A Brief History…
I first became aware of Friends on a Friday night in the summer of 1996. I was at a friends’ house playing Mortal Kombat 2 on the Sega Mega Drive when he abruptly turned it off and flipped the TV over to Channel 4 to watch his new favourite show; a sitcom about a group of chums from New York. I begrudgingly agreed even though I had never heard of it. The episode was “The One with Phoebe’s Husband” (Season 2, episode 4) and I vividly remember the opening of Rachael being terrified from the bird that flew into her and Monica’s apartment. We laughed at the scene before paying little attention to the rest of the episode because we were talking at length about how much we really fancied Jennifer Aniston.
But as the episode began I remember thinking, “oh, it’s this show”. I remember watching an episode, “The One With The Dozen Lasagnas” (Season 1, episode 12), at some point in the year before this with my mum. My sole memory of watching that episode at the time was Joey and Chandler buying the football table and being destroyed by Monica. This also lead to my mum (clearly mistakenly) explaining to me that Joey and Chandler lived together and were gay lovers.
By Season 3 I was an avid viewer and from this point on, Friends would dominate Friday nights for the foreseeable future; for myself and the millions of viewers in the UK. It was a staple of Channel 4’s Friday night programming and easily their most popular show of the 9pm slot when it was in season. Amazingly, Friends has been in a constant state of rotation on British television ever since, from repeats on Channel 4, moving to their sister station E4 then having the rights bought over by Comedy Central UK in 2011.
On Comedy Central it remains a ratings winner and, between their two main and “plus one” channels, there aren’t many moments during the day when an episode of Friends won’t be playing. For the past two years they have also promoted FriendsFest, a themed event in London where fans can visit the sets and meet some of the (minor) stars. What is noticeable is the amount of young people who attended the most recent event, and it isn’t uncommon to pass young people on the street rocking a Central Perk t-shirt. Twenty-two years after it first appeared on screen Friends still attracts new viewers.
When pitching Friends, the creative team of David Crane, Marta Kauffman, and Kevin Bright stated the intentions of the series as, “It’s about sex, love, relationships, careers; a time in your life when everything’s possible. And it’s about friendship because when you are single and in the city, your friends are your family.” It is through these timeless universal themes that the series continues to appeal to younger generations. It presents young people with situations that they can relate to, and maybe even aspire to be like. Idyllic as that may sound, but who really wouldn’t want to hang around with their friends all the time or live under the same roof as their best friend?
Now seems like a good time to go back to the start. Go back and see why Friends still holds up after all this time. Or, more realistically, “The One Where Paul Tries to Watch Every Episode of Friends Again and Not Go Crazy”.
The Pilot (Season 1, Episode 1)
The Opening: Being the pilot there is no usual pre-credits cold opening; instead this episode launches straight into what would become the very familiar intro sequence of the gang of six dancing in a fountain to the strains of The Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There for You.” Even if you have never seen a single episode of Friends, if you were anywhere in the 1990s then you’ll have heard this song.
The whole intro begins with the six characters individually appearing on a couch in front of the fountain. Somehow, after all this time, it is only now that I have realised that it is the same couch that they always sit on in Central Perk!
This remains a great intro sequence which through the dancing to the song, and giving each character their moment, already gives a clear impression of the basic traits of the characters – such as Phoebe is ditzy, Joey is cool, Chandler is awkward, Ross is reserved, etc.
And despite it being played to death, we all love that Rembrandts’ song! (I had it on cassette. Don’t care how much that ages me.)
Episode Summary: The episode, and therefore the full series, begins with an establishing shot of New York before taking us down into the more intimate space of Central Perk, the coffee shop which would be one of the main locations for the full series. Inside Central Perk are four people sitting on a couch. They would turn out to be Monica (Courtney Cox), Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), Chandler (Matthew Perry), and Joey (Matt Le Blanc). They are soon joined by Monica’s brother Ross (David Schwimmer).
From the outset the characters are clearly established with the traits that will follow them throughout the series; Chandler is the funny, awkward one who clearly using his humour for attention; Joey is the cool, confident one; Phoebe is the weird, ditzy one; while Monica is the most straight laced and down to earth one and essentially comes across as the leader here. They are soon joined by Ross (David Schwimmer) who is the whiny, depressed one who has recently been divorced by his wife who turned out to be gay.
The incident that begins the whole proceedings of the series is the arrival of Rachel (Jennifer Aniston). Arriving in her wedding dress, she’s the spoiled one who has run out on her wedding and comes to seek refuge with Monica. Through these early exchanges it is established that Rachel is “another Lincoln High survivor”, an old school mate of Monica’s, and by introducing her to the group also gives us the first indication that Monica and Ross are brother and sister.
From here the episode has three main storylines going through it. The first centres on Rachel and her integration into the group. Rachel and Monica were old school friends who had grown apart and Rachel searches for Monica as she lived nearby (and appropriately not invited to the wedding). She decides she cannot marry her fiancé Barry Finkle (I’m sure his name will change in a later episode) as he reminds her of Mr. Potato Head and makes love with his socks on, which seems entirely reasonable. In a phone conversation with her father we find that Rachel lives off her dad’s money and he threatens to take this away from her. Rachel instead threatens that she will “just stay here with Monica”. And it is through this one throwaway line that she ends up staying there for over six years. The group encourages/forces Rachel to cut up her credit cards – which are paid for by her father – and she heads out to get her first job. She is qualified for nothing and can’t make coffee so she naturally ends up as a waitress at Central Perk.
Rachel’s story links directly with Ross’. His wife has recently left him after realising she was gay and he now must rebuild his life – and furniture – as she has taken it all with her. He confesses to Rachel that in high school he had a crush on her. She knew. He thought she just thought he was Monica’s geeky older brother. She did. And so begins the saga of Ross and Rachel.
The third and most prominent storyline is that of Monica’s date with Paul the Wine Guy, who works with Monica in a restaurant. During their date Paul tells Monica about his ex (a big mistake for a first date, so I’m told) and how she cheated on him with her dentist. In an act of revenge he broke her watch. He also confides he hasn’t been able to “perform sexually” in two years since his ex left him. Monica puts an end to his dry spell and is very giggly about her supposed new relationship. When telling another woman who works at the restaurant that she slept with Paul, she tells Monica that she takes credit for Paul after ending his dry spell of two years. Monica is shocked to learn that she was duped into bed. The guys aren’t. Monica breaks Paul’s watch in revenge.
Meanwhile, we learn that Chandler works in something to do with numbers, Joey is attempting to be an actor and they are flatmates who live across the hall from Monica. Phoebe works in aromatherapy and when she was young her mother killed herself and her stepfather was sent to prison. It seems a lot funnier when she says it.
Final Scene: Bookending the episode with another visit to Central Park, the gang are all there and Rachel is suddenly working there. They accept coffee when she tells them she hasn’t made it. Chandler gets the last words in by describing a dream he had; “I’m in Las Vegas. I’m Liza Minelli…” Well the episode had to end somewhere.
Best Friend: Monica. From the outset she feels like the main character and the crux that holds this group together. At this point she is the antithesis of Rachel in that she is the independent woman who lives by herself in the city, and her moment of revenge on Paul the Wine Guy’s watch is a great zinger to end the episode on.
With Friends Like These (Worst Friend): Chandler, Joey, and Phoebe don’t have much plot around them for this first episode, but Chandler’s main job here was to seemingly just make fun of his friends.
Best Line: Monica: “This is not a date, it’s just two people going out to dinner and not having sex.”
Chandler: “Sounds like a date to me.”
How You Doin? (Love Interest of the Week): This was originally going to be focused on the sexual exploits of Joey, but he let me down in this first episode. In the uncut DVD version of the episode he does say to Chandler and Ross that he is away on a date with one of three women that he’s confused: Andrea, Angela, and Julia. Chandler and Joey make reference that Andrea is a “screamer.” I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here.
Instead it’s Monica who has the first sexual experience on the show as her first date with Paul the Wine Guy escalates quickly.
Google It Kids (Dated Reference of the Week): Oh, there’s plenty this week:
There are so many 90s fashion and hair disasters here from all the cast here, but Joey’s mopped hair, leather waistcoat and sleeveless shirt are phenomenal standouts.
Rachel: “See, but Joanie loved Chachi.” – She’s watching Happy Days. The last episode aired 10 years before Friends premiered.
Ross: “Do you know how long it’s been since I grabbed a spoon? Do the words “Billy, don’t be a hero” mean anything to you?” – Even I had to Google this one. “Billy Don’t Be a Hero’’ is a song by Paper Lace from 1974, exaggerating how long it’s been since he’s been dating.
Paul the Wine Guy: “Last night was like all my birthdays, both my graduations, plus the barn raising scene in Witness.” – Witness, Harrison Ford movie from 1985.
Chandler: “Ok, new dream: I’m in Las Vegas, I’m Liza Minelli.” – Liza Minelli, famous for Cabaret (1972), popped up in Arrested Development, but could well have been a dated reference in the 90s.
Visits to Central Perk: Two: the whole thing begins right there in Central Perk with each character introduced in the first three scenes, setting up that this would be one of the main bases of the show. The episode ends with the gang back there with Rachel starting her job as a waitress.
Many shows have tried to have a main base for the characters but few have resulted in one that felt like a character in the show quite like Central Perk.
Final Thoughts: It may not be the most memorable of episodes compared to what would come over the next 10 years, but this is a strong start to a show that clearly established its characters and rules from the outset. It would give us discussions about sex and relationships, would have one of the main characters tricked into bed by a sleazeball, while another having his heart broken by a lesbian. These storylines may seem quite tame compared to some sitcoms nowadays (after Two and a Half Men everything seems a bit tame). But at the time it did feel like they were breaking taboos and showing relationships for a new generation. It’s of little surprise that new generations keep returning to this show.
This episode also essentially set up the main storyline for the rest of the series, Ross and Rachel, a storyline which drew so many people to the series that almost every major sitcom to come since has had their Ross and Rachel storyline.