Before you ask: no, The One Where Joey Speaks French is not going to be in this list.
A few months ago, Chris and I were watching repeats of Friends on Comedy Central, and an episode came on that I declared to be my favourite episode ever. This led into a lengthy discussion about episodes good and bad, until I decided that the one way to settle the matter once and for all was in that holiest of levellers, a ranking blogpost. Before we start, a few bits of housekeeping:
1. The aim is to update this every other day, but don’t hold me to that too closely. At the very least, I’m aiming to update twice a week.
2. Obviously all of the below is entirely subjective. I’m not going to write “in my opinion” after every statement because that would be idiotic, but if my assertions enrage you, then pretend I did.
3. Following on from that, I absolutely welcome your disagreements and counter-arguments in the comments, but don’t just tell me I’m wrong, because that’s no fun for any of us.
4. I’m not necessarily suggesting that all ten of the episodes below are the best-written episodes or the best-acted ones or even the funniest ones, but they are, to me, the ones that have proven the most fun to watch after countless repeats.
5. If anyone’s wondering what the worst episode of Friends is, allow me to clear things up: it’s The One With Phoebe’s Wedding. Nothing in that episode can make up for the absolute hatchet job the writers did on Monica’s character – knowing how hateful she eventually became even makes it hard to watch the repeats of the good episodes sometimes. But this list is meant to be a happy place, so we’ll have no more of that.
10. The One Where Ross Got High (Season 6, Episode 9)
Admitting this might make for a slightly inauspicious start to the list, but I actually have a couple of big problems with this episode. The first is the writers asking us to go along with the idea that Jack and Judy Geller don’t like Chandler because of some alleged misdeed committed when he and Ross were at college together. This comes six seasons into the show, when Chandler and the Gellers have already interacted countless times and there has been literally no sign of any bad blood. I know that Friends was a very different show from season five onwards than it was in seasons one to four, but I’d prefer not to have to pretend that the second half of the series exists in an entirely separate continuity.
My other big problem is Rachel putting beef in the trifle – or more specifically, the explanation for Rachel putting beef in the trifle. The idea of Rachel messing up a Thanksgiving dish is a sound one – at this point she’s grown significantly as a character since she first arrived and is a lot more independent, but there was always a hint that she was fairly hopeless domestically, especially since up until recently she’d been living with Monica and wouldn’t have had to do very much for herself. So sure, Rachel messes up a dish, and she does so by putting beef in the trifle – why not? It’s gross, and it’s funny. But it’s the show’s explanation for this – that the pages in the recipe book were stuck together – that irks me, because the beef is the only suspect item in her trifle, and it’s the middle layer. So what, she turned the pages that were stuck together, and then she turned them back again and finished the recipe? I know this sounds like pedantry of the most unforgivable kind, but it’s always prevented this from being a top-grade episode for me, because it demonstrated the sloppiness of writing that infected the show in its later seasons. I don’t ask for sitcoms to take place in the real world, but I don’t think I’m asking too much for them to at least have some sort of internal logic. The beef/trifle debacle takes up a third of the episode, give or take, and that level of time-investment really deserves a better explanation of how we got there in the first place.
But this is supposed to be a celebration of why this is an episode deserving of a place in the Top 10, and I’m getting off-track. What rescues this episode is the sheer commitment of the cast to selling it. The latter seasons are full of episodes with paper-thin plots that somehow work due to the charisma and chops of everyone involved (I saw the shark porn episode earlier today, and I realised that while it will never be a favourite of mine, it is a lot funnier than it has any right to be thanks to Courteney Cox working the hell out of that final scene), and it’s the structure and acting that lift this episode above the others. The whole episode builds up a mountain of lies and deception ready to collapse in the third act – Rachel’s cooking disaster, Phoebe’s sex dream about Jack Geller (again, this works better than you’d expect thanks to Lisa Kudrow’s delivery), Joey wanting to leave to be with his roommate Elle Macpherson (remember when that was a thing?) – and at the centre of it, Monica and Ross’s complete inability to be honest with their parents. The gentle dysfunction of the Gellers was always one of this show’s greatest strengths – with both Ross and Monica being such type-A personalities, they’re always vying to be the golden child in their parents’ eyes, even if that means selling each other down the river to get there.
The moment where the truth all comes out (see the YouTube clip above) is so brilliantly-executed that I can overlook everything that I dislike about this episode. Christina Pickles doesn’t really get her dues a lot of the time when people consider the reasons why this show was good, but regardless of the quality of the script she was given, she was always brilliant as Judy Geller, and I think she was never better than in this episode. Her delivery of “Rachel, no you weren’t supposed to put beef in the trifle. It did not taste good.” is absolutely faultless, and Judy’s summing up of Ross occasionally smoking weed while at college as “the drug problem” is such a brilliantly motherly way of looking at the situation (it’s a great line in itself, but again Pickles’s heartfelt delivery of the line is a large part of the reason it works so well). We all know that Joey was an ill-advised idea for a spin-off, but I reckon Judy Geller: Judgemental Mother would’ve been well worth considering.
9. The One With Unagi (Season 6, Episode 17)
(For some reason I can’t get the clip to embed, but you can watch it on the Comedy Central site here.)
As if to reinforce point four in my list of rules above, The One With Unagi is probably not a standout episode for most people – the C-plot involving Joey hiring a fellow actor to play his identical twin in order to take part in a medical study, despite the two of them not bearing any resemblance to each other apart from both being dark-haired human males, is a bit of a damp squib and relies too much on “Joey is dumb and mean” for most of its laughs, while the B-plot involving Monica and Chandler trying to make last-minute Valentine’s Day gifts for each other takes a long time to get to the payoff. It is, admittedly, worth having (any scene that involves Janice, however indirectly, is always worth having), but it’s still far too long in the making. The A-plot, however, involving Ross, Rachel, Phoebe and a state of total awareness/Japanese freshwater eel is supremely, unapologetically silly and never fails to make me laugh.
Ross is, to my mind, the most problematic of the six main characters because he’s supposed to function as a romantic lead and a lovable loser, but frequently gets derailed into plain old jerkass territory. However, some of the writers were savvy enough to realise that there’s a way of making Jerkass Ross likeable: give him a couple of straw pretensions and allow everyone else to make fun of him, and this episode does that in absolutely riotous style. When he’s not talking about his experience with “karah-tay” or intoning “Chandler, I sensed it was you” in the manner of a hokey sensei, he’s attempting to prove that Rachel’s and Phoebe’s self-defence skills are lacking by hiding around corners and jumping out at them shrieking “DANGER!” One of the best things about this episode is that it gives Ross his moment in the sun – he manages to catch them completely unaware the first time, proving that on some level at least, he did have a point – but it also makes him completely unable to quit while he’s ahead, giving Rachel and Phoebe the chance to not just defeat but completely humiliate him.
As I said, it’s all very daft, but there are just so many little touches to this storyline that make it a gem: the little two-fingers to the temple gesture David Schwimmer does every time he says “unagi”; the part where Ross attempts the “DANGER!” attack on Monica and she walks right past without even flinching (considering her entire childhood with Ross probably involved this sort of shit on a daily basis, this strikes me as an incredibly well-observed character detail, so kudos to whoever thought of it); Ross screaming like a little girl the first time Phoebe and Rachel catch him; Ross responding to Phoebe’s “say we are unagi!” with “it’s not something you are, it’s something you have!”, despite being pinned to the floor and bent out of shape at the time; Ross going to see a self-defence instructor for advice on how to attack his ex-wife and her friend; the moment in the credits when Ross accidentally pounces on two people who merely look a bit like Rachel and Phoebe from behind while Rachel and Phoebe observe the whole thing from Central Perk, particularly the moment where a fleeing Ross catches sight of them, stops momentarily and looks nonplussed, then running off again. (It also helps that this is one of the meta-humour moments in the show that acknowledges that occasionally the main characters have to sit elsewhere in Central Perk because other patrons beat them to the best sofa.) Although the show became more cartoonish in the second half of its run, this episode works brilliantly as a demonstration of how you can do that while remaining true to the basic traits of the characters and still get plenty of laughs along the way. I still can’t eat sushi without thinking of this episode and giggling a little bit.
8. The One With Rachel’s Other Sister (Season 9, Episode 8)
Question: which of Rachel’s sisters is your favourite? I think it’s a tough decision, because Reese Witherspoon and Christina Applegate are two of my favourite guest stars from across the entire series, and the writing for both of them was brilliant – the writers clearly had a ball using them to show what Rachel could’ve been like if she hadn’t had that lightbulb moment with the gravy boat and left Barry at the altar. However, if I were forced to chew a turnip or answer the question definitively, I’d have to say that Jill just edges it as my favourite of the two, but that Amy appeared in better episodes, hence her appearance on this list while Jill is, regrettably, absent. (Oops, spoiler.)
Christina Applegate has always had a gift for playing rotten, spoiled girls (I loved her flashback scenes in Samantha Who?) but what I love about Amy is that there’s something refreshingly guileless about her: while Jill was sly and cunning, Amy’s far too lazy for that. Besides, plotting against people inevitably requires thinking about how your actions affect others, and I don’t think Amy has ever done that in her life. Her introduction is like a whistle-stop tour of everything that’s awful about her: she asks for Rachel’s hair-straighteners before she’s even across the threshold of the apartment, she is barely even aware of her newborn niece, she’s in a rush to meet a married man for Thanksgiving dinner, and she directs a clusterfuck of personal insults towards Ross. Okay, maybe that last part was forgivable.
While there’s lots of fun to be had from Amy’s childish squabbles with Rachel, unleashing her on the rest of the ensemble is where the real fun starts, with her assumption that Phoebe’s name is Emma (Applegate’s delivery of “oh, that’s a funny noise” when Phoebe corrects her is the sort of thing I expect them to use as a teaching aid at Sitcom College, because it cannot be bettered), antagonises Monica in the exact same way that she did with Ross, and – best of all – serves as the catalyst for the fight where Chandler discovers that he won’t get custody of Emma if Ross, Rachel and Monica die. Although the show frequently fumbled its character-led moments in later seasons, this episode was a great late example of the writers knowing exactly who these people were, and Chandler’s hurt at the others not seeing how much he’s grown up since he and Monica got together is tangible – the high point being when he curtly asks the others “am I incompetent? Because I managed to survive whatever it was that killed the three of you!” Resolutions to anything emotional storylines in the last two or three seasons, tended to be incredibly saccharine, but the way this was wrapped up was again well-judged: Chandler gets his moment of demonstrating his parenting skills when he has to break up a fight between Rachel and Amy, only for his ego to be swiftly punctured when he accidentally breaks all of Monica’s prized wedding china 30 seconds later.
Ah, Monica’s china. Now here’s an example of the show having a lot of fun with Monica’s many neuroses and general perfectionism without turning her into the shrill satanic mess that she was when she was Phoebe’s maid of honour. The scene where she suggests that her guests might want to protect their plates by slicing at their turkey drumsticks in mid-air is hilarious, especially since it leads Amy (and, inadvertently, Chandler) to nickname her “Crazy Plate Lady”. Even the Joey C-plot, which involves him having forgotten to take part in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade and essentially has “afterthought” stamped all over it, is saved by whoever had the brilliant idea that Joey can’t tell a lie without creating an entirely unconvincing scenario involving a raccoon. That’s one of many lines that makes absolutely no sense outside the context of this episode (heck, it doesn’t make much sense within the context of this episode, which is the whole point) and yet is still enormous fun to deploy in real life.
I’ve barely even covered the brilliant, snappy dialogue, but this episode easily boasts one of the tightest scripts in the second half of the show’s run. In many ways, this is a classic Friends bottle episode – it’s not quite up there with The One Where No One’s Ready (oops, spoiler), but the idea of inflicting Amy on the gang when it’s Thanksgiving and they have no plausible excuse for turning her away is perfectly-managed, and lets simmering resentment ruin an otherwise happy occasion – as is only right.
7. The One With All The Cheesecakes (Season 7, Episode 11)
For a show featuring a leading ensemble of six people, it’s interesting how the writers resorted to the same pairings a lot of the time. In the early days, Monica and Rachel would be paired together a lot, as would Chandler and Joey, or Ross and Rachel. In later years, as relationships shifted, other pairings emerged, like Monica and Chandler, and Joey and Rachel (the latter of which worked fine until the disastrous decision to try to pair them romantically, but that’s a matter for another time). However, there were frequently friendships that were underexplored, which makes the rare occasions that the writers did take them out for a spin all the more enjoyable, and this episode makes the cut almost entirely because of the Rachel and Chandler storyline.
You can see why they weren’t paired together often – they don’t really have a lot in common, they don’t have much of a shared history prior to the first season, and there was never any chance for romantic tension. One thing they did share, however, was a distinct lack of willpower, which is a trait that this episode exploits beautifully. Even better, all it takes to break them is a particularly well-made cheesecake, delivered to a neighbour but intercepted by Chandler. I mean, I can relate to that because there are few things on this planet that are better than well-made cheesecake, but it’s still kind of hilarious that rich-but-light cream cheese and a buttery, crumbly graham cracker crust is all it takes to break them entirely.
The exchanges between the two where they try to justify their behaviour are great: I particularly like the aftermath of their attempt to deliver a second cheesecake to its rightful owner, Mrs Braverman from downstairs, when they discover that she hasn’t picked it up yet and Chandler points out that they “don’t want her to come home to bad cheesecake” and Rachel swiftly agrees that “that could kill her”. Of course, it’s not long before they even begin to turn on each other, since Chandler discovers that Rachel can’t be trusted not to eat the cheesecake without him, and the very foundation of their friendship crumbles like the biscuits that the cheesecake sits upon. Thanks to Rachel’s clumsiness and then pettiness, both remaining slices of cheesecake end up on the floor between their apartments, and there’s a beautiful scene of them picking cheesecake off the floor and wondering what they’ve become – just before Joey arrives to join them, acting like this is an entirely understandable scenario, and thereby showing both of them EXACTLY what they’ve become. It’s a sobering moment.
The rest of the episode is entertaining, if not quite as dynamic as the Rachel/Chandler storyline. The Ross & Monica plot about Cousin Franny’s wedding has its moments, particularly when Ross expresses his excitement about his date Joan (who is definitely NOT broad-backed), and Monica’s fury at not being invited, to the point where she insists that Ross takes her as his plus-one and starts interrogating the other guests about their right to be there. (“Used to work with [Franny],” she hisses to one unfortunate couple. “Used to! I’m a relative and I didn’t even get invited. A blood relative. Blood!”, causing Ross to admonish her to “stop saying ‘blood’ to strangers”.) The downside is that the payoff for the whole thing is a bit weak – Monica wasn’t invited because she’d slept with Cousin Franny’s new husband at some point in the past, but considering we’ve never seen Franny or the guy before and neither of them are ever mentioned again, it’s a bit of a letdown. Phoebe and Joey’s plotline is peppered with some lovely throwaway bits – the reveal of Joey’s middle name, for example, the experiments with nicknames (Joey’s distress at Ross trying to make “the Rossatron” happen is wonderful), but its real strength is the way it ends with a really lovely moment between the two of them, where Phoebe laments her true love David’s departure for Minsk yet again and Joey promises her that he’ll give positronic distillation of sub-atomic particles “a shot” if it means David will be able to come back sooner. It’s unfortunate that Hank Azaria feels slightly underused in the whole episode, but the closing scene is sympathetically scripted and well-played by Matt LeBlanc and Lisa Kudrow – Joey and Phoebe have a really close bond that doesn’t always get the screentime it deserves, so it was great to see it get a bit of attention here. While a lot of the steam that kept this show running came from the various romantic couplings between the group, this episode always sticks in my mind as a great example of how they could all still be incredibly touching and funny even with strictly platonic stories.
6. The One With All The Poker (Season 1, Episode 18)
As with many shows, season one of Friends was a sandbox for the writers to play in as they decided where they wanted to go with these characters – once they’d set up the basic dynamics of the group, there was a lot of fun to be had in throwing them into new, challenging scenarios to push those newly-formed boundaries a little bit and see what happens. The One With All The Poker exemplifies this for me as it introduces an element of competition and rivalry into the group as a whole, and demonstrates how sometimes the gang are at their funniest when they all hate each other a little bit.
A lot of ongoing traits and plotlines are sown in this episode: Monica’s hyper-competitive side, for example (largely thanks to the unseen but vividly-described “Pictionary incident”), Ross’s aversion to anyone trying to best him (which of course comes back with a vengeance in season two’s The One Where Heckles Dies) and a recurring feature of the early seasons – Rachel’s search for a job that isn’t waitressing at Central Perk. Of course, since this is still the very early days when the whole point of these people was that they were lovable losers, she ultimately loses out on the coveted assistant buyer position at Saks, but even getting close enough to be interviewed is a visible boost to Rachel’s confidence, and I suspect it’s what lies at the root of her increased assertiveness throughout the episode.
As a result, there’s some splendid bickering in this one, particularly between Rachel and Ross. Naturally, it’s Ross who starts it because he can’t help being an ass (and this was back in the days when I quite liked Ross but he’s still unnecessarily dickish at times here) and belittling Rachel, so she fights back in one of the most neatly-emasculating moments in TV history – exiting the bathroom, he declares “your money’s mine, Green” and Rachel replies without even lifting her head “your fly’s open, Geller”. That’s all it takes to puncture Ross’s bravado, and the fact that Rachel barely even looks at him before saying it makes it even more hilarious – as though this isn’t the first time Ross has forgotten to fasten himself up properly and Rachel just knew somehow that he’d done it again.
There’s rarely a wasted moment in this episode: the scene where the guys and girls play together for the first time is wonderful, particularly the women’s clueless approach to poker (Rachel and Phoebe’s enthusiastic “oh, good for you!” when Monica reveals she has a straight is hilarious) and the only outsider to appear is arguably one of the show’s finest one-shot characters: Ross and Monica’s Aunt Iris, a straight-talking poker virtuouso who stops by to give the women a crash-course after their ill-fated first attempt at the game. She only has five lines, and each one’s a gem. (Her first piece of advice to them is “everything you hear at a poker game is pure crap”, which she follows immediately by complimenting Phoebe’s earrings. Lisa Kudrow’s reaction is priceless.) I’d almost be sad that this is the only time we see her, but her appearance in this episode is so perfect it’s hard to imagine how they could ever top it.
One of the things that makes this episode particularly effective is that even if you know nothing about the rules of poker (like me, for example), it manages to turn the climactic round into a genuinely tense piece of drama – the whole optimistic tone of the episode changes when Rachel gets the call informing her that she didn’t get the job, and the last hand becomes this determined quest to succeed in at least something. It’s a lovely, human moment with (no pun intended) real stakes, and while I’d have preferred it without the (implied) revelation that Ross threw the game to make Rachel happy (because: bleurgh), it was still a promising early sign that the writers wanted us to invest in these characters, and they weren’t just mouthpieces for one-liners – though to be honest, given the quality of the gags in this episode, that would’ve been fine too.
5. The One Where Everybody Finds Out (Season 5, Episode 14)
Allowing two characters to turn their relationship from platonic to romantic is tricky territory for a long-running series – even the best shows have stumbled when it came to turning will-they-won’t-they into a definite they-will. However, I always thought Friends rather neatly sidestepped this with Chandler and Monica: whatever you might think of how the show handled their relationship in the long-term, the initial reveal benefitted significantly from the fact that they had always been the show’s beta couple. Ross and Rachel were the star-crossed lovers; Chandler and Monica were affectionate pals who’d sort of hinted from time to time that they might be well-suited as partners but had always ultimately decided never to cross that line. At least, not until the season four finale, when they slept together in London at Ross and Emily’s wedding. This was another clever tactic on the part of the writers, I thought: when one half of the show’s premier couple was about to marry someone else (an Englishwoman, no less!), getting Chandler and Monica together was not only unexpected, it was a gift for all the shippers to get excited about just as another OTP looked to be going up in flames. (Clearly, appeasing the shippers was an important part of any show’s lifespan even before the internet made it compulsory.)
Of course, once all that had been set up, there was much new comic business to be mined as the rest of the sextet (emphasis on the ‘sex’, etc etc) found out about the change in Monica and Chandler’s dynamic. The title of this episode is a misnomer, really – it’s only Ross and Phoebe who find out here, and the penny doesn’t even drop for Ross until the very end of the episode. Joey had actually been the first to find out in the fifth episode of the fifth season (in a rare display of his synapses actually firing correctly), while Rachel had been in on it since she accidentally found out in episode 11. Drip-feeding the reveal like this was rather canny, as it meant we got to explore everyone’s alarm and confusion bit-by-bit, which by extension meant that each character got a time to shine. If all four friends had found out together, there probably wouldn’t have been much time to focus on what Phoebe thought: she’s not related to anyone and she’s not a roommate, so her reaction would’ve probably been limited to a surreal one-liner at the most. Allowing each character their own episode to make the discovery, however, meant that Phoebe’s reveal episode was the funniest of all.
Sure, there was to be a fair amount of contrivance in the way it happened (really, would Monica and Chandler be stupid enough to start rutting up against the window when they knew that Ross, Phoebe and Rachel were looking around Ugly Naked Guy’s apartment? The same apartment they’d all been spying into for at least four years? Surely they must have known that the same thing works in reverse – and the less said about Rachel deciding to use the toilet in Ugly Naked Guy’s apartment when her own couldn’t have been more than five minutes’ walk away the better), I can make an allowance for it: a brief deployment of the Idiot Ball means that we get the reveal over in the first five minutes, leaving plenty of time to revel in what follows. It’s a brilliant showcase for Lisa Kudrow, who not only gets plenty of great lines but also gets to be physical and flirty in a way that Phoebe didn’t get to be very often.
Rachel’s, Phoebe’s (and, reluctantly, Joey’s) attempts to mess with Monica and Chandler now that they have secret information are fun, but it’s the conclusion that holds the biggest delights: a game of sexual chicken between Phoebe and Chandler, both trying to hold their nerve and trying to psych the other one out. You couldn’t pick two better characters for this scenario: Chandler’s always been incredibly nervous when it comes to sexual matters, whereas Phoebe is forthright to the point of being off-putting, so seeing him try to match her in a game of seduction is marvellous, giving rise to lines like “I’m very glad we’re going to have all the sex”, and Phoebe’s response of “you should be. I’m very bendy.” (She’s not lying either, if the sexy dance she did for him earlier is anything to go by – another excellent piece of physical comedy from Kudrow.)
Ultimately this is the kind of episode you can really only pull off if you know the characters inside-out, because it relies on the audience anticipating what’s going to come next and being delighted when it happens anyway, but that’s the joy of this one – it gives the friends a chance to be sharp and quick-witted (it’s a source of great joy to me that nobody falls for the early ruses for very long, it’s only the final ultimate battle that gets drawn-out; so many comedy plots rely on people not working stuff out because the writers need them not to do so until the end – here, it’s entirely the opposite with the writers wanting the characters to realise things as quickly as possible). And just to put the cherry on the top of a particularly sweet dessert, this episode also marks the debut appearance of Hugsy, Joey’s bedtime penguin pal – a throwaway gag that works so well it becomes a running one. That, to me, is the sign of an episode where nothing is wasted.
4. The One With The Embryos (Season 4, Episode 12)
There are possibly going to be a few readers of this countdown who will be disappointed that this episode is not at number one, considering that it contains one of the most famous, and arguably one of the best, scenes in the history of the show. However, the way I see it, the fact that I’m ranking an episode as excellent as this in fourth place just goes to show how first-rate this show was when it was on its game. There are three episodes even better than the one with the quiz.
That brings me on to an interesting point – the generally-accepted rationale for all the episodes being titled “The One With…” or “The One Where…” is that this would be the way fans would refer to them anyway, so it would be an effective shorthand between the production team and the viewers. In this case, however, people don’t think of embryos when they think of this episode; they think of lightning rounds, transpondsters and Miss Chanandler Bong. I remember reading an article online recently that listed the most disposable characters from TV shows. It singled out Phoebe on the grounds that she’s not even around for the big scene in this episode, which I think is a tad unfair: the writers had to come up with an on-screen explanation for Lisa Kudrow’s real-life pregnancy, hence the surrogacy plot which was bound to separate her from the action at certain points – it’s just a shame it had to happen now. That the episode is still named after Phoebe’s storyline suggests to me that her role here is every bit as important as the others’, even if it’s not as fondly-remembered. In fact, I’d argue that going into this episode, people were probably far more interested in a storyline about Phoebe trying to get pregnant with her brother and sister-in-law’s baby than they were about some stupid-sounding B-plot about the others playing a quiz against each other.
However, as was so often the case on this show, the execution of that plot and the details it revealed about the characters spun some potentially unpromising material into absolute gold. It’s difficult to give a summary of why this episode is so brilliant without descending into just a list of quotes, but for me the joy of this one is how quickly everything escalates. It starts with a nonchalant assertion from Joey and Chandler that they know Monica and Rachel better than the girls know them; it doesn’t take a genius to predict that ultra-competitive Monica won’t stand for this, but even the more laid-back Rachel is affronted and wants a chance to prove that she knows the boys well. It’s not long before money is on the table, the stakes are being raised, and Ross has been recruited to compile a series of questions. Ross taking to the role of quizmaster with unadultered glee is another highpoint of the episode – he even creates a board with categories (Fears And Pet Peeves, Ancient History, Literature, and It’s All Relative) and a Lightning Round in the event of a tie.
Essentially, this evolves into another opportunity for the writers to have fun with the characters’ backstories, both by expanding upon things we already knew about (like Chandler’s father’s all-male burlesque show in Las Vegas) and dropping in things that are completely new (Rachel claims her favourite film is Dangerous Liaisons when it’s really Weekend At Bernie’s). It’s a credit to the writers that all of these incidental details seem perfectly in character – particularly the part where Monica separates her towels into 11 distinct categories. (I don’t even have 11 towels, much less 11 categories.) Ultimately, however, it’s one of the show’s most enduring running gags that proves Monica and Rachel’s undoing – they don’t know what Chandler does for a living, other than he carries a briefcase and it’s “something to do with transponding”, hence Rachel’s triumphant, wildly inaccurate cry that he must be a transpondster.
The one downside to this episode is that it paves the way for one of my least favourite arcs in the show, that of Monica and Rachel and Chandler and Joey switching apartments. It just feels like an idea that probably sounded better on paper than it did in practice, and never really delivers any solid gags until seven episodes later when Monica and Rachel – and presumably the writers – decide enough is enough and take their apartment back by force. There’s even a sense that nobody quite knows what to do with this development in the closing scene of this episode – we end with Chandler and Joey just feeling giddy with joy over their new apartment. That’s it, no gag to take us out into the production card, just a sense of “really? So they’re still going to be there next week?” It’s a brave idea and I give the show credit for attempting it, but it was one of several slightly meandering developments that left season four feeling like one of the weaker runs to me – but that said, even a slightly disappointing conclusion can’t stop this from being a truly memorable episode that would probably be number one in lots of people’s best episodes countdowns. Just not mine…
3. The One With The Morning After (Season 3, Episode 16)
Ah, the ballad of Ross and Rachel. Considering that it’s one of the most well-known aspects of Friends, to the point where even people who didn’t watch the show knew about it, it was actually in the foreground of the show surprisingly rarely. Season three was probably the run of the show where it influenced the most storylines, and this was the most pivotal episode of them all – the one where Ross and Rachel fail to get back together after taking a break because Ross slept with that girl from the Xerox place with the belly-button ring. (I believe that was the actual working title for the episode until they decided they needed something a little snappier.)
Personally, I found the whole “we were on a break” meme to get increasingly tired as the show went on (especially since the writers seemed to forget what it actually referred to: later seasons seem to imply that the argument was over whether they were on a break or not, when this episode makes it clear that both Ross and Rachel knew they were on a break, but the problems came them not having actually clarified what being on a break entailed), but this episode that deals with the immediate fallout of said break works best because it plays that situation for truth rather than for laughs. There’s not a lot of comedy to be gained from a couple’s relationship dissolving in front of us (although with all credit to writers Marta Kauffman and David Crane, they do manage to give Rachel a couple of good zingers), so essentially this episode sees Ross and Rachel as the “sit-“, with Chandler, Joey, Monica and Phoebe eavesdropping from Monica’s bedroom as the “-com”. It’s a clever way of arranging things, and also gives the writers the convenient shortcut of having everyone else find out what happened at more or less the same time.
While the second part of this one traps everyone within the same apartment, giving us half a bottle episode of the kind this show always did so well, the first half couldn’t be more different – it’s a frantic race across the city as Ross comes impressively close to getting away with his transgression only for it to slip through his fingers at the last minute. For all his portrayal as someone who obstinately insisted that the break meant he hadn’t technically done anything wrong, it’s interesting that this episode shows Ross knowing that he’s fucked up even before he gets caught: from waking up to discover Chloe in his apartment, to finding the message from Rachel on his answering machine and realising there’s still a chance of saving their relationship, to the frantic scramble to get Chloe out before Rachel arrives, these are not the actions of a man who thinks he has no one to answer to. Ross knows he’s done pretty much the worst thing he could’ve possibly done as far as his relationship is concerned, and his only option at this point is to cover his tracks and hope he gets away with it.
Unfortunately for him, he goes to Chandler and Joey for advice, and since Joey is no mastermind and Chandler knows little about relationships, it’s not surprising that he figures out the process but bungles the execution. The trail (“from the woman you did it with to the woman you hope never finds out you did it”, as Joey succinctly puts it) is a fun chance for the episode to get to flesh out a couple of its minor characters – Chloe, her colleague Isaac, and Jasmine, the girl with the monotone voice who works at the massage place with Phoebe. In each case, Ross gets there a little too late to prevent the person in question from passing the sordid details on to the next link in the chain: he thinks he’s finally saved himself when Jasmine tells him that she hasn’t told Phoebe yet, but the one detail that nobody has spotted yet is that Jasmine shares an apartment with Gunther (I’m a little sad that idea was never developed beyond this one throwaway line, I feel like a lot of fun could’ve been had with that) and she’s told him – and of course Gunther feels like he owes Ross absolutely no favours on that front.
Meanwhile, Monica and Phoebe are discovering the devastating truth that infomercials lie when they attempt to become Waxene girls, only to realise that just because the wax is organic doesn’t mean it’s painless – in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The arrival of Chandler and Joey into this scenario brings a great visual gag – having heard the screaming, they arrive brandishing a kettle and a saucepan, presumably having assumed that someone was either being attacked or in labour or possibly both. “We were just waxing our legs,” explains Monica, leaving an incredulous Chandler to respond “…off?” The wax is mined for laughs to an impressive degree, from Monica waxing Joey’s arm to Chandler suggesting that they “wax the door shut” when it’s revealed to Rachel that he and Joey convinced Ross not to fess up about Chloe, to Phoebe’s triumphant declaration after they’ve been trapped for hours that they could eat the wax because it’s organic – not the used wax, she clarifies, when Chandler offers his objections to “food with hair on it”, though he’s still not on board even after she elucidates. There’s another ace visual gag as time passes further and it turns out that desperation did indeed drive them to eat the wax – and that Joey quite enjoyed it.
The heart of the episode, however, is the destruction of Ross and Rachel’s relationship, and it gives David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston a chance to flex their dramatic muscles rather than their comedic ones for a change. It’s a triumph for both of them – Aniston completely sells the sense of utter betrayal that Rachel feels, as well as her struggle to reconcile this cheating, lying version of Ross with the one she felt she could trust never to hurt her. Schwimmer, despite being given the less sympathetic role in the break-up, also does some great work here – Ross comes across as guilty and repentant in his attempt to win Rachel back, but there’s still that edge of defensiveness to his arguments that suggests he isn’t prepared to fully admit to being in the wrong. Of course, the question of who was right or wrong in this argument has been discussed at length in agonising detail by Friends fans across the globe many times (once I stumbled across a messageboard where everyone was adamant that every single thing that went wrong in this relationship was Rachel’s fault, which was…interesting), but whatever side of that debate you fall on, I think it makes sense for Ross’s character that he’d feel that, on some level, he isn’t completely to blame for the relationship not working out.
So many of the later episodes of Friends sacrificed character for laughs; the reason why I rate this one so highly is because it wasn’t afraid to do exactly the opposite. It’s not the funniest half hour of the show by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s one of the most emotionally hard-hitting, and that’s why I’ll always have a fondness for it.
2. The One Where No One’s Ready (Season 3, Episode 2)
If The One With The Morning After is half of a great bottle episode, then this one is the real deal. Apparently conceived as a way of saving money throughout the season by using one set and minimal guest stars, this episode demonstrates just how smoothly the show was running in season three: by this point, the writers knew the characters and their relationships so well that they could produce one of the best episodes of the entire show’s run without the need for any sort of flashy gimmick.
The episode takes place in more or less real-time, in the 26 minutes that the gang have to get ready before attending a fundraising benefit at Ross’s workplace. There’s a scene that plays at the end over the credits that takes place some time later at the benefit itself, but for the most part, as the title suggests, we’re in Monica and Rachel’s apartment watching the friends display little interest in actually preparing themselves for a night of sitting at a round table, listening to interminable anecdotes about fossils and trying not to belch. That it’s Ross’s do they’re all supposed to be going to is no accident – I suspect that had it been, say, Monica’s big night they were all meant to attend, everyone would’ve been a lot more prepared (not least because the food would’ve been better and because Monica’s damn scary when she doesn’t get her way), but Ross’s work has always been either tedious or a joke (or occasionally both) to these people, and Ross’s neuroses have always been an inexhaustible source of laughs, so he’s the perfect foil to stand there in his tuxedo, conspicuously the only one ready to leave, while the others get caught up in their own self-created dramas.
Like Frasier at its peak, this episode captures the swift pace of a theatrical farce by keeping several plots in the air at once while never allowing any one of them too much time before swapping over to another; as soon as one character leaves through one door, somebody else enters through another. None of the individual plots are particularly strong – Rachel can’t decide what to wear, Monica can’t figure out if a message from ex-boyfriend Richard on her answering machine is new or not, Joey and Chandler are arguing over who gets to set in a chair, and Phoebe gets a hummus stain on her dress – but the triviality of these stories works in the episode’s favour. The idea that all of these completely petty concerns are somehow more important to his friends than the big night he’s probably been preparing for for several weeks gives Ross a legitimate reason for genuinely being angry with them the longer things go on, and the claustrophobic setting gives the characters the excuse to get completely consumed by these issues, because there’s nothing there to distract them other than Ross, who’s got at least three more fires to put out.
Naturally, any episode this high up in the countdown will have been responsible for several lines that took on a life of their own in the wider world, and while the phrase “going commando” is probably the most infamous one, the one that really caught on amongst my friends was “I’m breezy!” Originally Monica’s disastrous attempt to appear nonchalant on her own answering machine message for Richard, it’s now become the go-to phrase when you realise you’ve inadvertently revealed a little too much of your personal investment in any given situation. One line that perhaps didn’t catch on as much as it deserved to (perhaps because it lacks the universality of “going commando” or “I’m breezy”) was Rachel’s “I’m going to catch up on my correspondence.” It’s a wonderful line because it’s so antiquated and prim and such a very out-of-character thing for Rachel to say (delivered with the perfect amount of studied detachment by Jennifer Aniston), which is why it’s such a damning snub of Ross – combined with Rachel suddenly reappearing wearing an old sweatshirt and some flannel pants, it’s a rare moment of quiet sanity in an otherwise loud and frantic episode, where it becomes clear that amid all the silliness, feelings have genuinely been hurt. Of course, it’s nothing that can’t be solved by Ross drinking the fat.
I love this episode because there’s such great economy to it – nobody’s presence on screen is ever wasted, the dialogue is sharp and memorable, and even the glass of fat obeys Chekhov’s rules of drama by making an early appearance to foreshadow its necessity later on. Best of all, keeping all six actors in a confined space at a time when their natural comic chemistry was at its peak means the episode’s pace never flags. The only thing that stops this one from being at the top of the chart (apart from the fact that the episode at #1 is even better, obviously) is the aforementioned credits sequence, which slightly spoils things by moving to a different location and bringing in a guest actor. It’s a minor objection, admittedly, but at this stage in the countdown, that might just make all the difference.
1. The One With The Football (Season 3, Episode 9)
So here we are: in my opinion, the greatest episode of Friends ever produced. I used to have every single episode taped off the telly (if there are any copyright enforcers reading this, please note that I have since replaced those tapes with a legally-purchased DVD box set) and, while I didn’t keep accurate records of how often I watched each one, I’m reasonably certain that this is the episode I went back to the most. For me, this is an episode in which everything is executed flawlessly: it tells a complete story in around 22 minutes, in which everyone behaves in a manner that fits with their established characters, and there’s constant stream of excellent jokes.
Taking place at Thanksgiving, the boys are watching the football while Phoebe and Rachel are helping Monica to prepare dinner. (Not only is this an A+ sitcom episode, but it’s probably a fairly decent resource for a gender studies seminar as well.) After an opening gag that reminds us that Monica is neurotic and detail-obsessed, the credits roll and Joey establishes the plot of the episode by suggesting they all go outside and have a game. Everyone’s up for it – even Chandler, despite still being glum about having recently broken up with Janice – apart from Ross and Monica, who are surprisingly reluctant. Because they’ve been banned from playing football by their parents.
The rest of the gang greet this announcement with unconcealed amusement, but Ross and Monica are reduced to embarrassed silence, which marks the beginning of their swift regression into childhood. I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this countdown that Ross and Monica’s childhood squabbles are the foundations that their adult relationships, and by extension the entire show, are built on, and this is an episode that exploits all that dysfunction to its fullest. The richness of the detail in the stories they reveal is all part of the charm: it wasn’t just a single childhood incident that got out of hand, but an annual contest referred to as The Gellerbowl, and the one where it all blew up was Gellerbowl VI. (Part of the fun comes in imagining what Gellerbowls I-V must have been like. At the very least, we know that one of them was forfeited because Ross thought he was getting mono, which is apparently still a sore point for Monica all these years later.)
Best of all, the way in which Monica persuades Ross that they’ve matured enough to try playing football together again is to scream “WUSS!” at him. This episode demonstrates again and again that the cheap shots are the most effective, and the trash-talking in the game itself is superb: Ross attempting to win a disputed point with Monica by saying “cheater cheater, compulsive eater” to her is the sort of appalling, treacherous insult that only a close family member can get away with, because they know exactly how to hurt you but also trust that you love them enough that you’ll ultimately forgive them when it’s all over. It is, in all honesty, probably my most beloved line of the entire series. What’s great about the arguments is that Monica holds her own both in stubbornness and childishness – in one particular moment, she lectures Ross that perhaps he might not have grown up since they last played football together, but she has. And then gives him a dead leg.
As glorious as the Ross vs. Monica battle is, if that was the only thing this episode did well, it wouldn’t be deserving of a place in this countdown, let alone the top spot. But the other members of the core cast are used perfectly: Rachel’s excited about playing football until she gets picked last – something that I’m guessing never actually happened to pretty, popular Rachel when she was actually in high school. Phoebe is up for football because it’s one of the many things she never properly experienced as a child, reacting with unrestrained glee to her first huddle and then characteristically misunderstanding the concept by using it to ask Monica and Rachel what they really think of Chandler. Still, she shows some aptitude for the game, if not for the terminology, much to Monica’s annoyance. (“Phoebe, I thought you said you knew what you were doing?” “Oh, I thought you meant in life!”)
Joey and Chandler, meanwhile, seem as though they’re going to be the strongest assets of their teams until an attractive Dutch woman turns up and they fight over her. It would be a fairly rote sitcom storyline if it weren’t for the way it cleverly plays into two of their key traits: Joey’s unshakable confidence in his own attractiveness, and Chandler’s inferiority complex. Even when Joey agrees not to pursue Margha, he can’t help phrasing it as “I’ll let you have her” – which Chandler immediately picks up on and is furious that Joey believes he couldn’t compete with him on even territory. As a result, they become just as infantile as Ross and Monica, going out of their way to humiliate the other, ripping clothes and causing physical injuries, all for the attention of a woman who is clearly going to get bored of either one of them very quickly. In the end, Chandler is victorious, but manages to ruin things for himself in record time by celebrating in a way that suggests the win was more of interest to him than the prize. “I now find you shallow and, um, a dork,” Margha informs him curtly before exiting, never to be seen again.
Ultimately, the whole thing becomes a ludicrously high-stakes game of honour, after Monica produces the previously considered missing Geller Cup (in another lovely bit of attention to detail, not only is it a troll doll on top of a block of wood, but somebody has used a labelmaker to record the winner of each year’s Gellerbowl on it. The beauty of this is that such unspeakably lame behaviour is completely in character for both Ross and Monica). The episode evolves to a point where it’s both a satire of and a homage to all those cheesy ’80s sports movies, coming down to an underdog victory after Rachel, who’s previously been useless for the entire match, scores the winning touchdown. Or does she? The teams can’t agree on whether she made it to the end zone or not, so the ball is still in play, and Ross and Monica pile down on to it while everyone else gradually gets bored and leaves them to it.
One thing that I’ve realised while compiling this countdown is that just about all of my favourite episodes involve the group being pretty mean to each other. I know this has a reputation as a hugging-and-learning sort of show, the complete opposite of a Seinfeld, for example, but I always thought it was strongest when it allowed itself to embrace the fact that friendship isn’t always sunshine and rainbows, and sometimes people are funniest when they’re lashing out at the people they’re supposed to care about. This episode gave the core six a chance to be petty and spiteful and generally behave like teenagers, and even avoids a neat and tidy resolution: Phoebe, Rachel, Chandler and Joey all get tired and go off to have dinner, but Ross and Monica both refuse to give in. However much they think they’ve grown up, these are the people they will always be somewhere deep down, and they’ll never escape that. It’s a surprisingly dark idea for a frequently frothy comedy, and the fact that Friends is unafraid to go there with this idea is why I love this episode most of all.