tow underdog gets away

109: TOW Underdog Gets Away: And Mario Gets His Tots

Plot Summary – Review

A storyline – Monica prepares hosts Thanksgiving for the first time and caters to myriad needs.
B storyline – Ross skeptically talks/sings to his baby-to-be.
C storyline – Joey’s modeling leads to a gross misconception about his health.

I love the opening scene to this episode, 99% for how relatable it is. Anyone who has ever had a job and asked for a raise without the wealth of “job experience” has done this song and dance. Between Rachel’s unquantifiable “merit” of “I’m trying really hard” and her response to the severe, negative criticism from her boss being the diplomatic swallow-your-pride, “I’m with you!” Followed by the punchline where Rachel asks the audience (clients/coworkers) what they think to a resounding, “You could do a better job.” It hurts in that, “funny because it’s true” way. In this way too every episode brings Rachel down to Monica’s level where she’s scraping by and takes the shots to her jaw because what else can she do? She’ll take the criticism if it means she can borrow some money from mom or get paid. Her friends are her confidantes.

Moving right along, Monica informs her older brother, Ross, that they won’t be spending Thanksgiving with their parents and this is a classic younger sibling to older sibling maneuver wherein, you have the most up-to-date information, but the older refuses to accept it. Pitch perfect!

Monica then corrals the group to find out who is going to be at her first Thanksgiving dinner. Phoebe is the first to realize she’s free and will be joining them.

A Good Phoebe is a Space Cadet

This is the characterization of Phoebe I’ve always enjoyed and prefer. Depending on the writer (and season) Phoebe’s humor will change, but this is my favorite. Someone who is honest to a fault and is simply spacey. When Monica asks Phoebe if she’ll be spending Thanksgiving with her grandmother, Phoebe says, “Yes, but we’re celebrating Thanksgiving in December ‘cus he’s lunar,” leaving Monica to nudge her to the present by asking, “So you’re free Thursday then?” And Phoebe, oblivious to the cue, is excited to participate, “Oooh! Yeah, Can I come?”

She does this moments later when Ross leaves to visit Carol. Not only does this dump some healthy exposition for anyone who’s forgotten (or watching for the first time) but keeps her spaceyness on point:

Ross: Well, I’m off to Carol’s–
Phoebe: Ooo! Why don’t we invite her?
Ross: Ooo, ooo, because she’s my ex-wife, and will probably want to bring her — ooo, ooo — lesbian life partner.

In one exchange they reestablish Carol’s Ross’ ex, due to her being a lesbian and keep everyone’s character intact. It’s great!

Sidebar: I did not realize Phoebe’s grandma’s boyfriend was an ongoing plot until this moment.

Meanwhile… at Carol and Susan’s.

Historians will chronicle this scene as brilliance on the part of the showrunners. I say this for a handful of reasons: 1) Carol has been recast. The blonde we knew has suddenly been swapped meaning, if Ross entered the apartment and we were greeted with Carol, we might be taken aback (i.e. that’s not Ross’ ex, who is this?) because 2) we’ve never seen Carol and Susan’s apartment. So to bypass issues 1 and 2, they have the canonical Susan bridge our knowledge so we can connect the dots on our own. Now obviously, Ross wouldn’t rendezvous at Carol’s if Susan were there however if Carol were there, then we wouldn’t have a “scene” since she’d immediately know where the skull Ross is looking for is, and hand it back to him. However, because Carol’s at a conference, we recognize Susan in this unknown location and can have a scene between Ross and Susan that wouldn’t happen otherwise because they need to find the skull. Structurally, I love this.

As a scene, it’s a little weak. I like that we get the impression Ross and Carol are increasingly amicable and not… say fighting over who gets the skull:

And I do love Susan (Jessica Hecht), but I have to say, something about her voice makes me acutely aware they’re on a stage. When she says her lines, it feels like she’s forcing herself to “throw” her voice, like she doesn’t know how to speak from her diaphragm or she’s not mic’d or something. I don’t know what it is exactly, it just doesn’t sound as natural. And to her credit, it never “looks” unnatural — she doesn’t “look” like she’s shouting across a stage — just sounds a little off. And with that said, I can’t rule out the possibility that it’s a choice because when she does bring her voice down to deliver a comedic line like, “Bobo the sperm guy” it’s excellent.

Joey’s Disease

Earlier, Joey revealed he’s become a model with his first gig being for the health clinic. Cut to Joey on the subway where he sees an attractive and (in my opinion) sophisticated looking woman.

Joey spots her and, while I don’t doubt there’s an attraction, he seems genuinely interested in making a human connection on the subway. He doesn’t go into this interaction with “How you doin'” or tells her upfront that she looks incredible, instead he just reminds her they used to work together. And here’s what’s great about this scene, if you had it on mute, it’d look like your typical meet-cute since you can see the initial trepidation of talking to a stranger on a subway, but gradually they warm up and smile and quickly boils into a flirtation.

But the part that genuinely kills me is the dialogue. This woman — who looks sophisticated — is genuinely proud of how well she “spritz-es” people; like it’s a calling. And the thing about Joey is he’s sincere with his compliment. He genuinely thinks she’s great which is what makes Joey such a more empathetic playboy than say a Sam Malone (Cheers) or a Barney Stinson (How I Met Your Mother). Sam Malone and Barney will happily lie to convince women to sleep with them; if all either of them knew of the girl was that she spritz, they’d do the typical attack/defense of:

Sam/Barney: You’re so much better than that job.
Girl: Actually I really liked it.
Sam/Barney: And you were the best, I mean, when you spritz, people gave pause.

Typical playboy characters will feign love and romance (and confidence). The thing with Joey is, he believe this subway lady is the best in the business of spraying and he does think it’s remarkable. It’s “luck” that she genuinely takes pride in it as well. And this is what many sitcoms miss in an empathetic playboy character, make the come-ons mutual.

While there’s no doubt Joey was attracted to her, we know two things A) he didn’t ask her out when they used to work together, so clearly, something had him keep a respectful distance and B) he’s speechless by her much more forward come-on, “What are you wearing?” “Nothing.” Joey is taken aback, he smiles and averts his gaze; blushing half with excitement, half with embarrassment at being caught by such a direct come on. It’s great!

It also builds on Joey’s character by showing how vapid his “type” is — taking pride in spritzing that is, is something I imagine Angela (of TOW the East German Laundry Detergent) would also do.

But I digress, the heat from this romance cools to subzero temperatures when the woman notices Joey on the poster for VD.

This also leads to his famiy kicking him out of Thanksgiving… which, I can understand a personal embarrassment angle but not entirely sure why his family shunned him… unless it’s due to the Catholicism? I don’t know– moving on.

Secret Potato Brigade

I’m not sure I get this joke, but Joey, Phoebe and Ross are in cahoots to get Monica to make different types of potatoes. As someone whose favorite part of Thanksgiving is the potatoes, I assume this is underlying reason, i.e. they’re delicious and no one gives a crap about cranberry sauce or turkey, just the potatoes. But yeah Joey plays the pity card to get his tater tots, so he and Ross can do lame-cool-guy handshake; then Phoebe plays her pity card to get mashed potatoes with peas and onions Joey and Phoebe share a Cheshire grin.

The Payoff – New Carol

Now we can have the scene they probably started with but then backtracked because we’re back in the apartment — a-ha, we saw it earlier with Susan — and with the new (and seemingly very pregnant) actress playing Carol. Now we have context.

While again, this scene doesn’t play much for laughs, they do something I really admire (in 2021 no less). While Ross is singing and the baby kicks, it’s no doubt purposefully done that the baby doesn’t kick until Susan returns home.

We’re given the impression Ross has been talking to Carol’s belly for awhile with Carol bored reading a magazine. However, the minute Susan enters and says, “Hi, how’s it goin’?” Then the baby kicks.

I have to believe this was intentional. Sure, you can look at the sentimental angle of “hey, all three of them are together as a family just like with the heartbeat in the sonogram“, but I think it’s Susan. Susan is the one talking to the baby, reading to the baby, singing to the baby. She foreshadows early on that she thinks they (the baby) can hear sounds in there and she wants the baby to know her voice.

Compare Susan’s belief to Carol or Ross’. Ross sees the practice as “crazy” echoing as much to Susan and among his friends — with the only one on-board being Phoebe, the “off-beat” friend. Meanwhile, while Carol is patient and humors Ross, it’s not as though she demonstrates for him how to do it. If this was something Carol did, wouldn’t she pass Ross some books or demonstrate, “here’s how I do it,” instead she simply says, “So don’t do it, it’s fine, you don’t have to do it just because Susan does it.” Susan, not Carol.

I love this and whether it was intended or not, there’s overwhelming evidence to show that the baby is responding to Susan as opposed to Carol or Ross and I love that — and for something in 1994 to be 2021 progressive is saying something.

In the meantime, considering the dry stretch of non-jokes, I appreciate that Susan doesn’t go the malicious route when she “bops” Ross on the head but instead smiles and playfully taps his head; she also encourages Ross to keep singing — Susan’s the best, is my bias showing?

Two Inflection Jokes!

I mentioned this in TOW The Butt, but I love inflection jokes and this episode hits me with two. The first being a major plot point of:

Rachel: When we left, you said, ‘got the keys!’
Monica: No I didn’t. I asked, ‘got the keys?’

On some level, this is the precursor to the “we were on a break” argument. In any event, I love this kind of breakdown of American English. This reminds me of an hairdresser who was complaining to me about English and how her husband asked her if she “took her medicine” and she argued with him for 15 minutes about how of course she didn’t “take it,” she “paid for it and swallowed it.”

Anyway, I love this argument because you can see both sides of it — even if Monica’s right.

The next inflection joke is played for laughs and I love it as much:

Joey: That tone won’t make me go any faster.
Monica: (deep tone) Joey.
Joey: That one will.

Anyhow, the episode wraps with Chandler (resident Thanksgiving Grinch) carving the Grilled Cheese.

Analysis – Six Little Indians

Six little Indians’ on the New England shore,
Two’s parents flew to Puerto Rico, and then there were four.

Four little Indians sipping coffee and tea,
Grandma’s boyfriend was lunar, and then there were three.

Three little Indians added modeling to their purview.
One contracted VD, and then there were two.

Two little Indians skied down a mountain.
One missed her flight, and then there was one.

One little Indian boy left all alone.
He decided to celebrate, and then there were six of one.

In all seriousness, I enjoy the Pilgrim holiday serving as a sort of reverse Ten Little Indians play. Plus, Chandler’s comment about Joey having syphilis plays on the idea of Pilgrims and Indians since the longstanding myth (maybe fact?) was that was what Columbus gave the Native Americans.

–As an aside, I had to look this up, some articles blame Columbus, some say it’s futile to play the blame game. Regardless, it’s probably safe to assume in 1994, that it was commonly believed syphilis was spread to the Native Americans from the Pilgrims.

The friends make it known this is their first Thanksgiving apart from family as Monica’s high pitched squeal echoes:

Monica: Does anybody care what kind of potatoes I want? Nooooo! (Crying) Just as long as Phoebe gets her peas and onions, and Mario gets his tots, and it’s my first Thanksgiving, and it’s all burned– 

For the first Thanksgiving episode to be about how none of them can be with their families (on their homeland) and therefore have to celebrate in the city is historically appropriate. Of course, the only one without a tradition, Chandler plays the part of the Native American.

Chandler, unlike his friends, purposefully chooses non-Thanksgiving food on Thanksgiving as Monica points out:

Monica: Chandler, here you go, got your traditional Thanksgiving feast: you got your tomato soup, your grilled cheese fixins, and your family size bag of Funyuns.

Of course, while everyone else tries to recreate their hometown meals, they all wind up celebrating with Chandler’s non-Thanksgiving meal. It’s Chandler who draws the ensemble out of their encampment to watch Underdog — and let’s be real, “Underdog” sounds like a Native American name in the vein of “Sitting Bull” or “Running Deer”.

The first Thanksgiving (which again, based on research sounds like an American fable) was supposed to celebrate the first successful harvest wherein they fired their guns which drew the attention of the natives who came out and (maybe) shared a feast(?)

–as an aside, it sounds like Lincoln orchestrated the celebration to reunite the families that were ripped apart during the Civil War, which is waaay more Thanksgiving than Pilgrims and Indians, I have to say, i.e. we all hate uncle Larry and his racist comments, but we see him once a year at Thanksgiving.–

We can assume the “firing of the guns” is reflected in the smokey kitchen with the majority of the ensemble not understanding how this “land” works. Chandler then serves as the Native American surrogate. He’s pulled out from his apartment (native land) to see the pilgrims struggling with their cacophonous (and smokey) harvest. That’s when he

In Friends case, Chandler is the perfect surrogate for the Native American whose family was already torn asunder. When the pilgrims argue over their failed harvest, Chandler calms the herd and agrees to share his personal tradition of grilled cheese and high-fructose CORN syrup laden Funyuns. Chandler’s tradition of non-tradition is adopted and essentially what we see in the seasons to follow — i.e. the friends spending Thanksgiving together.

Closing Thoughts

The Writers

This episode was written by Jeff Greenstein and Jeff Strauss (hereafter referred to as #TeamJeff). So far the other episode under their belt is my current “top” TOW the East German Laundry Detergent. This is interesting because the Monica/Joey storyline (of that episode) features the duo going on a double-date (turned double-breakup) wherein Monica tells Bob:

Monica: Something went wrong with Underdog, and they couldn’t get his head to inflate. So anyway, his head is like flopping down Broadway…

I dunno, maybe it’s meaningless, but I find it interesting that this particular duo of writers has worked underdog into both their scripts.

The other thing TeamJeff nails is Joey’s characterization. This type of Joey is a player but he matches the respect of the woman he’s pursuing. This was true with Angela where even though she was in a relationship with Bob, she clearly wanted Joey — she wanted Joey to work for it. Same with this spritz girl, she’s vapid, but she makes the come on, not Joey. Based on these two women, Joey doesn’t seem like a bad guy because the women match his energy. It feels mutual — again, as opposed to the Sam or Barney of other shows.

That said, some of the things I enjoy about TOW the East German Laundry Detergent are present here including the structure and balance of comedy with sentiment. Ross talking to his baby is a comedically “light” affair but it’s never overwhelming and helps serve as a reminder that yes, Ross is still having a baby (e.g. we haven’t forgotten that plot line). Additionally, there’s some light world-building. Just as Rachel kissing Ross in the Uberweiss episode moved the overarching story along, this episode does reveal some Chandler backstory that will literally come into play every year for the next 10 years.

Ross is the “Long Game”

It’s only now dawning on me that Ross is not in the same show as everyone else. In my soulmate analysis, I mentioned that I thought he was the best actor and that’s why we like him — and don’t get me wrong, I think Schwimmer nails his lines every time (TOW the East German Laundry Detergent is proof), but I’m thinking now that part of it is he has the on-going plotlines.

The thing Ross has that the others don’t is two ongoing plot-lines. He has his ex-wife’s pregnancy and the will-they/won’t-they romance with Rachel. This is episode 9 and so far in 7/9 episodes he’s pushing one of those stories forward (the outliers being TOW The Thumb and TOW the Butt — which are also two episodes that don’t heavily feature Ross or Rachel). I mention this because Ross is your payoff for continuing to watch the series chronologically. I’m thinking of how Cheers Seasons 6 onward or Seinfeld you can watch any episode and you’d be forgiven for thinking a Season 8 episode happened a season earlier. It all stays at the same level.

Ross however is the through-line.


This episode is a solid bassline to Friends. Entirely watchable, some genuine laugh-out-loud moments, but nothing super memorable. This is the type of episode that’s on in the background that you don’t “pause” when you take a bathroom break, take the dog out, or fetch a late-night snack. That’s not a bad thing.

It’s the kind of episode that, if you’re at work, it can play in your ear without without distracting you. A perfect, middle-of-the-road episode. For that reason, I put it above TOW the Butt — an episode you can get lost in (to its benefit and detriment) — and below TOW Monica Gets a Roomate which has laugh out loud moments, but wholly engaging.

Even the reveal of Chandler and his revolt against Thanksgiving isn’t nearly as memorable here as it is in the later seasons when they actually show a convincing 9yo Chandler.

So why doesn’t it rank higher? Just lighter on the jokes and less universally relatable events. For instance, I don’t know anyone in my friends circle (that I’m aware of) who couldn’t go home because they thought they might have a disease — even in the time of COVID as we have the inverse issue where none of us go home for fear we all have the disease — and I’ve never had a friend boycott a holiday due to a tragedy from their past. Even Ross’ unborn baby story — while relatable — is still a kind of niche outing for the intended demographic.

All this is to say that while these character stories are funny in a vacuum, this episode lacks the punch of the immediately relatable plots of the other four episodes above it. Going on a first date, not knowing what the future holds, asking someone out, getting your first roommate — all of these events are things most of us have experienced. Hosting Thanksgiving is usually something we choose rather than have it thrust upon us. It’s a minor point, just an example though of how it’s a little less universal than the other stories. Being “light” on the jokes isn’t bad, but it’s also the lack of relate-ability that bumps it down a little.

  1. 105: TOW the East German Laundry Detergent
  2. 104: TOW George Stephanopoulos
  3. 107: TOW the Blackout
  4. 101: TOW Monica Gets a Roommate
  5. 109: TOW Underdog Gets Away
  6. 106: TOW the Butt
  7. 103: TOW the Thumb
  8. 102: TOW the Sonogram at the End
  9. 108: TOW Nana Dies Twice

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