friends s2 ep14

‘The One with the Prom Video’  (aired 2/1/96)

Back in 2004, USA Today ran an internet poll asking a simple question: what is the best Friends episode? 1.6 million votes determine the winner: ‘The One with the Prom Video’, known for its iconic flashback sequence that finally catalyzed the Ross/Rachel relationship everybody(?) wanted. But is it the greatest episode of Friends ever? I’d say it’s not even close – and most of the reason stems from the season as a whole, and not just the events of this episode.

I’ve talked at length about the issues with the Ross/Rachel material throughout the season, but they pop up time and time again in the first 15 minutes of ‘The One with the Prom Video’. First off, I don’t see Ross ever being the type to try and interrupt Rachel when she’s flirting with a guy. It’s just not in his character – not before this episode, and not after. But this is minor: what is more troublesome is the speech Rachel delivers to him about them never, ever being together, and Ross just needing to get over that fact.

The funny thing about that speech is just how forced it is; are we really supposed to believe as an audience that Rachel and Ross would not get together? It’s one thing to delay the inevitable, and it’s another to throw dumb red herrings in the audience’s face, which this feels like. The coffee shop scene personifies everything wrong with the Ross/Rachel build-up: it’s so concerned with hitting all the typical, cliched (and completely illogical) notes that Hollywood romantic comedies hit. What’s wrong with this, you might ask? Well, the natural construction of these comedies is to create love where there is none, forcing a romantic conclusion onto two characters that don’t get along for the majority of the film’s length. Essentially, two people that hate each other magically turn rage in love, middle fingers into kisses, and legit philosophical dissonances as something easily laughed off when two people are in love.

(note: I’m not even going to talk about Phoebe and her little “lobster” speech… it’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard anyone say on this show, and only serves to further the purpose of this love that we’re supposed to believe is ‘destiny’).

It’s a joke – and all season, we’ve had nothing but these trite exchanges between the two, so on-the-nose and forward-leaning that it’s made most of their scenes unwatchable. There’s a reason Joey and Chandler’s silly side plot over hurt feelings nails the romantic comedy tone that Rachel/Ross fail to: we know Joey and Chandler love each other, which makes their Odd Couple-esque activities much more honest. Joey wants to Chandler to be proud of him, and just finds a shitty way to express it. Shit, Chandler even suffers through wearing the monstrosity, despite it being a “woman repellent”, because Joey’s his best friend in the world, which means compromise and sacrifice is something he’s willing to accept.

When have we seen Rachel and/or Ross ever do this?

The answer before tonight’s episode is never – and after the episode ends, the only one who has is Ross. Which brings us to the only part of the episode anyone really wants to talk about: the prom video, which is one of the single greatest scenes in this show’s history, despite the purpose it serves (more on that in a bit). It takes us back to the late 1980’s, with Jack and Judy Gellar are videotaping Monica and a pre-nose job Rachel as they get ready for prom. Monica’s fat, eating a sandwich out of nervousness as she waited for her date (who had seen Star Wars 317 times, a record) and Rachel’s date Chip. When it doesn’t look like Chip will show, Rachel gets upset (“I’m not even going to get to go to my own prom… that is so harsh!”) and Judy gets the ingenious idea that Ross (in his ‘disco Jew’ phase, complete with afro) should wear Jack’s suit and take her to the prom.

That video is one of the only examples of Friends showing and not telling us something. For the first time, we get to see Ross’s raw attraction to Rachel, unable to adjust her dress or have small talk with her out of pure sheepishness and lack of confidence on his part (“what are you doing this summer… I’m going to work on my music” he tells her). Putting on that tuxedo (“be cool” he tells himself after putting it on) is a big step forward emotionally for Ross: he’s exposing himself for the first time, trying to come out of his shell because he’s a “college man”: who wouldn’t want him, right?  Turns out the answer is nobody: before she even knows his plan, Rachel’s on her way out the door with Chip, who arrived while Ross was getting dressed (or tripping up the stairs). Ross is noticeably crushed, and the video ends on his face, saddened by the missed opportunity he waited a few seconds too long to seize.

It’s really a genius sequence, one that doesn’t rely too heavily on ‘fat Monica’ jokes or the 80’s humor, like every single flashback from this moment on would on Friends. It’s a flashy sequence full of character references and funny costumes, but it’s a captivating little bit of historical footage, showing the dynamic in the Gellar household (notice how the video cuts to the Gellar’s sex tape when it gets to Monica’s footage of dancing with her father) and giving life to an emotion we’ve been told to accept from the pilot: that Ross has been in love with Rachel for a decade.

Without context, the flashback is an amazing bit of writing – but in the context of the season, I’m not sure it works as they had planned it. After presenting us with 13 episodes of why Rachel and Ross are a terrible pairing, a moment from a decade ago (when essentially, these seven people were completely different human beings) changes feelings she’s been expressing for a month straight? That was the moment that turned Ross from a friend into a lover – that moment of “it almost happened” in high school? It seems very odd, and Rachel’s silent walk over to kiss him is great in terms of dramatic effect (director James Burrows employs his immediately-recognizable tracking shots made famous while directing Cheers and other sitcoms), but in terms of narrative coherency, the motivations (and inherent believably) is shaky, at best.

Why? The scene suggests that Rachel finally realizes how Ross feels about her, and puts aside her preconceptions about them possibly dating. SHE’S ALREADY DONE THAT – and got pissed when Ross tried to compare and contrast her with Julie. In reality, all ‘Prom Video’ does is backtrack a few episodes, except without sparing us the stupid Russ story line and the unnecessary hostility between them.

That’s not to say I don’t like this episode – but I don’t think the most famous parts of it are the best. The Joey/Chandler subplot is amusing and mostly insignificant (a slight precursor for what is to follow, I suppose), Phoebe’s a wash as usual – but I really, really like the Monica subplot as she struggles to find money to pay her rent , once it gets past the rape-y creep who interviews her in the cold open (Patrick Kerr, best known as Noel on Frasier‘s later seasons). Her internal fight to ask her parents for money is one any modern college-attending student can attest to, and both her parents and Monica play it great, ending with her father ‘pulling’ a quarter from behind her ear, and Monica asking: “hey, you got anything bigger back there?”

Thankfully, this episode ends the ongoing non-courtship between Ross and Rachel, and kick off my two favorite story lines in the series: Ross and Rachel dating (and failing at it), and what’s about to happen with Monica (hint: it involves a tall man with a famous mustache). Maybe that’s why I don’t completely despise ‘The One with the Prom Video’ – I know that the worst is behind me (for now), and can enjoy the rest of the second season now that they’re done teasing us with the Ross/Rachel pairing (again… for now).

Grade: B

Other thoughts/observations:

– do you think anyone who watches this episode now gets the Welcome Back, Kotter reference in the prom video?

– Monica’s resume reference is her previous manager, Chandler Bing.

– Jack: “That Steffi Graf has quite a tush… I’m just saying, it’s right there!”

– Joey grabbing his dick is one of the oddest gestures his character ever made. Such a weird moment between him and Chandler there.

– Rachel is still holding out hope for her parents reconciling – Jack just can’t believe it didn’t happen sooner, after the ‘Hawaii Incident’.

– Phoebe… don’t ever talk about lobsters again. It may be true scientifically, but it’s such crap in terms of Ross and Rachel.

– Phoebe: “I think I’m ready for my penis now.”

– Joey’s  Marcel Marceau impersonation is spot on.

– I love Jack’s popped collar in the prom video.

– Rachel to Ross: “I am not yours to save.” Ten minutes later, she’s his to save. C’mon people.

– Chandler + over-the-top physical performances = comedy gold.

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3 thoughts on “Second Look: Friends ‘The One with the Prom Video’ – Focus On This

  1. I never noticed the rape jokes in that scene with Monica and the restaurant manager. I always just assumed she realized she was blowing the interview and ran off out of shame. Seeing that metaphor revealed definitely puts that scene in a new context for me!

    Honestly, in spite of how formulaic and typically rom-commish it is, this episode never fails to touch me. Sure, when you look at their history (and future) together, the Ross/Rachel kiss at the end doesn’t make a lot of sense. But it’s delivered so well and so passionately that I can suspend my disbelief and smile when I see it. If mostly because they’re at least temporarily putting all their petty issues aside.

    I’m also glad the flashback scene didn’t play too much into 80’s cliches or fat Monica jokes. The latter, especially, would become VERY problematic later in the series.

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