(“The One With The Butt,” season one, episode six; originally aired 10/27/94 / “The One With The Blackout,” season one, episode seven; originally aired 11/3/94)
Sonia Saraiya: Last week, Friends found its stride. This week, it feels like it’s plateauing already?!
Joe Reid: Forgive me for racing past an episode about Joey flashing his butt for a movie (even though season one Matt LeBlanc butt is plenty intriguing), but everything that’s happening in “The One With the Blackout” is what really matters in the greater world of Friends. There are a handful of recurring characters whose emergence in season one I am dreading. We haven’t gotten to the non-human one yet, but certainly Paolo’s is a debut I was not relishing.
By this episode—where all of New York City is plunged into a blackout and all the friends (save Chandler) hole up in Monica and Rachel’s apartment to ride it out—Ross’ arm’s-length longing for Rachel is obvious enough that Joey notices (Joey!), and Joey then insists Ross make his move on Rachel before it’s too late. It is what I am pretty sure is the first pop-cultural articulation of “the friend zone,” at least when termed as such. The show needed something to keep Ross away from Rachel beyond his own innate wussiness, and so we have Paolo. Beautiful, Italian, infuriatingly non-communicative and thus uncomplicated and thus irresistible to Rachel, who just got finished lamenting the lack of passion in her romantic past. David Schwimmer plays Ross’ exquisite pain so well in this episode. All too often, Ross’ misery gets played up well past the point of viewer sympathy, but I can’t imagine anyone not feeling for the guy as he gets the rug pulled out from under him.
As for Chandler’s plot, I have to admit that Jill Goodacre (somehow still Mrs. Harry Connick Jr., making them the Newman-and-Woodward of current celebrity marriages) is a sizeable barrier to entry in this storyline. Not because she’s not a good actor (she’s not, but how much is she really being asked to contribute), and not because she’s not beautiful (she is, in a certain high-waisted-jeans kind of way), but because the Jill Goodacre Era in popular culture was very short, confined to basically the week prior to this episode aired and maybe two weeks after. So all her presence does is send me down a rabbit hole of big thoughts about the supermodel boom of the 1990s and George Michael’s “Freedom” and “House of Style” and here I go again.
Also, not to be a grump, but I can’t get too invested in the plight of Chandler trying to look cool in front of a hot chick. Could the stakes BE any lower? But Matthew Perry manages to blast me out of my entrenchment, both with the way he plays his idiotic refusal of Goodacre’s offer of gum and in the panicked “okay” fingers he shoots Goodacre when she asks if he’s choking. Though I can never tell, at the end, whether he’s asking the ATM vestibule-cam for a copy of the footage because he wants to preserve the memory or burn the evidence.
SS: It’s not that I don’t love “The Butt” or “The Blackout”—though I don’t—it’s rather that it’s hard to imagine how anyone loves these two episodes. They’re both a little bit bland, a little too distressingly cliché. But perhaps I’m wearing jaded 2013-era goggles, in which the stunt of a sex partner with one weird old twist seems old, tired, and done after six seasons of Sex And The City.
Friends is usually skating between two different modes of humor: One, a character-driven, deeply comedic form that draws on the viewers’ understanding of the characters and past events to create dramatic irony (often punctuated by one-liners); and two, slapstick. A sexy, poopy slapstick, for sure, a slapstick that indulges gamely in vulgarity and innuendo, but slapstick all the same. Maybe the right word isn’t slapstick. Maybe the problem with “The Butt” and “The Blackout” isn’t one form of humor or the other, but rather that neither manages to commit to one or the other, and as a result, the jokes feel rather bland.
For example, in “The Butt,” the characters are sort of leaning towards making butt jokes for the entire episode about Joey’s latest acting gig as a butt double, but are also sort of leaning towards teasing Monica about her housekeeping neuroses in a way that vacillates rapidly between loving and heckling. I felt a bit like neither end of the spectrum got its due. The butt jokes—they’re not that funny! I feel like you could put this on my tombstone: The butt jokes aren’t that funny. It’s not that they couldn’t be funny, it’s that they’re not even trying very hard. Kind of as if the show’s writers don’t want to dirty their hands with such crass humor—but if that’s the case, why are there butts at all? Why, Friends, why!?
Meanwhile, in “The Blackout,” the balance is a little better. Chandler’s entrapment is partially an effort to illustrate something about his character, but mostly an exercise in how absolutely ridiculous Matthew Perry can be left to his own devices. It’s quite a feat that Perry is essentially playing off a non-character without words for that whole plot and yet manages to hold it together; my biggest laugh in these two episodes is the moment where Chandler tries to blow a bubble in his gum and instead spits it halfway across the room.
“The Blackout,” if you don’t know, is part of NBC’s Blackout Thursday stunt, in which all Thursday Must-See-TV sitcoms that took place in New York somehow figured into this blackout story, which started in the eight-o-clock hour with Mad About You. Watched separately, the blackout seems rather disjointed in this one episode, but I remember watching this evening when it first aired, and I seemed to think it was mind-blowingly cool, so one can only assume that it was.
The part of the episode in Monica’s apartment has more staying power—it’s got “bottle episode” written all over it, as the five other friends gather around to talk about their cool lives in New York. The weight is on relationship-based humor, but again, very little of that humor sticks. I laughed when Joey brought in the menorah—and again when he says to Ross, “Neeeeever gonna happen,” as Ross watches a retreating Rachel. (Say what you will about Joey as a character, but Matt LeBlanc has impeccable timing.) But the humor of the evening ended there for me. I also enjoy Phoebe’s non sequiturs—“Milwaukee!”—but at this point it’s what we expect from the character just to maintain baseline humor. Nothing that arises from the action in the episode serves to create humor during the fake NBC New York City blackout, and that is frustrating.
And here I have to disagree, Joe: I didn’t have an ounce of pity for Ross in this moment, as amorous, romantic Paolo shows up to feverishly make out with Rachel in the dark. Ross gets himself into these situations over and over again, and as soon as “friendzone” drifted out of Joey’s mouth and into the pocket of air that is Ross’ brain I had my hackles raised. Ross’ whole character—indeed, his character’s livelihood and success—trades on the idea that he is largely pathetic. One of the things I like about his relationship with Rachel is that she pushes him to be rather less pathetic—to take more responsibility for his actions, perhaps.
Anyway, “The Blackout” climaxes with the orange cat of slapstick comedy dropping down on the warmed-over rationale of the nice guy trying to enact meaningful relationship-comedy on an absurdly large balcony for the West Village, and that is a microcosm of how I feel about this double-header—silly, trying too hard, and not enough heart.
- Though I guess that bit where Monica, Joey, and Phoebe are singing “Top Of The World” as Ross flails in the background is pretty good. [SS]
- People of Color on Friends watch: Zero. Guys, I’m beginning to think this show is not a representative cross-section of New York City! [SS]
- “I think his butt would be angry here.”
- For the ‘90s, I think this is a pretty good investigation of polyamory. Does Chandler learn something about himself? Probably not. [SS]
- Ridiculous ‘90s-era Magazine Question: In the spirit of Jill Goodacre—Which ‘90s supermodel best reflects your personal style? Yeah that’s right, your personal style. I can only aspire to reflect Naomi Campbell, but aspire, I do. [SS]
- “It’s a good thing you didn’t try to fan out the magazines—she’ll scratch your eyes right out.”
- You know, I’d see Freud!, the musical, starring Joey Tribbiani as Sigmund Freud. [SS]