Staying Together, Growing Apart
I don’t think seasons 6 through 10 are bad, but they are very different from 1 through 5.
I was once told (back in the day) that if you made a pitch for a sitcom, you needed to bring a pitch for 100 potential episodes; 100 plots. I can’t imagine that’s true today if ever it were, but I do think that’s interesting when looking at a sitcom like Friends. The first 100 would bring us to early season 5, and even though Monica and Chandler weren’t planned, Phoebe’s pregnancy wasn’t planned, and Emily was supposed to hang around a bit longer (pending VISA), there’s a wholesomeness to the first five seasons.
Even without that conjecture though, season 6 still marks the point when the shift starts, beginning a trend that will ultimately continue until the series ends. Whereas seasons 1-5 are all about staying together, seasons 6-10 are about growing apart. (I’ll juxtapose these two down a ways, but I want to make it clear why I’m choosing season 6 as the turning point, because it’s not simply that it makes for good symmetry.) The reason season 6 marks the start of growing apart is because it’s the end of Chandler and Joey.
Season 6 starts with Monica and Chandler moving in together. In regards to characters, this makes logical sense; in regards to a sitcom, it meant axing their most popular act. It’s clear they didn’t know what to do to fill the void.
Chandler & Joey’s Divorce
Joey’s stories suffer as a result since he and Chandler had a balance. Joey had the street smarts and the charm whereas Chandler had the wit and crippling self-doubt… or in Joey’s terms “numbers and stuff.”
Joey’s first character arc after losing Chandler features a pseudo dramatic tale of falling in love with a roommate that doesn’t love him back (Janine). So Joey struggles with finances, lacks the wits, and charm. He comes across as pathetic.
Eventually they used this as an opportunity to draw Phoebe deeper into the ensemble by having Rachel move in with her — now more duo stories could happen with Phoebe. Problem was, those stories were relatively lackluster (weird running, cell phone fairy tale, etc). As a result, they quickly pulled the two into the core sets, (by burning Phoebe’s apartment down) and moving the girls into Monica and Chandler’s or Joey’s apartment alternatively.
Again, they move Phoebe and Rachel around in an effort to find a pairing that works. It seems more like they don’t know what they’re doing, and the Joey/Chandler absence is felt all the more.
Now season 6 had some good stuff too. Monica and Chandler are a real couple and develop organically, and season 6 marks the humbling of Ross (my personal favorite). After three failed marriages, he no longer feels entitled or superior, he feels like a loser. So similar to Joey being pathetic, but for Ross it works.
The point is season 6 isn’t all bad, but much of it is spent trying to rebalance the friends. The balance is easiest to see in the bottle episodes and you can juxtapose season 3 with season 10.
Friends Bottle Episodes
For me (and I believe for most), the best episode is The One Where No One Is Ready.
The One Where No One Is Ready was one of their “bottle” episodes intended to save money by only being shot on the core set with the core cast and it worked — arguably too well.
“Bottle” episodes happened at least once per season, but none quite caught “lightning” like this one. Part of the reason is because this episode happens in real-time. The countdown for them to be out the door is our countdown till the show ends.
I say it worked “too well” because they couldn’t top it and expectations were set very high.
As a bit of a digression, screenwriters tend to struggle with holiday episodes since the “situation” is a repeat; so they need to take the same idea and make it different. Ideally they’ll outdo last year’s holiday special, but this is no easy task. You can see this with weddings and birthing episodes as well, so I imagine the bottle episodes functioned similarly. I.e. How can we reasonably keep them in one location and add stakes?
But the bottle episodes kept failing to stay in one place (see the one with Emma’s first birthday with the brief scene with Ross and Rachel in a car) or they failed to stick to the core cast (The One Where Ross Got High and The One With The Rumor).
I mention all this as background information because in general, the seasons did decrease in synergy (not necessarily comedy). Friends never fails to bring the funny — for instance, there are only two episodes I skip in re-views (The One After The Super Bowl and The One Where Nana Dies Twice) — but there is a shift in soul in the later seasons.
The One Where No One Is Ready and The One The Cake
These two episodes, I feel, are polar opposites. One takes place in the bright purple apartment while the other takes place at Joey’s. The former is all about the friends not wanting to leave, while the latter is about the friends not wanting to stay.
It’s part of the humor in The One Where No One Is Ready. Ross wants everyone out the door but no one wants to leave. Joey and Chandler spend more time fighting over chair ownership and “saved” seats than they do getting ready. Monica is still reeling from her breakup with Richard and desperate to find out if he left a recent message or an old one. And Rachel can’t decide what to wear but she’s supporting Ross. In the meta-narrative, we don’t want them to leave the stage either, having them locked in our box is great.
But The One With The Cake features everyone anxious to leave. Monica and Chandler want to be alone in Vermont. Joey wants to audition. And Phoebe has a massage client. Instead of Ross corralling everyone, Rachel is, with Ross playing support.
Probably most fascinating is, whereas Ross’ dino exhibit was unimportant, Emma’s first birthday should’ve been important to all of them.
But again, it’s not simply that the two are perfectly inverted, but that it’s indicative of all the later seasons. Look at Phoebe’s birthday where no one can take time out of their day to meet her for dinner (Ross and Rachel are locked out of their apartment with Emma on the other side, and Monica wants to have sex with Chandler to make a baby even though she’s furious with him).
The friends have their own priorities… and it’s not each other. This of course echoes Marta Kauffman’s ongoing defense for why people need to drop the idea of a Friends reboot or a new season, “Once you start having a family of your own, it changes”.
To me, this is also a big reason why the Joey and Rachel thing doesn’t work. There are numerous reasons I’ve gone into detail elsewhere but I’ll recap quickly here:
- They had good synergy as the new Joey and Chandler, but that was misinterpreted as a romantic match versus a platonic one.
- Rachel starts falling for Drake, not Joey.
- Joey is invested in having a family.
But one of the reasons, Joey and Rachel rubs people the wrong way is because it operates so independently of the ensemble. Of course Joey and Rachel discuss with each of the friends (individually) what’s happening and what they’re feeling at various points in various episodes, but it lacks the synergy of Ross and Rachel.
When Ross sought Rachel, Chandler and Joey were his confidants, always pushing him to act. Once Ross’ feelings were brought to the forefront, even Monica and Phoebe chimed in. Ross and Rachel, as a couple, were supported by their friends who wanted them to get together. With Rachel and Joey, Ross is left out, so they don’t have his support for most interactions. Meanwhile, Phoebe tries to help Joey, but I don’t recall her helping Rachel — and why would she? Phoebe has always had an intimate relationship with Joey and she wouldn’t want to share that.
Chandler is there for Joey, but mainly as a sounding board for Joey to talk about his feelings. Chandler never really tells Joey to “go for it” since he needs to talk to Ross first and Chandler doesn’t want to betray him by supporting Joey or vice versa. Which leaves Monica who is Ross’ sister and fairly convinced Rachel’s feelings aren’t legitimate.
By the time Ross is plopped into the mix, he expresses support, but it’s too awkward for him to really get involved. As a result, the whole Joey/Rachel feel isolated, which would work fine in any other show… but because Friends is such an ensemble, it feels more like they’re isolating themselves and magnified the feeling that they’re growing apart.
Season 6-10: The Problems Change
Again, I like seasons 6-10, but they do feel different. The friends get older, relationships are less willy-nilly and more long-term focused. Their problems change… everyone has an esteemed (or stable) job as opposed to barely making rent or working seasonal gigs. The characters grow up and consequently grow apart. Or to quote Rachel when she and Monica are looking at pictures of Emma, “What did we used to talk about?”
And this is why Seasons 6-10 lack much of synergy from Seasons 1-5. The friends are in different places in their lives… but due to the structure of sitcoms, they keep getting roped back in.
I mean, when Carol goes into labor, all the friends rush to the hospital even though they have nothing to do. When Phoebe goes into labor, again, they all race to the hospital. When Rachel goes into labor… they wait until they get the call that the baby is coming, and then they roll on over. When Chandler and Monica’s surrogate is going into labor, no one even visits the hospital.
It’s why for all the iconic imagery that comes from Monica’s apartment… I wish they grew as organically as the characters and relationships did. In other words, I wish they moved out earlier. In regards to Ross and Rachel, why didn’t they just get together at the end of Season 9? The sitcom restraints kept the friends together when they should have grown apart as they were already doing.
Modern Family operates successfully because they have 3 distinct families who oftentimes (or occasionally) overlap. These friends never stop being friends, but their priorities no longer align and it feels like they’re staying together for the kids — so to speak, but by “kids” I mean “us (the audience)”.
I mean all the hubbub around Rachel (maybe) leaving for Paris sums it up. She’s pursuing her career with her daughter. Her friends are moving out, she can’t continue to live with her ex-boyfriend (either of them) and it’s an incredible opportunity. It’s one of the things I wish they touched on more in the finale, Rachel stays because there is a family waiting for her and that trumps career (unlike Monica who decides to surrender her husband to Tulsa).
I think that’s why the finale leaves such a bittersweet taste, it felt disingenuous, like they wanted to cram a full season’s worth of material into 1 episode. And the best I can figure is it’s because of the cost to maintain a new set (Monica and Chandler’s house) along with the cast’s salaries… but again, Bottle episodes were designed to save money and, they main 6 (plus Paul Rudd) were all we ever needed anyway.
Seasons 1-5: Not Without Drama
The thing I can appreciate — even if I didn’t altogether enjoy — about seasons 6-10 is that they decided to be a bit more dramatic. I think the Joey/Rachel romance was more overdone than anything else (it dangled for 3 seasons), but I liked the sincerity it added. It was something they attempted in The One Where Nana Dies Twice, but never achieved. Meanwhile, there are plenty of moments in Seasons 1-5 that could’ve benefited from being a bit more dramatic.
One of my favorite episodes is The One With The Morning After because it is actually gut-wrenching to watch Ross and Rachel break up. There’s shame, betrayal, loss, love, pain, and defeat — it’s an incredible roller coaster of emotions that punctuated Ross and Rachel’s whole relationship (and yes, that’s an analysis that’s coming up), but even that episode is indicative of an issue I have with seasons 1-5. Chandler, Monica, Phoebe, and Joey are all in Monica’s room providing peanut gallery commentary. I don’t deny that it’s funny, but it is a result of the show being a sitcom. They need to accent drama with jokes… when the drama plays so well.
It’s also why my favorite season finale is the only non-sequential cliffhanger one, i.e. season 2. Season 2’s “big” finish was Monica and Richard breaking up — and we all know how much I love them. But I digress.
The point is, Seasons 1-5 were more timid when it came to incorporating drama, but Seasons 6-10 weren’t afraid to go there. When Chandler has to convince Erica to consider them to be her child’s parents, they axed all the jokes in favor of drama and it’s incredible.
I guess what I’m saying is, the characters grow organically, but the outside influences constrain them (be it money, sitcom format, studio executives, what-have-you).
As I understand it, the term “bottle episode” is derived from Star Trek when episodes were restricted to the Enterprise, literally making it “ship-in-a-bottle” episodes. Even with this, I can’t help but think of the cliche, “lightning in a bottle” with Friends because it wasn’t static. Star Trek, characters are at the apex of their careers, their lives even, but with Friends, we meet them in their late 20s where they don’t have everything worked out and most of them are not where they want to be. They cannot stay trapped in the bottle, they need to get out.
This is why The One With The Cake is hard to watch. It feels like they’re fighting the structure, like the metanarrative is “let us grow as Emma grows”. And the challenge was, while we (the audience) would want to watch that, they were restricted to the confines of the tried and true formula of the last 10 seasons; unable to break away and mix it up.
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