Saturday, August 27, 2011

In Its Ninth Season, Friends Settles In For Average Episodes And Average DVD Presentation.

The Good: Some funny moments, Decent character development
The Bad: Very standard DVD bonus features, Often more plot-oriented as the season goes on.
The Basics: A fun season, Friends Season Nine on DVD is still a bit more contrived and average than truly extraordinary or indispensable.

When a long-running television show does not know just how much longer it has, it is interesting to see how it develops and how it makes use of the time it has left. According to the commentary track on Friends Season 8 (reviewed here!), it was relatively late in the eighth season that the producers learned that all of the contract negotiations were set and Friends would be back on the air, renewed for two more seasons. As a result, the eighth season ended with a somewhat awkward cliffhanger and the ninth season was left with a lot of room to develop and play out, especially because the producers knew it would not be the show's last year.

Because of the nature of the finale to the eighth season, it is impossible to write about the ninth season - with any level of competency - without mentioning how the eighth season ended. For those who want to have a truly pure viewing of Friends (reviewed here!) this would be an appropriate place to stop reading. But given how long the series has been off the air and on DVD, it hardly seems shocking to mention. The ninth season of Friends is an interesting mix of much more cohesive - in terms of character development - and much less cohesive (in terms of plot) than the prior two seasons. Previous seasons of Friends have been heavily serialized with a few episodic moments. One season was spent entirely building to the wedding of Monica and Chandler and the eighth season was largely devoted to Rachel's pregnancy. The ninth season has serialized elements - like Chandler's stint in Tulsa or Phoebe's dating Mike - but there is no one overwhelming element that the season is truly about.

Following Rachel mistaking Joey's actions in the prior season's finale as proposing, Ross, Rachel and Joey try to figure out their collective relationships in the wake of Emma's birth. Rachel and Ross work together to keep Emma happy and safe, while Joey works through his lingering feelings for Rachel. But while their little drama progresses and Rachel settles in to being a mother, Chandler manages to fall asleep at a meeting where he inadvertently agrees to go off to Tulsa to head up his company's operation there. While Chandler and Monica deal with only seeing one another three days a week, Phoebe falls hard for a man named Mike whom Joey finds for her. But the tensions between Ross and Rachel and Chandler and Monica soon reach a head and at Christmas, Chandler quits his job and Rachel moves back in with Joey.

The season then progresses with Rachel realizing she might have feelings for Joey while Joey dates a paleontologist named Charlie. As Chandler tries to get his foot in the door at an advertising agency, Phoebe discovers things are not quite working out with Mike and the whole group plays the lotto together. The season climaxes with the whole group going to Barbados to listen to Ross present a paper and a series of surprising reversals for Phoebe, Ross, Rachel and Joey!

The ninth season of Friends had the great potential to explore some genuinely deep human emotions. Instead, the show went for obvious humor and clich├ęs. So, for example, early in the season as the heaviness between Ross and Rachel heats up, comes “The One With The Pediatrician,” which has the ridiculous premise that Ross still is attended to by his pediatrician, which is why he does not want Rachel to take Emma to him. As well as the obvious episodes where there are uncharacteristic elements, there are episodes that feel remarkably familiar . . . because they are. “The One With Phoebe’s Dinner Party” is just a mild twist on season two's “The One Where No One's Ready.” Instead of Ross hounding everyone to get somewhere, though, it is Phoebe waiting and the differences beyond that are almost nonexistent.

Still, some of the stories are surprisingly fresh, even years after. For example, “The One With The Sharks” is surprisingly funny as Monica walks in on Chandler, who hearing her, switches from watching porn to watching a documentary on sharks. This leads Monica to the conclusion that Chandler is turned on by undersea carnage. It's a fairly original concept and the execution of it is funny. But even so, the bulk of the concepts are more contrived than truly hilarious. Like why Ross, one of the more enlightened characters on the show, has a problem with a male nanny for Emma in “The One With The Male Nanny” is somewhat in neglect of his actual character. But watching Ross and Rachel sing “Baby Got Back” to Emma in “The One With Ross’ Inappropriate Song” is cute.

As well, Friends continues to introduce new characters in the ninth season and they do appear to be trading some on the celebrity of many of their guest stars. Christina Applegate pops up as Rachel’s other sister, Amy. This is actually one of the better uses of a guest star, though Applegate is given little to play that she has not previously played on her role from Married With Children. Other recurring guest stars like Paul Rudd and Aisha Tyler trade less on their celebrity, but hold their own with the main cast. Fans of the series will also be delighted by the return of Hank Azaria for a few episodes.

But when the show isn't busy being contrived with the situations, it actually makes a decent attempt to grow the characters. In the ninth season, the principle characters of Friends are:

Monica Bing – Happily married to Chandler, she has a lot of stress when Chandler goes to work in Tulsa for most of the week, leaving her alone. Upon his return, though, she begins to work with him to try to get pregnant and soon it becomes clear that their efforts are strangely in vain,

Ross Gellar – A father again, he manages to avoid proposing to Rachel and he works with her to raise Emma. However, the emotional ramifications of that soon become a toll and he finds himself attracted to Joey’s girlfriend, Charlie,

Joey – Experiencing some real feelings for Rachel, he manages to avoid awkward situations by her and Ross getting closer and then him getting involved with Charlie. Joey’s acting career continues surprisingly strong as his character is given more lines, which makes him nervous and puts him into an awkward situation with Rachel when she moves back in,

Chandler Bing – Thrilled at the prospect of having a child with Monica, he is less-than wild about his job taking her away from him. When a Christmas apart – and with a coworker who seems to want to tempt him – forces his hand, he quits . . . and explores advertising,

Phoebe – After being set up with Mike, she experiences the thrill of a good, long relationship for most of the season, until the pair breaks up. But when she is single again and the love of her life, David, pops up, her friends conspire to figure out who she truly ought to be with,

and Rachel Green – Having had her baby, she begins to grow as a single mother and develops into a surprisingly selfless person. But when she discovers Ross has been keeping phone messages from potential suitors from her, she moves back in with Joey and there she discovers she may have feelings for him!

The acting in Friends is homogeneously strong this season, but once again Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston lead the pack. While David Schwimmer seems content to direct more episodes, Perry plays real angst against his character's usual sarcasm, especially in the penultimate episode of the season, when Monica and Chandler learn something important from the fertility doctor. But this season is one of Jennifer Aniston’s strongest, as she truly develops Rachel into a fully realized human being. Motherhood works wonders on the character and the actress plays that up perfectly, becoming more emotive and giving throughout.

On DVD, Friends Season Nine includes a blooper reel and three of the episodes have commentary tracks, though those are particularly dull, even for a sitcom. There is a pointless music video from the Flaming Lips and the only truly wonderful bonus feature is the trivia game, though even that gets a bit repetitive.

Even so, there is more here on DVD than there is in syndication, making the DVD set just strong enough to recommend. Fans of the series will find there are fewer moments that seem original and a few more that seem unfortunately contrived, but for the most part, this is a fun boxed set.

For other works with Paul Rudd, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Year One
I Love You, Man
Monsters Vs. Aliens
Forgetting Sarah Marshall


For other television season reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

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

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