Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Few Schmaltzy Episodes Make Friends - The First Season Far Less Great, When Viewed Objectively.

The Good: Funny, Some decent characters and acting
The Bad: Light on DVD bonus features, Some real lame episodes, Somewhat predictable, Ross's monkey
The Basics: An average-at-best sitcom, Friends gets off to a rocky start with "The First Season" on DVD. Catch the syndicated reruns and save your money for better seasons!

Many who know me by my reviews know that I am a sucker for a decent chick flick. Two of my favorite movies of all time include The Spitfire Grill (reviewed here!) and When Harry Met Sally. As far as television goes, there are few series's that I have fell in love with that have the same resonance as a good chick flick. After all, while television is the ideal medium to create long-term romances, too often shows rush to the creation and dissolving of relationships because they do not know how long they will be on the air. And the best possible medium for exploring relationships - the daily soap opera - is far too often concerned with absurd plot twists and over-the-top characterizations than actual human drama (in the UK, shows like Eastenders buck this trend by exploring relationships over years and decades without the inane swings of fortune that come on U.S. soap operas). So, when my partner told me that Friends was one of her favorite shows, I steeled myself for the process of watching the entire series.

The experience began for me when I bought my wife the complete series (reviewed here!) for our recent wedding. I figured it would be a great gift for her and as part of our sharing our lives together, now she is able to share this thing that brings her great joy with me. It begins with Friends - The First Season, a four-disc DVD set which is average at best. Opening with a mediocre pilot episode that soon moves into a steady stream of remarkably average and occasionally obviously schmaltzy episodes, Friends is lucky it survived its first season and considering the quality of later seasons, it is actually easy for even fans to save their money on this set and skip ahead to when the characters and stories are more memorable.

Rachel Green rushes into Central Perk coffee house on the day of her wedding to beg rescue from her casual friend from her high school days, Monica Gellar. Monica and her brother and friends encourage Rachel to stand to her convictions and not marry the dentist, Barry, who she is not at all fully in love with. Eager, then, to discover how people without wealth live, Rachel undergoes the trauma of having to get a job, stop spending her daddy's money and work to survive, while Monica takes her in.

As Rachel acclimates to life as a working person, waitressing at Central Perk (poorly), Monica's brother, Ross, struggles with both the dissolution of his marriage, the fact that his lesbian ex-wife is now having their son and his feelings for Rachel. When Rachel begins dating a neighbor within the building, Ross wrestles with his jealousy and Joey and Chandler help him through. Together with Phoebe, a hippie folk singer who formerly lived with Monica, they hang out and observe life as it happens around them.

The thing is, Friends - The First Season is almost entirely unnecessary for one's permanent collection. The pilot is so bad that one wonders how the series got made and while I began this review considering it an average sitcom, the moment I recalled Ross's monkey Marcel, my stomach tightened up with a loathing that made me wonder how I got through the entire season outside loving the woman I was watching it with. The thing about it is, in its first season, Friends is struggling for its footing and it relies upon cheap plot devices like Marcel and the sudden appearance of Paolo to keep Ross from pursuing Rachel. If that were not bad enough, the final frames of the season use essentially the same plot device and the viewer is left both unsurprised and more or less uninterested in the return the next season. Indeed, for those who want to truly love Friends, it is much easier to recommend that they tune into the reruns in syndication than shell out good money on this DVD set.

It is not all bad, however, despite the hokey obvious emotionalism of episodes like "The One Where Nana Dies Twice" (wherein Ross and Monica's grandmother dies and it is unclear why all of the friends look so very somber about this outside the fact that it is the eighth episode and to guarantee the full order of the season was picked up the producers apparently tried to illustrate the show could do serious as well as slapstick). Chandler's return to smoking and willingness to give it up for cash in "The One With The Thumb" is funny. Also pretty wonderful is "The One With The Boobies" wherein Joey deals with his father having an affair only to learn that his mother knew and was quite content to let him. The first season even has a two-parter which introduces Phoebe's twin sister, Ursula, whom Joey falls for (which is also an excuse for Friends to do a crossover with Mad About You and ER).

For a better understanding of why the show achieved popularity, it helps to understand where the characters began. In the first season, the principles are:

Monica Gellar - A chef who is constantly judged negatively by her mother. She dates on and off, including a high school student she unwittingly falls for, and is completely neurotic. Her sense of order is easily upset and her pragmatism makes her a reasonably reliable friend to Rachel after her existential crisis,

Ross Gellar - Monica's younger brother, he is heartbroken over his wife leaving him for another woman. As he struggles to negotiate with his ex- and her new partner for rights to his unborn child, he feels a strong pull toward Rachel. Filling the void left by his ex-wife, he takes in an illegal monkey whose hijynx keep him occupied for much of the season,

Rachel Green - Having left her fiance at the altar, she is irked to learn that her Maid Of Honor has hooked up with him. As she adapts to not having an unlimited credit card and working a job where FICA takes a significant chunk each week, she dates an Italian in the same building until he, too, hurts her. After swearing off guys for a while, she tries to advance as a waitress, a job she is terrible at,

Chandler Bing - A data processor, he is a whiz at a job he hates. The son of a world famous romance novelist, he is insecure, sarcastic and a generally solid guy. He lives with Joey and after he breaks up with his annoying girlfriend Janice, he is miffed when Joey accidentally sets him up on a blind date with her later on,

Phoebe - A hippie folk singer who is pretty addlebrained, she sings frequently at Central Perk and was Monica's roommate. She has a twin sister and finds herself dating a scientist who has to leave on an important endeavor. She is honest, her friends are the most important thing to her and she makes the world's best oatmeal cookies,

and Joey - A struggling actor, he gets his big break - almost - as a butt double for his hero Al Pacino. He is both sarcastic and witless. He seems to have a way with women and when he falls for Phoebe's twin sister, Ursula, he causes some real strife within the group.

The thing about the first season of Friends is that it is hardly original or distinctive. Instead, the show listlessly attempts to capture twentysomethings who live well in New York City struggling . . . with nothing. If Seinfeld was a show about nothing, Friends is a show where six somewhat younger people experience the same sense of nothing. As a result, it is difficult to say what happens in most of the episodes in this season (which is contrasted with later seasons where episodes are richer in character development and interesting plots). In fact, out of the first season's twenty-four episodes, the most memorable events would have to be a power outage and Chandler quitting his job. Outside that, things like Rachel running back to Barry, Ross's experiences with Marcel and Joey dating are rather unmemorable.

Important events like the birth of Ross's son, tend to happen near the climax of the season and they do not honestly have as much bearing on the future seasons as they could. So, for example, if one started the series with season two, the presence of Ross's son would not be problematic or even inadequately explained. This set is largely backstory before the series honestly became interesting or anything remotely like a classic.

On DVD, the pilot episode has a commentary track that makes the episode no better. In fact, much of it is spent complaining about what had to be cut from the network aired version (whatwith it actually being a full half-hour episode). There is a clipshow with notable guest stars from the first season as well as a map of Central Perk which illustrates the details of that set for those who wish they could live there. There is a trivia game which allows access to a blooper reel and a trailer for season two which is not terribly interesting or even teasing.

In all, Friends - The First Season is average at best and when viewed objectively is a lot more disappointing than most people who aren't loyal fans will admit. It has some wonderful lines, but the episodes are less memorable and the characters are far less interesting than later seasons would make them. In short, the only reason to pick this boxed set up is to see how it all began, not for great memories of a show that developed into something truly wonderful.

For other works featuring Matthew Perry, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip
The West Wing - Season Five
The West Wing - Season Four


For other television program reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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