“The One Where Nana Dies Twice,” (season one, episode eight; originally aired 11/10/94) / “The One Where Underdog Gets Away,” (season one, episode nine; originally aired 11/17/94)
Sonia: Joe, I feel like with Friends I’m always discussing dualities, for some reason. It seems to me that in its (successful) attempt to become America’s sitcom-of-the-moment, Friends sort of tried to do everything. But the problem is that you can’t do everything in every episode, and as a result, sometimes these episodes feel like they’re from two different shows entirely.
I felt that really strongly while watching these two episodes. Last week I talked about how Friends moved back and forth between two different kinds of humor, so as to maximize appeal—this week, what I see is two different versions of the family sitcom, crammed into one little show. “The One Where Nana Dies Twice” is a show about a nuclear family—siblings play off of their family members and each other in a wacky but heartfelt journey about losing their grandmother. “The One Where Underdog Gets Away” is a show about this (wacky, heartfelt) family of friends creating new traditions for themselves.
The latter is far more preferable to the former. “Nana” is so firmly about the Gellers—the friends seem incidental to the drama of that family, whether that’s Judy processing her mother’s death by becoming even more critical of Monica (a satisfying plot) or Ross finding joy in Nana’s closet, which is confusingly filled with saccharine packets (an unsatisfying plot). Even when the episode lands, I found myself chafing at what feels like an annoyingly typical family comedy. There isn’t a single original joke in the episode’s 22 minutes—there’s a gag using back pain medication, which feels like the oldest trick in the book—and “Nana” is punctuated with alarming tonal shifts, from sentimental to slapstick, without much padding between the two. It’s a forgettable episode.
“Underdog” suffers from no such flaws. It’s kind of a masterpiece. It’s an episode deeply rooted in the premise of the show, the show we were promised in the first episode. This cobbled-together patchwork group of people who are clinging together for companionship and meaning during a particularly terrible time, which is to say, their 20s. This is a quintessential Thanksgiving episode—the satisfying arc of a group of people appreciating what they have in their lives that they’re truly thankful for, with laughter and tears along the way.
In my happy-go-lucky Monica/Chandler fanfiction—It isn’t written down, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist—Monica and Chandler are the two characters most committed to building a family outside of the ones they grew up in. Chandler’s carrying around wounds from his parents’ divorce that inform a lot of his neurotic personality, his shy vulnerability that he isn’t even comfortable wearing in public, like Ross. And Monica’s entire New York existence is an attempt to create a new home. Her apartment is the scene of all the action; her life, about keeping this weird group of people around her. The strongest episodes of Friends revolve around their lives—indeed, it’s probable that their friendship is the reason the friends are such a strong group. In “Underdog” they team up to save Thanksgiving—Monica first, when she volunteers to recreate everyone’s childhood Thanksgiving; and Chandler after the crisis, when he ceremonially carves grilled cheese sandwiches for the assembled friends.
The point is, “Underdog” is all about family, but it’s the new kind of family. It’s not “Nana”’s nuclear family, but it’s just as important. Even by this point, eight episodes in, the group of friends are mythologizing themselves—at the end of “Nana” they self-consciously recognize their camaraderie, and in “Underdog” their attachment for each other is the main theme of the episode. That undercuts them at times—if a show’s telling you that a group of people really care for each other without offering much proof, it’s just exposition. But “Underdog” shows us how these people care for each other—in Monica’s three sets of potatoes; in the group’s gift to Rachel for her ski trip; in Chandler’s touching Thanksgiving toast; even in Rachel’s final pronouncement, that they have a “crappy new year.”
I have a new theory—episodes in which the main action isn’t in Monica’s apartment are… bad. Duds, for the most part. In this double-header, “Nana” takes place almost entirely outside the apartment—“Underdog,” entirely within. The former relies on the visual gag of Nana’s second-death; the latter relies on your imagination to fill in the titular event. The first thing is funny, but the second thing, I think, makes you want to come back for more.
Joe: Sonia, I think we’ve definitely found our fork in the Friends road. When it comes to Jack and Judy Geller, you go one way, I go another. Which isn’t to say that I’m not with you when it comes to loving it when Friends really gets down to the “makeshift urban family” storylines. That stuff is catnip to me, on this show and many others. The first Thanksgiving episode is a wonderful early check-in point for how this little family of six is jelling. When just picking up a stray rerun on TV, it’s tough to remember that in Season 1, this group had newly adopted Rachel (and it doesn’t take too much fanwanking to imagine that pre-divorce Ross wasn’t around as much as he is now). “Underdog” catches the gang at the point in their lives when spending the holiday with their makeshift little family isn’t their first instinct. Rachel wants to hit the slopes with her family as a kind of last nostalgic grasp of the pampered life she gave up. Ross and Joey still feel drawn to family. You’re right that it’s Monica and Chandler who pull the gang together; even before Chandler saves the day with grilled cheese, his staunch irreverence towards Thanksgiving is demystifying the day for everyone without them even noticing it.
You spoke about “Underdog” better than I could, so I’m going to focus my energies on “Nana,” an episode I largely enjoyed despite yet another instance of gay-panic, this time elevated to subplot level. Everybody Thinks [Straight Character] Is Gay Ha Ha is unavoidably offensive in concept, though I’m willing to cut the show slack for an un-nuanced approach to gay humor because it’s symptomatic of its time. Also in the show’s defense, just as often as the joke is that Chandler is in misery because people assume he’s gay, the joke is also that Chandler is taking this way too seriously and should lighten up. Phoebe’s sarcastic, “Yes, Chandler, you have homosexual hair” is the tone you want the show to take with this, and it mitigates what could have been something fairly awful.
As for the Gellers ... I love them. I was never into the Tribbianis, and a little of Rachel’s and Chandler’s parents go a long way, but Jack and Judy are gold in my book. Jack’s tangent about being buried at sea is so weird and wonderful, and the way Elliott Gould shouts “Now I’m depressed!” while watching football at the memorial is among my favorite line-readings in the history of the show. I can take or leave the Sweet’N Low closet with Ross (though having just gone through a week’s worth of grandparental bereavement, I can attest that the weirdest things do elicit sappy memories), but for me, the crown jewel is that conversation between Judy and Monica at the end. It gets so many things right; the way Monica is aware of the parallels she (and also this episode of television) is drawing between her mom and her nana and how they would both relentlessly nitpick their daughters is boldly metatextual. The way Judy walks right up to the line of understanding what Monica is getting at (“Do you think things would have been better if you’d told her the truth?”) and then backs away (“I think it’s nicer when people just get along!”) is unexpected and sharply funny. It’s a heartwarming moment for how little it indulges in what a heartwarming moment it is. And it explains Monica’s Thanksgiving mania in the next episode so well.
- I really hate these two episode titles. “The One Where Underdog Gets Away” is symptomatic of a lot of Friends episode titles that plainly miss the point of what the episode is memorable for. (Think “The One With The Embryos”). “The One Where Nana Dies Twice” is unforgivable, though, because it completely robs the Nana’s Alive moment of all its shock value. I know this was from the pre-DVR age when episode titles were less widely known, but people still had TV Guide! [JR]
- “Underdog” has so many great quotes, I can’t put them all in, at the risk of the strays getting longer than the review. I’ll let you guys take a crack at it. I am particularly fond of Susan informing Ross that lesbians “have to take a course. Otherwise they don’t let you do it.” [SS]
- People of Color on Friends Watch: The nurse who checks to see if Nana is dead (twice). [SS]
- Hey! It’s Willie from ALF as Rachel’s boss and owner of Central Perk! [JR] Bonus Gunther sighting in the background!! [SS]
- I have to imagine the money shelled out for the music rights to “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” could have been put to better use. [JR]
- I did not know that venereal disease and syphillis were the same thing until I watched this episode for the first time. The more you know! (star shoots across screen} [SS]
- If nothing else, “Nana” is memorable as a footnote for the quiz episode, when Joey is asked to name that grandmother. (“You’re shooting with ‘ALTHEA’?? Nice shooting!”) [JR]
- GOT. THE. KEYS?! [SS]