‘The One with the Chicken Pox’ (aired 5/9/96)
Phoebe’s got a boyfriend in town – which means there’s really nothing going on in ‘Chicken Pox’, one of many Phoebe episodes where we laugh about her failed romances and bohemian nature. As a character, she’s only got two real arcs on the show: her brother (in seasons three and four) and her eventual husband (tacked on to the final season in order to throw her a bone) – everything that focuses on her outside of those moments is so inconsequential to the world of Friends. By the 48th episode, however, it’s clearly been established that Phoebe’s the least important character on the show, as she spends another pointless half hour with a man she apparently cares about, but will never be mentioned outside the context of this episode.
Sure, every network comedy has episodes where the writers are clearly running out of ideas for the season – with 13 hours to fill, there’s a lot of time to be filled in, and there’s bound to be half hours where nothing happens that really matters. Where Friends always struggled is finding something to ground those kinds of episodes in – just look at the three basic plots of ‘Chicken Pox’: Phoebe gets a rash, Joey works with Chandler, and Monica and Richard spend all of their scenes in the bedroom. There’s certainly possibility in these stories, but there’s no attempt at finding anything interesting there: it’s all good for a few laughs, and everybody gets to go home early at the end of the day.
When these episodes inevitably occur, the only thing they really need to maintain to be enjoyable is pretty obvious: it has to be funny, which ‘Chicken Pox’ really isn’t. To say a young Charlie Sheen is wasted is an understatement: he’s so tame and measured, it doesn’t really feel like him and Phoebe have known each other for as long as they say, or that he’s visiting for something other than a piece of ass. Their plot is really just an excuse for some sex euphemisms, as they rub each other with Monopoly pieces and try to undress each other with pot holders covering their hands. The show doesn’t really even nail anything down in terms of how Phoebe really views Ryan – is he like David, a man that Phoebe loves and can never have, or is he just some hot guy to nail once every couple years, like a Leap Year sex fairy. Do they need to establish this? I suppose they don’t, but without anything else to justify the presence of the plot, it really just feels empty. Nobody has feelings – or a noticeable lack of one – and without any definition, Ryan’s visit quickly reveals itself to be just another “let’s waste some extra time doing random stuff to Phoebe” time-padding story lines.
However, this is kind of what we all expect whenever we realize we’re watching a “Phoebe episode”: the real disappointment of ‘Chicken Pox’ comes from Joey and Chandler, who have a series of hijinks and laughs when Joey takes a job as a processor under Chandler’s supervision. At face value, the premise is hilarious (and meaningful, in terms of their still-mending relationship), but Friends goes in the opposite direction, turning Joey into a vapid, thoughtless, asshole version of himself, lying to everyone around the office and undermining Chandler’s authority every chance he could. And the show lets him do it: Chandler never calls him out for fucking with his livelihood (ironically, the same thing that keeps a roof over Joey’s head), nor do they pay any attention to the fact that Joey’s supposed to be desperate for a job, but doesn’t approach it like an adult in any way, shape, or form – in fact, going as far to make his best friend’s job worse, damaging his professional reputation in the process.
Joey’s really kind of repulsive in this episode: he hides from his own reality by pretending that the job keeping him from homelessness is some silly game for him to play. He’s nearly 30: if he’s not making any attempts to get his shit together after undermining his own career, why am I supposed to like this character? There’s no “loveable, loyal” Joey in this episode – just a conniving, passive aggressive prick whose immaturity threatens his supposed best friend’s career.
Finally, Richard and Monica are tossed into the margins of the episode with scenes that feel cut out of another episode and thrown in here. Their scenes take place only in the bedroom, and exist only to point out that Richard loves Monica, despite her being crazy and obsessive-compulsive about things. There’s nothing wrong with it – but again, it feels tacked onto everything else, the two of them largely isolated from the rest of the group, their interactions contained to some awkwardly shot sequences in the tiny set of Monica’s bedroom. Knowing what comes next, it even feels like a bit of deliberate audience-baiting, showing us a moment where Richard concedes to Monica’s wishes, showing how flexible and relaxed he is about who she is and what she wants (which of course, changes next week).
In other words, ‘Chicken Pox’ really is just an episode twiddling its thumbs until the finale, setting up Monica’s arc and throwing a bone to the character nobody really sees or cares about (Phoebe), and reminding us that they know how to screw up the one relationship they’ve gotten right when they really don’t feel like caring. It’s an episode that plays into the (false) preconception that filler episodes are naturally terrible: they don’t have to be. But if you forget about who your characters are and how they’d actually react to things, then it most certainly will be – and boy, is ‘Chicken Pox’ a stinker.
– The irony that Ryan works underwater and hates fish did make me smirk a bit.
– Ross’s sad “hello” makes its second appearance in the last couple episodes, which everybody knows is my least favorite character trait on the entire show.
– If Ryan’s only been underwater for eight months, wouldn’t he have shown up last season?
– When the writers are trying to make a sex joke out of Monica yelling at Chandler for “licking her muffin”, you can tell they’ve run out of jokes for the season.
– Joey: “Hey Chandler: you just gave me a place to live after I failed at life. Here, let me screw you over at work!”
‘The One with Barry and Mindy’s Wedding’ (aired 5/16/96)
If there’s one thing remarkable about ‘Barry and Mindy’s Wedding’, it’s its place in the Friends mythology. Of all the show’s ten season finales, ‘Barry and Mindy’s Wedding’ is the ONLY one that doesn’t focus on Ross and Rachel; even the season seven finale that’s supposed to be about Monica and Chandler is about Ross and Rachel, though it’s a hidden in the pregnancy cliffhanger. Unfortunately, it’s really the only remarkable thing about the season finale, which (like the previous episode) feels like the show only had two ideas for a finale, and were too tired to fill the other 12 or so minutes of the episode with anything interesting.
To speak frankly, Rachel’s presence at Barry and Mindy’s wedding just doesn’t make sense. She says she wants to be there without drawing any attention – but her mere presence at the wedding of her ex-boyfriend and her best friend (who cheated on her with) seems to contradict her supposed plan to be at peace with everything that’s happened. In a way, it’s a very cruel plot, one that takes pleasure in laughing at Rachel fumbling to not be awkward at the wedding, slapping their knees every time someone in the wedding party chastises Rachel for embracing her independence.
And it never culminates to anything: Rachel never stands up for herself, or has any moment of self-realization about her true intentions for attending his wedding. Instead, she decided to sing ‘Copa Cobana’ out of awkwardness, because even when people are cruel to each other, singing a song out loud somehow signifies your vulnerability and everybody loves. It just doesn’t work: it’s not funny, there’s nothing to tie it to what happened to Rachel this season… it’s just a pile of “Rachel’s an idiot!” jokes, complete with her dressed up in the wedding equivalent of a clown costume. I mean, Barry and Mindy told everyone she had syphilis, and she fucking stays and tries to enjoy it! It makes no sense – and worst of all, the guy who is supposed to be her “destined love” is just a prick, dismissing her with jokes and a poorly-constructed wedding toast that seemed to be more of an opportunity for him to brag and talk about how he ‘fixed’ Rachel’s life (again, undermining the supposed ‘nice guy’ persona that’s been attached to Ross since the pilot).
Rachel’s plot points out one of the big structural problems of the second season (and why season three as a whole, is much better): there are so many arcs that are either introduced and quickly dismissed (we’ll talk about Richard in a second), or simply don’t exist at all, that the season finale doesn’t feel like a season finale at all. Even Chandler, whose on and off adventures in dating this season come to a head when he falls in love with a girl online who turns out to be Janice. Her reveal at the close of the episode certainly fills the “shocking twist” box on the season finale checklist – but its obvious the show was reaching for some kind of reveal, without considering the context to which Chandler would be drawn back to Janice again (The arc is essentially 1) Chandler is nerdy with a girl online, 2) Chandler chases a married woman, and 3) that woman is Janice). It’s a great idea, but it’s not developed enough, a classic case of Friends eating their cake without taking the time make it, instead feeding the audience this half-baked story about the girl that Chandler can never shake: there are real reasons Chandler keeps coming back to Janice, but Friends proves once again it’s often ill-equipped to handle these things, wasting opportunities to deepen Chandler’s character with jokes about nerds on the internet.
Of course, there’s also Monica and Richard – which is just kind of sad, because it’s a great relationship destroyed by a ‘guest star’ contract, complete with an ending that reeks of it. Just an episode ago, Monica and Richard’s relationship was perfect, and Monica hadn’t thought about getting married or having kids (in fact, had never mentioned having kids before, save maybe for a joke or two while Susan was pregnant). But now she’s baby crazy, and throws away the best relationship of her life because Richard doesn’t want kids anymore. His position is logical – but with no attempt previously to draw out some kind of real dissonance between the two of them, it feels like a perfect relationship destroyed for no other reason than to have some painful emotional moment in the finale – but unlike last season’s, doesn’t spend an entire season building to that final moment. It renders it powerless – and more importantly, doesn’t feel like something Monica deserved, more a point of view shoved into her character because it allows them to make a clean break at the end of the season.
But that’s season two of Friends in a nutshell: the writers certainly reach for the big emotional moments in this season (whether with Richard/Monica, Ross/Rachel, or Joey and Chandler’s “separation”), but these ideas are never given more than an episode or two to breathe. It’s this kind of pseudo-serialized plot structure that doesn’t quite work, because the foundation underneath these huge emotional leaps or surprising plot twists isn’t fortified in anything real. It makes many episodes feel random, and in the end, the season ultimately feels pointless, even though it’s the season that brought Rachel and Ross together, saw Monica date Richard, and had Joey and Chandler’s first real falling out as an Odd Couple. It’s hard to be disappointed about something 18 years old: but that’s exactly how I feel after watching this second season. Sure it can be funny – and it did give us ‘The One Where Ross and Rachel… You Know’… but outside of that, it’s a very uneven season, full of inauthentic moments and rushed story lines for the sake of easy jokes. It’s definitely a broader version of Friends from its first season – but it’s not a better one, 24 episodes of sputtering that culminates in a fairly limp finale.
– I guess this is a good a time as any to announce that I will be covering season three. Gotta give the people what they want – and after I take a breather (I’ve basically been writing about Friends since December) and tackle another (unannounced as of yet) 90’s comedy, I’ll dig into what many consider the best season of Friends. Look for more news on this as fall gets closer.
– Monica and Richard have been dating for six or seven episodes: why do they need to figure out “where is this going?” They don’t really ever justify that.
– Chandler: “We don’t have your sheep.”
– if we haven’t had enough homoerotic Joey this season, he spends the episode trying to kiss Ross. Hilarious.
– Ross defining Rachel’s feelings for her (and her not saying anything about it) is by far the most disappointing component of the finale. One of the most frustrating things about their relationship is how Rachel always allows Ross to trample over her ideals and beliefs, and it rears its ugly head once again here.
– Hey, there’s Ben (but not with his own father), serving a purpose in one scene and then disappearing for the rest of the episode.
– Phoebe makes out with Joey nonchalantly, because friends just do that. Season two Phoebe is officially the worst (so far… Ross owns the last seasons as the worst character).