TV TV Never Sleeps

The Pilot Episode of Friends is Far from Perfect, but Full of Charm

The One Where Monica Gets a Roommate

Need I introduce Friends? I’d be hard-pressed to find a person over the age of eight who hasn’t passed along an episode of the show at some point in their lives – especially considering it’s still in heavy syndication on networks like TBS and Nickelodeon. But I’ve always found Friends a fascinating case of a show that managed to stay on TV for over 200 episodes, while never really being a great show (save for a handful of episodes) – and in fact, being surprisingly mediocre for most of it. There aren’t any seasons that begin to approach the brilliance of Cheers‘ first season or Seinfeld at its best (I’d even argue that Frasier was a better show than Friends in the long run), but somehow, it’s a show that remains in the collective minds of almost any TV viewer as an all-time great.

Going back and watching the Friends pilot from the fall of 1994 is an interesting experience – even for myself, someone’s who watched through the entire series at least a half-dozen times. One of the more difficult tasks of ensemble comedies – especially multi-camera shows filmed in front of live audiences – is to find the right balance of personalities among a large cast. Most struggle doing it with two to four, and Friends took on the daunting task of featuring six main cast members, with a concerted effort to keep all six of them equally involved in storylines.

Needless to say, this makes chemistry in the pilot very important, and that’s where Friends nails it in the first half-hour in ways the majority of comedy pilots don’t even sniff at. That camaraderie is one of the things that would define the show throughout its series, and in the pilot, it gives this version of New York a familiar and lived-in kind of feel. Part of this comes from the great weaving of mythology into the various plots – one of many strong parts of the show the writers would eventually beat over the head until it was a bloody mess in later years – which gives every member of the Central Perk Six established relationships to lean on. It makes the obligatory character exposition feel a lot less overt, much more confident and relaxed than one would expect from a pilot, where writers aren’t trying to define characters as much as sell them as marketable to network executives.

Ross is arguably the most fully-rounded character on the pilot, a man whose dealing with some of the biggest blows a young adult can take to their self-confidence. His wife’s left him to move in with her lesbian lover, and the biggest, most unfulfilled crush of his life is now best friends again with his sister – hardly the situation a vulnerable, nerdy paleontologist wants to be in. Unfortunately, it’s nearly undermined by David Schwimmer’s performance: his stage background shows a little too much on camera, and his grandiose gestures and character tics undermine some of the more mature emotional beats his character has in the pilot (there’s a bunch of them). To Schwimmer’s credit, it’s tough material to do with a pilot when an actor hasn’t had a lot of time to invest in the character – but the writing of his scenes are so good, some of his physical pandering for the sake of humor undermines it a bit.

As the other tentpole of the show’s central story, Rachel’s character is an interesting – and contradictory – little bit of 90’s feminism. The pilot is really Rachel grabbing a hold of her independence, cutting the cords (and credit cards) from the two men in her life: her father and her fiancee (while unknowingly, a new one steps in to take her place). It marks the beginning of her transformation into a self-respecting, independent woman – something that oddly takes until after she breaks up with Ross to become, but that’s a conversation for another day. Thankfully, the pilot finds enough balance between “funny” ditzy Rachel and this newborn Rachel, one who is trying to take control of her life, instead of having it be dictated for her. The reward for this? A waitressing job at a coffee shop – a lovely little bit of misery that remains my favorite bit of the pilot to this day.

Smartly, the writers counter Rachel’s super-emotional tendencies in the pilot with their other important female character: Monica’s plot reveals her to be much less of an emotional roller coaster than most mid-20s single women were portrayed in the early 1990s when it came to sexual relationships (as she dates a man who lies to her about not sleeping with anyone for years, just to bang her and dump her). It also established Monica as the most level-headed character of the group, something the writers would begin to quickly unravel throughout the first season. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that she’s Ross’s brother: their sibling dynamic always proved for some entertaining moments (plus it gives us their father Jack Gellar, always a welcome presence on the show).

It’s funny to think now how much NBC was uncomfortable with the Monica plot, going so far as to hand out questionnaires to test audiences to see if they thought Monica was slutty. In the original script (which had the awful title of Insomnia Cafe) she didn’t really ever care about Paul, and that small concession was made to the script, which I don’t think really affected the storyline at all (it actually makes it more believable); I just find the dated reaction to her behavior to be hilarious, considering the landscape of females in network sitcoms today.

Not all the characters were so lucky to get great introductions: Joey and Phoebe’s first appearances are anything but original, and they barely register a meaningful on-screen presence at any point. Joey is a goofy womanizer who just wants to wear leather and fuck chicks, and Phoebe a hippie who plays her guitar in the subway (in a deleted scene), just a pigtail rocking vapid bohemian type with a depressing family story. Their two characters are the most frustrating in the pilot and really, throughout the series: although the writers would never short-sell them on endearing tendencies, I don’t feel like the show ever really found their characters, save for a few choices moments in seasons three and four (arguably the show’s best, save for the Ross/Rachel material in the fourth season).

Of course, that leaves us with good old Chandler Bing – the most misrepresented character in the pilot. There’s a delicate balance of Chandlerism that Friends hadn’t quite figured out by the time the pilot was written: finding the balance between constant Chandler snark and an actual, emotional human being was something the show was always struggling with, and in ‘The Pilot’, boy, does it make him an unlikeable presence. Sure he’s funny, but it’s a desperate funny in a way that doesn’t become redeemable until his past is explained in greater detail as the first season progresses; here, he’s kind of a dick (and a badly dressed one at that). Add to it that he doesn’t really have much to do (Ross’s big bromance moment comes from his ice cream conversation with Joey), and although Chandler would be one of the strongest characters in the early seasons, he’s oddly floating in the wind as the show establishes its more emotionally appealing side. Would it be a mistake to focus on the most damaged person in the pilot? Probably – and in that context, it makes more sense why Chandler’s not much more than a string of sarcastic remarks here.

But where Friends struggles with character, it gets it right is how it establishes its interpersonal relationships, presenting us with a group of archetypal characters played by an energetic, youthful, and – most importantly – photogenic cast, letting the chemistry of both carry the weight the predictable story arcs of the pilot quite couldn’t. Friends was exactly what its title suggested – a show about people hanging out – and at that, ‘The Pilot’ does a pretty damn good job of it.

Other thoughts/observations:

– Joey wears so much leather in the pilot, it’s not even funny.

– there’s a great little running gag of Chandler trying to interpret his dreams in the opening and closing scenes of the episode, a moment that almost feels like a tease of its long-time Thursday night companion Frasier.

– In reality, the first episode of Friends doesn’t do much but present itself as a Seinfeld knock-off with a little less intelligence and a bigger heart – something a lot of reviewers caught onto during its premiere, and rightfully so: a few of Friends‘ earlier scripts were written from rejected Seinfeld scripts and story ideas.

– speaking of Chandler, his character bugs me in the pilot. He’s all sarcasm without the heart he’d soon have in

– there’s a great speech deleted from the broadcast version (available on DVD) from Chandler when he’s talking to Ross about how lucky he’s been compared to him and Joey: “Look, Ross, you gotta understand, between us we haven’t had a relationship that has lasted longer than a Mento.   You, however, have had the love of a woman for four years.   Four years of closeness and sharing at the end of which she ripped your heart out, and that is why we don’t do it!  I don’t think that was my point!”

– another sign Friends was supposed to be the successor to the Cheers throne: the first four episodes are all directed by long-time Cheers director James Burrows.

– there are some terrible haircuts in the pilot. Monica, Chandler, and Joey all benefit from a fresh cut before the filming of the second episode.

– the first sign the creators of Friends can’t keep their continuity straight: Ross’s parents already know Carol is a lesbian (Monica tells us this with a joke about the phone conversation), but the second episode revolves around Ross trying to tell his parents about Carol. (Yes, and the fact that Rachel knew Chandler, although this was more of a sign of the show’s laziness and self-obsession in later seasons than a lack of continuity here.) Oh, and Barry’s last name in this episode is Finkle, not Farber as it is throughout the rest of the series.

– If there’s one line that sticks with me from the pilot after all these years, it’s Ross’s final one: “I think I just grabbed a spoon.”

  • Randy

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