Objectively speaking--or as objectively as one can speak when dealing with something as subjective as entertainment--this is the best season of Friends. (It's not my favorite season, but we'll get to that.)
As I have previously argued, story arcs (as opposed to plots entirely contained in one episode) are indicative of a show's quality. They show that the writers trust their audience to watch every week and to care about the characters enough to watch them go through extended stories. By my count, the fourth season has the most in number and most substantial arcs of any season so far (and maybe any season at all--I'll keep counting as I go). While my rough count of arcs for the first three seasons is three, four, and five respectively, Season Four has eight--and they're good, too. (1: Chandler and Joey get robbed and only slowly re-accumulate furnishings; 2: Joey dates and Chandler falls in love with Kathy [who then dates and cheats on Chandler]; 3: Monica and Phoebe run a catering business; 4: Monica gets a new job where everyone hates her; 5: Phoebe is a surrogate mother for her brother; 6: Monica and Rachel lose their apartment to Chandler and Joey [and then get it back]; 7: Rachel clumsily pursues and then dates Joshua [ok, that one's not so good]; 8: Ross conducts his over-hasty courtship of Emily.)
Another impressive thing about this season is the willingness to change up the status quo (in, of course, relative terms--it was a network sitcom, after all). They married Ross off, for one thing. I also admire the commitment to the changes in set dressing required by the robbery and apartment-switching storylines. Also, the Kathy storyline is great if only for its showcase of Chandler's emotional depth.
But commitment to keeping the status quo isn't always a bad thing--the way the writers handled Lisa Kudrow's pregnancy avoided almost all the pitfalls of TV pregnancy and kept it in Phoebe's character . . . but I'll come back to that later.
Also, this is the first season to feature The Joey Special (two pizzas), Ross's hand gesture, "How YOU doin'?", and Monica's "I KNOW!" (the latter of which is part of my daily vocabulary).
Little things that drive me crazy:
Despite the overall commendable commitment to keeping up continuous storylines and situations, they did drop the ball on a couple of promising things: most disappointingly, Joey's bargain with Phoebe that he'd be a vegetarian while she was pregnant so she could eat meat guilt-free. (This comes up exactly once after it's brought up, in the first episode of Season Five.) Wasted potential, I think.
Wait--if Chandler hates Thanksgiving, why does he love the parade?!
Michael Vartan (who plays Richard's son in "The One with Chandler in a Box") is pretty, but not a good actor (at least not here.) Tate Donovan (who plays Rachel's obseesion, Joshua [and who was dating Jennifer Aniston at the time]) is an OK actor but, in my opinion, definitely not pretty.
Little things I love:
Chandler's evil plan to get Phoebe to name a triplet after him
It's mentioned in the first episode that Joshua appears in that Rachel loves the name Joshua. And Aniston remained committed to pronouncing the name with relish in every episode after that.
The "Morning's Here!" guy:
When Phoebe tries to write a holiday song for her friends, it's Rachel and Chandler who point out problems in the first two versions, and it's they who get a mumbled nonsense line in the final version. (And, for the record, I think "Rachel" and "dreidel" is perfectly serviceable as a rhyme.)
There aren't many hints in "The One with Ross's Wedding" that Monica and Chandler are going to hook up, but there are two little tiny acknowledgements that the director slipped in--there are two shots in the episode where Monica is in the foreground and Chandler is included in the shot in the background, framing them together even though they're not interacting. (Yes, I've thought about this too hard. Nobody's arguing with that.)
The cute bit in "The One with the Dirty Girl" where Ross is putting on a tie, but then he hands it to Joey so he can put it on pre-tied.
What is this, Seinfeld?
There are a few things this season that are just weird in the Friends universe and seem lifted from Seinfeld's. Namely:
Rachel's boss, Joanna, promises Rachel a big promotion. But then before the paperwork goes through, Joanna is hit by a cab and dies.
When Phoebe finds out she's having triplets, Frank and Alice freak out about money and Phoebe tries to think of a way to help out (so Frank doesn't have to drop out of refrigerator college). So she (and Rachel) invent the Relaxi Taxi--Frank can drive people around while they get a massage from Phoebe. (This ties together the money, Phoebe's inability to carry a massage table as she gets bigger and bigger, and Phoebe's ownership of a van that she and Monica had planned to use for catering.) To be fair, I can't decide if this was actually too weird for Friends, or if it was a really good idea that I wish they had brought up again ever.
The big one is when, to get out of dating Janice, Chandler pretends to move to Yemen. (I do not like the Yemen plot.)
- Joey: "If I had to, I'd pee on any one of you."
- Phoebe: "It's been a really bad day, whore-wise."
- Monica encourages Chandler to talk to a pretty girl: "What's the worst that could happen?" Chandler: "I could die."
- Chandler: "Oh, man, I am so excited I may vomit!"
- Joey, after Monica fires him: "It's gonna be a lean Christmas at the Dragon house this year!"
- Chandler: "You don't want to be guys. You'd be all hairy and you wouldn't live as long."
- Phoebe: "Yeah, definitely I don't like the name Ross." Ross: "What a weird way to kick me when I'm down."
- Rachel: "Well, maybe there was a dog lookin' at him."
- Monica, to everyone in turn: "Fine, judge all you want to, but married a lesbian, left a man at the altar, fell in love with a gay ice dancer, threw a girl's wooden leg in the fire, live in a box!"
- Rachel, on Ross's impossibly hot date: "Well maybe she and her friends are just having a contest to see who can bring home the biggest geek." Ross: "Fine by me, hope she wins!"
- Phoebe, on Chandler's thoughtful gift for Kathy: "What a great way to say 'I secretly love you, Roommate's Girlfriend!' "
- Phoebe: "You sound like Monican't, not Monican . . . ."
- Joey: "Man, it is so hard to shop for girls!" Chandler, seeing Joey's bag: "Yes it is, at Office Max."
- Rachel, on what Chandler should do about the gift: "Return the book, let Joey give her the clock pen, and you just give her something worse than that, like . . . a regular pen."
- Ross, on the dirty girl's apartment: "You know how you throw your jacket on a chair at the end of the day? Well, like that, except instead of a chair, it's a pile of garbage. And instead of a jacket, it's a pile of garbage. And instead of the end of the day, it's the end of time, and garbage is all that has survived."
I'm actually not very excited to talk about Phoebe, but everybody gets a turn.
Why don't I like Phoebe very much? Like I said, I adore first-season Phoebe. But over the course of the series, she is the single most inconsistently-written character on the show. She starts out sweet and weird but slowly becomes mean and weird. For example, take this clip from Season One's "The One with George Stephanopolous" (from about 2:00 to about 2:13 in particular). Phoebe is shocked that she said something angry to a woman who couldn't hear her. Compare that with a clip I chose basically at random from Season Nine; the first 45 seconds of "The One with Phoebe's Birthday Dinner" shows typical late-series Phoebe who isn't ditzy, just callous and rude. It's true that all of the characters became one-dimensional and less likeable near the end of the show, but Phoebe is an extreme case.
It also doesn't help that at some point, Lisa Kudrow stopped caring about acting. During the first half of the series, you will occasionally be able to kind of tell that Kudrow is having a little bit of a hard time keeping a straight face after jokes. In later seasons, she doesn't even try to keep from smirking after she delivers a punchline.
Of course, there's a lot to like about Phoebe. Her wacky life story could always be milked for laughs ("I had a similar problem when I lived in Prague. . . . So much you don't know.") or not--I just love her speech in this clip starting at 6:40 about how lucky Ross's baby is for having three whole, loving parents. Phoebe is also a useful plot-mover in that new one-off characters are often friends of hers, since she's the only one who believably has a social life outside of what we see.
This is an important Phoebe season, mostly because of her pregnancy. Like I said before, I think the writers dealt with Kudrow's pregnancy extremely well. They didn't pretend that she wasn't pregnant (which is always obvious) and they didn't write in a baby for her (which wouldn't have jived well with her character or with the show itself at that point). Most importantly, the way they did use it, by having her be a surrogate for her brother, was totally in character for Phoebe. It's a weird thing to do, to have your brother's babies, but Phoebe is generous, deeply appreciative of the family she has because of all the family she doesn't have, and above all, weird.
Top six episodes:
"The One with the Jellyfish"
or: "The One with Phoebe's Birth Mom" or: "The One with Rachel's letter"
"The One with Joey's New Girlfriend"
or: "The One with Phoebe's Cold" or: "The One with Ross's Non-Girlfriend" or: "The One with Rachel's Young Boyfriend"
"The One with the Dirty Girl"
or: "The One with the Velveteen Rabbit" or: "The One Where Monica and Phoebe Become Catering Partners" or: "The One where Rachel Does the Crossword" (It gets demerits for the crossword plot, but you remember that list of hilarious lines, right?)
"The One with Chandler in a Box"
or: "The One Where Monica Dates Richard's Son" or: "The One with Secret Santa"
"The One with Ross's Wedding"
or: "The One with All the Hilarious English People"
including the total classic:
"The One with the Embryos"
or: "The One with the Game" Awesome!