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Friends: “The Pilot”

Illustration for article titled Friends: “The Pilot”
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“The Pilot” (season one, episode one; originally aired 09/22/1994)

Sonia Saraiya: You know what, Joe? I think this first episode of one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time might be bad. Like, maybe verging on terrible. Friends is more than a sitcom, it’s a phenomenon—one of NBC’s greatest hits, a show that launched six separate failed careers and hundreds of cultural in-jokes. I have many fond memories of this show—so why does the pilot feel so hacky, so contrived?

I remember Friends as the quintessential buddy sitcom, a show about people who hang out with each other and have a slightly more slapstick version of the adventures you have with your own group of friends. It’s collegial and jokey and a little bit stupid, but familiar and entertaining, as well.

But for a certain subset of the sitcom-watching public, Friends was a view inside that Generation-X coffee-drinking New York scene—something that must have seemed very distant and exotic and strange, compared to everything else on television. This first episode is the show desperately, wildly signaling, “Here! Us! This is new! And hip! Look at me!!”

Remember—this pilot aired in 1994. Four years before Sex And The City and Will & Grace. Full House was still on air, as was Married With Children. NBC was already doing well with two of its New York based sitcoms—Seinfeld, of course, and Mad About You, with Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt. Friends was a natural choice that doubled down on a corner of the country that NBC felt increasingly confident about—New York City, in all of its rapidly gentrifying glory. (The pilot is full of references to how cool these people are simply for living in the city—they eat sushi! They assemble flatpack furniture! They take the subway!)The city was getting safer and pricier—regaining some of the cultural cachet that had moved out to the suburbs. The time was ripe for a sitcom about the lives of a quirky bunch of kids in the West Village.

Which means that the pilot is just loaded with sex jokes. Bad sex jokes, even. It’s easy to forget now that basic cable has monopolized television, but in 1994, Friends was racy network television. And unlike Seinfeld’s nihilistic humor and Mad About You’s family comedy, Friends was explicitly about sex and dating. It also has the schmaltz and humor of a romantic comedy—more sentimental than sexy. But that context goes a long way toward explaining that extended ice-cream-as-sex metaphor that takes place while Joey and Chandler are helping Ross move into his new apartment. Especially because that metaphor starts sexy and ends on a totally romantic note, as Ross makes a tiny, incremental step toward telling Rachel that he’s always liked her. Still, I’m not sure there’s anything to forgive the terrible image that goes through my mind when Joey exhorts Ross to try some “rocky road,” or some “cookie dough.”


Joe Reid: Sonia, shame on you for putting those ice-cream metaphors in my head! As if Joey’s unsubtle greaser leering wasn’t already freaking me out so much. You’re right that Friends was notable at the time for upping the ante on sexual innuendo, particularly in the family hour, even if a show like Seinfeld felt more indelible in that regard. It had “The Contest” and “he took it out” and “they’re real and they’re spectacular”; with Friends, I can remember Monica describing orgasms and Joey not understanding what it means to “be there for her,” but otherwise the sex factor on the show was more baseline frankness than any kind of ostentatious envelope pushing.

The Friends pilot has so many jarring elements, I can hardly find my bearings. First, there are the usual pilot problems that make watching the first episode of almost any series an odd experience. The characters are off-kilter to various degrees and generally defined by one characteristic: Sarcastic Chandler, Ditzy Phoebe, Gloomy Ross, Piggish Joey, Spoiled Rachel, Lovelorn Monica. Of the six, only Chandler (and Phoebe, I suppose) would retain these dominant characteristics for much longer than season one, and all of them would become less severe in their archetypes as things went along. These aren’t novel developments for a new show. Much more interesting to me, as you mentioned, is the joke structure. I’ve never studied television comedy in an academic sense, but if you told me that the opening scene of Friends is a textbook example of situation-comedy joke structures, I would nod vigorously (so as to fake an academic prowess I do not possess).


Consider it: The gang, minus Ross and Rachel, are sitting in Central Perk. Monica introduces the premise: She has a date tonight. Chandler, Phoebe, and Joey each riff on said premise in a way that establishes their aforementioned dominant traits. Monica says something earnest. Chandler closes it out with a button. The scene literally fades out and then back in to a short while later, where the whole process is repeated re: Ross’ broken marriage. A person could call it academic. That same person could call it uninspired. In light of the erosion of setup-punchline jokes in TV comedy today, it’s incredibly jarring. This is an episode that features an actual spit-take. I can’t imagine how many metatextual loop-de-loops would be required to make a gag like that work in 2013. Friends itself would evolve, if not past this structure then certainly into a more elegant/adventurous version of this structure. Certainly anybody watching the sublime trivia-quiz episode in season four could never argue that the show didn’t come a long way from those opening scenes.

SS: A very long way—to become a show that feels a lot more like it’s about character than about comedy. What draws me back to Friends again and again are the characters themselves, and how they build, as you say, from those archetypes to something potentially more fleshed-out. Because I know what happens, I pored over the minute interactions between the six of them. And you know what? We never really do find out why Monica, Chandler, Joey, and Phoebe are friends with each other.


At the same time, their lazy, trying-too-hard banter on what is presumably a weekend afternoon in a coffeeshop feels very right. I don’t know if my groups of friends got their cues from Friends or vice-versa (the critical theorist in me says both), but the patterns of conversation, and the characters in the room, all feel awfully familiar. Real talk: The Friends are a group of bored losers, who are much much younger than you probably thought when you first watched the show. Rachel, Chandler, and Monica are later established to be about 23 or 24 in this opening season—they are babies. No wonder they’re sitting in Monica’s apartment watching telenovelas in the middle of the day—what else would they be doing? There’s a curious emptiness about all of their lives—in New York City, living the dream, but not motivated to do much beyond hang out on the couch.

Rachel’s dramatic entrance changes all that. Even though the execution of the pilot falls short—especially when compared to the fourth season of Friends, which I argue is the best—the mechanics are near-perfect. The story of this group of friends must start with a stranger coming to town, and Rachel is the perfect stranger for this plot. She hasn’t been invited. She’s not really a New Yorker like the rest of them—not scraping by, not culturally in the know, still attached to her ideas of romantic love and daddy’s money—but at the same time, she’s not the traditional housewife she thought she was going to be, either. She’s new to the scene, and her arrival is a catalyst for all of them to grow, because unlike the rest of them, Rachel is interested in finding meaning for her life. You don’t run away from a wedding in a huge poofy white dress and say goodbye to daddy’s money unless you’re feeling a major lack of something or other in your life.


Friends is about creating a new kind of family—the family you make, not the family you were born with. And a new kind of show—one that isn’t based around a happy marriage or a family with kids. Not one but two marriages break up in the first episode—Rachel runs away from her wedding and Ross sets up his new life after his divorce. This is a sitcom episode working very hard to prove that it is breaking conventional norms. I mean, look, Joe, it even has a lesbian!

JR: Your thoughts on the 20-something New York-ness of these characters fascinate me, because this show has always felt so New York-adjacent to me. Filmed on sets in Los Angeles and featuring any number of spaces insanely too large to exist in Manhattan, but also (and Will & Grace pulled this off, too) feeling New York-like enough that I would always indulge it. They’ll take the subway, but they’re not going to push their luck and make a C-train joke. Not like (and this is a pet peeve of mine) The Mindy Project, which films in L.A. and yet tries to wrap itself in New York authenticity in a way that offends my very being.


How about this, though: Friends premièred only seven months after the release of Reality Bites. Monica and Phoebe and Ross are supposed to be contemporaries of Lelaina and Vickie and Troy Dyer. The effort it takes for Chandler, Phoebe, and Joey to chant “Push her down the stairs” at that telenovela would have put Troy in a couch coma for a week. In a significant and underrated way, Friends took the ennui of so-called “slacker” culture and pushed it into a more optimistic, community-oriented direction. Monica says it flat-out to Rachel: “Welcome to the real world. It sucks! You’re gonna love it.” All the classic slacker elements are there: Rachel’s joblessness (or Chandler’s job-uselessness), Monica’s crappy love life, Chandler’s pop-culture reference-based humor.

But did you notice how genuinely happy everybody was when Monica got a date with Paul the flower guy? How they all pitched in to help Rachel cut up daddy’s credit cards? Sure, yes, it’s happy-crappy network-TV-mandated feel-good-ism if you want to see it that way. But it’s also how Friends managed to set a brand new cultural trend rather than follow one. No one ever talks about Friends as a Gen-X comedy. The comedies that came after Friends were Friends-ian. And as monstrously cheesy as it sounds, that "I’ll be there for you" ethos is probably why.


SS: More things to file under monstrously cheesy: that saxophone solo over the crossfade from Ross sitting in his new apartment, staring out the window, to Rachel in her new apartment, staring out the window. I had forgotten all about saxophone solos until this moment. Time to play “Careless Whisper” on a loop forever.

And yet—Ross and Rachel’s first romantic scene together works surprisingly well. David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston must have been screen-tested with each other when they auditioned, because they have great chemistry here. Rachel displays a moment of true empathy for another human being, and Ross manages to take that perpetual vulnerability of his and turn it to good use. I was genuinely touched by the way they both warm to each other, over the gulf of many years and many differences, and I think for the first time I see why Ross and Rachel’s romance managed to capture so many viewers’ attention.


Rewatching this, I’m also struck by how Rachel is presented as a model for women coming of age in the 1990s—the popular, pretty girl dissatisfied with where those illusions have taken her but also unwilling to embrace the more aggressively “feminist” career-woman strategy. There was a lot of ambivalence in the ’90s among women who had grown up with feminism about how to implement it into their lives, and Rachel in particular is the character who expresses that the most. She’s always undeniably feminine, and more than the other two female Friends, is satisfied with the idea that men and women play different roles in life, love, and work. I don’t agree, but I get why she would feel that way, and I’m interested to see this develop as we move forward.

Um, but I’m not going to lie—I spent the rest of the pilot exclaiming over how awful their outfits were. (Monica wears suspenders! To a date! With a man!)


JR: And yet Rachel’s character goes through the most obvious “feminist” arc in the series, from spoiled daddy’s girl and would-be trophy bride to working girl to (by the end of the series) a woman who ended up getting a job, a baby, a guy, and Paris. But we’re a ways away from that. Speaking of Rachel and speaking of being freaked out by appearances, I must say I was more rattled by Jennifer Aniston’s pre-The Rachel hair than I thought I’d be. After all, Aniston has gone through the whole gamut of hairstyles since then, but seeing Rachel looking so decidedly un-sleek threw me. Almost like I’m waiting for Our Rachel to show up. The Central Perk apron at the end is a step in that direction.

Stray observations:

  • Welcome to TV Club Classic’s reviews of Friends. We’ll be taking on two episodes every week, which means we’ll be progressing through season one only slightly slower than Nick At Nite’s aggressive four-episode-per-night regimen. Remember kids, the recommended weekly dosage of Chandler’s sarcasm is about 20 minutes, tops. [SS]
  • How are they gonna try and tell us that Rachel and Chandler had never met each other before this episode? I don’t care how self-obsessed she was, a girl is not going to forget that Flock Of Seagulls hairdo. (Nor a guy getting his toe chopped off through his wicker Miami Vice shoes, for that matter.) [JR]
  • Glad to see Joey bringing back the mid-’90s mushroom cut. [SS]
  • Chandler’s quippiness is just relentless in this episode, to the point of becoming wearisome. Though, seriously, that “Once I was a wooden boy!” dig at Joey still makes me laugh. [JR]