the show to pick back up again, it feels organic and effective.
The in-show impact is, it feels like Ross and Rachel have been dating for much longer; that Chandler and Janice have been together for much longer; and that Monica has been in mourning for much longer — all of which leads us to believe that this is the new norm, which brings us to point 2.
2. The Status Quo Has Been Changed
They do this with the cold opening in the premiere (TOW the Princess Leia Fantasy). The friends enter Central Perk, see that their usual spot is taken, and walk out not knowing what to do. The coffee house featured in nigh every episode for 2 full seasons… is occupied. The status quo has changed.
Meanwhile, all the expository dialogue to catch us up reinforces this.
Phoebe: Oh my God… has she slept at all?
Rachel: It’s been three nights in a row.
Ross: She finally stopped crying yesterday, but then she found one of Richard’s cigar butts on the terrace, so–
^She hasn’t slept in three days, but she finally stopped crying yesterday, implying that she’s been crying longer than she’s been sleepless. The timeline is super nebulous intentionally to not provide a clear indicator as to how long this has been going on.
For Chandler, Janice and Joey, it’s equally vague. When Joey asks Chandler:
Joey: Morning, hey, you made pancakes?
Chandler: (Scoffs) Yeah, like there’s any way I could ever do that.
Janice enters singing.
The significance of this isn’t that Chandler and Janice are dating, but that it’s the first time she spent the night and made breakfast in the morning. So when Joey asks Chandler when he’s dumping her, it’s not because they started dating yesterday but because Joey’s concerned their relationship has elevated to a deeper level of intimacy. He’s worried the status quo isn’t coming back; that Janice is sticking around.
We know this because later in the same episode when Janice forces Joey to have a “day of fun,” he asks:
Joey: Does it have to be a whole day?
Janice: Yes, because that’s how long it takes to love me.
Joey: I know… I sleep in the next room.
This solidifies the context as it means Janice and Chandler slept together the day they got together which was on (or around) the same day Monica and Richard broke up. So Janice and Chandler have been sleeping together, but he was surprised to see her the morning after because she’s must have been going back home after each night.
All of which catches us up and firmly establishes the new status quo.
3. Ross and Rachel (Will They / Won’t They)
One of the most brilliant choices Friends made was getting Ross and Rachel together mid-season and breaking them up mid-season.
Countless sitcoms live and die by their will-they/won’t-they dynamic. It’s a staple of the genre due to the nature of its structure. A sitcom is a Jenga tower. When you have “attempted change” followed commonly by “failure” followed by a “reset” in 22 minutes. Then every 10 second nugget of success feels monolithic; feels like progress.
Characters typically don’t grow or change much, but relationships do. This is how they can have the same quirks but every episode feels like it’s building towards something. And every time the characters fear they’ve ruined the relationship, we fear it could spell disaster since we’ve grown accustomed to failure (episode in and episode out).
This issue with a lot of sitcoms is they reserve this change-up in dynamics for season finales.
- Sam and Diane (Cheers)
- Get together Season 1 finale
- Break up Season 2 finale
- Nick and Jess (New Girl)
- Get together Season 3 finale
- Break up Season 4 finale
- Ted and Robin (How I Met Your Mother)
- Get together Season 1 finale
- Break up Season 2 finale
And I kinda get the meta-narrative of it, as Star-Lord said:
This Cheers-Sam-and-Diane-guy-and-girl-on-a-TV-show-who-dig-each-other-but-never-say-it-cus-when-they-do-the-ratings-go-down sort of thing?
Or to be less coy, let’s give this a season and “see what everybody thinks about that?”
But what Friends did is start midseason and not end until midseason. Keeping the couple strong in the premiere kept the audience feeling secure in their romance.
Even starting the season by having them dig deeper into their personal fantasies (such as princess Leia in the gold bikini) feels intimate, and Rachel’s willingness to go along makes it feel stable (even if she did get the hair wrong). By going strong through the finale and into the premiere, they also make us think Ross and Rachel (due to nebulous timelines) have been together for much longer. And they make us think they’re going to “make it.”
… which is why it’s so great to see “that girl from the xerox place” get mentioned in countless episodes before Rachel and Ross actually break up. Ross didn’t do this impulsively, he was emotionally cheating long before and the writers planted the seeds to pull the rug out from under us.
The beauty of transitioning (from Season 2 to Season 3) is almost all of the characters had something to do in the finale and all were impacted by the premiere of the third (even Joey whose plot was less important int he finale, is affected by Season 3’s premiere). What’s more, these threads aren’t resolved in the first episode or even the second, but are ongoing, longstanding changes. Too often, the premieres try to resolve everything quickly to get us back to the status quo, but Season 2 to 3 was about changing the status quo; creating the new normal.
And as an added bonus, it’s 22 minutes. It’s a transition that wastes no time and is all the better for it.