This is the bounceback season. Whereas Season Seven was not as good as Season Six was not as good as Season Five, Eight actually improved on the one that preceded it. Adding a baby to rejuvenate a show is a hoary and deservedly much-mocked cliche, but in this case it worked. Rachel's pregnancy gave the show a real shot in the arm--it's not just that it allowed for Big Event episodes (like the season finale where she gives birth), but that it provided new material on a week-to-week basis. When you've already cranked out 170 episodes, that's an important contribution.
Now, it's not like this season is heyday-good. There are problems. Phoebe is nasty to the point where you have to start wondering, "Why on earth would they hang out with her?" (And oh, sweet heavens, the episode where she wants Ross to get her Sting tickets is bad. Not even "Rooooosssss can!" saves that garbage.) Monica repeatedly acts like she needs professional help. And medication. It seems like Chandler goes whole episodes without making any jokes that aren't about how pathetic/effeminate/even more pathetic he is.
Ross has his ups and downs. Which is good, because it's been a few seasons since Ross had any ups. Even though this season features at one occassion where Ross's actions should have been reported to the police (the episode where he breaks into his ex-girlfriend's apartment to try to get his pink shirt back), it also features moments of emotional honesty with him the likes of which we hadn't seen since the first season. He gets bothered that he's having another kid outside of a stable family situation--he should be bothered by that, so it's good that he is. He hates that he misses out on important pregnancy milestones and that he's not there fore Rachel when she needs help--and he should feel that way, so we appreciate that he does. Even though he has a long being-a-lousy-boyfriend arc while he dates Mona, the re-emergence of his caring, good-dad tendencies means this evens out to a pretty OK season for him.
Of course, the major revelation of this season is Joey. Joey could have depth?! Why yes. Yes he could.
Little things that drive me crazy:
When Phoebe has the hots for her sister's fiance/ex-fiance, Sean Penn. Not because of the sister angle, but because Sean Penn is really gross.
Rachel has a line in "The One with the Rumor" where she says that she and Ross dated for two years. No, they didn't. Their relationship was spread over two different seasons, but they broke up on their first anniversary. C'mon, writers.
A smaller continuity mistake: Monica claims (in the episode where Ross gives a key to his apartment to Mona, only to discover it was his only key) that Ross never gave her or anyone else a spare key. Then why did we see people get into his apartment when he wasn't there? Several times? (Just off the top of my head: when Rachel went over there to get margarita supplies and overheard a phone message from Emily; when Monica used his apartment as a second place to make Thanksgiving food and saw everybody else playing with Phoebe's contraband dog from Ross's window; and when Phoebe and Rachel snuck in to test Ross's unagi.)
What in the world is this costume?
That drives me crazy that whole episode.
Brad Pitt does an awful, AWFUL job in the Thanksgiving episode. Worst celebrity guest star ever? Discuss.
Little things that are reminders that this season started airing in the fall of 2001:
Messages like "I [heart] NY" and "FDNY" on the board on Joey's door
Different FDNY shirts on multiple cast members
An American flag shows up on Joey's wall; a huge one hangs on the back wall of Central Perk for a few episodes (and gets replaced by a big Uncle Sam painting)
Little thing that's weird:
There are two episodes in this season that I don't know what their names are because the DVD case and the DVD menu don't agree. Is it "The One Where Rachel Tells . . . " or "The One Where Rachel Tells Ross"? Is it "The One with the Creepy Holiday Card" or "The One with Ross's Step Forward"? How can it even be a question? I'm so confused.
Little things I love:
How it makes perfect sense that Rachel move in with Ross so they can share baby-related experiences and responsibilities . . . and it also makes perfect sense that Ross's girlfriend would find the situation ludicrous.
Phoebe's claim that she's a big fan of the Green Bay . . . Mermen.
Joey's ideas for Mona's Halloween costume: bikini model, slutty nurse, sexy cheerleader, Leatherface from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre--no wait, slutty Leatherface.
Joey reassures Rachel that she's not bad with kids; they just get a little crazy on Halloween. And Christmas, and their birthdays, and during the summer, and any time they're hungry or sleepy.
Angry pregnant Rachel, who Ross supposes will give birth to a child that's half-human, half pure evil.
I feel like I should be driven crazy by how contrived Joey's not-really-a-proposal is (the ring Ross's mom has given him in hopes he'll give it to Rachel falls out of Ross's unattended jacket; Joey finds it, kneels down to pick it up, and turns to show it to Rachel; Rachel assumes he's proposing and says yes), but it's all set in motion so neatly that I actually like it quite a bit.
- Ross, congratulating Monica and Chandler on their wedding: "I'm so happy for you guys. And you are both so lucky! I mean, you both said the right names . . . and nobody was drunk . . . and nobody was gay . . . [starts to weep] And on your first try!"
- Monica: "We're a team! We're in this together!" Chandler: "I fear a jury will see things the same way!"
- Phoebe suggests baby names: "If it's a girl, Phoebe. If it's a boy, Phoebo."
- Rachel's OB-GYN: "I know it's really not my place, but please don't name your child Phoebo."
- Ross: "Joey hasn't had this much trouble getting out words since we saw him in Macbeth."
- Chandler: "I'm not great at the advice. . . . Can I interest you in a sarcastic comment?"
- Rachel, desperate to think of a work problem to discuss with Joey: "It's about my boss. . . . and my baby. . . . . My boss wants to buy my baby!"
- Rachel, after Joey confronts her boss: "I'm gonna lose my job! What am I going to do?" Chandler: "You could sell your baby."
Let's talk about Joey:
I'm still surprised by how well the writers and actors accomplished the Joey Falls in Love with Rachel storyline. Matt LeBlanc is no great shakes as an actor; let's just all agree on that. And Joey often had little going for him as a character.
The writers could never seem to decide from season to season (or episode to episode) just how stupid Joey should be. There are times when they give him clever jokes or accomplish something fairly impressive (in the latter case, I'm mostly just thinking of the Season Five scene where he engineering a way for Chandler and Monica to kiss at midnight without giving away their Secret Love). But then there are the times when he doesn't know what fairly common words mean, or when he doesn't know what air quotes are. He ranges from "the dim side of average" to "Wait, shouldn't this guy be living in a group home of some sort?" Unfathomably Stupid Joey provides easy jokes. Ha ha, he ate something off the floor! Ha ha, Chandler had to teach him what an answering machine is! Ha ha, his friends call him an idiot to his face!
Clearly, Joey can be more than Stupid Slutty Guy. And the other side of the idiotic-manchild coin is that there's an innocence and sweetness to Joey that the other characters can't pull off. One thing I haven't figured out about Joey is whether it was coincidental or necessary that he fell in love with Rachel while she was pregnant. Would it have been plausible to us, the audience, for him to fall in love with her if she had just been in her normal circumstances? On the one hand, maybe they just happened to come up with the two plot ideas around the same time. On the other hand, it might be that Rachel's increased vulnerability (at least in Joey's eyes) helped to draw out protectiveness and more emotional involvement in Joey. And of course, Rachel being pregnant with Ross's child (and not just Ross's ex-girlfriend) increases the drama inherent in Joey's attraction, making the whole plot higher-stakes. I suppose my final assessment is that sure, they could have had Joey fall in love with a single, carefree Rachel, but it wouldn't have been nearly as sympathetic or engaging.
Without Season Eight of Friends, there never would have been a Joey. I know that doesn't sound like a compliment, but I do mean it as one. This season made Joey (and Matt LeBlanc) seem like he could carry the dramatic load of a series when need be, because he carried one of the best storylines in the later half of this series.
Top four episodes:
"The One with the Stripper"
or: "The One Where Rachel's Dad Finds Out"
"The One with the Birthing Video"
or: "The One Where Rachel Moves In" or: "The One Where Joey Breaks the Dog"
"The One Where Joey Tells Rachel"
or: "The One with Monica's Soulmate"
including the classic:
"The One Where Rachel Has a Baby"