Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Little To Distinguish It, Friends The Complete Fifth Season Is Average An Sitcom On DVD.

The Good: Moments of humor, Chandler and Phoebe's character arcs
The Bad: Some truly juvenile plots, Plot-heavy, Limited DVD bonus features
The Basics: In a very average season of Friends, Phoebe has triplets, Chandler and Monica develop a relationship and the Ross/Rachel plot is abruptly dropped.

Every television series seems to have its ups and downs, but few that endured impress me with how drastically they changed (qualitatively) as Friends. My wife is a huge fan of the series and for our wedding, I purchased all of the seasons for her. As we make our way through them (alternating with shows I enjoy), I am shocked that this series retained its popularity as long as it did. This is especially true of Friends - The Complete Fifth Season, which is largely watchable only on the strength of Chandler's character arc and Lisa Kudrow's acting. Jennifer Aniston's Rachel is swept to the side far more often this season than in the past and Matt LeBlanc's Joey gets decent airtime, but does not actually develop. Similarly, Ross dominates this season, but we see nothing truly new from him or actor David Schwimmer. And Courteney Cox's acting gets no better in this boxed set.

The four-disc set contains all twenty-three fifth season episodes (the season finale is double-long and presented in its original form as a single episode) and is plagued with minimal DVD bonus features. Only three episodes have commentary tracks, though at least "The One Hundredth" is one of them and the final disc contains the other featurettes. One is a now-worthless sneak peak at season six featuring Gunther gossiping on the direction of the series. There is an hour-long documentary which is decent, but the "Friends: On Location In London" would have been more appropriate in the prior DVD set. The fifth season picks up with repeating the final moments of the fourth season's finale, so it is impossible to discuss it without mentioning the surprise ending to that season.

In London, Ross and his entire wedding party are shocked when he says Rachel's name instead of Emily's. Emily goes through with the marriage, though immediately abandons Ross. While Ross struggles to reconcile with the furious Emily, Rachel tries to determine what it means that Ross said her name. Meanwhile, Monica and Chandler deal with their coupling and the ramifications of that. Shortly after the gang returns to New York City, including a dejected Ross who is still attempting to contact Emily, Phoebe gives birth to the triplets.

What follows in the season are more episodic episodes. Chandler and Monica actually commit to a relationship with one another and Ross's second marriage collapses because Emily wants him to never again see Rachel. Ross also loses his apartment and is suspended from his job for exhibiting rage at work. Rachel has an awkward encounter with a new neighbor in the building, but otherwise focuses on her job, when she snags a new job at Ralph Lauren. Having recovered from birthing the triplets, Phoebe encounters her birth father and dates a police officer . . . with disastrous results. Joey continues to flounder at acting, but appears to get his big break with a movie role in Las Vegas, which sends the gang there for the end of the season.

Friends The Complete Fifth Season is not a masterwork of comedy or drama and as a result, it settles into a very middling niche in television history. By this point, the show has a soap operatic quality with the Ross/Rachel relationship and unfortunately, ridiculous plots begin to dominate the episodes. "The One With The Ball" has Chandler, Ross, Joey and Monica all skipping work and their obligations to simply throw a ball around because Ross and Joey had gone hours without dropping it. Similarly, when Ross moves into Ugly Naked Guy's apartment, the tenants there treat him like dirt for not chipping in on the retiring handyman's gift in an episode ("The One With The Girl Who Hits Joey") which is just aggravating to watch. The supporting characters are monolithically cast when it makes no real sense that Ross would spend a hundred bucks on a guy he never met.

The sense of serialization in the fifth season of Friends is similarly sporadic. There is a lone appearance of Janice - with Ross! - who references Chandler as being in Yemen, which is a good callback to the prior season, but largely each episode stands on its own. Indeed, the most extended arcs this season are Rachel's flirtations with Danny - which only lasts three episodes -, Phoebe's dating Gary and the occasional appearance of Emily to cause Ross some ire. Worse than the lack of sense of growth throughout this season is the way the writers become sloppy with the details. The easiest example of this is in "The One With All The Thanksgivings," which includes multiple flashbacks to Ross and Rachel's parents' house for Thanksgivings where Chandler and Rachel are guests. This is a problem for anyone who watches the series - not even all that closely! - as the season three episode "The One With The Flashback" clearly illustrates Chandler and Rachel had never met in that period.

The convoluted plot aspects combine with low character development, which is very disappointing. After Ross says her name at his wedding, the lovestruck Rachel easily abandons her interest in Ross, despite flying to London to tell him how she feels. This is utterly unrealistic as she sees Ross suffer through losing everything in the wake of the wedding and his eviction. Instead, Rachel gets tied up in her own stuff without looking back at Ross for almost the entire season. Similarly, after Phoebe gives a heartfelt speech to the triplets, they disappear without mention for the remainder of the season (save the offhanded remarks that she did the favor for her half-brother).

As a result, the characters are largely who they are when they begin the season. In the fifth season, the principle characters are:

Ross Gellar - Soon-divorced a second time, he begins dating again and struggles at work with anger management issues. He pushes Ben into acting when his young son is offered a commercial opportunity. After a brief, but annoying, stint as Chandler and Joey's roommate, he moves into Ugly Naked Guy's apartment and fails horribly to flirt with a woman who thinks he's creepy,

Monica Gellar - Secretly seeing Chandler, she tries to keep her friends and brother from finding out. Otherwise, she apparently works at the restaurant (she gets a 98% on her health inspection) and is a supporting character this season. In the flashback episode, we learn why she lost all the weight she is alluded to have before the series began,

Chandler Bing - Dating Monica and still craving cigarettes, he tries to get away with Monica at every opportunity, often with problematic results. The way Chandler kisses up to his boss is revealed and he almost cracks when Phoebe tries to suss out his secret through seducing him. Joey leaves him for Las Vegas when Chandler fails to believe in the potential success of Joey's new film project,

Rachel Green - Shocked that Ross might still love her, she is angry when Ross abandons her on the plane to Athens. She returns to New York City, bug-bombs a neighbor and discovers he has a creepy closeness to his own sister. She moves to working at Ralph Lauren and discovers all of the important work is done on the cigarette breaks, which leads her to try cigarettes. She buys herself an expensive cat and secretly tries to help Ross hook up with a woman he is interested in,

Joey - The first to discover that Chandler and Monica are sleeping together, he begins to crack under the strain of keeping that secret, especially when the pair slips up repeatedly. When the secret comes out, he is overjoyed. He also experiences the pain of kidney stones and a girlfriend who punches him a lot. After months of acting classes and generally flailing professionally, he is offered the lead role in a movie being filmed in Las Vegas,

and Phoebe - Pregnant and miserable, she goes into labor when her friends decide to take her to Atlantic City. She dates a health inspector and a police officer this season after giving birth to the triplets. When her beloved grandmother dies, she meets her biological father and she pushes Chandler over the edge when she realizes he and Monica are together. To make up for not being able to go on the London trip, she is eager to go to Las Vegas.

This season the most evident acting talents are from Matthew Perry and Lisa Kudrow, who present vivid emotions that add depth to their repertoire in the primarily comedic roles they find themselves. Perry adds a great sense of uncertainty to Chandler as Chandler begins to navigate an adult relationship and it works perfectly. Similarly, Kudrow has several scenes where she is able to play the usually dippy Phoebe as a vital, sometimes agonized, woman.

But on the balance, this season is very average and while Friends fans will find plenty to enjoy, this is not the best season for those looking to get into the show.

For other works with Lisa Kudrow, be sure to visit my review of Easy A here!


For other television reviews, please 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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