Thursday, July 28, 2011

Friends The Complete Series: The Entire Chick-Flick Sitcom In One Nice Place Is Ultimately Average.

The Good: Some very funny episodes, Interesting characters, Development over the seasons, Some decent performances
The Bad: Some very canned sitcom plots, Soap operatic quality, Some performances
The Basics: A good, but not exceptional situational comedy about late twentysomethings and early-thirtysomethings living in New York City, Friends The Complete Series is now available on DVD in one big boxed set!

After the hype has died on a television show, it is sometimes interesting to go back, get into it, and see how it holds up. In the case of Friends, I saw a few episodes while the show was in syndication and I caught the series finale, but for the most part, it was mixed laughs and a lot of melodrama and I never got seriously into it. Years later, I find myself in a whirlwind of a relationship with someone who grew up on Friends; for her it was analogous to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in my life. In other words, it was an important part of who she was and how she grew up, the show (like Deep Space Nine for me) accompanied her through the most turbulent years of her life. So, when we got married three Aprils ago, I surprised her with a wedding gift: Friends The Complete Series on DVD.

Since then, we have been watching episodes at an incredible pace and as I watched more and more of the series and found myself talking with others about it, I found what I generally considered an average sitcom was considered by many people I respect as the longest-running chick flick on network television. The preoccupation with relationships and the often soap operatic turns of events throughout the series makes the analogy a pretty good one. Ultimately, the language and humor on Friends makes it an easy recommend, but the overall series is far more average than most fans want to admit. In this case, the hype for Friends clearly worked to its advantage while it was on the air.

Friends is a half-hour (twenty-two minute) situational comedy about a group of late twentysomethings living in New York City getting into and falling out of relationships, sometimes with one another. Rachel Green, a spoiled young woman who used to be the most popular girl in high school flees into Central Perk Cafe on her wedding day as she runs from marriage to a prominent dentist. There, Rachel meets with Monica Gellar, one of the few people she did not invite to the wedding, and she turns to her for consolation. Monica takes Rachel in and her brother, Ross, and her friends open the circle to admit her. As Rachel assimilates to the group, Ross struggles with divorcing his wife - who has recently realized she is a lesbian - and becoming a father to his new son with her. Ross's old college roommate and best friend, Chandler, finds himself stuck at a dead-end accounting-type job, his roommate Joey struggles to find work as an actor while dating pretty promiscuously. And Monica's former-roommate, Phoebe, gets gigs as a singer-songwriter where she sings the most horrible songs.

As Rachel gets her footing, working as a waitress at Central Perk, despite having no aptitude for it, the six friends begin to grow and come together more. Ross's lifelong crush on Rachel comes out and the two begin an on-again, off-again relationship, Rachel eventually finds the strength to leave Central Perk and apply for a job that utilizes more of her talents and Monica's attempts to find love take her through the family optometrist to Chandler! And while Chandler flounders personally until Monica comes into his life as a romantic interest, he and Joey have great fun as roommates and he becomes quite successful with his work. Joey continues to struggle through finding acting work and Phoebe learns about her father, half-brother and becomes the surrogate mother to her half-brother's babies.

Friends is an awkward mix of serialized plot and character arcs broken up by stretches of episodic plots that are neatly resolved by the end of a single episode and never referred to again. So, for example, the relationship between Ross and Rachel builds up over several episodes, then when Rachel becomes a buyer at Bloomingdale's, she begins working with a guy who makes Ross jealous. Their relationship disintegrates over several episodes and that arc is referenced many times throughout the rest of the series ("We were on a break!"). Similarly, Phoebe having the triplets is spread over many episodes, Chandler and Joey being interested in the same woman, Monica finding herself out of work and Phoebe's relationship with a police officer all form arcs that last several episodes and it helps for viewers to see the episodes prior to understand what comes next. After a few seasons, double-length season finales tend to have major turning points, usually centered around travel to places like London and Las Vegas.

These long arcs are broken up by pointless one-episode stories that have no bearing on the overall series. So, for example, an episode will have a main plot involving Ross and Joey throwing a ball to one another for several hours without dropping it. Or there will be a blackout and Chandler will be stuck in a bank vestibule with a supermodel. The worst of the one-shots are the clipshows which seem especially wasteful in Friends The Complete Series. During breaks in the main plot, there will be a filler episode that utilizes clips from prior episodes and these are utterly unnecessary for fans who have all of the other episodes, as one has in this forty-disc set, which encapsulates the entire ten year run of Friends.

Much of the humor in Friends is verbal, as opposed to physical comedy. The characters make wisecracks, respond to honest questions with sarcasm - "Did you find the cameras?" "Yes, that's why I'm under the table . . . celebrating." (Ross and Chandler in "The One After 'I Do'")- and find themselves in awkward situations to garner laughs. The show has a laughtrack which is distracting on many of the episodes, but is pretty much a standard of sitcoms of this type. Still, some of the humor is derived from physical gags, like Ross trying to squeeze back into leather pants which have shrunk while he is in the bathroom on a date.

But like most situational comedies, the endurance of Friends is a testament to the characters and Friends actually had the longest-running stable cast on television for the ten years it was on with none of the six principle characters leaving or no new main characters being added. Understanding who the characters are and their general arcs is a good idea. The main characters are:

Rachel Green - Having fled her safe life with a husband who would provide for her, the superficial and spoiled Rachel takes refuge with Monica and begins to rebuild her life. After a string of lousy men who treat her poorly, she discovers Ross's love for her and appreciates it. She opts to advance her career by becoming a buyer at Bloomingdales and later working as a fashion buyer for Ralph Lauren, which strains her relationship with Ross. Following their breakup, they have several near-misses on relationships while Rachel learns to be more giving, ultimately opting to become a single mother,

Monica Gellar - A chef and a compulsive neat-freak, Monica is formerly-obese but now is thin and social. She dates, though remembers the sting of being unwanted. She finds validation in successful men, like Dr. Richard Burke and a wealthy software developer before attempting to get her idyllic life with a spouse and child with Chandler. Ross's sister and the best friend of Rachel,

Phoebe Buffay - A free-loving woman who was abandoned by her parents at a young age after her father left and mother killed herself. She has lived on the streets of New York City, but now sings for a living. Formerly Monica's roommate, she is dippy, fun and works hard for what she has. She discovers she has a half-brother and agrees to carry his children when he and his older wife cannot conceive,

Chandler Bing - A deeply sarcastic young man, he is trapped in a job that he does not like, but has a great aptitude for. When not making a lot of money and cutting his friends with the wisecracks, Chandler searches for love, though he fears commitment. After a string of horrible pairings - including the recurring Janice - he realizes he and Monica share many of the same long-term goals and he begins pursuing her. He begins the series with Joey as his roommate and he has a big brother type protective nature of his dimwitted friend,

Joey Tribbiani - A dimwitted actor, Joey has no real desire for a long-term relationship (until the last few years of the series). He enjoys playing the field, though he struggles to find work as an actor. He manages to land a soap opera job on Days Of Our Lives, which leads him to a gig teaching other actors. Gullible, but kind, Joey is frequently looking for his big break and the next woman who will share his bed,

and Ross Gellar - A paleontologist by trade, Ross is socially awkward and well-educated, booksmart but emotionally dumb. After decades pining for Rachel, his divorce grants him the opportunity to make his move and when she learns of his interest, she surprisingly comes around. He has infrequent visits by his son and after a fallout with Rachel, finds himself marrying a British woman. After that divorce, he concentrates more on his profession and becomes a professor. Brother to Monica and Chandler's former roommate, he is often melancholy and broken.

As for the acting, this is the show that made household names out of Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc, David Schwimmer and Courteney Cox-Arquette. Unfortunately, only half of them are used well or to their full potential. While David Schwimmer proves himself as an able actor in comedy in comparison to (for example) the dramatic role he had on NYPD Blue, Schwimmer is written into a rut rather quickly and he remains there the entire series. Just as Schwimmer is forced to play the awkward smart guy, Matt LeBlanc is given the role of the fool to play and he masters it early on, though he has a few dramatic notes that he gets to hit late in the series. Courteney Cox-Arquette is almost homogeneously bad as Monica as she can often be seen on DVD laughing during moments where the audience would laugh, but her character ought not to be.

The three who carry the series are Matthew Perry, Jennifer Aniston and Lisa Kudrow. Aniston's Rachel has a decent overall arc which allows her to portray a character who struggles and grows and Aniston does that quite well. Similarly, Lisa Kudrow, who is quite smart in every bonus feature and talk show appearance I've seen her in or is available on this DVD, nails her performances consistently. She is believable as the series twit and carries the moments that tug on the viewer's heartstrings as well.

But Matthew Perry is the one who shows the greatest range over the ten years of this program and on this DVD set, one of the big treats is watching him take more and more control. As Chandler develops from an insecure, fearful man who acts out frequently to a mature adult, Perry infuses intelligence in with the sophomoric wisecracks and makes the transition realistic. Perry has no bad moments in the entire run and it is a treat to watch him work.

Throughout the series, there are recurring and one-time guest stars, some of which just shout of ratings pandering - like the appearance of Robin Williams and Billy Crystal for the teaser of an episode. Similarly, Tom Sellick appears as Dr. Richard Burke and following the breakup with Monica, he pops back for reappearances at odd intervals - until one considers the airdates. Regardless of such pandering, there are fun recurring guest stars like Elliot Gould as Monica and Ross's father and Morgan Fairchild as Chandler's mother.

On DVD, the Friends The Complete Series boxed set includes all forty discs of the series as they were originally released (though with different silk-screened images on each disc) with no additional content or features. There is a single booklet that describes the each episode and makes notations on the guest stars in each episode. This boxed set is designed to foster the idea that Friends is one continual story by eliminating easy references in the packaging to the seasons and presenting the series in discs that only include the episode numbers. Each character is given six or seven discs with their image on it and the only way to learn where one is in the series is by looking in the booklet or popping the disc into a player and seeing the season number on the main menu. The DVD bonus features are minimal with only a handful of episodes having a commentary track. There are season reviews and previews for the following season, as well as the occasional deleted scenes or outtake reel activated by playing a trivia game.

All in all, Friends fans will find this is a more economical way to collect the complete series Friends and it takes up slightly less space on the shelf than buying the seasons individually. Often, it can be found slightly less expensively as well. And for fans of Friends, this is pretty much the ultimate way to go.

For a better idea of exactly what this boxed set contains, please check out my reviews of the individual seasons at:
Friends Season 1
Friends Season 2
Friends Season 3
Friends Season 4
Friends Season 5
Friends Season 6
Friends Season 7
Friends Season 8
Friends Season 9
Friends Season 10

For other shows that air(ed) on NBC, please check out my reviews of:
30 Rock – Season 1
The West Wing
Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip
V - The Television Series
Star Trek


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

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