Friends Season 1: Returning to Central Perk 25 Years Later

Approximately every three seconds, someone turns on an episode of Friends. But where did it all begin?

friends

Few sitcoms have achieved the same level of success as Friends, and few television shows have received such enduring popularity. While it only ever won a small percentage of the awards that it was nominated for (it regularly lost to fellow 1990s sitcom Frasier), it did very well in the ratings and gained an enormous fanbase worldwide, so much so that by Season 9 its primary cast were each earning $1 million per episode. Fifteen years after the finale aired, repeats continue to air daily on television, and it’s one of Netflix’s most streamed shows. Friends also gave its six young leads their big breaks (particularly Jennifer Aniston, who was one of Hollywood’s highest paid actresses during the 2000s), yet it came from relatively humble origins.

Creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman began to work on this sitcom about six 20-somethings living in New York in late 1993, under the working title of Insomnia Cafe and, after pitching it to NBC, had to make a number of rewrites and changes, leading to them settling on the title Friends (after also trying Six of One and Friends Like Us). Furthermore, Crane and Kauffman had to deal with studio interference, as NBC wanted them to include an older main character to make the cast feel more balanced, although the studio eventually relented after a terrible character called “Pat the Cop” was created. Commissioned for a 24-episode first season, Friends premiered on September 22, 1994 with the episode The Pilot – now often referred to as The First One, or The One Where It All Began.

The titular Friends are six 20-somethings living in Greenwich Village, New York, who face the ups and downs of life together, often discussing the latest developments in nearby coffee shop Central Perk. In one apartment is Monica Geller (Courtney Cox), a chef and the group’s mother hen, and her roommate and old school friend Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston), who is trying to be independent for the first time, having jilted her fiance and reluctantly agreed to stop living off her parents’ wealth. In the apartment opposite are Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry), an office worker who seems to have a witty riposte for everything, and his roommate Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc), a womaniser and struggling actor. Rounding out the group are Monica’s older brother Ross (David Schwimmer), a recently divorced paleontologist, and her former roommate Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow), a quirky masseuse and musician.

While neither the style nor the concept of the show are original, The Pilot does succeed in establishing the personalities of the friends, and also aspects of their dynamic. In the first scene Rachel joins the friends in Central Perk after fleeing her wedding, and it becomes clear that she will fit in with them, as they quickly try to get to know her, while old school friend Monica takes her in, which juxtaposes Rachel’s spoiled and dependent nature with Monica’s status as the group’s mother hen. Furthermore, it becomes clear that Ross still harbours some romantic feelings for Rachel which he had had since high school, which serves as the first indication towards Friends’ longest-running storyline – Rachel and Ross’s will they/won’t they relationship.

This, coupled with Ross’s upset over his recent divorce, emphasises that he is quite a sensitive chap who just wants to be loved, while the fact that Chandler even pauses from his wisecracks to try to offer emotional support shows that, despite being the group’s comedian, he can be mature and sensitive to his friends’ needs. Joey’s immaturity and insensitivity to others is established in the opening scene when he overlooks Ross’s obvious upset, saying quite uncouthly “This guy says ‘hello’, I wanna kill myself”. He also shows his womanising tendencies by hitting on Rachel, and later by trying to cheer up Ross by saying that there are “lots of flavours out there”…a unique variation on “plenty more fish in the sea.” As for Phoebe, her status as the group’s oddball is also made apparent in the first scene, when Ross tells her that he does not want his aura cleansed.

While Friends has enjoyed overwhelming success, in its first season it got off to a bit of a shaky start, with early episodes in particular receiving mixed reviews (despite The Pilot’s success in establishing the central characters and dynamic), and some critics comparing it unfavourably to Seinfeld. It is easy to see why early reviews were mixed when you look at the first half-dozen episodes, as they deal with some pretty serious subject matters and the laughs resultantly are less frequent that they are later on in the season.

A lot of the screenwriting focuses on Ross’s struggles to move on from ex-wife Carol (Jane Sibbett), who left him for her friend Susan (Jessica Hecht), while also trying to come to terms with the fact that he is going to be a father, after Carol learns she is pregnant only days after the divorce. While this brings added depth and humanity to the character, the fact that Ross’s ongoing emotional struggles take centre-stage in several episodes does make the show feel more like a soap opera than a sitcom at times. However, it does also emphasise his sensitive side, and as such is an example of a sitcom bringing a greater degree of sincerity to a principal character.

Rachel is also a source for drama in some of these early episodes, as she adjusts to independent life and the shock of learning that her ex-fiance Barry (Mitchell Whitfield) has already moved on. While her adjustment to independent life is central to a number of gags, however, there is a lack of creativity to them. Her amazement in Episode 1 that the rest of the group have jobs may raise a chuckle, but with hindsight it was a poorly realised gag, as we later learn in Episode 4 (The One with George Stephanopoulos) that some of her closest friends through Barry had jobs. And in Episode 5 (The One with the East German Laundry Detergent) she accidentally dyes all of her white clothes pink when she fails to pick a red sock out of her laundry basket while doing her own laundry for the first time, a gag which feels both predictable and lazy.

Episode 7 (The One with the Blackout), however, is the point where Friends really found its voice and stepped into its own stride. When a blackout happens, Chandler ends up stuck in an ATM vestibule with model Jill Goodacre, while the rest of the group hang out in Monica and Rachel’s apartment, just trying to pass the time until the power comes back on. This was the first episode in which an ongoing storyline such as Rachel’s efforts to become independent or the fallout from Ross’s divorce do not take centre-stage, instead the episode focuses on the dynamic between the group as they just spend time together. It is in this dynamic where the heart of Friends and the strengths of the screenwriting would be found most for the duration of the show’s run.

Even without Chandler being there with them, his place in the dynamic works well, as he phones the group from the vestibule, makes some of his usual sarcastic remarks, and the strength of his bromance with Joey is emphasised through their hidden code. Furthermore, this episode was the point where Rachel and Ross’s relationship really became a will they/won’t they storyline, after Rachel gets together with neighbour Paolo (Cosimo Fusco) just when Ross is about to confess his feelings to her, after weeks of viewers simply playing the waiting game to see when Ross was ready to do so.

The fact that Friends is most consistently funny when the jokes centre on the group’s dynamic comes down to two things – the fact that the screenwriting boasts a deft blend of realism and humour, and the natural chemistry of the principal cast. The former is found in the fact that many of their scenes together have a real slice-of-life feeling to them, as they hang out in Monica’s apartment or on their favourite sofa in Central Perk. They reminisce about the past, discuss what is happening presently in their day-to-day lives and often go off on quite random tangents, in a way which feels real as these are things which friendship groups tend to do together. Yet there is a witty edge to it all, which stems from factors such as Phoebe’s quirkiness, the little digs that Monica and Ross make to each other, from a place of love which only siblings can get away with, and most of all from Chandler’s witty ripostes. Chandler has one for almost every situation (although he does recognise when an issue is too sensitive to be poked fun at), and they are made all the more amusing by Matthew Perry’s note-perfect comic timing and wonderfully dry delivery.

The cast all have a natural chemistry with each other, and the fact that the characters care deeply for each other comes through in their performances, particularly in the warmth of Chandler and Joey’s bromance, and Phoebe’s sincere wishes to see all of her friends happy. Ultimately this natural chemistry that the principal cast share reflects the fact that in real life they all became fast friends with each other upon meeting for the first time, and came to think of each other as family during the show’s run. As well as a principal cast with great chemistry, when you stop and think about the premise it is clear why Friends has had such enduring appeal. The show offers an aspirational depiction of young professional life – only on television could you easily afford to rent nice, spacious apartments in an expensive New York neighbourhood, seemingly pick and choose when you go to work (though in fairness, the friends are shown to be at work more in this season than most subsequent ones), and always find your favourite sofa in the coffee shop free. It is an almost dreamlike existence, the appeal of which transcends generations of viewers.

While the time that the group spend enjoying everyday life together provides the most consistently amusing source of humour in Season 1, there are nevertheless some gags which the screenwriters would have far more difficulty executing now, a quarter-century later. In The Pilot, Ross comments that he should have suspected that ex-wife Carol was a lesbian from her drinking beer out of the can, while in Episode 8 (The One Where Nana Dies Twice) Chandler gets visibly annoyed and frustrated when he learns that some of his co-workers think that he is gay, which results in ribbing from his friends.

Jokes which stereotype the LGBTQ+ community, in particular those that suggest that there is something wrong with being gay, could not be made today without causing considerable controversy, not least because society is now far more accepting of the LGBTQ+ community. Furthermore, there are even some gags in the scene where Phoebe tells the group that Paolo sexually harassed her in Episode 12 (The One with the Dozen Lasagnas). Particularly with the #MeToo movement, there is no way that any television show (including a comedy) could have lighthearted moments in a scene which deals with such a sensitive and serious issue, were this a modern day show.

Season 1 did not just start off the long-running storyline of Ross and Rachel’s will they/won’t they relationship, but also a bittersweet recurring storyline where Phoebe has an on/off relationship with physicist David. This storyline is made as endearing as it thanks Lisa Kudrow’s chemistry with recurring guest star Hank Azaria, who captures the nerdy, socially-awkward scientist type to a tee. Season 1 also establishes several long-running gags which would span multiple seasons. The first example is the group’s observation through Monica’s window of the life of a man in an apartment in the opposite building, whom they refer to as “Ugly Naked Guy”. While “Ugly Naked Guy” is an unseen character, and we do not always know exactly what the group are watching him do, the strength of this running gag is found in their expressions as they react to what they see, which is enough to infer what is happening in the opposite apartment.

The other example is Chandler’s on-off relationship with Janice (Maggie Wheeler), a woman whose nasally voice, machine gun laugh and thick New York accent are so irritating that he always wants to break up with her, while simultaneously not wanting to hurt her feelings. It is a tricky situation for Chandler, who shows his sensitive side in these moments, and Matthew Perry plays the character’s awkwardness so well that we instinctively laugh at just how awkward and absurd the situation is. This running gag is strengthened further by the expressions of the titular friends whenever any of them re-encounter Janice every few episodes, the cast members being brilliantly expressive with a mixture of surprise, shock and dread in their faces.

Revisiting Friends Season 1 today, however, we see first and foremost a media work that is recognisably a product of the 1990s. It is not just in the fact that, tonally, Friends feels as much a product of the era as its sibling sitcoms Frasier, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Seinfeld, but it is in the titular friends’ tastes in clothes and haircuts. Rachel and Monica have hairstyles which are very ’90s, while Chandler sports a similar haircut to film star Hugh Grant. Furthermore, Chandler, Joey and Ross all wear quite baggy clothing, a definite fashion trend from the era that would look far more out of place today.

Ultimately though, nothing is as obviously ’90s as the opening. The cast all bring a lot of energy to the sequence where they dance together in a fountain, which feels as ’90s as it does due to the fact that it has a wonderfully cheesy quality that is fitting for the era’s pop culture. However, what has transcended the past 25 years the most is the accompanying theme song (“I’ll Be There for You”), which is very catchy and establishes from the outset that this is a show about close bonds, and assures us that the group will remain together, no matter what challenges they face.

 

Best Dramatic Moment

While good humour is key to a sitcom’s success, a good sitcom needs to be able to deliver dramatic moments well in order to increase the show’s sense of authenticity and to make the characters feel more human. In Episode 2 (The One with the Sonogram at the End) Ross who is already struggling to know where he will fit in the life of his child (who is going to be raised by a same-sex couple), attends Carol’s first baby scan and is devastated when he learns that Carol and Susan have already made plans for the unborn child and do not even intend to give the baby his surname.

It is heartbreaking to watch Ross be kicked when he was already down and come to realise that the situation is too much for him to handle. However, as Ross prepares to leave, he hears his baby’s heartbeat for the first time, and in that moment he and Susan stop their bickering, with Ross coming to realise just how important this child is to him. A heartbreaking scene becomes heartwarming, as we realise that there is hope for the future of Ross’s relationship with his baby, and (despite their differences) he, Susan and Carol may just find a way to make it work.

 

Best Slapstick Gag

While slapstick is a staple of cartoons, it is not so frequently used in live-action sitcoms due to the physical limitations. However, all sitcoms will feature the occasional slapstick gag, and there are a few here and there in Friends Season 1, with the best one interestingly being the most simple one. In Episode 23 (The One with the Birth), Ross, Phoebe and Susan end up stuck in a janitor’s closet at the hospital, after Phoebe tries to make Ross and Susan stop bickering.

Desperate not to miss the birth of his son, Ross prepares to charge at the door to break it open, but when backing up for the charge he gets his foot stuck in a bucket and falls backwards. It is a very simple gag, but what makes it so amusing is that it subverts our expectations. In the works of Charlie Chaplin, or a sitcom like Fawlty Towers, Ross would have charged at the door, only for somebody to open it from the other side and for Ross to continue charging forwards and crash into the far wall. That is what you expect to happen in this moment, and as such the actual slapstick gag is one which we do not see coming.

 

Best Episode


While Episode 7 is the one where Friends came into its own, the best in Season 1 is Episode 14 (The One with the Candy Hearts). Despite this season’s Thanksgiving and Christmas specials kickstarting a tradition for the show, it is the Valentine’s Day special which makes for the best episode, due to its deft blend of comedy and drama. Phoebe, Rachel and Monica burning mementos of their past boyfriends, only for the fire to get out of control and the fire brigade to come round proves very amusing, not least when the firefighters dryly comment on the number of fires which get out of control every Valentine’s Day for that very reason.

However, the highlight has to be when Chandler and Joey realise that the latter has accidentally set the former up on a blind date with Janice. Matthew Perry’s shocked expression as it suddenly dawns on the pair what has happened is absolutely hilarious, though not so much so as when Chandler and Janice later decide to rack up a huge restaurant bill on Joey’s credit card in revenge. The episode also has a lot of heart, as Ross’s date goes awry and he ends up spending the evening in a restaurant with ex-wife Carol. As the pair talk it becomes increasingly clear that they still care for each other, and Ross shows maturity and sensitivity as it becomes clear that he has still not moved on after their divorce, which emphasises his humanity and the fact that he ultimately has a heart of gold.

 

Verdict

Given that it is one of the most beloved television shows of all time, it is kind of crazy to think that Friends actually got off to a bit of a shaky start, with the first few episodes struggling to find their feet. Once Friends found its voice in Episode 7, however, Season 1 became far more consistently funny, thanks to a greater focus on the dynamic between the friends than the ongoing storylines which each focused on one individual. Offering a depiction of young professional life which we can really only dream about, the enduring appeal of Friends ultimately comes down to the dynamic between the characters, which feels real due to a deft blend of clever screenwriting and a principal cast who have a natural chemistry with each other.

As such, it is no surprise that NBC would continue greenlighting it for a further nine seasons, and that it garnered an enormous fanbase which has only grown in the 15 years since the finale aired in May 2004. Friends’ lasting impact on pop culture, however, is probably testified to best by the fact that How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014) is often referred to as “Friends for Millennials”.

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