Sunday, August 21, 2011

Looking Back, Friends Season Eight Is As Single-minded In Its Focus As The Prior Season!

The Good: Moments of character, Moments of humor
The Bad: Light on DVD bonus features, Repetitive feeling, Some moments of performance
The Basics: When Rachel gets pregnant, the eighth season of Friends arrives on DVD with good serialization and some lame episodic bits.

As some television series's progress, they become repetitive or strangely more focused. In the case of Friends (series reviewed here!) it became both. The seventh season of the show was very much focused on the build-up to a wedding and when it was not leading to Monica and Chandler's wedding, it was aimless with "bottle" episodes that often fell flat. In a similar way, the eighth season of Friends was almost singularly focused on the pregnancy alluded to in the seventh season finale. As such, it is impossible to discuss the eighth season of Friends without revealing the final moments of the prior. That is the closest to a spoiler alter one gets with me.

The eighth season of Friends, repackaged now for the fifteenth anniversary of the series beginning, is very much focused on Rachel's pregnancy and the effect it has on the six friends who have regularly convened for coffee and companionship for years prior. The twenty-three episodes (the finale is double-long) of the eighth season are presented on DVD with little additional programming to recommend them over the syndicated versions, but for fans of the series and of situational comedy, there is still enough to recommend this boxed set.

With the identity of the pregnant friend quickly confirmed to be Rachel, Rachel sets about preparing to be a single mother. To that end, she informs the father that she is not intending for him to have any involvement in the pregnancy or the eventual raising of the child. As it turns out, the father is none other than Ross and this revelation comes on the heels of Ross actually meeting a woman he would like to be with (Mona) at Monica and Chandler's wedding. As Rachel gives up dating, she and Joey become surprisingly close while Ross dates Mona.

As Joey wrestles with falling in love with Rachel, Monica and Chandler settle into their marriage. Phoebe tries to be supportive, but she tends to find herself as the odd-woman out, though she finds herself breaking up her twin sister's engagement. Rachel's pregnancy progresses naturally and when she lets Joey down easily, she moves in with Ross. This complicates things between Ross and Mona and prepares the viewer for a surprisingly banal finale which is almost exactly where viewers expected the season to end.

Mixed in with the season-long Rachel pregnancy arc are a smattering of bottle episodes and some of them are annoying as this season includes the standard clipshow of prior seasons. Other episodes that distract from the more serialized nature of the season include ones where Monica having to fire a man Phoebe is dating (and wants to dump), Phoebe falling for her sister's ex-fiance, and another one where Monica is convinced the new maid is stealing her clothes. Other foibles include Monica hiring a stripper (who is actually a prostitute) and the annual Thanksgiving episode which exposes Ross as a former loather of Rachel. As well, the episode where Monica and Joey take a cooking class ("The One With The Cooking Class") seems particularly pointless after a long string of episodes that keep tight focus on Joey and Rachel.

Of course, part of the issue is that the entire cast of six characters must be utilized, but when Friends isn't focused in the eighth season, it is dreadfully unfocused. Still, there are some truly hilarious moments, from the moment Rachel tells Ross he is the father (and Ross learns about condoms being 3% ineffective) to Phoebe dating a real loser ("I write erotic novels for children . . . they're wildly unpopular" in "The One With The Tea Leaves."). But there are some real duds and DVD buyers ought to feel cheesed about "The One With Joey's Interview" where they are given yet another clip show.

Similarly, in the eighth season of Friends the show continues its NBC-driven inclusion of famous guest stars trading on their celebrity appeal. While Sean Penn makes a memorable two-shot appearance as Ursula's (ex-)fiancé, Alec Baldwin's two-shot is just annoying and seems designed to trade on the character being such a ridiculous departure from his norm that viewers are supposed to be wowed. The most notable act of celebrity "name dropping" is the appearance of Jennifer Aniston's then-husband Brad Pitt for "The One With The Rumor." Pitt plays a former classmate of Rachel's who had an "I Hate Rachel" club with Ross and Pitt smirks through almost his entire performance and the studio audience appropriately gushes for him showing up on television. It feels like what it is; a ploy to boost ratings even more than they already were (yes, it's taken me writing about eight seasons of Friends before it finally occurred to me that Thanksgiving is the cap of November Sweeps)!

As the best sitcoms survive based upon the strength of the characters, so too does Friends. In the eighth season, the primary characters are:

Rachel - Pregnant and looking forward to becoming a single mother (though dreading the process as her due date nears) she finds her life changing radically. While arguably responsible for the pregnancy, she finds herself placed in awkward situations as Joey falls for her and then when she realizes she doesn't want Ross dating anyone else. She becomes terrified when she sees a video of a live childbirth and delights in pretending to be married with Ross at his parents' anniversary dinner,

Ross - Mortified that he got Rachel pregnant, he still steps up to provide for the impending baby. After a few false starts, he and Mona begin dating and he finds himself delighted by the new girlfriend. However, his inability to tell Mona the truth - especially when Rachel moves in with him - costs him that relationship and he soon finds himself putting off his parents and Phoebe over the idea of him marrying Rachel,

Phoebe - After making Monica think she's actually pregnant, Phoebe is proposed to by Joey and dumped as well. She and Joey break into Monica's apartment and she continues to go through various men. This season, she dates a sous-chef, her sister's fiancé, the weird novelist, and a ridiculously over-happy man,

Joey - With Rachel as his roommate, he begins to find himself seriously attracted to Rachel and he wrestles with actually being in love for the first time. After opening himself up to Rachel and running through the gauntlet of Ross, he finds his life on Days Of Our Lives bringing him success,

Monica - Preparing for her own baby, she and Chandler begin their lives together. She opens all of the wedding gifts when Chandler is out looking for the cameras from the wedding. She has to fire Phoebe's boyfriend, buys an expensive pair of boots and reacts badly to a review in a newspaper of her cooking,

And Chandler - After getting back the cameras from the wedding and going on a honeymoon with Monica, he helps Monica get a maid (and lose her). He learns how to take a bath and breaks into Monica's secret closet. He becomes comfortable with the idea of having a child with Monica.

Season eight of Friends is notable on the acting front for the improvement of acting by Courteney Cox Arquette. While Monica has traditionally been the worst-acted character on the show, Cox Arquette's work with Matthew Perry pays off; she manages to get through her scenes without laughing constantly.

Jennifer Aniston is the standout on the acting front. Far from her character's originally spoiled origins, Aniston plays Rachel as a maturing young woman who is growing up and she seems plausibly adult.

On DVD, the eighth season of Friends is graced with only a few bonus features. Three episodes have commentary tracks and there is a gag reel. As well, there is a trivia game based upon Joey's game "Bamboozled" which is fun. Recurring performers are spotlighted in the season's lone featurette and there is a preview of season nine which is pretty bland.

Generally, though, the eighth season of Friends is fun and funny, but it is very average and unless one is a real fan of the series, seeing it in syndication is probably just as good as owning it. Of course, my partner is such a huge fan of the show and the eighth season is one she quoted in advance to me. Even so, it was funny and enjoyable.

Not many television series' make it to an eighth season! For reviews of other ones, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The X-Files - Season 8
Frasier - The Complete Eighth Season


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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