On September 22, 1994, Ross Geller, while sitting in a coffee shop with his friends said, “I just want to be married again!” and then Rachel Green burst through the front doors in her wedding dress. TWENTY YEARS AGO.
*Obligatory OH MY GOD I AM SO OLD moment*
I can’t remember a time where I didn’t love Friends. It’s become a part of my DNA in the twenty years since its premiere. I quote it in some capacity, be it a line, or saying something in Chandler-speak, on almost a daily basis. I know I’m in a REALLY bad place if a repeat on Nick at Nite can’t make me laugh. The mutual love Sage and I shared for this show became the very foundation of our friendship when our friend Angel looked at us and said, “You guys should team up for Friends trivia because you’re equally insane about it.” It’s my ultimate comfort show and it seems to be the same thing for so many of our readers, as all of our character appreciation posts rank among the most viewed on this site.
What is so special about Friends is that it is both a very specific slice of its decade (it is SO 90’s I can’t get over it) yet it also remains timeless in its stories and its themes and its characters. There’s a reason why Friends trivia is packed every time we go (and have our asses handed to us because there are people out there more fanatical that us, if you can believe it): everyone sees a bit of themselves in this show, be it in the characters or the situations they get themselves into. People will still be saying “Gum would be perfection” and “WE WERE ON A BREAK!!” when the fortieth anniversary rolls around. It’s that timeless.
When I first broached the idea for this anniversary post to Sage, we both thought it would be an impossible task to narrow down our list to twenty (you all witness the bloodbath when it came to picking our X-Files episodes after all). Turns out, it wasn’t that hard. While there were several episodes that we were sad to leave out (“All The Thanksgivings”, “The Kips”, and “The Cheesecakes” were on that list), we were very much of the same mind when it came to the best episodes of Friends. The best episodes ARE about the monumental and iconic moments of the series, but they are also the ones that fully utilized one of the best ensembles in TV history. We felt very strongly that each of our twenty had to showcase the entire cast well because as Joey proved, these six characters are best when they are together. So I’m not going to SAY that this list is the definitive one, but I’m going to strongly suggest it.
Screw it. These are the best twenty episodes, end of story. Deal with it.
20) “The One with the Holiday Armadillo” (7 x10)
You’ve got plenty of Thanksgiving episodes ahead of you on this list, but “Holiday Armadillo” is the only Christmas-themed episode to sneak into our Top 20.
If you follow me on Twitter, then you’re probably familiar with my opinion on early-series Ross. I’ll leave that version be for now. This list is a celebration, not a lecture. Instead, I’ll talk about how much I adore him at this level. At this level and in this armadillo suit.
Ross’s determination both to teach his son a few things about Hanukkah and to make sure he has a fun Christmas sets Monica’s apartment as the stage of “the Easter Bunny’s funeral.” The wardrobe department outdid itself with Ross’s “weird, turtle-man” suit, the armadillo get-up he re-classifies as “Santa’s representative to the Southern states aaaaannnnd Mexico!” He’s at his best when he’s at his goofiest, and the show takes this opportunity to mix in a little farce. The Holiday Armadillo is joined by Chandler’s constipated-looking Santa Claus, who does his part to get Ben to pay attention to the story of “theeee Maccabees!” and then eventually by Superman, who is less helpful.
The B-plot is less cartoonish than the A, but a solid usage of all the apartment-switching that goes on these later seasons. Phoebe’s apartment is ready for Rachel to move into, but Phoebe feels insecure about their plans when she sees what a blast her future roomie is having at Joey’s. This very plotline is why I don’t understand the anti-Rachel/Joey camp when they contest that the show laid no groundwork for the pairing. It may not be romantic at this point, but Rachel and Joey are clearly bonding in a new way. Matt and Jen are a fun pair to watch and always were. (See: sailing on the Mr. Beaumont.) Their responses to Phoebe’s “gifts” are a delight, from Rachel’s cool-girl reaction to the tarantula to Joey’s panicked fall off the drum set to their A-for-effort duet of the one song they know.
Phoebe was panicking for nothing; of course Rachel wanted to go live with her girlfriend. But plans change when they arrive at a fully renovated one-bedroom. Even the contractors ship it, people.
Phoebe: Monica and Chandler said that you were having so much fun here. And apparently no amount of drums or tarantulas is gonna change that.
Rachel: Did you get all this stuff for Joey to try and drive me out of the apartment? Honey, if you wanted to do that, you might as well just gotten him a fish. You know how fish freak me out!
19) “The One with Phoebe’s Wedding” (10 x 12)
Weddings gone awry is a classic trope that just about every sitcom has done and one that Friends visited three times over the course of its ten-year run (more on one of them later). The final season of Friends spent a good chunk of its time tying up all the loose ends of the series, making sure all of our beloved gang (except for Joey because of that stupid spin-off. #neverforget) got to the places in their lives where we would be happy leaving them, knowing that they are okay. What makes “Phoebe’s Wedding” so special is the way that the gang rallies around Phoebe (who more than any one of them, had relied on her friends as her family of choice) as she marries her perfect man in a ceremony that was traditional, yet so unique that it could ONLY be Phoebe’s wedding. There are wonderful callbacks to previous moments in the series, from Monica being Phoebe’s Maid of Honor, just as the girls planned out when Rachel got to be Monica’s (“Yeah okay, you laugh now, but she’s gonna be yours.”) to Joey still being ordained so that he can step in when the blizzard prevents the minister from getting there (stepping up from his position of Phoebe’s dad, which don’t get me started on that scene, cause I will short-circuit my computer from all my tears). I love how eventually the entire gang gets involved in the wedding, from Chandler walking Phoebe down the aisle (“Aren’t you cold?” “I don’t care, I’ll be my something blue!” “You look beautiful.” #cryingforever) to Ross escorting Rachel and Chappy in the procession. Because even if it wasn’t how Phoebe and Mike intended, it wouldn’t have been right if all five of Phoebe’s best friends, who had been there with her through so much, hadn’t all be involved in the wedding.
Let’s discuss that perfect man, shall we? While I always carried a secret torch for Joey and Phoebe (please, you did to), I recognized that it would be horribly clichéd if they ended up together. Friends was better than that. While Phoebe had some great suitors over the years (David, The Cop [till he shot a bird]), no man balanced out Phoebe Buffay like Mike Hannigan did. On paper, you would have never thought that these two would work. Mike was blue-blooded and a bit privileged (but with the soul of an artist) while Phoebe was daffy and free-spirited and had lived on the streets. Yet they lit each other up. Mike accepted everything about Phoebe at face value and embraced (and defended) her weirdness. He became her anchor and she helped him embrace his own quirks. He viewed every day with her as an adventure. There could have been no man more worthy of her wonderfulness.
But the best part about the episode is how the wedding ended up taking place in front of Central Perk, this magical coffeehouse where Phoebe Buffay found her true family and became the person that Mike fell in love with. Looking back, it couldn’t have taken place anywhere else.
Phoebe: So there’s no one to walk me down the aisle and… well, I would just really love it if you would do it.
Phoebe: Yeah, you’ve… you know, sort of been like a dad to me. I mean, you’ve always, you know, looked out for me and shared your wisdom…
Joey: I am pretty wisdomous.
Phoebe: So… what do you say?
Joey: Are you kidding? Phoebe, I would be honored.
Phoebe: Oh, thank you. I hope… I hope you know how much you mean to me.
Joey: Listen, I hope…that you know…I don’t want you to see your father cry, GO TO YOUR ROOM!
18) “The One where Mr. Heckles Dies” (2 x 03)
I should no longer be surprised that Kim and I share a brain, but I was pleased to see that she also put this unassuming little season two episode on her shortlist. So much went down that year, particularly with Ross/Rachel and Monica/Richard; and there a lot of “event” episodes, some of which we’ll run into later. But “TOW Heckles Dies” stands out as a character study on Chandler Bing: insecure, dissatisfied, emotionally stunted.
I could have done with years more of Mr. Heckles weirding out the entire building. He made a big impact in a small amount of screentime, and it’s obligatory Friends fan behavior to yell “HECKLES!” when one sees Larry Hankin in anything else. But Friends killed him off to give Chandler his A-ha moment. Oprah would be proud.
Heckles goes to the lord with a broom in his hand, presumably in the process of sending a message to “Noisy Girl 1″ and “Noisy Girl 2.” Then he sends them another, more inscrutable message. He leaves the contents of his entire apartment to Monica and Rachel. And while they sort out the remnants of his life, Chandler notices some striking parallels. Kooky hermits aren’t born that way. Heckles wasn’t always alone. He used to be the funniest guy in the room too. Chandler projects, assuming that Heckles alienated himself. And then Chandler decides that if he doesn’t stop rejecting the women he dates out of pickiness, he’ll eventually have to trade women in for snakes.
Chandler: “If I’m gonna be an old, lonely man, I’m gonna need a thing, you know, a hook, like that guy on the subway who eats his own face. So I figure I’ll be Crazy Man with a Snake, y’know. Crazy Snake Man. And I’ll get more snakes, call them my babies, kids will walk past my place, they will run. ‘Run away from Crazy Snake Man,’ they’ll shout!”
Though Crazy Man With A Snake would have been a better Friends spin-off than Joey, this was not to be. As his girls counsel him, Chandler isn’t in any danger of ending up alone. He wants too badly NOT to be.
The rest of “Heckles Dies” consists of conflict between other Friends. Rachel and Monica clash over ownership of their apartment when Rachel wants to bring some of their dead neighbor’s kitschy aesthetic into Apartment 20. (“Is this tacky or what? We have to have this.”) And Phoebe delights in infuriating Ross by proclaiming her disbelief in evolution (“It’s a nice story, I just think it’s a little too easy.”) and later, gravity. (“I don’t know, lately I get the feeling that I’m not so much being pulled down as I am being pushed.”) She knows exactly what she’s doing and Ross is just begging to be knocked off his high horse. He thinks of himself as someone practical and grounded, but Ross is definitely not as in control of his emotions as she is. (“Is there blood coming out of my ears?”) And Bravo, Lisa Kudrow, because you can practically see the evil gleam in Phoebe’s eyes when she knowingly exploits that.
Rachel: Hey, Chandler. Monica broke my seashell lamp.
Chandler: NEAT. I’m gonna die alone.
Rachel: …Okay, you win.
17) “The One with All the Resolutions” (5 x 11)
When we first started putting this post together, much like we did with The X-Files and The Office, Sage and I independently made lists of episodes we would consider, exchanged them, and then pulled out all the ones we had listed in common (FORTY EPISODES #mindmeld) and then submitted episodes that we would fight for. “The One With The Resolutions” was on my list, and I was SO HAPPY when I got a text message from Sage during her rewatch saying “Yeah, I am with you one ‘Resolutions'”.
The premise of the episode is simple: the gang makes their New Year’s Resolutions (“JUST THE ONE DIVORCE IN ’99!!!”…which is hilarious considering the events of the season finale in Vegas). These resolutions vary in degrees of difficulty. Chandler vows not to make fun of his friends for a week. Rachel promises not to gossip. Ross vows to try something new every day. Joey decides to learn guitar. Phoebe decides to become a pilot. And once and for all proving that I am Monica and she is me, Monica promises to start taking more pictures of the gang. Where “TOW All the Resolutions” succeeds is in the execution of just how hard it is for the gang to keep their resolutions (“Hornswaggle? Oh, this must be killing you!”). Phoebe, much to Chandler’s chagrin and torment, is a terrible guitar teacher, from her “no strings policy” to her names for guitar chords (“Now, I don’t know the actual names of the chords but umm, I-I-I made up names for the way my hand looks while I’m doing them. So then, this is Bear Claw. Okay, umm, Turkey Leg and Old Lady.”). Rachel finds out about Monica and Chandler and then can’t tell anyone without breaking her no gossip rule (“All right, how about I go over there and I will walk into Chandler’s bedroom and I will see that thing that I think that I know is actually the thing that I think that I know!”). However, the shining moment of the episode comes from Ross and his Leather Pants.
I said it in my Ross Appreciation Post and I’ll say it again here: David Schwimmer never got enough credit for his brilliance as a physical comedian AND for the way he would use his voice to convey sheer and utter horror (I often wonder if they ACTUALLY put him in pants that were too small for him in this scene or if he was just ACTING like they wouldn’t come up. Thoughts?). Our favorite Ross is an unhinged Ross, and the way David builds Ross’ panic in this scene is fantastic. If you don’t have tears rolling down your face by the time Ross dejectedly comes out of the bathroom, clutching his balled up leather pants over his junk, you may want to reexamine your sense of comedy. Ross gets himself in ridiculous situations as the series progresses…the teeth bleaching, the spray tan…but the leather pants take the cake. Bonus points to Joey for being the voice of reason on the other end of Ross’ phone call.
Joey: Ross? You okay?
Ross: They’re still, they’re still not coming on man and the lotion and the powder have made a paste!
Joey: Really?! Uhh, what color is it?
Ross: What difference does that make?!
Joey: Well, I’m just—if the paste matches the pants, you can make yourself a pair of paste pants and she won’t know the difference!
He’s putting out fires everywhere, people.
Chandler: I can’t take it any more! So you win, okay? Pheebs? Flying a jet? Better make it a spaceship so that you can get back to your home planet! And Ross, phone call for you today – Tom Jones, he wants his pants back! And Hornswoggle? What? Are you dating a character from “Fraggle Rock”? Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.