‘The One Where Nana Dies Twice’ (originally aired 11/3/94)
‘The One Where Nana Dies Twice’ feels a lot like a Seinfeld script re-written for Friends (something I mentioned when discussing ‘The Pilot’). From the episode’s tone to the various jokes surrounding death, ‘Nana Dies Twice’ is a softened version of a typical Larry David script – and being penned by series creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman, this could either be the case, or it could’ve just been an episode with a shit ton of notes from the network execs. Either way, it’s a funny episode, and there’s enough Friends personality thrown in to keep it from mirroring its successful counterpart.
What sticks out in this episode of course, is the ‘everyone thinks Chandler is gay’ storyline – it hasn’t aged very well. There are moments where it reeks of the typical gay jokes we STILL see on TV; when Lowell from finance talks about “having a type of radar”, or with everyone agreeing he has a ‘quality’. But nobody ever really tries to nail down the reasons why, until Chandler says “My, don’t we look nice all dressed up” before they head off to Nana’s funeral.
However, this is kind of typical of the gay humor on Friends, which was never very consistent on the show. Let’s not forget, Friends showed a lesbian wedding on tv in 1996 (in the aptly-titled season two episode “The One With The Lesbian Wedding”) but it’s also the show that farms Joey and Chandler’s relationship constantly for gay jokes through its run. I suppose this was the nature of television (kind of still is, in many ways) then, with a well-known gay co-creator pushing a network to be progressive in their thinking. I think it speaks to both the reasons why the writers aren’t really willing to concede any reasons to why Chandler might have a ‘quality’ except the broad generalization that he’s sensitive, but also Chandler kind of embraces the idea, at least in the theoretical: the “If I wanted a Brian, I could get a Brian” line in the tag is still one of my favorite moments of the episode, although its preceded by the painful “we have a kind of radar” line that’s met with the laugh track, where the audience was audibly uncomfortable reacting in any fashion.
The real meat of the episode is dedicated to Nana’s two deaths and the funeral after it. The Larry David influences are heavy here: Ross’s aunt and mother put way too much thought into Nana’s funeral garb (even though her wake is closed-casket), Nana croaks twice (“this almost never happens,” says the nurse at the hospital) Joey’s line “when you’re dead, you’re dead! You’re gone – you’re worm food!”… and of course, Jack’s reaction to the Giants losing the football game at the reception: “Now I’m depressed.” Thankfully, Friends doesn’t really try to reach for any deeper meaning and get all preachy about life and death: instead, they use the emotions around the funeral for meaningful moments.
Ross finding Nana’s collection of sugar packets is the only ‘showy’ of these big moments. Him opening the box and having a quiet moment of reflection was a nice cathartic moment for him, a moment many of us have had as kids and adults (although the ‘raining of sugar packets from heaven’ bit was way overdone and religious-feeling). Monica pointing out how history repeats itself to her mother certainly wasn’t subtle, but it is one of the first great character moments for the show: “TOW the Sonogram at the End’ established the Ross/Monica dynamic already, and the badgering Judy dealt with establishes their relationship even further in their conversation at the funeral reception. In season one, Monica is a character seeking validation, and getting her mother to recognize her shortcomings (even for a second) is a small victory we can enjoy along with her character.
The best moment in the episode comes at the end, when they’re looking through old pictures Ross found, presumably in Nana’s massive closet. In between the baby penis jokes, they find a picture of Nana in her mid 20′s, hanging out with “her crew” in Java Joe’s. Sure, it’s a very ham-handed moment, topped off by Ross saying “looks like a fun gang,” but it ties back into Monica’s conversation with her mother about life and how we all go through the same experiences. Not only is a moment where we feel like the writers have the characters embracing each other (and the audience, in a way), but its a moment that reaches beyond that to say something about life. Life is cyclic for the billions of us on earth: but its the friends and experiences we have with them that create the parallels between groups of people, and generations: it’s not only what makes us unique, but what brings us together on a deeper level, that mutual recognition of human nature.
Those moments are what eventually made Friends so popular – but unlike the fan-servicing moments of later seasons, the closeness of that group (both physically and emotionally) on that couch captures Friends at its very best: a portrait of seven young people trying to understand the world together.
Other thoughts on the episode:
- Switch the characters in this episode with Seinfeld, and ‘Nana Dies Twice’ is about Jerry losing his grandmother, everyone thinking George is gay at work, and Elaine dealing with her insufferable mother. Give Joey’s line about being “worm food” to Kramer, and bam, you’ve got a Seinfeld episode, minus the final scene. Look at how many times Judy and her sister talk about “a day shoe”, or Chandler says he can get “a Brian” for more examples.
- Every show in the 1990s has an episode with someone fucked up on painkillers: its mostly cheap humor here, except when Rachel tells Ross he’s her favorite and he throws up his arms in disgust, screaming “I don’t get it” and passing out in her lap.
- that bit was also the only time Schwimmer’s insistence on using his hands constantly to express the ‘humor’ in his jokes. Feels too staged and practiced, as it has in episodes past.
- Phoebe’s deadpan delivery to Chandler is great: “Yes, you have homosexual hair.” That’s one of her four or five lines in the episode – her, Joey and Rachel are relegated to one-liner status in this episode, except to remind us that Rachel is dating that Paulo guy, which brings the snark out in Ross.
‘The One Where Underdog Gets Away’ (originally aired 11/17/94)
Oh, the Friends Thanksgiving episodes. If there’s anything that captures Friends in a bottle, it’s their concept of a holiday episode. The early episodes are definitive holiday episodes for the sitcom genre, full of huge character moments (season 2 had Ross’s Rachel/Julie list) and memorable bits (season 3′s football game and season 4′s Joey/Chandler fight), but as the series progressed, it became obsessed with either the show’s own mythology (season 5 does it well, but season 6, 8 and 9 are terrible) or simply being moments of fan service (season 10).
What’s funny about how influential these episodes are is how little they stray from the typical ‘holiday’ episode – especially ‘Where The Underdog Gets Away’. Little problems are always escalated into major issues, with a ruined meal and a lot of bitterness that’s quickly resolved in the final moments. This episode has all of them, but gives them some meaningful context: each one of these characters had other plans for the holidays, not realizing that they didn’t need anybody but each other to enjoy it.
Cheesy as fuck, I know, but the magic of Friends was when they could surround those predictable moments with heartwarming story beats and a lot of great jokes, both of which this episode has in spades. There are so many funny little running gags in here: Rachel’s inability to be a good waitress, Joey being on a poster for VD, Monica being subjected to everyone’s potato demands (with Joey saying “… and a TOT!”), Chandler’s rejection of ‘pilgrim holidays’… of the nine episodes to this point, ‘Underdog Gets Away’ is definitely the funniest of them.
The amount of humor provides a great balance to the typcial arc of the episode: everyone has separate plans but ends up together, resentful at first, but embracing each other by the end of the episode. You know the type: through dysfunction we find meaning and all that lovely stuff we’ve seen a million times. But ‘Underdog Gets Away’ is infused with so much believable character – Monica trying to please everyone (especially in the light of what we just saw in the previous episode with her mother), Ross finding a small place in his new family, and of course, why Chandler rejects anything sentimental and/or emotional.
To a crappy New Year, indeed.
- “You sure have a lot of books about being a lesbian.”
- My favorite moment in the episode is during Monica’s meltdown when she mentions how she had to make sure “Mario gets his tots.” I wish that would’ve become a recurring joke – “What Mario Isn’t Telling You” is a stroke of comedic genius.
- the opening feels like the writers had to define Rachel again for some reason, all to a character we’d never see again: Terry, the cafe owner. There is the first Gunther sighting however, during the montage set to The Police song “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” (a reference that makes no fucking sense: the song is about a teacher trying to avoid a hot schoolgirl, as seen in the music video where Sting wears angel wings and a graduation cap).
- Ross suggests there is one way that provides an ‘acoustical advantage’ when talking to his unborn child. Who said this guy doesn’t have charm?
- Ross walking around…. it annoys the fucking shit out of me in these early episodes.
- we get just the tip of the iceberg hearing about Chandler’s Thanksgiving where he found his parents were getting divorced. Of course, the show would show us that very night, in its later, more masturbatory days.
‘The One Where Nana Dies’: B
‘The One Where Underdog Gets Away’: A
what did you think of these two episodes? Feel free to leave your thoughts/comments below!