A quick note before the reviews:
When I started the Friends Second Look series way back in June, the plan was to do the entire first season in a straight run – something that obviously didn’t happen, mostly because of time constraints. But with the complete series being released on Blu-Ray last month and many 90s TV lovers receiving copies of the show for the holidays, I thought it would be high time to start writing about the show again – and hope to continue doing so, publishing reviews every Friday (fingers crossed) from here until the season is finished – which would set up to be in the beginning of February.
But you’re not here to read about me, so let’s get right into it. Enjoy and welcome back!
‘The One with the Butt’ (originally aired 10/24/94)
There are three distinct story lines running through ‘TOW the Butt’, and all involve moving outside of comfort zones: Joey as a butt model, Monica not being neurotic, and of course, Chandler dating a married woman. There’s never really any connective line drawn through these three, except for one truth that holds universal, both in the show’s timeline and in our lives: change is hard, and many times, its much easier to run back to the person we used to be. Friends was never a show about personal growth – despite the various successes and failures professionally in the group, the idea of personal maturity isn’t really handled much, outside of Chandler’s character – and because of that, ‘The One with the Butt’ can be an entertaining episode, but ultimately feels a little empty by the end.
I think a lot of that has to do with the Chandler plot, which features one of the worst female characters I can remember. Not only is she a mysteriously sexy Middle Eastern woman, she’s also hypersexualized to the point she has a husband, a boyfriend, Chandler – and by the end of the episode, a “new” guy as well. Obviously her character isn’t important to the canon of the show, but it’s a very poor attempt at integrating an international presence to the show – even if its trying to be ‘progressive’ by having an anti-traditional Israeli woman, it never feels like anything more than ‘former army woman is kind of slutty’. There’s no reason given to her open sexuality, except for a quintessential 90s attitude of “why can’t we just have sex, and not worry about obligation?’
More importantly, it glazes over a very important piece of Chandler’s masculinity: instead of being the normal guy (like Joey) who constantly plays the field, Chandler feels like less of a man for not being able to be the only one pleasing Aurora. It’s a wise flip of gender roles, but in the episode, it culminates with him figuratively shaking a fist in the air and saying “I’m so conflicted!” It’s almost like the writers weren’t willing to admit Chandler’s vulnerabilities, ending the whole plot with Ross questioning Chandler on why he’d leave such a beautiful woman, to which Chandler doesn’t really have an answer. For arguably the show’s deepest character, his plot (and the amount of screen time dedicated to it) in ‘TOW the Butt’ ends on a disappointingly empty note.
The rest of the episode establishes two of the show’s favorite go-to storylines: Joey’s bad acting and Monica’s neuroses. The highlight among these is of course the opening – one of the show’s most famous early moments – with Joey starring in Freud!, an ill-designed musical about the life of the famous psychologist. What makes the scene so funny is the song in the play itself, where Freud sings about penis envy to a female patient – a joke that would NEVER play anywhere on TV these days, except maybe is some poorly-constructed joke on 2 Broke Girls about strap-ons. “A thing with which you can tinkle” is still one of my favorite Joey lines of the entire series, and seeing him belt it out in his full-bearded glory is always great to watch. The shower scene later in the episode where Joey is failing at being Al Pacino’s butt pales heavily in comparison, even with his line about “going for quiet desperation.”
For me, Monica’s OCD tendencies can be some of the funniest – her thoughts in bed about the shoes – to some of the most grating material – pretty much anything she worries about after getting married - Friends has to offer. It’s odd how the show always played it off as an endearing quality, especially towards the end of the show’s run, when her tendencies become counter-productive to her life, feeling less quirky and more typical ‘females on TV who are over dramatic about everything’ (which is something the writers of Cougar Town still struggle with at times to this day with Cox’s character, who is basically a boozier version of Monica with a kid). Here, though, it gives us enough insight without going too far into the ‘let’s have Monica act like a wacko’ rabbit hole. Phoebe’s physical demonstration of Monica’s steamrolling personality is a hilarious example of when Monica’s personality works: when its being talked about, and not being acted out on-screen.
Overall, ‘The Butt’ is a fairly average first season episode of Friends: it has some good jokes like Freud! and Ross’s attempts at talking anthropology, but it doesn’t do enough to get past the obvious jokes about Chandler being third fiddle to a woman or Monica’s need to have a clean house all the time.
Other thoughts/observations on ‘TOW the Butt’:
- why are the characters more willing to be honest with Monica about her shortcomings personally, than Joey’s professionally? Is it just easier to talk down to a woman? I don’t understand why the group handles those two so differently in the episode.
- ‘sex without obligations’ wasn’t a tired TV trope back in 1994, but boy, is it sure overused now.
- after watching the play: “I feel violated.” – Rachel
- the idea of professional failure is always ingrained in Friends: mostly around Joey for comedic effect, it also comes into play with every other character on the show over time, save for Phoebe (who doesn’t get much of anything on the show, until they decided to marry her in the last season).
- the show at least gives reason to why woman are attracted to Chandler: underneath the awkwardness and bad flannel shirts is some real charm and personality, something we see briefly when he’s cuddling in bed with Aurora.
- I always hated it when Friends had to sync up characters clapping with the digital clap in the theme song… seeing it again today, it still annoys the hell out of me for some reason.
- Chandler and Ross hugging it out for no reason after Phoebe/Joey have a moment is one of my favorite moments in the whole series. Totally unforced, genuine ’man love’ right there.
‘The One with the Blackout’ (originally aired 11/3/94)
Anyone who is old enough to remember NBC in the late 1980s and 90s will remember the phrase ‘Must See TV’, their longtime promotional campaign for their Thursday night line-up. Every now and then, the execs at NBC would order episodes of their Thursday sitcoms that would feature a running narrative through all of them; ‘The One with the Blackout’ is one of these, focused around a blackout caused on Mad About You, when Paul Buchman causes a city-wide blackout while trying to steal someone’s cable. For Friends, the blackout was used to inch forward the relationship of Rachel and Ross – as well as provide us one of the single-funniest Chandler plots in the show’s 236-episode run.
In ‘TOW the Blackout’, Chandler finds himself trapped in an ATM vestibule (his words, not mine) with Victoria’s Secret model Jill Goodacre (in one of her few acting appearances, when she wasn’t busy being one of the most desired models of the early 1990s). It’s full of signature awkward Chandler moments: his attempts at conversation, trying to talk about her on the phone with Joey (who speaks back to him in the same muffled language Chandler does to him, a hilarious moment), and finally, “Gum would be perfection.”
But what I really like about the scene is how it puts us in Chandler’s head for a moment, giving us some useful insight into the reasons why Chandler is so awkward and twitchy – when asked by Jill if he needs to call anyone, he says: “yeah… about three hundred guys I went to high school with,” as well as his attempts to impress her with his physical bubble-blowing skills. Chandler is the epitome of the 90′s male ‘underdog’ who still manages to pull in women with his childish charm, something on full display when he finally engages Jill in some non-babbling conversation. Plus, the episode is topped off with one of the series’ great moments, in the pose he strikes after Jill leaves him with a kiss on the cheek. Pure genius by the writers to close off Chandler by himself, and delve into his psyche a bit in an unforced and humorous manner.
Like I said earlier, the bulk of ‘The Blackout’ is dedicated to Ross/Rachel stuff, which introduces the show’s first male recurring character (Chandler’s already met and broke up with Janice) in Paulo, the Italian man Rachel releases some of her pent-up sexuality on. At some point during the blackout, the group began talking about weirdest places they’ve had sex, to which Rachel can only come up with ‘the foot of the bed’. Having seen the entire series, this obviously is contradictory to what we see from post-nose job Rachel Greene in flashbacks – but here, it gives an interesting vulnerability to the show’s biggest sex symbol. If you pay close attention to the opening handful of episodes, Monica is dressed mostly as tom boy, and Phoebe is given the colorful, wacky bohemian clothing, which puts Rachel front and center in the fancy, upper-class attire, clearly establishing her as the ‘sexy one’ from the get go. Having Rachel be fairly inexperienced when it comes to ‘passion’ is a smart touch by the writers, although its one that is largely ignored from that moment forward once Paulo is introduced as her European sex toy.
I’ve never been a fan of Paulo, and mostly because of the reactions he brings out of Ross – however, in this episode, there’s a noticeable subtlety to Ross’s visceral reactions to both Paulo’s presence, and the sight of him making out with Rachel. I’ve talked extensively about David Schwimmer’s bad physical comedy, but his interactions and reactions to Paulo and Rachel are some of his more enjoyable gags in the early going. Somebody clearly gave him some notes, because not only does his line delivery feel more authentic, but his physical movements (from his open-mouthed horror at Paulo/Rachel to his conversations with Joey about asking her out) portray his emotions better than usual, mainly because it doesn’t feel like Schwimmer is pandering to the studio audience.
‘The Blackout’ is one of my favorite first season episodes of Friends: it doesn’t try too hard with any of its plots or jokes, or try to get too deep into serious material for its own good. Highlighted by Chandler’s internal monologues, ‘The Blackout’ is the first episode of Friends where it feels like its operating on all cylinders, drawing on established familiarity (Ross’s desire for Rachel, Chandler’s inability to communicate confidentally with women) to bring out some memorably hilarious moments.
other thoughts/observations on ‘TOW The Blackout’:
- Chandler’s internal conversation about Jill’s “some guy” comment was very Seinfeld-esque.
- there is a transition where the Friends pop-rock jingle features a flock of “do-do-dooo” singers, something NBC seemed to do a lot in the 1990s (again, see Seinfeld, specifically early on in the second season. It’s absolutely egregious).
- “The Friend Zone” would go on to be a featured topic in every single sitcom, ever.
- the first appearance by Mr. Heckles (and yet another Seinfeld-y moment in an episode that most certainly featured LOTS of network notes about doing such a thing) was terrific: “You owe me a cat.”
- Phoebe: “did you rent a moped?… oh we’re not talking about ‘that’ right now.”
‘The One with the Butt’ Grade: C
‘The One With the Blackout’: B+
what did you think of ‘TOW the Butt/the Blackout’? Feel free to leave your thoughts/comments below! Check back Friday for a new entry!