‘The One with the Bullies’ (aired 4/25/1996)
If you boil down ‘TOW the Bullies’ to its very core, it’s about control. At first, the plots of the episode feel very disconnected from each other (and without one signature scene with all the characters in it, certainly feels disjointed as a Friends episode), but rooted in each of the plots in ‘Bullies’ is this idea of characters trying to gain control of their lives.
The first character we see this is with Monica, in one of the best little contained plots of season two. Down to $127 in her bank account, she’s desperate for money-making ideas after attending a depressing job interview at a 50’s style diner (“I don’t want to have to wear flame-retardant boobs!” she cries at one point in the episode). So her great idea is to invest in the stock market: particularly the stock based on her initials. Taking this action in a very abstract sense, she believes that investing in herself is the way for her to further her career. She’s been a sous chef at a big, fancy restaurant before: she believes she’s in control of her destiny, and by putting her money in herself (metaphorically, of course), she thinks it will allow her to continue dictating her live.
The problem is that she’s not really doing this at all: instead of truly investing in herself, she makes a desperate move with the last bit of cash she has left in her savings, her last roll of the die to try and strike it big. She inevitably fails, and learns a few important lessons – chief among these that “stock selling store” is not an actual phrase. In all seriousness though, Monica has to come to terms with the fact that success is not always guaranteed in life: sometimes we have to sit on the sidelines and watch others live out our professional dreams. In reality, a lot of us won’t even get a turn – and by throwing away her money in an ill-thought out investment, she proved that she’s been viewing her reality from a skewered perspective: that is, she had all the answers to keep pushing herself forward.
Her humbling comes in a most amusing form: the closing tag of the group in the restaurant forcing Monica to dance on stage in full outfit is riotous, even though it’s one of those scenes we’ve all seen a million times. Courteney Cox really nails that scene: the look of pure humiliation and depression on her face is one everybody experiences early on in their professional lives (and for many, sadly a lot longer), when the shittiest option becomes the only one, and we’re forced to give up the professional control we though came standard with every adult life package.
The other big plot of the episode is focused on Ross and Chandler, who are being pushed around the coffee shop by a pair of nameless bullies, who are just around to be dicks, I suppose. Their presence is merely incidental, however: as unfunny as their characters may be, they serve an important purpose in the context of the episode. It plays back to the mentality Monica has towards her professional career: once we get a taste of adulthood and having control, it’s something we cling onto, even when it becomes counter productive and unhealthy. Ross and Chandler just don’t want to give up their couch to a couple of assholes, who challenge their masculinity and ridicule them with physical threats in public – something I’m sure they both thought would end the day they graduated high school.
What’s different about the Ross/Chandler and Monica plots is what makes them work so well together: whereas Monica’s arc is about giving up control, Ross and Chandler’s is about seizing it (this could lead down a very interesting road of gender roles on Friends… but we won’t get into that) – and so is Phoebe, who is with Rachel and Joey (because somebody had to be stuck with the characters who had nothing this week) in upstate NY, trying to visit her father again. Again, Phoebe’s trying to rein in her own life, and try and make the connections to her past to find out where she came from (and in turn, who she really is) – and once again can’t, using the excuse of a mean dog in the front yard as an excuse to run away.
What ‘Bullies’ really nails in the episode (and good thing it did – save for some Chandler material, it’s not a very funny episode) is forcing characters to face realities they’re trying to ignore. For those that continue to ignore it – Monica – the punishment is harsh (blonde wig and fake glasses 10 hours a day, anyone?); but for those who don’t, there are a bounty of rewards. Chandler and Ross unite with their bullies over some people stealing their jewelry, and although it takes Phoebe running over a dog to try and face her father (who remains absent), she finally makes a meaningful connection to something in her past: she meets her younger brother Frank Jr., a weird little kid who certainly appears to be searching for the same familial bond that Phoebe’s been looking for.
Am I reading WAY too far into ‘Bullies’? Probably – but there’s something really compelling about how the episode separates all its main characters (save for a few scenes where the plot lines cross paths) for very different plots, but massages the same philosophies into all of three of them in really succinct fashion. Not the funniest episode of Friends, but it’s one of the more impressive, a sneakily poignant episode about young adult life and the realization that it’s just like life as a kid, except everyone’s bigger and has sex with each other. We’re always searching for ways to be in control: and most of them are right inside ourselves, the last place any child would look.
– Chandler: “Do you have to be a 21st Century agent to wear one of those jackets?”
– nobody wants to have to drink Kappacuino.
– the dog will lick his balls, but not touch Joey’s olive loaf and ham sandwich – Rachel makes a fantastic point right there.
– Why is Phoebe dressed like its the 70’s?
– Chandler (again): “I think I’m growing my virginity back.” I wonder who he’ll seek out to solve this particular remedy? (hint: we’ll find out real soon).
– I still shake my head whenever I see Ross sucking up to the bullies. I’m not the head of the Masculinity Preservation club or anything, but man he acts like such a wimp in that first interaction with the unnamed antagonists.
‘The One with the Two Parties’ (aired 5/2/1996)
‘TOW the Two Parties’ takes a loooong time to get going: and by the time it finally does, it’s almost out of episode, and kind of has to wrap things up with a hug and a shrug of the shoulders. There’s a foundation for a really strong episode of Friends – but it never quite materializes, hidden behind prop gags and low-bar goofball comedy. It’s not a bad episode, per se – it’s just an episode of unfulfilled promise, amusing at times but never really embracing some of the ideas it presents.
It’s hard to say the episode has a “focus” – Rachel’s not really dealing with the impending divorce of her parents until the final few scenes, when she gets a little montage (complete with a signature 90’s Slow-Mo Look of Stressed Exasperation) and sits down with Chandler, the only person in the group who understands what its like when a family goes through a divorce. There’s even a nice visual touch: both Chandler and Rachel are the two prominent characters wearing the same color that sets up their one interaction at the tail end of the episode – but unfortunately, it’s the only real touch that goes beneath the surface of the inherent jokes of Monica throwing a shitty party, mixed in with the laziest form of multi-camera comedy: the series of misinterpretations that lead to near disaster, forcing characters to do very animated, mindless bits of humor (from Ross’s prop gags to the physical gags later with the guys trying to shield the parents from each other).
All that material (which is 98.5% of the episode) kind of distracts from what could be really compelling material: there are certainly real parallels to be drawn between Ross and her father (they’re both kind of selfish, they are a little too dedicated to their hobbies, they have PhD’s), but Friends exploits cheap humor out of Ross trying to cover for the second party going on across the hall, deriving humor from the cheapest places possible. Are parts of it funny? Sure: when Ross talks about his dinosaurs already being dead, the jokes are serving the purpose of finding humorous, but noticeable similarities between Rachel’s father and her boyfriend.
Of course, this in and of itself is kind of simple Freudian humor – but it’s certainly better than nothing, which is what this episode largely amounts to in the end. The parents never interact, and mopey Rachel gets held by her boyfriend, presumably making everything better. The issues ‘Two Parties’ introduced – which is kind of some heavy shit – are issues the writers clearly weren’t prepared to handle, and the episode just feels there was a great idea plopped down into the center of the script, and everybody tried to distance themselves as far away from that core is possible, only addressing things from the simplest comedic angles, and ignoring the massive potential to grow Rachel as a character at every corner.
– Monica’s flan: birthday cake, or infectious disease? Joey has his doubts: “Happy birthday! Here’s some goo.”
– How could anyone confuse Rachel with her mother? Phoebe: “because you’re both white women.”
– as always, Rachel is planning to exchange Ross’s birthday gift. It’s such an annoying, materialistic trait to apply to Rachel, and always frustrates me when it rears its head.
– Chandler: “Joey, I just had a girl’s tongue down my throat. I’m not even listening to you.”