Saturday, January 2, 2010

Friends: Season Seven

In general:
Let's not beat around the bush: this season isn't good. It's not terrible, but it's not good. There are no episodes that are horrible to the point of being unwatchable, but virtually every episode has at least one storyline that's lazy, nonsensical, unpleasant, boring, or just bad. Sub-par writing is the biggest problem with this season, but sub-par acting intrudes as well--this was the season that Matthew Perry was grappling with his prescription drug problem, and it shows.

This season also starts to get gimmicky, although not all gimmicks are bad. There's an increase in the frequency of celebrity guest stars, but it must be said that Susan Sarandon and Kathleen Turner do marvelously, stuntcasting or no. (Even Jason Alexander does OK.) Meanwhile, story arcs are rather thin on the ground. Besides the big one of The Wedding approaching, all there is is Joey going back to Days of Our Lives (which doesn't get that much screen time) and Rachel wanting to date then dating her cute young assistant, Tag. That's it. Aside from the Tag imbroglio, nobody even dates much. (Phoebe dates some blond guy who shows up in two separate episodes and has roughly six lines, and that's about it.) A lot of things happen, but unless they're wedding-related, they're not related to anything else.

Oh, and Phoebe kisses Rachel. Remember when people made a big deal out of that?

Little things that drive me crazy:
It's so sweet when Ross buys Phoebe a bicycle because she never had one when she was a kid. But then he goes and ruins it by being a jerk and bullying her into riding it.

The whole "Rachel once kissed a girl (played by guest star Winona Ryder)!" plot is pretty annoying--Rachel keeps embarrassing herself trying to convince Phoebe that it really happened, even though Winona keeps denying it. But then at the end it turns out that Winona not only remembered it happening, but had secretly been in love with Rachel and yearning for Rachel to return her love for all the years since it happened. I guess I should applaud the show for doing something unexpected--since I bag on it when it's super predictable--but that's just sad. (And creepy.)

Rachel and Phoebe fight over a guy in "The One with Joey's New Brain," then two episodes later, they re-use the same device by having Ross and Joey fight over Gabrielle Union in "The One with the Cheap Wedding Dress."

In "The One with Ross and Monica's Cousin," Rachel and Phoebe don't realize that they're supposed to host a bridal shower for Monica, so they just haphazardly throw one together. They keep messing everything up, but at the end, it's Monica who ends up embarrassing herself in front of the whole party because of their screwups. Why does Monica get the karmic punishment for their mistakes?

Big things that drive me crazy:
You know the episode where Ross ends up massaging an old guy ("The One with Rachel's Book")? He ends up doing that because Phoebe was staying with him, and a massage client came by while she was out. Ross thought that the client was a hot young woman, and so claimed to be a masseur; it turned out she was just dropping off her dad. Here's my question: what if Ross had succeeded in his goal of giving the hot woman a massage? He would have convinced her to undress and allow him to touch her naked body under false pretenses. I bet a competent prosecutor could make a case against Ross in those circumstances and get him convicted of Class A misdemeanor sexual assault. My point is: this one is low, even for Ross.

I hate the A plot in "The One with the Nap Partners." Ross and Joey accidentally fall asleep on a couch together and after waking up, incredibly embarrassed, realize it was "the best nap ever." Joey then tries to lure Ross into napping with him again. Now, clearly, the napping is treated like a metaphor for sex. ("Ha ha! Isn't it hilarious that they're treating this like they slept together?!") But it doesn't make any sense. Napping? Really? It would be more believable if they were actually sexually experimenting with each other. I'm just sayin'.

Ross makes a move on his cousin. C'mon, dude, that's sick. (Why is Ross so terrible?)

Pray indulge me while I break down a weak episode:
Again, it's not that seventh season episodes make me want to gouge my eyes out with a fork or anything, but they too often tend toward the lazy, the cartoonish, and the contrived. For my money, the worst episode of the season is "The One with the Cheesecakes."

Here's what happens: Chandler accidentally eats a cheesecake that was meant to be shipped to one of his neighbors; he and Rachel enjoy the cheesecake so much that they end up stealing another one from the same neighbor; the cheesecakes eventually turn them against each other as they fight over who gets to eat more. Joey and Phoebe have a standing friend-date, but when Joey cancels on her for a real date, Phoebe reads him the riot act; then when her long lost love David the Scientist Guy comes to town for one day, she decides she can't cancel on Joey and instead tries to rush through dinner with him to meet up with David later; when Joey finds out, he tries to thwart her. Monica has not been invited to her cousin's wedding, even though Ross has; she is furious and decides to go as Ross's date so she can rub it in her cousin's face that she's there; it turns out that she wasn't invited because she once slept with her cousin's new husband.

Each of those plots is problematic. The Chandler/Rachel plot is completely wrong for those characters. What about the nature of either Chandler or Rachel would make them care so much about some cheesecake that they'll rob some old lady? The writers clearly just wanted to pair those two characters and couldn't think of an organic way to do it. If it was Monica and Joey (who both, in their own ways, love food), it would make sense; as it is, it does not.

The Phoebe/Joey plot reeks of contrivance at every turn. We've never heard of these special Phoebe-Joey times (to the show's credit, neither have any of the other characters); it doesn't really make sense that Phoebe would be that mad at Joey in the first place; and why wouldn't Phoebe just explain to Joey that the love of her life was in town for one night only? (Also problematic: that David didn't try to find her earlier in his trip. Again, the show tries to explain that away, but it's inadequate.) None of the actions taken in that plot resemble the actions that real people would take.

Finally, there are two different problems with the Monica plot: first of all, there is no slight grievous enough to justify trying to ruin a bride's wedding day. Monica's decision to try to wreck--again--HER COUSIN'S WEDDING DAY--is unpardonable. Above and beyond Normal Monica Craziness. Secondly, and I actually find this more offensive, the upshot of the plot (that Monica had slept with the groom) would have been so much funnier if they had used anybody we'd ever seen on the show. We can only tell that it's an ex-boyfriend of Monica's by her reaction, but it would be far more comedically satisfying if, say, it was Fun Bobby who turned around to bring home the reason Monica hadn't been invited.

While this is the only individual episode this season this riddled with problems, the same sorts of thing happen repeatedly throughout the season. So it isn't a total disaster, but it is a bit of a mess.

Little things I love:
The dynamic between Joey and Cecilia Monroe, the soap opera actress played by Susan Sarandon, is actually very sweet. (He respects and admires--as opposed to objectifies/lusts after--her, and she doesn't tell him he's an idiot like his friends so often do [especially this season, it seems like]; she just appreciates his good intentions and rolls with it when he says something a little dumb.) They're surprisingly good together.

Rachel's short haircut is really cute. (I can't get my hair to do that--I've tried.)

The contest between Rachel and Phoebe over who gets to be Monica's maid of honor.

{removed, perhaps someday to return: video of Joey's explanation of "moo point."}

The game where you try to list all 50 states in six minutes.

That Joey lists 56 states (two of which are New England and South Oregon).

"The One Where They All Turn Thirty" is fun because of its non-chronological structure (switching among different thirtieth birthdays), and I like the contrast between Rachel's and Phoebe's goals for their thirties. (Rachel's are about when she wants to get engaged, get married, and start having her three children; Phoebe's are about bouncing for a mile on a hippity-hop, meeting a Portugese person, and going to sniper school.)

Kathleen Turner as Chandler's dad is delightful. Best big-name Friends guest star ever? Discuss.


  • Rachel: "I guess it wasn't Cupid that brought her here." Phoebe: "Nope, just a regular old flying dwarf."
  • Monica, distraught that Ross wants to play the bagpipes at the wedding: "Why is your family Scottish?!" Chandler: "Why is your family ROSS?!"
  • Phoebe, on the band Chandler wants to play at the wedding: "They suck so much that people actually die at their concerts. They just stop living."
  • Monica: "Who did we fight in World War I?" Rachel: " . . . Mexico?"
  • Ross: "Chandler, have you ever put on a black cocktail dress and asked me up to your hotel room?" Chandler: "No." Ross: "Then you are neither of your parents!"
  • Phoebe: "Why would you play hide and seek with someone you know is a flight risk?!"
  • Cecilia Monroe, asking where Joey had heard she was leaving Days of Our Lives: "Which writer? Was it bald or was it tall?"
The best line of the season is, when Ross is improvising that his Holiday Armadillo character is Santa's part-Jewish friend, Monica snarks, "Because armadillos also wandered in the desert?" Here's a little story about how good it is: my friend Lindsay was a TA for a class on the Jewish experience in America and one week borrowed my DVD to show "The One with the Holiday Armadillo" to her sections. She had to watch the episode six times in just a few days, but still laughed at that line on every viewing.

Let's talk about Chandler:
Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this season is a low point for Chandler because it was a low point in the life of Matthew Perry. As I wrote in my notes when watching the seventh season premiere, "Matthew Perry lost like 30 lbs and 75% of his acting ability." There are even a few episodes where they worked around him by putting him in just one or two scenes, and that throws off the group dynamic.

"Chandler-humor" is one of Friends' distinguishing features; Chandler isn't the glue that holds the show together, exactly, but I would argue that more than the other character, he is the show's trademark. When Chandler's brand of humor is missing due to bad writing, strained acting, or simple absence of Chandler, it hurts the show. Of course, all of the members of the ensemble are important but, for example, an episode feels more "off" when Perry is out with prescription drug problems than when Schwimmer is scarce because he's directing the episode.

The more long-term injury to the show is that, at some point, the writers no longer knew who Chandler was supposed to be. At the very beginning of the series, Chandler is the most well-defined of all the characters. He's the funny guy; he's the guy who's sarcastic because he's insecure; he's the guy who's too immature to have a meaningful relationship but wishes he wasn't; he has a dull, soulless corporate job that he knows he's wrong for but which makes him successful; he makes fun of other people but he's just as quick to make fun of himself.

During the first six seasons of the show, the character stays consistent even while growing as a person. A series of serious relationships (with Janice, Kathy, and Monica) slowly teaches Chandler more confidence and courage--he still screws up sometimes when he's with Monica, but he knows when he does it and has the ability to make it better. He stops acting like a kid around Joey, but stays good friends with him. His job troubles mostly fade into the background.

But in Season Seven, the Chandler-based humor starts to turn from "Ha ha, another great Chandler zinger!" to "Ha ha, Chandler is pathetic!" People start to talk about him like he's not there or he's not worth noticing; he's inept at simple tasks; he can't perform sexually, etc. This trend continues in the last few seasons. Instead of becoming more confident in himself while everything goes right in his life, he inexplicably becomes less confident and less competent. Although it's not as noticeable as the devolution of Ross-humor, which depends more and more on Ross spazzing out in humiliating situations, it's a little sadder, because it depends on Chandler quietly becoming more and more pathetic. Maybe writing for a Chandler who continued to blossom and mature while still being funny was too hard. But I contend, based on the several seasons in which it did happen, that it was possible.

Top episodes:
"The One Where They All Turn Thirty"

"The One with Joey's New Brain"
or: "The One Where Ross Plays the Bagpipes" or: "The One Where Rachel and Phoebe Fight Over the Cell Phone"

"The One with Monica and Chandler's Wedding"
or: "The One Where Joey Shoots a War Movie" or: "The One with the Pregnancy Test"

including the total classic:
"The One with the Holiday Armadillo"
or: "The One Where Phoebe Gets Joey Drums and a Tarantula" or: "The One Where Chandler is No Good at Bribery"

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