‘The One With the Monkey’ (originally aired 12/15/94)
On the heels of the first Friends Thanksgiving came ‘Monkey’, an episode about New Year’s Eve. Separated on air by a month (the show’s first hiatus) and the third-lowest rated episode of the show’s first season, ‘Monkey’ hits a few early emotional high notes for the show, although its not an episode without its flaws – flaws that undoubtedly begin with Ross.
My issues with Schwimmer’s performance in early episodes is well-noted, but the problem in ‘Monkey’ is with its titular character: Marcel. To this day, the inclusion of Marcel in a handful of episodes this season (and ‘The One After the Superbowl’, a low point for the series in season 2) stand out as some of Friends weakest material. We’re 10 episodes into the show, and Ross’s de-evolution from the pilot (“I’m grabbing a spoon”) continues as he emotionally latches onto a primate to fill the holes of conversation, attention, and conflict from his marriage to Carol. All it really does is bring out whiny Ross, who whimpers on the sidelines when Rachel mentions Paulo, and later does nothing to step in when she arrives with her face beaten in (more on that weird moment later).
Besides, the presence of a monkey on Friends never feels anything more than a gimmick, a cheap attempt to derive some kind of animal humor out of a character who kind of flounders around the first season until the writers start winding him up for the events of the finale. And in ‘Monkey’, it’s a big detraction from an episode that I otherwise find really entertaining, a great emotional companion to the sentiments of the episode preceding it.
This episode finally gives us a bit of insight into the enigma that is Phoebe, through the lens of her relationship with David, a character the show would bring back numerous times to diminishing returns (including a few painful last season appearances). David is a “scientist guy” who finds his confidence through Phoebe, a happy person who isn’t necessarily as positive as she always appears (after all, she had 12 songs about her mother’s suicide and one about a snowman). We don’t know much about Phoebe to this point, but her brief relationship with David shows us a person of substance, a woman who isn’t too tied up in the idea of destiny and love over everything to make a man sacrifice his dream in life. Sure, their relationship does progress a little quickly off-screen, something I’m willing to forgive given the sincerity of their last scene together, when Phoebe talks them through their break-up, going through the requisite motions of anger and denial jokingly to mask the hurt she feels.
There’s not much going on with the rest of the characters – most of it is just re-hashed references to older episodes that are quickly tossed away. Fun Bobby makes an appearance – although he’s sad because his dad died – Paolo doesn’t make it to New Year’s, and Chandler makes his first pilgrimage to the Foundation of Janice, inviting her to New Year’s Eve, and then dumping her like an asshole when he realizes he can’t stand her (which brings a loud round of laughs from the audience, oddly enough). Of course, Janice will return, something alluded to when she says “One of these times, it’s going to be your last chance” on her way out the door.
With a lot of emphasis on the idea of opening a new year on a positive note, despite how everything can fall apart in a second, at the end of the year or otherwise. Overall, the strong Phoebe story (the first of a select few for her) manages to hide the flaws of the rest of the episode, which largely come from a lack of humorous jokes regarding monkeys and/or Joey in an elf costume.
- “Minske?” “Minske… it’s in Russia.”
- first sign that these people might not really be the best group of friends: they all break a promise not to bring a date to New Year’s.
- Rachel getting the shit beat out of her is a jarring moment on the episode, one that’s abandoned pretty quickly… what was going on there? Rachel gets her ass kicked trying to get in a cab, and she just comes home? Such a weird moment, although it does say something about how tense people can be around the holidays, I suppose.
- while Phoebe berates David for interrupting her singing (which ends up being how he confesses his crush on her), Chandler drops a classic: “That guy’s going home with a note.”
- speaking of Chandler, his reaction to Janice appearing over his shoulder is priceless… especially compared to Ross trying to fake like he’s interested in something else, which is just awkward and forced (what’s with the pointing and head-shaking?).
- one of the best shots of the series: the camera pans from Phoebe and David kissing to some chemistry equipment that produces electricity. Not the most subtle thing ever, but evocative nonetheless.
‘The One With Mrs. Bing’ (originally aired 1/5/95)
Here’s the premise: Phoebe and Monica whistle at a guy, who then gets hit by a car, so they pine and argue over him until he’s healed. Does this sound like a good episode of Friends? It really isn’t, no matter how much uncomfortable Chandler it brings out in the side plot – especially when its all in favor of a faux dramedy between Ross and Chandler, a poorly designed distraction from the weird threads spread about the episode. Of the first eleven episodes, ‘Bing’ scored the biggest audience, but is a definite misfire in both script and execution.
The only part of the episode that really rings true to its characters is Rachel, who is hardly mentioned. She would be a character who’d be obsessed with romantic novels, although her fandom of Norma Bing doesn’t go beyond a throwaway line and an undeveloped story about her wanting to be a romance novelist herself – why or how she comes to this conclusion, we really don’t know. It seems to exist to allow the writers to throw in some veiled genitalia jokes, but not necessarily any funny ones (save for Ross comparing the female and males with their nipples exposed on the covers).
I wish ‘Bing’ got more into the relationship between Chandler and his mother – much of the details amount to muffled noise behind a closed door. After Ross kisses his mother while drunk at a restaurant (which Ross points out is a plot plucked from classic Greek theater), Chandler gets mad at both of them. Why is he mad at his mother? It’s not really clear, outside of her confident aura of sexuality shown on her Leno appearance, and comments made about her son (“I was a great mother… I bought him his first condoms!”). There’s a lot to be said about a son whose mother aired her relationships out in public (her novel Mistress Bitch) and how she contrasts with Chandler’s complete lack of sexual confidence… instead, it all amounts to a comment about how their relationship “is complicated”.
However, ‘Bing’ really shits the bed with Phoebe and Monica, who live out these weird, materialistic fantasies about a man in a coma, forcing their projections of the perfect man (which are the most typical, bland qualities a man could possibly have), and throw them into competition over a man who ends up not interested in either of them at the end of the day. It’s definitely an ending the characters earned (who would want to date two women who obsessed over you for two weeks straight? Creepy!), but it’s execution its neither humorous or rewarding in any sense of the word. A string of solid episodes ends with ‘TOW Mrs. Bing’, a shallow affair littered with stereotypes and predictable, half-baked humor.
- “there’s no J in engorged.”
- I want to know how many books Nora wrote with the word euphoria in the title – there are two mentioned here, there must be more.
- I like Chandler’s mother in this episode – her next appearance six seasons later, not so much.
- Paulo: “Nora Bing!”
- While reading the paper to the passed out guy, Monica details the news, weather, stocks, and “teams played sports.” So thorough.