The Good: Chandler and Joey character work, Jennifer Aniston's acting, Phoebe's character arc
The Bad: Far too many moments where the adults act like kids, Light on DVD bonus features
The Basics: Good, but with a few real lemons, Friends The Complete Fourth Season is too erratic to be considered truly great.
As one who has watched what some might call an obscene amount of television on DVDs - I swear, I never watch this much television on a nightly basis! - I feel I am a good choice for readers looking for a discriminating review of their potential purchase. My reasoning for this is actually simple; if I've seen it before elsewhere, I make a note of it and if something can be viewed away from the hype and evaluated in a less bias way, this can be of great use to readers. I mention this at the outset of my review of Friends - The Complete Fourth Season because watching the season and considering it, the season is terribly erratic. In fact, as I prepared to pen my review, I continued to think about one of the episodes, which did not get a single laugh from me ("The One With All The Rugby," though it took me reading through a couple to realize that was the completely laughless episode) and I was forced to go back through the episode summaries of each episode. This, however, reminded me of how great some of the episodes were and the result is that this is a season that stands out for some remarkable highs and remarkable lows, not just for Friends, but for television in general.
The crux of my problem with the fourth season is that there are some very funny moments - the game between the two apartments, Chandler in a box, the free porn - and some genuine moments of character that progress the characters forward remarkably well - Phoebe getting pregnant, Joey and Chandler fighting, Rachel realizing that her infatuation with Joshua is just a rebound from Ross - but that there are an equal number of moments or episodes where the characters act in ridiculous ways that are immature and disappointing. Chandler trying to avoid Janice by flying to Yemen, Ross playing rugby, the clipshow as Ross sends out invitations to his next wedding, these are all huge disappointments and show that the characters (or the writers) can regress to a point where the characters have not grown at all in the prior few years. These are supposed to be people in their late twenties, not their teens and some of the elements are so ridiculous on a character level that they make adult viewers shake their heads and say "I don't buy it."
But when the fourth season gets it right, they get it right! In this season, which opens with Ross deciding whose room he is entering at the beach house (picking up exactly where the third season left off), the group returns to New York City where Ross and Rachel pretty much put a nail in the coffin of their relationship, though this time their friends are much more able to deal with the fallout. Chandler hooks up briefly with Rachel's boring boss, only to get locked to her desk and Ross rebounds with a slob, before playing the field with women who live farther away. Soon, though, Joey and Chandler are on the outs when Chandler develops a love for Joey's girlfriend, Kathy.
As they sort themselves out and swap apartments with Monica and Rachel, Rachel takes a new job as a personal shopper at Bloomingdales and inadvertently sets Ross up with a British woman whom he hits it off with. Rachel deals with Ross and Emily by rushing a relationship with Joshua, a recently divorced client of hers. And as Ross and Emily move toward marriage, Phoebe steps in to help her half-brother have children and after a single egg implantation attempt, she finds herself carrying triplets, with all of the mood swings and cravings that come with them.
The fourth season of Friends is at its best when it is focused on the characters and those characters act like real people. So, while it might seem absurd that Chandler would spend Thanksgiving in a box, Friends knocks that episode out of the park because of how it is set up with a powerful character-driven scene. The sense of serialization to the season works wonderfully as well, which is probably why bottle episodes in this season work less well. Joey getting locked in the entertainment center in "The One With The Cat" sets up Chandler buying furniture out of guilt in "The One Where Chandler Crosses The Line," which in turn sets up the premise for Chandler sealing himself in the box. If one misses the sequence, the episodes might seem more absurd than anything else, but it works perfectly because there is growth episode to episode.
Similarly, it is the detail-oriented viewer who will appreciate Rachel's character arc this season. After pining for Ross much of the last season after they part, it becomes obvious to viewers early on that she is pursuing Joshua way too quickly. As a result, viewers are likely to see the inevitable before Rachel and not just because of the inevitability of Ross and Rachel. As a result, we are better able to appreciate Rachel's anguish and the about-face she makes in the season finale.
The most obviously serialized aspect of the fourth season of Friends is Phoebe's pregnancy. The idea of Phoebe getting pregnant to help her dimwitted half-brother out is perfectly within character for someone who is as loving as Phoebe. Throughout the process, Phoebe is challenged by her values (like vegetarianism) and wrestles with the emotional impact of the impending giveaway that she will be forced to do (she does not give birth this season). Actress Lisa Kudrow is brilliant as Phoebe this season, even scary with the way she presents mood swings in "The One With The Worst Best Man Ever."
As with every production of note, the fourth season of Friends is best when it is focused on the characters. In the fourth season, the principles are:
Ross Gellar - The museum tour guide, he chooses Rachel only to discover that she has strong conditions for his return, which he is unwilling to consider. As a result, he begins to explore other romantic interests before he meets Emily and when he meets Emily, he does his best to move on with her,
Rachel Green - Still pining for Ross, she is irked that he does not take responsibility for the problems in their relationship. As a result, she explores a relationship with Joshua only to realize that she is still hung up on Ross. Eager for stability in her life, she is left with a tough decision when her friends run off to London for Ross's wedding,
Joey - After dating a woman he meets in his acting class, he is dismayed to learn Chandler has a thing for her after Chandler kisses her. After giving up Kathy and punishing Chandler, he relishes moving with Chandler to Monica and Rachel's old apartment and getting free porn. Work heats up for him, after he takes a job from Ross at the museum, when he gets a movie gig opposite Charlton Heston,
Monica - Struggling through her work as a caterer, Monica abandons Phoebe when a restaurant she criticizes offers her a job. Her new life as head chef leads to more conflict with a disgruntled staff and her competitive nature leads her to lose her apartment to the men. She figures out a way to get it back and she finds herself in a vulnerable position that opens her up to Chandler's recurring advances,
Chandler - Agonizing over Kathy while Joey is in a relationship with her, he soon becomes jealous of her and inadvertently trashes things with her. After dodging Janice, he finds himself once again interested in Monica. Nothing happens professionally with Chandler this season,
Phoebe - After she loses her job as a masseuse for being caught in a compromised position with one of her clients, she invests heavily in Monica and her catering business, only to be abandoned by Monica. She is given the opportunity of a lifetime when her half-brother asks her to bear his children, which she does against her birthmother's wishes.
This season is decent on the acting front with Matt LaBlanc and Matthew Perry giving Joey and Chandler new emotional depth. Cox still has trouble keeping a straight face (one wonders how she reacted at table reads and dress when she laughs so much on-camera), but the other two women truly come into their own. Jennifer Aniston gives Rachel real emotional depth as she plays Rachel torn between Ross and moving on. Aniston plays the role with an uncertainty that moves the character brilliantly.
But the real winner this season is Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe. Kudrow has been forced to play Phoebe as somewhat dippy and here she is able to add a depth to her that is serious and compelling, yet realistic for her character. In this season, Phoebe grows up and Kudrow's performances make it believable.
When the characters are growing and well-performed, Friends works and the complete fourth season is easy to recommend, but it is hardly the flawless gem most fans want to consider it as.
For other memorable fourth seasons of comedies, please check out my reviews of:
Frasier Season Four
Boston Legal Season Four
30 Rock The Fourth 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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