Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Serialized And Sharp, The Second Season Of Friends Is A Winner!

The Good: Funny, Good character development, Decent-enough acting
The Bad: Some dumb plots, Light on DVD bonus features for the price
The Basics: A little better than average, the second season of Friends is worthwhile on DVD and has some truly great character moments!

As those who follow my reviews might be aware of, when I began watching Friends with my wife, I was not impressed. Objectively viewed, I thought the first season (reviewed here!) was actually fairly dull, obvious and passe. It surprised me especially that the show was picked up after its surprisingly rocky pilot. Still, as my new arrangement with my partner goes, she picks a season of a show, then I get one, back and forth. As a result, after we finished our viewing of the second (and final) season of Aaron Sorkin's Sports Night (reviewed here!), we soldiered on with the second season of Friends. Of course, she was looking forward to it a lot more than I was as it is one of her favorite shows of all time. For my part, Friends The Complete Second Season is a decent boxed set of half-hour comedies and the only real gripes come in a single episode and the fact that the show is a bit light on DVD bonus features given the cost of the set.

In its second season, Friends essentially continues the story of a group of six friends and their assorted love interests. The show is a rare serialized comedy that works because the actions of the characters have consequences and over the course of the season, the characters grow, develop and learn. This season picks up literally the moment the first season ended and then continues. Still, viewers will not be lost if they have not seen the first season; the characters are pretty clearly established and the situation that the viewer walks into the middle of that opens this season is explained fully within the first few minutes of the season. For those who like sitcoms with a pretty standard, though not overbearing, soap operatic sensibility to them, the second season of Friends is entertaining and engaging enough to pick up and watch several times.

As Ross leaves his plane from China, Rachel is waiting for him and she sees him first, on the arms of another woman, Julie. Rachel attempts to cover her reason for being there and when Ross introduces Julie to his friends as his new girlfriend, Rachel is heartbroken. Still, Ross and Julie begin a very serious and successful few months of dating, while Chandler feels guilty over telling Ross to move on. As Rachel struggles with Ross's new girlfriend, Monica loses her job, Joey and Chandler lose Ross's baby, and Phoebe loses the husband no one knew she had! But when it slips out that Rachel reciprocates Ross's feelings, Ross and Rachel come together, though they are torn apart by it (in no small part because of a pro/con list Ross wrote up).

As Ross and Rachel inevitably move toward a romantic relationship, Monica spices things up with an older man who she is quite serious about, an eye doctor named Richard Burke. Chandler begins opening up to more women by removing his restrictions to all sorts of body type or personality issues and Joey gets the role of a lifetime on Days Of Our Lives. But when Joey makes a comment about how he changes the writers' lines frequently, he is fired and has to move back in with Chandler, whose creepy new roommate makes Chandler's decision very easy.

Friends works very well as a DVD boxed set in that the show is heavily serialized and as a result, one episode usually begins right after the prior episode's end (in terms of story). In fact, the one-hour "The One After The Superbowl" is presented in its original format without any sense of where or when the break in the story would have come (as it is broken up in syndication now). The fact that the show is so developed with plots continuing on and characters actually developing allows the shows to do effortless callbacks to prior episodes (though there are not many outside this season one would need to have seen to understand them) and references to characters who go unseen for long periods of time - like Chandler's ex-girlfriend, Janice. Janice pops up at the end of the third episode in this season and is referenced a few times afterwards.

Unfortunately, though, this makes it far more pronounced when the series takes a turn to do a more episodic episode. "The One After The Superbowl" resurrects Ross's monkey, Marcel (wish they hadn't!), but is otherwise a series of episodic vignettes that has little bearing on the rest of the season or series. Similarly, Joey and Chandler losing Ross's son Ben on a bus is not met with any consequences that we see afterward in this season. Phoebe's sham marriage is only mentioned one other time this season and given that the episode is supposed to have some real emotional impact, this is disappointing. But the epitome of where the show goes wrong with leaning toward episodic half-hour comedy as opposed to long arcs of developing characters is "The One With The Bullies." Near the end of the season, the show put forth an episode where Ross and Chandler are plagued by two bullies and end up fighting and the plot is so hackneyed and lame that it could have come from virtually any sitcom with little or no differentiation to how it is presented here on Friends.

That is, fortunately, the exception to the rule, as long arcs featuring Julie and Richard help to contrast. The recurrence of Ross's ex-wife and her new wife put Friends at the cutting edge (at least of their time) with positive gay and lesbian characters and a generally friendly outlook toward homosexuals. The series is still predominantly white, but Julie adds a nice ethnic flavor for a few episodes. Overall, the show is funny and the characters develop such that their original "types" are not what they are bound to. So, for example, Joey is pretty much the classic idiot, but he is also deeply sarcastic, which is a trait that pretty much defines Chandler. The differences between the two of them are highlighted in episodes like "The One With Five Steaks And An Eggplant" (which should have been called either "The One With The Money Talk" or "The One With The Hootie And The Blowfish Concert"). In fact, anyone who is having trouble talking with their friends who are more financially successful might want to sit them down to that episode as it makes some salient points seldom brought up on television, especially on sitcoms!

But more than the plots, Friends in its second season is more about a very special group of characters. As the most stable sitcom cast in quite some time, Friends offers a stable group of six characters and this is who they are in the second season:

Ross Gellar - Having given up on getting the woman of his dreams, Rachel, he begins dating a fellow museum worker, Julie, who returns from China with him. Upset at missing many of Ben's milestones, he eagerly becomes more involved with his son when time permits. Uncomfortable when Monica, his younger sister, loses her job and starts dating Richard, he flounders around until it is finally revealed how long he has loved Rachel and the lengths he was prepared to go to for her,

Monica Gellar - After becoming comfortable with making more money than Rachel, Phoebe and Joey, she promptly loses her job and becomes pretty despondent. Unhappy over the idea of hitting her parent's up for cash, she struggles to keep her apartment by taking catering jobs and eventually landing a cook job at a Fifty's themed restaurant. She begins seeing her father's friend, Dr. Richard Burke, which offers serious complications from the age difference,

Rachel Green - Oblivious for so long about Ross's feelings, now all she can do is want Ross. When he returns to the States with Julie, she rebounds to Paolo and dates Russ, a guy who looks and acts shockingly like Ross. Her parents begin divorce proceedings and as a result, Rachel finds her mother emulating her and struggling to find anything in common with her jerkish father,

Joey - After years of struggling as an actor, he finally gets his big break. This takes the form of a role as doctor on Days Of Our Lives. The recurring role earns Joey enough money to move out on his own when he and Chandler have a disagreement. Soon, though, he discovers having money is not as fun as having his friend and when his character is killed off on the soap opera, he has to eat some serious crow. Supports Phoebe's search for her father,

Phoebe Buffay - The witless singer reveals her own heartbreak when her gay husband comes out of the closet to divorce her . . . to marry a woman! She is excited by the return of a naval officers, who comes at the worst possible time (when she has chicken pox) and she begins a search for her father, who is not dead. This leads her to discover her half-brother and her music career gets a boost when "Smelly Cat" is picked up by a record company,

and Chandler Bing - Haunted by his recommending Rachel leave Ross alone and the death of Mr. Heckles, whom he finds many commonalities with, he begins to be less stringent about the women he is willing to be with. His dating life goes up and down and professionally he continues to ascend - save for a time he hires Joey to work in a tangential division. Sarcastic and occasionally bitter, he is hurt when Joey moves out of their apartment.

Friends continues to illustrate the acting talents of a surprisingly strong cast. David Schwimmer is wonderful as Ross. He is given a chance to play head-over-heels in his scenes opposite Jennifer Aniston and the woman who plays Julie. He is able to play moody in the scenes he shares with his character's ex- and Marcel. He is also able to perfectly capture the ridiculous joy of a parent in his scenes with Ben when Ross actually gets to be around for one of Ben's firsts. Lisa Kudrow is also wonderfully convincing as Phoebe and her ability to play the fool with heart is impressive. In this season, she comes into her own in episodes like "The One With Phoebe's Husband" where she is given some emotional depth.

But, for me, the one to watch is Matthew Perry as Chandler. Chandler is sarcastic and off-putting and Perry's role is one that would seem to be hard to like. But Perry plays off guest stars like Adam Goldberg perfectly and he is able to reveal a deep enough sense of damage that it seems perfectly appropriate that Perry finish off this season. Anyone who likes decent comedy will find enough to like about this season of Friends. I was surprised when I did!

For other works featuring Jennifer Aniston, please visit my reviews of:
Horrible Bosses
The Bounty Hunter
30 Rock - Season 3


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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