In 5 To Watch, five writers from The A.V. Club look at the latest streaming TV arrivals, each making the case for a favored episode. The reasons for their picks might differ, but they can all agree that each episode is a must-watch. In this installment: Friends, which made its Netflix debut January 1.
If Friends isn’t the most durable, most influential sitcom of the modern era, it’s at least the most significant comedy of the late 1990s, with its 10 seasons bridging the gap between the end of Seinfeld and the earliest harbingers of the rise of the single-camera format. Friends invented the hangout comedy and remains its exemplar, despite countless failed attempts to recapture its essence in the decade since the show completed its run.
Networks have searched exhaustively for the next Friends, a reasonable effort considering the series was among the last ratings behemoths of the pre-segmentation age, with a finale audience of more than 52 million. It also became a broader pop-culture phenomenon, reverberating beyond the four corners of the screen unlike any sitcom since. (Masses have yet to ask their hairstylists to style them like The Big Bang Theory’s Penny.) While its bare-bones concept and aggressively generic title suggest a formula ripe for duplication, Friends’ descendants have never reached its heights. That’s because with Friends, it’s not the recipe, it’s the ingredients.
In the journalistic coverage of the show during its run, one theme recurs again and again: These people are friends. The story of Friends is about the adventures of Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston), Monica Geller (Courteney Cox), Ross Geller (David Schwimmer), Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow), Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry), and Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc) supporting one another as they fumbled through their 20s in Manhattan. But the story of Friends’ success is about how incredibly close the actors were off-camera, a narrative built from such adorable beats as Aniston, Cox, and Kudrow’s weekly ladies’ lunch, a standing appointment the women reportedly kept for years even after the show ended. Those tidbits surfaced so often because it was the only reasonable explanation for the sextet’s natural, exuberant screen chemistry. Creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman did their best work before shooting a single frame. They chose six actors capable of creating an intimate, lived-in slice-of-life of which the following five episodes are the best bites.
“The One Where Everybody Finds Out” is not the most natural point of entry for a first-time Friends viewer, given how much it leans on backstory and its unorthodox structure, which orphans Ross in a tiny-yet-crucial plot involving Ugly Naked Guy. But its main story, in which Rachel and Phoebe engage Monica and Chandler in an escalating psychological warfare, is as expertly crafted as anything in the show’s 10-season run. Friends is at its best when it corrals its characters into one story rather than splitting them off—Noel’s pick is a perfect example—and even with Ross out in the cold, this episode showcases the cast chemistry that put Friends so far ahead of its sitcom peers. Phoebe unwittingly finds out about Monica and Chandler’s budding romance, and to the chagrin of Joey, who was tiring of the cloak-and-dagger high jinks, Phoebe convinces Rachel to needle the couple instead of coming clean. Alexa Junge’s script builds to a frenzy, locking Phoebe and Chandler in a cruel game of chicken to see how far he and Monica will go to conceal their relationship. But it ends sweetly, with Chandler telling Monica he loves her for the first time. The episode features another first: Joey makes his first reference to Huggsy, his stuffed penguin, who grows to become as treasured and loyal an imaginary friend to Joey as the mythical Regina Phalange is to Phoebe.
There were good episodes of Friends before “The One With The Prom Video,” but this is the first great episode. Ross and Rachel were never a will they/won’t they. They were a when will they? First, Ross loved Rachel, then Rachel loved Ross, then Rachel got out from under Ross. Even though Ross and Rachel’s feelings were out in the open, “The One With The Prom Video” was the ultimate release of the tension that had built up since Rachel burst into Central Perk in full wedding regalia. While Ross and Rachel’s union is the point, the entire cast is equally important—especially Chandler and Joey’s expression of their love for each other through jewelry and Monica’s unemployment woes. (Bonus: Monica’s dad tells a hard-up-for-cash Monica that she shouldn’t want for money because she’s, of course, been following his rule of putting 10 percent of her paycheck in her savings account. This is I how learned to save money and still abide by this rule.) The episode culminates in the first of the show’s exceptional use of flashback, acting as an origin story of the series as a whole. Rachel literally sees how long Ross has loved her. Friends had lots of squeal-worthy moments but Rachel’s realization that she and Ross are meant to be together was the first one to really hit home: We had gotten to know Ross and Rachel, and we needed them to be together. Friends’ philosopher Phoebe puts it best in one of the show’s most enduring concepts: “He’s her lobster.”
Though Friends became synonymous with Ross and Rachel’s relationship, this episode shows the series at its strongest by focusing on the group as… well, friends. The title refers to the big grown-up moment of Phoebe’s insemination with the embryos of her long-lost half-brother (Giovanni Ribisi). But like most milestones of adulthood, “The One With The Embryos” is punctuated with silly arguments and diversions. Established traits—Ross’ passion for codifying personal, emotional details; Joey and Chandler’s gamesmanship, Rachel’s mixture of hesitation and headstrong haste, and Monica’s cutthroat streak—push a silly competition to preposterous heights. Drawing on stories that are new to the audience but not the friends, it builds the already strong history of the group into something legendary, with their dynamic revealing even more about their complex, ever-shifting relationships than their answers. From Monica’s strictly ranked towel categories (11 types, with “fancy guest” the apparent top ranking) to Joey and Rachel’s silent exchange of an obscene gesture from Ross and Monica’s childhood, the quiz shows how they’ve hammered together a private idiom from shared experiences, oft-repeated stories, in-jokes, and embarrassments. More than just playful, it’s a regression that reminds us how young these characters are as it both balances and emphasizes the weight of Phoebe’s story. And at the end of the episode, they set it all aside—the quiz, the fierce competition, the slights and losses—to comfort Phoebe in her anxiety and celebrate her joy, because that’s what friends do.
Friends was hyped early on as a younger, prettier Seinfeld, carrying over that show’s “hanging out in New York City” vibe. But while Seinfeld got a lot of attention for channeling the petty annoyances of everyday life into single-location, real-time episodes like “The Parking Garage” and “The Chinese Restaurant,” Friends mined some of the same territory in a more low-key way in “The One Where No One’s Ready.” When Ross arrives to take the gang to a formal museum reception, he’s annoyed to find that not only do most of them need to get dressed, but that they’re also wrapped up in their own personal dramas: Monica is distracted by an old answering machine message from her ex-boyfriend, Richard; Joey and Chandler are engaged in an escalating prank-war over Joey stealing Chandler’s seat; and Phoebe is rethinking her outfit after the boys’ roughhousing ends with her getting splattered with dip. (“I got the hummus,” she sighs.) Ross’ mounting impatience eventually irritates Rachel, who decides she’s not going to go to the party at all. “The One Where No One’s Ready” has some funny moments, including Monica letting out one of her best, wailing, “Nooooooo!”s, and Joey putting on all of Chandler’s clothes and then doing an impression of him. (“Could I be wearing any more clothes?”) But it’s also an episode that shows off the cast’s timing and chemistry, and one that reveals cracks in the characters’ relationships that the show would explore more in the episodes to come, in ways that Seinfeld never even attempted.
It was inevitable that Friends would eventually show its age, and the story that gives this one its name—Ross finds that Emma only laughs when he sings “Baby Got Back”—is the sort of lazy gag that a ninth-season sitcom would trot out. (Although Ross’ deadpan “Please don’t take her away from me” to the shocked Rachel is solid.) Luckily, the parallel B-stories deliver. Chandler and Joey, touring the apartment of Monica’s ex, Richard (Tom Selleck), find a videotape labeled “Monica” and rightly assume it’s a sex tape. Again, sounds smirky, but Chandler’s defensiveness about following the formidable Richard always brought out the best in Matthew Perry, and there’s a stellar bit of physical comedy when Joey throws a cross-body block to keep Chandler from watching the tape. But what makes the episode is Phoebe’s hilarious meeting with the stuffy parents of new love interest Mike (late-series all-star Paul Rudd). Friends was never shy about throwing famous faces into the mix, but Mike was the first love interest to be given the same agency as the regulars, virtually becoming one himself. Here, Phoebe’s inability to rein in her eccentricity produces some huge laughs (none bigger than Rudd’s underplayed, “Did you just hit my dad?” after witnessing Phoebe’s playful sock to his father’s breadbasket run afoul of his recent surgery). But it’s Mike’s reaction to the debacle that marks him as a keeper—both for Phoebe and for the show. After dressing down his parents’ judgmental remarks about Phoebe’s stories (the term “pimp spit” did come up), he defiantly professes his love for her. It’s also the first time one of the Friends boyfriends or girlfriends would be deemed worthy (by the show and the viewers) of joining the gang.