“The One With The Sonogram At The End” (season one, episode two; originally aired 9/29/1994)/“The One With The Thumb,” (season one, episode three; originally aired 10/6/1994)
Joe Reid: And so continue the adventures of six Manhattanite singles, navigating the big, bad adult world. In “The One With The Sonogram At The End,” Ross finds out that his very recently ex-wife Carol took a parting gift from their marriage and that Ross (duh) is the father. This is perhaps not the worst news for Monica, since she’s looking for something to deflect attention from her during their parents’ visit. In “The One With The Thumb,” Monica is nervous to bring a date around her friends, because they’re notoriously awful nit-pickers, but they’re singing a different tune when it comes to Alan. Also, Phoebe accidentally gets $500 from her bank, and in her karmic refusal of said cash, can’t seem to stop the universe from sending money her way (most significantly when a thumb appears in her soda can).
Not to get all Jaden Smith about this, but patterns are emerging in these early Friends episodes. It’s not going to cause monocles across the nation to shatter when I start calling a multi-camera sitcom “formulaic,” but these second and third episodes especially are very determined in the way they want to present this show’s universe. That’s three consecutive episodes where some combination of the gang is couching it at Monica’s place, watching something pop-cultural on TV (Three’s Company; Lamb Chop) and commenting on it in that very Gen-X way. It’s also three consecutive episodes that kick off with the gang at Central Perk, batting around some idea about sex and relationships—in “The One With The Sonogram At The End” it’s foreplay; in “The One With The Thumb” it’s lies we tell to spare each other’s feelings. (Interestingly, while the foreplay idea doesn’t get explored at all in episode two, the idea of lying to spare feelings does recur quite a bit throughout episode three, making it the more structurally sound—if not the more memorable—of the two.) Clearly, the producers were pushing hard to define the show as an authority on 20-something sex and relationships. But a show about ideas is never as good as a show about characters, and in that respect, these two episodes go a long way toward defining the characters that would be the basis of Friends’ success, long after it stopped trying so hard with these Central Perk Presents: Sex In The ’90s moments.
If last week’s pilot showed the characters as slightly off, in that way pilots can, these episodes get to the work of building the characters we have come to know and love. Not always smoothly. “The One With The Thumb” is too loose, plot-wise, to give us a good sense of where Phoebe stands on the hippie/flighty scale. She hates money, she believes the universe is telling her something when she ends up with a windfall, she ends up with a thumb in her soda can, Beth Grant (!) shows up, and… profit? More successful are smaller moments with Joey (thoughtlessly eating lasagna) and Monica, whose OCD cleanliness is initially presented here as a reaction to her impossible-to-please parents’ impending visit. Though I’m happy to say that Ross’s maudlin, delayed “… hi” never caught on as the catchphrase it aspires to in these early episodes.
Jack and Judy Geller’s dinner visit is, I think, easily the highlight of these early episodes, both from a purely comedic standpoint (Judy: “What’s that curry taste?” Monica: “Curry.” Judy: “Oh.”) and from a character-building standpoint. Monica’s struggles to impress her parents smartly straddle the line between relatable and absurd, and sad-sack Ross—the golden boy in his parents’ eyes—plays off her beautifully. It doesn’t hurt that Christina Pickles and Elliott Gould were casting triumphs from the get-go. And are you with me in thinking Monica is an early highlight here? Or did Rachel’s attempts to get over Barry work better for you?
Sonia Saraiya: I’m interested in your preference for “The One With The Sonogram At The End”—because my first takeaway from revisiting these two episodes is that “The One With The Thumb” is by far the strongest episode we’ve (re)watched yet. COMMENCE CAGEFIGHT.
“The One With The Sonogram At The End” seems to me a far more run-of-the-mill sitcom episode—definitely formulaic, and in places sadly derivative. Friends in its weaker moments was always guilty of poking fun at deviations from the status quo in order to produce cheap humor, and “The One With The Sonogram At The End” is full of them, particularly when we’re introduced to Susan, Carol’s new partner. Fortunately, the show pushes us toward accepting the lesbians and their idea of a family, but it could have just as easily pushed us in the other direction, towards a less forgiving viewpoint. The episode’s also dominated by Geller family dynamics—the old kind with the parents, the current kind with Ross and Monica, and the new kind, with Ross, Monica, Carol, and Susan. Unfortunately it feels ludicrously dated to me, when it’s not outright harsh. (Jack Geller probably means well, but Judy is just outright mean to her daughter, and it hurts to watch.)
As much as I like Gould and Pickles’ performances, I’ve never been particularly fond of the role they play in the show. It’s a little too family-sitcom for me, perhaps, and my interest is more in the friendship-banter that develops as the show moves forward. It’s this group of six people, sitting in a room, that tends to hold my attention—far more than their scenes with outside characters, except as those characters add to the core six’s already bizarre dynamic.
So “The One With The Thumb” worked on levels for me. One, because it is a Monica-centric episode, and I agree with you here, Joe—Monica is the early star of the show. Rather unexpectedly to a modern viewer, because Courteney Cox was the only actress from Friends never nominated for an Emmy for her work. And yet in so many ways Monica is the emotional center of the show—she pulls all these crazy people together with her personal relationships. Monica is clearly trying to forge an identity for herself that is not what her parents think of her—and it’s her apartment. Of course she’s crucial, especially at the beginning. (I particularly like that out of every location we watch Chandler smoke in “The One With The Thumb,” Monica’s apartment is the only place he’s not allowed to smoke inside. Joey can’t stop him from smoking in their own apartment, but he gleefully enforces the rules in Monica’s home. It shows the role she plays in this dynamic.)
But more importantly, “The Thumb” is about these characters growing both separately and together, and that’s far more resilient than any particular joke. We watch sitcoms because character dynamics reinforce the humor, not because we want to see one-liners. Friends gets very good at this, but these character dynamics take time to establish. “The One With The Thumb” is an early example of what the show is going to do more and more—use the friends playing off of each other to land the joke.
The best example of this kind of humor is the second-to-last ensemble scene in “The One With The Thumb,” in which Monica gently breaks to her friends that she’s breaking up with Alan, the guy she’s been dating that they all love, because she doesn’t like him all that much. Unlike so many of the jokes in Friends, which are often laughed at by the other characters, or at least meant to be funny by the person delivering the line, this scene relies entirely on the audience to get the joke, because no one else in the scene is in on it (except for Monica, who anchors the scene with what’s already her signature understated reaction shot). The group reacts as if they’re being told that their parents are getting divorced—naturally, the absurdity of their reactions escalates throughout the scene, to the point where Rachel exclaims, “And the holidays are coming up!” The punchline doesn’t even fully land until a few minutes later, when Monica finally breaks up with Alan—who says with some distaste that he’s relieved, because he wasn’t that into her friends. I totally did not see that last bit coming, so when it did hit, I laughed all the harder.
And here’s where we come across what I believe is one of the great strengths of Friends—that it manages to adroitly balance the audience between laughing with the friends and laughing at them. Because it can both close the distance between the viewer and the character and then open it up again when it wants to—and I think the show gets better and better at this before it runs out of steam in the later years—it manages to create an emotional bond with the show that’s punctuated both by feeling very strongly for these characters, and at the same time, being able to fondly mock them for being absolutely ridiculous.
Which plays into the other thing I like about “The One With The Thumb”—the friends get into a fight! Admittedly, it’s not a very serious fight, but it’s a fight with a few actual bruised feelings. Everyone has something they do that annoys everyone else; more importantly, everyone fights with their friends, even if it’s just bickering over coffee. That fond mockery I described above? The friends are doing that with each other, too. When we care about people, we’re moved to take an interest in their lives—so everyone gangs up on Chandler when he starts smoking, just as a few episodes prior everyone stood behind Rachel to make sure she cut up her credit cards. Loving people means accepting their flaws; or as Elbert Hubbard apparently put it, “A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.” It’s cute and cheesy and optimistic. It’s also so true that anyone with friends immediately understands that message.
JR: Glad you brought up weird feelings about the actual sonogram scene. For as cutting-edge as I’m sure everybody thought Ross-Carol-Susan was in 1994, it’s easily the most uncomfortably dated scene we’ve seen so far, and also the most jarring (and not just because it featured Anita Barone’s one and only appearance as Carol before the role was re-cast). The show doesn’t quite canonize Ross in his struggles to make a place for himself in this new family situation, but it certainly sympathizes with him: cuckolded guy dealing with his ex-wife and her new girlfriend and now having a baby with her and seemingly getting squeezed out.
But it’s impossible to watch that scene without the real world butting in, and in the real world of 1994, Susan would have no legal parental rights (despite being one of two primary caregivers) and is thus easily the most precarious of the three of them, so it’s difficult to feel too sorry for Ross in that situation. This is a show with a spotty record when it comes to inclusiveness, as you’ve mentioned. Look no further than the clumsy gay panic joke thrown in at the beginning of “The One With The Thumb,” where Chandler makes sure Joey’s not using limp wrists in his acting choices. Ultimately, Carol and Susan are affirmed, but they’ll always be outsiders.
Chandler’s smoking in “The One With The Thumb” was so unexpectedly rich, from the pre-Bloomberg wonderment of his indoor smoking (in the coffee shop! in his office!) to what a lightning rod it is within the group. I even thought he made some pretty good points in favor of allowing himself to have a vice without everybody else constantly giving him hell for it. Smoking is probably the single most disproportionately underrepresented human action on TV, and even though Chandler ultimately sold his rekindled habit to Phoebe for her $7,000, the show manages to get out of the subplot without too much moralizing.
And yes, the Alan storyline is pretty great, particularly because it extends that sense from the first episode that Monica’s friends are all very invested in her love life. Whereas last week, they were cheering on her date with Paul the wine guy, this week, that closeness is made farcical, as is their attachment to Alan. Of all the double-underlined themes of these first few episodes, I think the over-closeness of the friends when it comes to their love lives is the most effective. More so than any Central Perk roundtable on the subject of orgasms, it’s this closeness that makes Friends feel most like Friends.
- Chandler: “Oh, this must be the episode of Three’s Company where there’s some kind of misunderstanding.” Phoebe: “Then I’ve already seen it.” [SS]
- Wardrobe watch: Rachel is really favoring the overalls in the early episodes, while Phoebe dons the unofficial uniform of the mid-’90s: white t-shirt, jeans, and a fun vest! [JR]
- I’m pretty sure a speculum doesn’t open up your cervix, but maybe gynecology was really different in the ’90s. [SS]
- A quick inventory of Chandler’s office swag: dartboard, softball mitt/bats (consistent with the softball league that the guys and Rachel are in; I wonder if that’ll ever get mentioned again), a Toronto Blue Jays cap, bumble ball, Magic 8-Ball, what can best be described as a Punch-n-Judy Velociraptor, rubber chicken (we get it, he’s funny), ironic “No Smoking” sign. Guess the life of a transpondster has a lot of room for whimsy. [JR]
- “The One With The Sonogram At The End” is the first episode to intercut scenes from the episodes with the original theme footage. I have to admit that trying to find and identify the scenes in the theme song has always been a big part of watching the show. Nostalgia! [SS]
- People of Color on Friends Watch: Monica apparently had a co-worker pal played by Jenifer Lewis (!). [JR] And Carol’s OB-GYN is a lovely and competent African-American woman. See, guys, minorities on TV do exist![SS]
- Several of you pointed out to me that I had the friends’ ages wrong in the pilot. It turns out Friends retconned the ages of their main characters multiple times, so even though in some interpretation Rachel and Monica are 23, as I said last week, they could also be like 26, or 30, or 9. I’ll try to keep an eye out for the first mention of age so I can report back. [SS]
- Ridiculous ‘90s-era Magazine Question: Which Friends character is your favorite? I’ve always had a soft spot for poor, put-upon Monica, a character who starts out a lot stronger than she finishes in season 10. [SS]