This isn't quite where the show hit its stride, but it's the first whole season where it's there, in full stride. Striding along.
The breakneck pace of Season Two is gone, which allows for relationships to unfold (and crumble) more slowly and richly. Monica dates Pete, although she's hindered at first by not being attracted to him (I find this funny, since Jon Favreau is easily more attractive than some of the dudes the gals dated in Season 1 [Alan, that jerk Rachel has drinks on the balcony with, Phoebe's psychiatrist boyfriend, Hank Azaria] and possibly more attractive, depending on taste, than a bunch of others [Fun Bobby, Paul the Wine Guy, Bob, Young Ethan]. Not Clooney, though). Chandler manages a real relationship--with Janice, of all people. Joey falls for a woman who doesn't want him back (for the first time). The biggest event of the season, unquestionably, is Ross and Rachel's breakup, which I'll discuss more below.
The supporting actors get really pretty good. Favreau is great as Pete; Christine Taylor is really good as Ross's post-breakup, sometimes bald girlfriend Bonnie; Maggie Wheeler managed to make Janice more than a one-joke character; and Teri Garr overcomes stuntcasting by portraying a dynamite Phoebe, sr., playing Lisa-Kudrow-but-older to a tee. The real gem, though, is Giovanni Ribisi's Frank jr. Man, that guy was good at playing a strange teenager.
Story arcs become a little more prevalent (although still rarer than stand-alone plots). Joey gets a pretty solid one when he stars in a play alongside a woman he develops a love-hate relationship with. There's even one episode, "The One with the Tiny T-Shirt," in which all the stories are part of continuing arcs: Rachel goes on a date with Mark while trying to resolve her relationship with Ross, Joey starts acting in his play with no resolution to how things are going to go with Kate, and Monica continues not to be attracted to Pete. It's structurally odd for a Friends episode, but committment to story arcs demostrate a show's faith in its audience, so it's appreciated.
Little things that drive me crazy:
When Monica's depressed about Richard, and the gang sees her through the window, mouthing sad things about Civil War videos, Chandler says, "Look everybody--it's Weepy! The mime who cares too much!" THUD.
There's a fake old home video at the end of "The One with the Metaphorical Tunnel" that shows little Ross dressed up like a lady and singing about tea. But the little Monica in the video? Not fat. Not fat at all.
There are a bunch of continuity errors in "The One with the Flashback" (examples: at first, Joey thinks Chandler is gay, despite saying he never did in Season One's "The One Where Nana Dies Twice"; Ross finds out Carol is a lesbian despite the fact that she's just barely pregnant with his child a year later). I try not to let that bother me, but . . . it does.
The HIDEOUSLY stupid, unnecessary, and above all unfunny Robin Williams/Billy Crystal cameo at the beginning of "The One with the Ultimate Fighting Champion."
Good lines get spread around the whole cast:
- Rachel: "Yeah, cuz that's why you won't get Isabella Rosselini. Geography."
- Phoebe: "Come, dinosaur. We're not welcome in the House of No Imagination."
- Monica: "That's my doodle of a ladybug. With a top hat! She's fancy."
- Ross: "Can't a guy send a barbershop quartet to his girlfriend's office anymoooore?"
- Joey: "It's a rented tux. I'm not going to go commando in another man's fatigues."
- Joey: "She thinks she's the greatest actress since . . . sliced bread!" Chandler: "Ah, Sliced Bread. A wonderful Lady Macbeth."
- Monica: "Let go! I'm a tiny little woman!"
- Chandler: "Not touching, can't get mad! Not touching, can't get mad!"
- Phoebe: "You just big, fat did it anyway!"
When Joey teaches an acting class, he breaks down at the end, noting that most of the people in there "are too ugly to even be on TV!" And they did a good job casting ugly people, I must say.
Come to think of it, Joey's whole monologue there (about his attempt at screwing over one of his students when they both auditioned for the same part) is gold.
The glass of fat.
Phoebe and Chandler singing "Endless Love."
A little thing I probably would have loved, had it actually happened:
When Chandler is dating Janice, she has a baby that she mentions but which is never seen. What if they'd ever shown Chandler trying to interact with that baby? That's hypothetically hilarious.
Speaking of hypothetical:
D'you suppose Pete ever did become the Ultimate Fighter? He did seem awfully determined.
Little things that remind me it was a different time:
Everybody has beepers and/or pagers. (And I don't even know the difference between a beeper and a pager.)
Ross, having just bought a bunch of fancy new entertainment equipment, wants to have "a laserdisc marathon." Woot . . . woot?
Rachel jokes, "Let's go shopping! I have a positive balance on my credit card, and I want to use it before Citibank goes under." . . . I miss the 90s.
Let's talk about Ross and Rachel:
Here's the thing: Ross and Rachel were always a terrible couple.
I feel like that fact gets lost in all those years proceding their breakup. You get so used to the messiness of how they used to be together (not to mention the very early messiness of before they were together) that you forget how messy it already was when they were actually, officially boyfriend-and-girlfriend. They consistently bring out the worst in each other and are terrible together. Observe:
We sympathize for Ross at first, because it's always adorable when a guy is yearning for a lady he secretly loves (although Ross is only yearning instead of just asking her out because he doesn't have the guts to put himself out there--contrast this with Jim on The Office, who was hopelessly in love with Pam and didn't make a move because she was engaged. Now that's a legitimate reason for holding back). But then we get to "The One Where the Monkey Gets Away" (which is near the end of the first season), where Ross first gets horrible. Rachel loses Marcel while she monkeysits him, and when Ross finds out, he explodes. But he's not just complaining about how his monkey got away; he personally attacks her, the woman he's supposedly in love with, telling her how irresponsible and spoiled and self-involved she is. And she doesn't even get mad at him! He goes completely over the line with his shaming and belittling of her, but by the end of the episode they're all hunky-dory again.
At the beginning of the second season, Rachel becomes UltraHarpy when Ross is dating Julie. Julie didn't do anything to deserve it, but Rachel is constantly, and all out of proportion, hateful to the poor thing. (When Ross dates Bonnie at the end of Season Three, Rachel's behavior is basically Julie Redux. It's not as sad, though, because Bonnie--had she stuck around longer--wouldn't have stood for that nonsense.) Then Ross finds out that Rachel has feelings for him, and what does he do? Scream at her. "The One Where Ross Finds Out" ends with that famous first kiss between the two of them, but it's one of those kisses that only happen on TV, where fighting somehow leads to making out.
Then, of course, to decide between Julie and Rachel, Ross makes his infamous list of pros and cons. This is the thing that Rachel chooses to get really angry at Ross about. Yes, it was hurtful, but she goes from being two minutes away from being his girlfriend to rebuffing him for five episodes or (since it was over the Christmas break) three and half months of broadcast time. Harsh.
It's undeniably cute when they kiss at the end of "The One with the Prom Video." But then on their first date, making out leads to Rachel giggling, which leads to them sniping at each other. In "The One Where Dr. Ramoray Dies," discussion of Rachel's ex-boyfriends leads to them sniping at each other. Rachel reading a book about female empowerment ("The One Where Eddie Won't Go") leads to them sniping at each other.
Oh, and I always think this one is a real kicker: in "The One Where Old Yeller Dies," they tell each other "I love you" for the first time. While they are screaming at each other.
In Season Three, of course, the fighting and horribleness gets more fighty and horrible. "The One Where No One's Ready" hearkens back to the monkeysitting episode in that Ross takes out all his frustrations on Rachel in a way that could easily be labeled verbal abuse. It gets much worse when Rachel gets a job in fashion--she's friends with Mark, of whom Ross is crazy jealous, even though Rachel has never given him a reason to distrust her.
But Ross is also jealous of her job itself. That's the real problem in "The One Where Ross and Rachel Take a Break." Yes, Ross has a point that maybe Rachel is spending too much time at her job, but the way he handles it is immature and controlling. In the previous episode, she explains to him that she loves her job, and she loves that she's being independent and doing something all on her own. It's a part of her life without him, but she's (justly) proud of herself for becoming a career woman. To her face, he says that's fine, but behind her back (which is played for laughs) he mouths "NO!" to her question of whether it's ok.
And what a jerk he is for saying that. She's not allowed to have a life outside of him? He's not proud of her for transforming from a girl whose answer to the problem of not being able to depend on her daddy her whole life was to get married into a woman who competes in a professional setting, is good at what she does, and loves her work? What a horrible person Ross is for that.
Here's the upside: Ross and Rachel are pretty funny as an ex-couple. That's where their vicious dynamic really benefits them. So it's actually a good thing, comedically speaking, that that's their default status for seven and a half years.
Strangely awesome yet mediocre episode:
"The One Where Monica and Richard are Friends" is only OK as far as Monica and Richard being "friends" goes, but it's supported by the always-funny-for-some-reason-I'm-not-quite-sure-of plots of Phoebe dating a guy whose . . . man stuff . . . is . . . awkwardly visible to others, and the one where Rachel and Joey read each other's favorite books, with the added gag that it makes a person feel better to put a scary book in the freezer. Joey putting Little Women in the freezer when Beth starts getting really sick is hilarious every time.
Top five episodes:
"The One with Frank, jr."
or: "The One Where Joey Builds the Entertainment Unit" or: "The One with the Celebrity Freebie Lists"
"The One with a Chick and a Duck"
or: "The One Where Pete Buys Monica a Restaurant" or: "The One Where Ross Takes Care of Rachel (Instead of Being on TV)"
And the total classics:
"The One Where No One's Ready"
"The One with the Football"
"The One Without the Ski Trip"