“The One with George Stephanopoulos” (season one, episode four; originally aired 10/13/94) / “The One With The East German Laundry Detergent” (season one, episode five; originally aired 10/20/94)
Sonia: Oh my god yes, the one with the laundromat!
Friends’ fifth episode is to my mind the first episode that feels like the Friends that I remember—at least in part because “The One With The East German Laundry Detergent” is such a great half-hour. The crowning scene of glory isn’t even when Ross and Rachel kiss for the first time—though that’s also pretty cute!—but just earlier, when Rachel throws herself into the laundry cart and asserts her independence as a clothes-washing, money-making, semi-self-sufficient New Yorker.
This arc of Rachel’s growing independence is something I entirely forgot about in my recollection of Friends, but I see now that it’s a defining feature of the first season—and such a good defining feature, too. Structurally, it gives the characters an excuse to have 30-minute adventures around very mundane activities—grown-up things like laundry and paychecks—while at the same time making the characters enormously sympathetic as they jump through their life-hoops.
“The One With George Stephanopoulos” uses a tried-and-true sitcom convention—it splits the cast on gender lines and sends them off to different adventures, allowing them to “bro out” or have “girl talk” as need be. Chandler, Joey, and Ross have a hockey adventure, which is punctuated by Ross’ reminisces of his “first time” with Carol and ends up, obviously, in the emergency room; meanwhile, the girls, led by Rachel, worry about their life plans and also get drunk and also spy on George Stephanopoulos, who is soooo dreamy. Of the two stories, the latter has real staying power—the conversation feels like it could have been written today, or to be more exact, it feels like it was transcribed verbatim from the conversation that occurred on my couch last night. This is what 20-somethings struggle with—dating, yes, but also: money, family, goals, meaning.
But “The One With The East German Laundry Detergent” is a better episode. For one, it’s snappier: It moves quickly through several plot contrivances with just enough attention to ensure that you feel grounded in the action but not bored. Unlike the three-three gender split in “The One With George Stephanopoulos,” we get a two-two-two split of subplots. Ross and Rachel do laundry together; Phoebe and Chandler break up with their partners; Joey and Monica try to break up another couple. (It’s unconventional character pairings, even for just five episodes in—Phoebe comments on it to Chandler, in her typically quirky way: “We never hang out together!”) And all three subplots have a twisted appeal: We’ve got romance and independence with Ross and Rachel, the introduction of Janice!!! with Chandler and Phoebe, and… the dawning realization that Joey and Monica are terrible people, over in their corner. The three plots are not really related to each other, but the opening and closing Central Perk scenes serve to tie the group’s Saturday-night adventures together. (I think that cold open, with the punchline “multiple orgasms!” is one of the most famous Friends openings ever.)
Joe Reid: I have yet to read anything about this being so, but I could almost swear to it that “The One With George Stephanopoulos” was originally supposed to be the second episode. Either that, or else Central Perk is seriously screwed up in the payroll department. This is Rachel’s first check? She starts the job at the end of episode one, and by episode two, enough time has passed that Barry has already gone on his and Rachel’s honeymoon with Mindy, plus one more entire episode. I suppose it’s plausible that Barry went on a one-week honeymoon and that Central Perk pays its employees bimonthly and Rachel began late into a pay period and had her wages pro-rated to the next check, but honestly, I’m taking Occam’s razor here.
More than just nitpicking of paydays, though, “The One With George Stephanopoulos” feels like a second episode in that it extends the pilot’s dominant plot thread—Rachel walking out on her wedding—to deal with the aftermath. “The One With The Sonogram At The End” does the same, I suppose, but this feels more immediate. By the time Rachel returns her ring to Barry, she’s well past the point of regret, even if she is grappling with the awkwardness. In “The One With George Stephanopoulos,” Rachel is very much questioning her decision, and after spending an afternoon with her squealing Fifth Avenue friends, she’s really having second thoughts. Of course, there isn’t an existential crisis on Earth that couldn’t have been solved by the chance to gawk at George Stephanopoulos from across an alleyway. At least in 1994. I was genuinely shocked to remember that there was a time that Stephanopoulos was a sex symbol. What desperate, pre-Clooney times those were!
I’m with you in thinking that the Laundromat episode is the superior one, and for the same reasons. As fun as it is to watch the seeds of Ross and Rachel being sown far earlier than I remember, it’s Rachel once again advancing her own independence that resonates the most. Though I will also give Ross his due respect for staring down that mean Laundromat lady (who, between the kente hat and the chola eyebrows is rocking some seriously muddled iconography).
SS: And now I’m just going to talk about Janice for a bit. Janice is the best worst character on the show, a character who is so comfortable with herself and her flaws (unlike Chandler, Monica, Ross, or Rachel) that she’s kind of in her own universe. She’s also grounded, employed, apparently quite happy, and super annoying. Janice and Chandler together are comedy gold—the show kept dragging her back to guest-star, even into the last season of Friends. I love Janice, because she’s so strangely comfortable with herself, so totally uncool and uninterested in trying to be anything that she isn’t already. At the same time, I love Chandler’s deep insecurity and constant dissatisfaction; he’s a flawed, but human character, an anxious, overachieving wreck whose only saving grace is how much he cares about the people around him. Together they are polar opposites; I think they’re both attracted to what the other person offers, whether that’s a sense of stability or just a whiff of something so unlike themselves.
It got me to thinking about the insecurity and constant posing of the other characters. I was about to say that each member of Friends’ group of friends is trying a little too hard to be cool and with it, but that’s not quite true. Phoebe and Joey in particular distinguish themselves repeatedly by not trying much at all, even when everything in the universe is trying to push them toward the status quo. It’s interesting, though: The characters often cope with their inability to be something that they desire by lying or faking it—duplicity is a surprisingly integral part of Friends as the show moves forward. By the end of the series, there’s no character you can point to and really stand behind—every one of them has had their moments of enormous weakness.
On one hand, I think there’s something sad about this. Shows like New Girl and Parks and Recreation have done a good job of keeping characters likeable and funny; clearly they’re both far less your average sitcom, but it’s honestly nice to be able to root for your characters. On the other hand, there’s something very true about this idea of duplicity, especially when it comes to coming-of-age in the grown-up world. Fake it ’til you make it, right? Isn’t that essentially what Rachel decides to do with her laundry? She doesn’t really know how to be an adult, but if she manages a facsimile of being an adult, then she might be on her way. Perhaps if Joey and Monica pretend to be dating the people they want to be dating, it’ll come true. It’s a very strange way to live life, but clearly one that they’re being rewarded for.
Relatedly, something interesting about these two episodes is how hostile New York City is. As New Yorky as these early episodes are, there’s also a lot of confusion about why anyone would ever want to live in a place that is populated with cranky nurses, mean Laundromat women, and weird chicken-wing eaters. Maybe you have to lie and cheat your way through this New York—everywhere you turn, there’s another person trying to steal your laundry basket. (Another woman. So far, every mean/annoying character has been a woman—women who look like men, or are considered to be “ugly” or “undesirable.” I’m surprised by this divide. Are men threatening, in the universe of Friends, or is the city of New York just made up of handsome male political operatives and freakish, angry women?)
JR: Well if you’re going to talk Janice, I’m going to talk Phoebe. I haven’t really gotten into her much in these early episodes, but we’re definitely starting to see her defined a little more sharply than the simple ditz/hippie constructs she started with. It’s been mentioned quite a bit in the comments, but there is a darkness around the edges of Phoebe that is perhaps her distinguishing characteristic. Thus far it’s come across in non sequiturs like her non-story about the mine collapse in relation to her first job. But she has discussed her mother’s suicide, so we know there’s real, fundamental pathos underneath all that quirk. And when it comes out in bursts like when she hollers at Stephanopoulos’s ladyfriend from across the alley (“She’s going for the pizza—THAT’S NOT FOR YOU, BITCH!”) it’s both surprising and hilarious.
- People of color on Friends watch: …. none. Awkward! [SS]
- “God help us. Ugly naked guy is laying kitchen tile.” [SS]
- Note that Monica made cookie dough for their girls’ night at home. You take that Toll House garbage right the hell out of Monica’s sight. [JR]
- So, why does Monica know the date when Ross lost his virginity? That seems… unconventional. Also, in the next episode, she says Ross never even told her? Continuity, guys! [SS]
- Shout out to superior character actress Mary Pat Gleason as the nurse when Ross is taken to the hospital. Though I could have sworn she was one of the nuns on American Horror Story this past season… [JR]
- “I’m looking… I’m looking… I’m looking….” Janice, I love you. [SS]
- I remain so fascinated by the frank and open discussions of sexuality at the beginnings of these episodes. Earnestness about sex is one of my favorite aspects of ’90s culture, and why I continue to clamor for a boxed set of MTV’s Sex In The ’90s. [JR]
- “Oh and oh I brought Operation. But I lost the tweezers so we can’t operate. But we can prep the guy!” [SS]