Returning to Friends, as the cliché goes, is like visiting an old friend. It's also very much a step back in time; to our own history as much as television history.
Friends - The Complete Series CollectionDistributor: Warner Home Video
Cast: Courteney Cox, Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, David Schwimmer, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc
First date: 1994
US Release Date: 2006-11-14
Last date: 2004
Ross: Oh, man! I can't believe she's actually leaving. How am I gonna say goodbye to Rachel?
Chandler: I know. She's been such a big part of my life. It feels like when Melrose Place got cancelled.
-- "The One With Rachel's Going Away Party", Season 10
It's shocking to think that Friends has only been out of our lives for a little over two years. It feels like forever ago the show was a must-see weekly ritual, one that remained a consistent and true (for the most part) reflector of pre- and post-millennial 20-something friendships. Creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman hold the belief that the friends we have in our 20s are our families for that period, between the families we're born into and those we go on to create ourselves. Our friends love us, hate us, respect, and betray us, but whatever the ups and downs, their influence is lasting. Friends brought this theory to life. Crane notes in the commentary for the show's pilot, "We wanted to do a show about that time when you've left home, you've left college, you don't know what you're doing but you have these friends around you [who] make it all alright." Kauffman adds: "Their choices are all still in front of them." That's the show in a nutshell. It's about the causes and effects of choices, and reveling in the support of others around us experiencing the same tumult.
That Friends was the first sitcom to build foundations outside an office building or family home, became a major cultural phenomenon, made famous its stars, and even divided viewers in terms of its appeal and accuracy, is well known and well debated. As for the fates of its characters and stars, that, too, is part of television and celebrity folklore. What perhaps isn't so well documented is how well the series works as a complete product, a 236-part whole. By the time it reached those 10 seasons, the ups and downs of its actors (their love lives, failed movie careers, drug additions, etc) had all but overshadowed the show itself. When the show closed, it was the "end of an era" and "an historical TV moment" and "will it out-rate Cheers"? Largely forgotten was how perfect the ending of Friends was, how its double-episode climax paid tribute to its characters and rewarded their varied struggles. It was more than a phenomenon; it was a smart, classy show.
Viewed in a 10-season block, Friends becomes about much more than catchphrases and cute characters. It's a document of a time in terms of its people, setting, and style, in such a way as to have become a touchstone, a telescope into a period in the same way, perhaps, that cast and concept shake-ups on Sesame Street become era defining for its audience. (The years we watched were the best because they best defined our pre-pubescence.) Friends, too, is a sign of our times, with its depiction of Gen X sensibilities and the 20-something adolescent. Nothing is ever easy, or at least sitcom-easy. Kauffman and Crane stick to their original motivations to evolve and shift the series by taking advantage of those moments when characters find themselves in the best possible positions of imminent change. In doing that, the show sometimes stretched plot lines over multiple episodes: Joey's disappointment in Chandler over the Kathy (Paget Brewster) affair resolves itself after four episodes in Season Four, while Monica and Chandler's relationship is kept secret while the couple works itself out as something viable for 14 episodes in Season Five. In the end, these friends take 10 years to seal their fates, and it's only because of the time investing in them that their conclusions in the finale are so effective.
Direct testament to the Friends ethos of decade-long deliberation on our most serious life choices comes with Ross's failed marriage in the very first episode. Hasty decision-making didn't work out -- it takes three divorces by series end for Ross to understand that. Rachel, too, evolves from a 24-year-old runaway bride in Season One to a successful woman at 34 who still gets it wrong until the final moment, choosing Ross and love over Paris and career. And it's because of that time spent getting to know who these people are and what they want and witnessing these judgment errors (and relating to them) that the show is what it is.
Kauffman and Crane are right during the finale commentary, when they talk about how fitting are the characters' final arcs; that Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) get together, that Monica (Courteney Cox Arquette) and Chandler (Matthew Perry) build their lives together as suburban parents, that Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) and her new husband Mike (Paul Rudd) discuss babies and their unconventional (read: kooky) married life, that Joey (Matt Le Blanc) head off to LA to pursue his career.
Friends, when viewed as a whole, reveals itself a clever illustrator of contemporary ideals. As the characters mature, they, too, begin to realize that the hard work they put into making themselves into viable adults will pay off. It's one of the reasons why, when Ross finally says "this is it" to Rachel in the finale, we can forget how quickly his earlier, similar declarations went belly up. These aren't the same people who follied and fumbled before. Inklings of these changes to come occur in the middle section of the show, too, with, consciously or not, the writers developing the Chandler / Monica relationship over 20-odd episodes, giving the pair more scenes together with better, deeper conversation so that their coupling at the end of the fourth season feels absolutely right and not some kind of Dave-and-Maddie ratings-fuelled sizzle injection. It's one of the few mid-term romantic pairings of popular TV show leads that worked, and even enhanced the show. While we watched the singletons pull it together, we also saw (and, again, related to) a couple doing the very same thing.
David Crane sums up the show's success in terms of its storytelling development during the pilot commentary: "I'm proud of the fact that we created a show that could grow, that wasn't limited by the parameters we'd laid down, but in fact there were opportunities for characters to get deeper and richer and more interesting. It hasn't grown into 'episode 14 is a lot like episode 28', the characters have gone places and evolved."
The brand new gift set release of all 10 seasons presents another opportunity to witness that evolution. The show is split onto 40 discs in six flipbook packs with an accompanying episode guide listing the episodes and corresponding discs. It's mildly complicating to reference the book any time you want to view a specific episode -- if you want to see the apartment swap, for instance, but don't know the episode title, you'll have to find it in the book by reading the episode synopses, dig out disc 14, which is in the second flip-pack, buzz through to the sixth episode which is "The One with the Embryos", which is actually episode 85 as stated in the book, and off you go. (If you want to just skip to the scenes where apartments are actually swapped, too bad, because, annoyingly, there are no chapter stops.) Still, once you get the hang of it, it's not so hard to work out.
Much of the supplemental content is worth hunting around for, too. The selected commentaries are hugely informative and appear only on key episodes including the opening and closing episodes, "The One with Ross's Wedding" when Ross says the wrong name at the altar, "The One with Chandler in a Box" that finds Joey and Chandler at odds for the first time, and others that allow Kauffman and Crane and producer Kevin S. Bright to discuss character and plot development for each of the friends at crucial points in their development. The featurettes dig behind the scenes of the show. The "Friends of Friends" segments contain interviews with show guests and regulars like Debra Jo Rupp who played Phoebe's sister in law, Alice, and June Gable who played Joey's crusty agent, Estelle. There's the hour-long Discovery Channel making-of documentary, the On Location in London special, and that great final documentary in which the cast and crew reflect. That last one is a total tearjerker, apparently filmed during finale, so everyone is a sniffle away from bawling his or her eyes out. There are also stacks of goofy stuff here like a DVD version of "Bamboozled", the game show Joey auditions to host in one episode. There are trivia quizzes and Friends funniest moments packages. And there are some of the funniest (and longest) gag reels ever collected on a TV DVD set. Somehow it's in watching these actors mess up and make each other laugh during takes that their chemistry and obvious professional respect is cemented. They read each other extremely well, and know the exact comedy buttons to push to lighten moments, help each other out, or just be silly like actual, perceptive friends.
And just like the whole Rachel and Joey storyline, which proved out of character for the show, the set has a major flaw: as elegant and well constructed as it appears, Friends: The Complete Series Gift Box turns out not to be, as stated on the packaging, "all of [our] friends, all in one place". The set, and perhaps it's just mine as I'm yet to find this complaint in any other review, has a tendency to chop off episodes during closing credits, thus callously denying us some of the best closing gags. For instance: in the "The One With Ross's Wedding", before the gang heads to London to witness Ross's ill-fated nuptials to "British chippie" Emily (Helen Baxendale), Chandler and Joey ponder just how to view London's sights without leaving their hotel. Jokes abound about museum videotapes, etc, until Chandler suggests the guys just forget about sightseeing all together and rent their favorite movie, Die Hard, instead. "Ohh," Joey says, eyes wide, "I bet the British version is gooood!" What we get is: "I bet the B--" and snap back to the menu.
Of the roughly 250 episodes I watched prior to this review, at least five did this. It's hardly good enough when charging nearly $300 for what is supposed to be the must-have, definitive release. Until that glitch is ironed out, the individual season set releases or a second hand copy of the limited "One with All 10 Seasons" box might be better use of your Friends money.
Even so, returning to Friends, incomplete or not, is, as the cliché goes, like visiting an old friend. It's also very much a step back in time, to our own history as much as television history. The imitations keep on coming (and appear to get progressively worse -- I'd even consider traveling back in time to erase Friends from popular culture completely if it means How I Met Your Mother never reaches development stage), but the real thing persists, as a landmark, a document, and an icon. Could it be any more perfect?