I’m happy for the Friends cast. Everyone is doing something and while I seldom watch their projects, their presence makes for a nominal selling point.
It does seem like Matthew Perry feels like the Friends years were the highlight of his career. Perry, in an interview with Lisa Kudrow, said, “I would like to go back to 2004 and not have stopped”. Kudrow seems equally into the idea. In an AMA she did for reddit, she goes so far as to say she’d love a whole season:
Matt LeBlanc is happy to celebrate his character at any opportunity, or his character’s character (see Dr. Drake Ramoray on Late Night with Seth Myers) and although he’s got a lot going on, it doesn’t quite feel like he’s found a new foothold yet.
Courteney Cox had Cougar Town and right now seems to be honing in on self betterment.
Meanwhile Jennifer Aniston does not seem to care. Even her appearance on SNL showcased her saying, “Friends was like five million and five years ago, so I think we’ve just gotta move on.” It’s probably reading too much into a scripted comedy show… but it feels like maybe that number was supposed to be “5 hundred years ago” and she adlibbed “five million” because it feels awkward and it feels like she’s genuinely venting some frustrations about it. She is not Rachel, stop asking.
That said, somewhere – although I can’t seem to find it again – there’s also an interview where she said something along the lines of “I don’t think people want to see an ‘old’ Rachel” and she didn’t seem bitter, but I don’t know. Needless to say, she has a profitable movie career, so she doesn’t seem to care much for Friends.
David Schwimmer is the only one who seems totally content with whatever. I mean he has his passion projects (i.e. The People v. O.J. Simpson), but he also has fun learning behind the camera. Run Fatboy, Run wasn’t groundbreaking, but to hear Schwimmer in the commentary, you wouldn’t know it; he seems delighted with the final product and all the ins and outs he learned with the people he worked with. And then he’ll pop up in the Madagascar films. I’ve never seen an interview where he’s complacent or bitter, but I am biased – I love David Schwimmer, Kissing a Fool was great.
So how ’bout that Friends reunion?
I’m in the Kudrow boat. A season would be phenomenal, but I think a movie would hurt the series. Why? Let’s take a look at “longer than normal” Friends episodes.
Friends Double-Length Episodes AKA The Worst Ones
There are two episodes of Friends I could do without:
- The One That Could Have Been
- The One After The Superbowl
TO After the Superbowl edges out The One that Could Have Been only because of the Chandler / Susie “Underpants” plotline.
Both of these episodes were longer than normal, running 44-48 minutes or roughly half the length of a movie (but I’ll get more into that later).
Here’s why I don’t like these episodes.
The One That Could Have Been
Normally, I like this kind of episode. Hercules: The Legendary Journeys was chock full of them. I like series-es(?) where they can take a detour from the status quo and treat you to something fresh and new. In fact, I’d argue this is a big reason why I like Community so much; it made a gag out of changing it up. But I digress.
The One that Could Have Been should’ve been an exercise for the actors to do something a little different. I don’t doubt they all enjoyed their roles, but if you do anything for five years, you’re bound to want to stretch your chops a bit. Again, superhero shows usually enable it by offering a “bizarro” or “evil form” of yourself (or Ursula).
The One that Could Have Been does do this with their C-story line, i.e. Phoebe working as a financial advisor (or stock broker?) for Merrill Lynch. This is truly the one saving grace of the episode because it’s interesting and a wild departure from the Phoebe we’d come to know while retaining her quirks.
However, the rest the episode follows the “thesis” when Ross says, “Do you think if all those things happened, we’d still hang out?” The answer is, yes, they’d be the same friends… but infinitely less interesting.
The episode abandons much of what made the characters great and asks that you like them all the same.
Part of what made Monica interesting was that she used to be fat but is thin now. She’s the “She’s All That” girl but with diet and exercise instead of glasses and a hair tie. This is reflected in Monica’s work ethic and controlling behavior. It’s the reason her character is engaging; she’s a hard worker who gets crapped on — which, in my opinion, is emblematic of the American Dream.
To create a “what if” where she’s still fat reduces her character arc. Worse, she comes across as a spoiled child. She’s happy to keep the status quo as opposed to owning her own restaurant. She’s content to be with “Dr. Boring”. This isn’t a Monica with goals and ambition. And yet, we’re supposed to care about her?
The biggest joke about Monica in the flashbacks is how naïve and sheltered she is. The word “sex” is taboo. A “grazed boob” is a veritable second-base. A delicate “flower” is to be given to a knight’s “tenderness”. She’s a late bloomer (like Chandler), and it’s why she’s slept with a lot of guys, she’s still learning/experimenting and finding out that most people are conniving A-holes.
Similarly, Chandler and Joey do a “role swap” within their relationship; a role swap and nothing else. Role reversal doesn’t work when it comes to character because there’s an imbalance.
Joey worked because he was street smart and good with the ladies, but was humbled by his financial woes and erratic line of work. When Joey has no financial worries, he has no humility which makes him the least likable character. This is also why Joey, in later seasons, is such a drag, once he’s hired on as Dr. Drake Ramoray (again) and is pulling in money, he has no humility. Arguably, this is why he doesn’t need to read anymore (remember Little Women and Word of the Day toilet paper?) and seemingly drops by leagues in intelligence (I walk in, I make a left [holding right hand out]).
(I was trying to find the gif of “I don’t have another level”)
Meanwhile, Chandler had a secure, high-paying job, so it meant he could focus on other things, i.e. relationships and self-improvement (he was very aware of why he made jokes). When you eliminate the job, Chandler can’t focus on self-improvement, so instead of being humble, he grows a sense of entitlement and a massive ego. While canon Chandler used jokes out of nervousness and insecurities, hypothetical Chandler thinks his jokes are hysterical and people are wrong for not thinking he’s funny.
Then Ross and Rachel are the same character as in season 1, just 6 years later.
To make matters worse, the episode is a slog. Substituting payoffs for gimmicks. Monica is fat. Monica likes food. Rachel is spoiled. Chandler peed in a cup. Joey hits on ladies. Ross’ wife is gay. Do you get it? She’s gay.
Where are the jokes? A set up and payoff? How about Phoebe has a heart attack so Dr. Boring “rushes” over. Monica is so distraught (much like in London after being thought to be Ross’ mom) that she goes next door and sleeps with Chandler. Later, when Phoebe has another heart attack and Monica calls the doctor and Chandler gets defensive, “You don’t need him!” “No, Chandler, I really do.” Have Phoebe, impatiently voicing her opinion while this escalates. When doctor shows up, he see Monica and Chandler locked in an embrace. He struggles to process this saying, “my heart is broken” and Phoebe badgers his “heart problems” for making light of hers.
Chandler’s story is the only one with a traditional setup, but the payoff after 44 minutes is hardly worth writing home about. Why not payoff the role reversal? Instead of Archie, Chandler becomes Joey’s “tabloid paparazzi” guy. What if Chandler starts making a fortune exploiting the soap opera star, taking racy photos, writing about his crude sexual exploits — you know, his usual passive aggressive stuff, but now public for profit. What if Joey ends up getting fired because of a particularly raunchy story, and Chandler gets a huge payout and the result is he offers to support Joey indefinitely. It ties into the thesis and brings us back to where things are in the canon.
Look, I get that I’m treading on fan fiction territory, but without setups and punchlines, this episode feels lazy; it feels much longer than two hours and this is why. There aren’t jokes, there are gags. There aren’t setups, there’s improv. There aren’t callbacks, there’s one-liners. The what if episode is twice the length a normal episode with half the effort? I actually believe the only reason this episode exists is because someone said, “let’s put Courteney in a fat suit again.”
The One After The Superbowl
This episode made the mistake of thinking it needed to be more of an event. The countless (read: needless) celebrity cameos made scenes transform from funny one-off jokes to beating a dead horse. It’s like each celeb needed a certain amount of screen time to warrant their appearance, so Ross’ foray into the zoo world results in, not 1, but 2 zoo scenes that go on for way too long.
Then there’s Joey and his stalker, Brooke Shields, and one of the biggest missed opportunities as far as setups go. The woman thinks Joey is a real neurosurgeon and he’s put on the spot in a public setting to help someone in need. If we saw Joey try to save this guy, that’d be ripe for comedy. Instead, it’s abandoned as quickly as it was adopted. (Fan fiction territory, but in regards to setup, I would’ve liked to see Joey act as a neurosurgeon and diagnose his stalker with a mental defect, and send her away because he can’t perform the surgery, he’d be too emotional.)
Meanwhile, you have Phoebe’s songs and jingles which are proof that 1 per episode is enough. Doing 3-5 is too much. It’s a gag, not a plot.
Then Rachel and Monica fight over Van Damme – and don’t get me wrong, I love me some JCVD, but he’s a missed opportunity here since he plays a weird version of himself. More than that though I can recall two times when two of the ladies fought over a guy and both times it was handled either humorously or maturely, like adults.
- TOW Mrs. Bing where Phoebe and Monica visit the guy in the coma, each projecting what she wishes he could be.
- TOW the Cat when Monica takes out Chip Matthews and Rachel gives her consent.
I’m not a diehard feminist, I mean, I’m willing to sacrifice some degree of feminism for comedy, but this plotline between Monica and Rachel sullied their relationship without reason. It was a disservice to them – and to Van Damme – and to Drew Barrymore — maybe I’m alone, but I feel like it was a weird dig at Barrymore’s character to say she’d be down for a threesome.
Then there’s Ross and the monkey which only exists to be the through-line for both parts.
But Chandler and Susie (Julia Roberts) is the diamond in this coal crap.
I’ve talked enough about setups without many examples, but this is it. This is the payoff. Chandler meets Susie who mentions, “You, you pulled up my skirt and the entire auditorium saw my underpants.” And then at the end, Susie gets justice from 20 years of humiliation by putting Chandler in her underpants as an adult, “Whaddo I mean?! Whaddya mean, whaddo I mean?! I mean underpants, mister, that’s what I mean! My skirt. You lifted! Kids laughing. I was Susie Underpants ’till I was 18!”
What’s great about this plotline too is that we get some insight into Chandler’s youth. He was the class clown, made jokes at other people’s expense; he was the kid with mirrors on his cap. As an audience member, it makes you reflect on the same kid you knew or maybe you were that kid. It gives us a some depth too and touches on his self-awareness, “Yes, back then I, uh, used humor as a defense mechanism. Thank God I don’t do that anymore.”
Friends’ Longer Episodes Don’t Work
One of the reasons TO After the Superbowl fares better is because at least they had the sense to create A/B storylines for part one featuring half the cast, and then A/B storylines for part two featuring the other half. It is essentially two episodes loosely smashed together by Ross’ monkey.
However, TO That Could Have Been tries to maintain the same storylines at the beginning all the way to the ending. Yes, the writing for this one was lazy, but as it’s truly a double-length episode that fails, it’s a good indication of how a longer format would cause the show to suffer.
But I’ve already skipped over the biggest indicator of a 80-90 minute film: the Friends season finales.
The season finales are usually two-parters, plus a third part in the next season’s premiere. That brings us up to 66-72 minutes and probably the closest we’re going to get to a full-length film. But why don’t those work?
I’ll save that for part 2.