(“The One With Two Parts,” season 1, episodes 16 and 17, originally aired 2/23/95)
Sonia: I don’t. Even know. Where to start. Could these two episodes be anymore packed?
“The One With Two Parts” is an epic mini-movie, featuring two separate trips to the hospital, two separate crossovers from other popular NBC shows, and two separate performances by Lisa Kudrow playing twin sisters. It’s the most enjoyable double-header of Friends episodes that I’ve watched since beginning these reviews, topping even the duo of episodes last week that were also both incredibly enjoyable.
The strength of “The One With Two Parts” lies ultimately with Lisa Kudrow, though comedically the whole cast is at the top of its game. But Kudrow anchors the emotional weight of the two episodes, connecting everyone else’s disparate plotlines with her storyline: It’s her birthday. It’s a funnily sort of low-key, even vain fixation for any character—mundane, but also crucial. But ultimately the two-parter is about how the friends rally around Phoebe in her rare moment of vulnerability.
Kudrow first gained attention on NBC’s other Must-See-TV sitcom on Thursday nights, Mad About You, starring Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt as newlyweds in the big city. Kudrow played their snotty, maybe sociopathic waitress Ursula. When Friends launched Kudrow in a different role, it was a natural choice—and something of an inside joke—to make Ursula Phoebe’s twin sister.
As we saw in “The One With The Blackout,” NBC at this time also loved the multi-show crossover episodes. 1994 was a good year for NBC—especially on Thursday nights. So why not unite three different viewing audiences with a two-part Friends episode that features Helen Hunt’s Jamie Buchman from Mad About You—neatly tying together the Ursula plotline—and two actors from NBC’s other hit debut from 1994, the medical drama E.R. It’s more of a cameo on the E.R. side—George Clooney and Noah Wyle play handsome doctors, but not Dr. Ross and Dr. Carter from their show. But again, NBC offers up that delicious dramatic irony to its viewing audience, who gets to enjoy the double-inside-joke of the double-crossover.
So it’s not surprising that “The One With Two Parts” happened—complete with two contrived trips to the hospital and several generic mistaken-identity gags that allow for the crossover to fill out completely. But it is surprising that despite its flaws the rest of the two-parter comes together beautifully. An extra-long episode can be a mess for writers used to the 30-minute format, but this is a stellar example of the form.
In any episode of Friends, Phoebe’s the last character I expect to be emotionally invested in. As much as I like her for comic relief and a consistent dose of insanity, she’s not often the character with “serious” plotlines. But in this season, the episodes she’s had that require emotional work have been excellent—I’m thinking of her brief fling with the guy who went to Minsk and her heartfelt confession to Rachel about Paulo. It’s not quite clear what’s up between Phoebe and Ursula—certainly the show goes to great lengths in the future to capitalize on their relationship—but family is a particularly prickly area for Phoebe, and one that destabilizes her happy-go-lucky life.
There’s something very funny about Kudrow’s ability to switch between Ursula and Phoebe; there’s also something very funny about Joey inexplicably falling for Phoebe’s twin, even though Ursula is like, certifiably sociopathic. But what ends up killing it is the final scene where Kudrow plays Phoebe playing Ursula to Joey, giving him the closure he needs from their breakup because Ursula won’t do it herself. It’s both extraordinarily funny, and self-referential, in the way that any sort of crossover or cameo episode is bound to be—but it’s also such a gesture of love for Joey on Phoebe’s part that the final moment when Joey realizes it’s Phoebe is sort of tragic. What makes it work so well is that there’s no doubt or even strangeness about Joey and Phoebe’s dedication to each other in that moment. Both seem to know exactly what the other means to them. I’m sad that we don’t get much more of Joey’s evolving relationship with Phoebe as Friends goes on, because this moment is such a beautiful one.
Joe: I was always so wary whenever the show hinted at Joey/Phoebe shipping, if only because, once they eventually put Monica and Chandler together, I didn’t like the idea of the Friends pairing off two-by-two. I’m getting to this minor disagreement first so that the following won’t be too jarring: I did not like this two-part episode. Now, I’m not going to get crazy and say Lisa Kudrow doesn’t do good work, because she absolutely does. The fact that she’s the last character you expect to have these emotional storylines is exactly the reason they come across so powerfully, I think. If you look at the scene at the end of these episodes, when she impersonates Ursula in order to let Joey down easy, and also the one with Hank Azaria that you mention, you see a character who is working double-time (uh, literally) in order to make sure things end in the least emotionally devastating way possible. Did the writers plan this as a natural extension of a girl whose mom killed herself, or am I being a comedy-killing read-too-much-into-er? Either way, it’s a lovely, heartbreaking scene and one more drop in the bucket for Kudrow’s well-deserved Emmy nomination that year.
But back to this episode that I don’t like. Back when Marcel made his unwelcome debut, I talked about how much I reflexively push back against perceived network fingerprints. These episodes are one full hour of all-caps SWEEPS EVENT and did nothing so much as remind me of every “Must-See TV” ad, every “Super-Sized Episodes” gambit, every overreaching guest star stunt casting of the series’ run. I get why NBC would pull in stars from Mad About You and ER. It’s playful enough. And Ursula does become something of an important figure in Phoebe’s life (Phoebe is now the final Friend to have her family life examined in this first season). But everything feels reverse engineered, working backwards from the cameos. Size almost always works against sitcoms. As broad as Friends can be, it still works better as a humble comedy than as event fodder.
Sonia: Oh god. That’s a good point. But don’t you think the crossover provides fun, if ridiculous, fireworks? Rachel and Monica spar with each other over the cute doctors, especially after they switch names to commit (minor) insurance fraud. (Look at Friends being politically relevant!) Clooney and Wyle aren’t particularly impressive in their comedic roles, but their faces are all that’s really necessary. And that scene with the boys where Joey takes a very, very long time to realize that because Phoebe and Ursula are twins, they have the same birthday? I laughed. Like, a lot. Maybe too much.
Joe: In an episode that often flirts with Rachel and Monica being unsympathetic (insurance fraud + cat-scratching over a pair of hot guys) but generally steps back from the line by virtue of Cox and Aniston being incredibly funny (“I use my breasts to get attention!” “We BOTH do that!”), can I offer up Chandler as being genuinely reprehensible in the way he treats poor Celeste From Beverly Hills, 90210? He dates her despite the textbook power imbalance, is too cowardly to tell her that her job has been eliminated, and ends up lying to her for days, if not longer? He’s an objectively shitty person this week, and no amount of WENUS/ANUS jokes can save him. I think even Marcel outranks him in my esteem this week. Did the Marcel stuff work for you?
Sonia: Marcel is absolutely ridiculous; you’ve never been wrong about that. The last scene with him holding Ross’ hand in the hospital, as “New York Minute” plays in the background, is painfully awful. But may I direct you to another Marcel plotline? The attitudinal capuchin breaks Monica’s television, so Spanish-language sitcom jokes filter intermittently into “Part Two.” This last joke culminates with what is perhaps the best outro of Friends ever—the friends talking to each other in exaggerated, dubbed Spanish, the joke in the show now being played on the show, for our benefit. Marcel is silly, but he pushes the episode into a fantastic finish.
Despite the fact that it smacks of ratings bait, I think the reason I liked this crossover episode so much is because it’s so very aware of itself as a show. Some of the best comedy in this episode stems from things the characters theoretically know nothing about, but which fit into how the viewing audience watches Friends—a show on Thursday night like other shows on Thursday night; a show that’s on a channel that could be dubbed in Spanish; a show with that actress from that other show. I love that Friends is able to play with that self-referentiality without losing its essential Friends-ness.
- I’m sort of offended that Phoebe isn’t an Aquarius.
- Gunther alert!!! He’s in the background at Phoebe’s birthday party. [SS]
- Heyyyyy there, Leila Kenzle. Welcome back to my TV screen. Sorry I had to look up that your Mad About You character’s name was “Fran.” [JR]
- “Now imagine your vagina is opening like a flower.”
- That Windows screensaver in Chandler’s office reminds me that Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston literally and actually starred in “the world’s first cyber-sitcom,” sponsored by Microsoft. [SS]
- “Knit, good woman, knit!”
- The sampling of The Eagles’ “New York Minute”: more or less eye-rollingly overwrought here than when that same song was used on The West Wing? [JR]
- People of Color on Friends Watch: Tons! Chandler’s boss, the Lamaze teacher, the hospital receptionist, and various extras in the background. Visit lovely, diverse New York! [SS] Not only that, but the hospital receptionist was played by the late, great Alaina Reed Hall, of 227 and Sesame Street fame! [JR]
- “I think Ursula likes me. I ordered a cup of coffee and she brought me a tuna melt and four plates of curly fries.”