The aim of this blog is to analyse, take apart, look at technical elements of stories – TV episodes, films, and so on, to look at the story, characters, jokes, look at what, in my opinion, works and doesn’t, and why.
I’m going to begin not by looking at any particular story element, but looking at one episode in particular, from whatever angles I can see.
So, I’m going to start by looking at an early episode of Friends, a two parter beginning with The One Where Ross and Rachel Take a Break, an episode that launched perhaps the most annoying and least funny repeated gag of any sitcom ever.
Anyway, that’s all in the future. The horrible, cheesy, catchphrase-reliant, badly written future. I’m just going to look at the two-parter, with a few divergences to look at the show in general.
The episode opens with Joey trying to get money from Monica for eating a jar of pickles, Phoebe runs in, announces she has a date with an ambassador she met while giving free massages at the UN, and now wants to know where his country is. Monica has no atlas, but has a globe, which she rushes into her bedroom to get… and returns with a tiny pencil sharpener globe.
Chandler enters, in desperate need of something – anything – to photocopy, so he can see Copyshop Girl.
It’s all kooky, wacky, big, comedy, bold characters and actions. None of it is particularly subtle, and the humour is all a bit OTT rather than any character-based laughs, but it is bold and colourful, and all four come across as likeable here, as was common in the early years.
After the titles, we go to the copy shop, where Chandler and Joey are stood, quietly begging Copyshop Girl’s line to go down faster than the other. Again this is silly, but pretty funny. There’s a desperation to the facial expressions, particularly Chandler (Matthew Perry). Joey and Chandler are the playboy and the sarcastic wit, but silly little boys as well – there’s a child-like aspect to their behaviour that’s fun to buy in to. Obviously a sitcom succeeds or fails on the quality of it’s jokes, but it’s also important that the characters are likeable, that the audience will care about what happens as they watch them, and hopefully, when watching, feel like they’re catching up with old friends. They’re extroverts having fun, a friendship where each is feeding off the other – a similar appeal to Homer Simpson. With the chemistry and charisma between the two actors, and the quality of the writing Friends had in it’s early years, the pairing would be entertaining doing just about anything.
Ross enters Monica’s apartment with flowers – interrupting Phoebe showing Monica where on the pencil sharpener the Ambassador is from – he’s upset, as it’s his and Rachel’s anniversary, and Rachel is still working. He’s emotional, and vulnerable, someone who really cares, and wants everything to be perfect.
Interestingly, no-one mocks him for this or makes jokes at his expense.
By contrast, in How I Met Your Mother, probably the show that’s came closest to hitting the same kind of appeal Friends had at it’s height, the hero, Ted Moseby, is often mocked by his friends for the same kind of romantic earnestness.
Ross, here at least, generally isn’t. This could be because HIMYM has an extra layer of irony and distance, but Friends always seemed to take it’s romances seriously, as far as I can recall.
After we catch up with Joey and Chandler defining the rules for participating in a threesome together (they really are close), action moves on to Rachel’s workplace. Ross surprises her as she’s trying to be romantic, ends up just being distracting. There’s some good slapstick here – he sets fire to the desk as he tries to light some candles, and goofily running round her preparing the perfect dinner.
The scene then cuts to Ross in the apartment. Rachel comes in, and they argue, with some really emotionally charged, good one-liners.
As a fan of both How I Met Your Mother and the early years of Friends, I can appreciate the qualities of both, and my instinctive feeling is that every subject should be up for mockery, nothing should be off-limits. But I wonder if maybe the decision not to mock Ross’ earnestness (and it does seem a conscious decision here) helps give the emotional scenes more power?
We join Phoebe’s second date with The Ambassador, this time with Monica accompanying as a date for The Translator.
Monica’s flirting with The Translator, Phoebe and The Ambassador are trying to do the same, but, well, it’s not easy when poetic, romantic lines are translated with indifference – ‘he thinks you look very pretty tonight, your hair, golden like the sun.’
Chandler and Joey are in a club humoring Copyshop Girl, when Dinosaur Guy shows up, upset about Fashion Woman. Turns out Copyshop Girl (Chloe) knows Ross, and, for some reason, thinks he’s awesome.
There’s some brief scenes of Ross and Rachel being miserable, and Mark – Rachel’s work colleague and fuel to the fire of Ross’ neuroses, comes over to listen to her guilt and regret.
Mark is talking when Ross phones, Rachel lies about it being Mark, but Ross recognises him – there’s emotion and a laugh in this – the laughs here are dry, melancholic laughs. Mark asks Rachel questions at exactly the wrong time, feeding Ross’ fears.
This plot is more subtle, character based, than the Monica and Phoebe relationship plot it’s cut across from.
Simon Nye, the creator and writer on the British sitcom Men Behaving Badly, has said that he eventually came across a formula that served him well, that with the four characters he had in his series, he’d have two plots per epsiode, one funny, one serious plot told with jokes. I can’t say for certain how strictly he stuck to this rule, or how often Friends did, but it’s definitely at play here in The One Where Ross and Rachel Take a Break, with the story cutting back and forth between the broader comedy, and the dramatic plot here.
The episode returns to the restaurant, where the Translator’s telling Monica about the time he ‘said good bye to my dog, In seven languages,’ while Phoebe and The Ambassador watch on. (There’s no obvious anger in the Translator’s face – diplomacy’s definitely the right career for him.)
After ranting and raving at his boss, Monica and the Translator leave, abandonning Phoebe and the Ambassador: ‘Plate’ ‘See, we don’t need them.’ ‘Plate.’ ‘Yeah.’
The double date plot is funny in part because of the emotional distance – we see the Translator blowing up, not all of what drove him to this.
There’s a famous quote from Mel Brooks, that ‘Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die’.
The Translator and Ambassador plot could be told with emotional depth – it’s the story of a loyal servant, pushed to his limits, presumably accompanying his boss wherever he goes, on both professional and personal matters. From a neutral perspective, this is just as tragic as Ross’ and Rachel’s troubles, possibly more so. However, here the story is told from a distance, and is definitely funnier this way.
Finally, we catch up, through the medium of montage, with Ross, drinking miserably as Chloe flirts with him, Rachel sitting alone by a window as U2’s With or without you plays. Chloe gets a miserable Ross onto the dancefloor, she kisses him, and he kisses back…
The morning after, Rachel tells Monica about their argument the previous night, shocking Monica at the exact right moment for her to send the contents of the blender up onto the ceiling. It’s a brief bit of catch-up to get the audience back into the swing of the plot, done with humour.
We see Ross, miserable, alone in bed…then Chloe emerges from bathroom.
Cut to Ross taking aspirin, upset, miserable, reacting in a broad, slapstick as he listens to Rachel’s messages on his machine. He’s manically getting rid of Chloe – ‘Do you need shoes?’ Throwing up cushions, desperately looking everywhere for them. It’s pretty broad comedy, and the third quarter of this two-parter is pretty much Ross working at hiding evidence of what he’s done, which is a surprisingly light and fun section, considering this is the kind of show that takes it’s character’s emotional suffering pretty seriously.
Unfortunately for Ross, it doesn’t last long, as he arrives in the coffee shop, just in time to discover that Rachel’s already been told.
We return from the advert break as Phoebe and Monica have decided to try out a new legwax, and scream so loud Joey and Chandler come running in with saucepans into Monica’s room to rescue them.
This traps the four of them in the room as Ross and Rachel come in arguing, performing a kind of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 commentary to their arguments.
This is pretty funny – the one-liners Ross and Rachel hurl at each other are sharp enough that they’d work on their own, both to tell the story and get a laugh, but the four of them listening in add another level of humour. (Ross: ‘No, it was a mistake! I made a mistake! Okay?’ Rachel: ‘A mistake?! What were you trying to put it in? Her purse?!’ Phoebe: ‘Where did he put it?’)
The whole thing is pretty intense by sitcom standards, and it’s pretty long as well. The temptation for any sitcom – particularly one where the characters are as close as those of Friends – is to think that arguments will end quickly, any disagreement will be sorted out pretty quickly. Given the nature of the disagreement it’s only right that this take longer, but it’s still impressive that it works so well, that the creators are willing to commit to the reality of the story they’re telling.
Like I say, the scene would work with just the two arguing – Ross trying to defend himself and Rachel flinging sharp insults back in his face, but having the other four listening in gives the chance to counterpoint this with broad humour –
Joey trying to throw psychic messages to put olives on the pizza, and Chandler flinching out of the way; Joey announcing he wants to start a new ‘take notice walk’, so on.
After one last big laugh (‘I’m not Joey.’ ‘Hey! Yeah, okay.’) there’s about a minute, minute and a half at the end of the episode, where Ross kisses Rachel’s arms, holds her tenderly, trying his best to win her heart back, only to come up against a stone wall from Rachel, before she tells him to leave. It’s a heart-breaking sequence, genuinely moving, and entirely serious. It’s very powerful, and adds power to what had gone before.
It’s interesting that the main story takes quite a while to emerge, nearly halfway through the first episode. It may seem like needlessly overanalysing what’s ultimately a structure to tell some jokes, but, from a writer’s point of view, I find it interesting that the main idea behind the two-parter takes so long to appear. Stories, whether in film, television and probably even novels to an extent, are nowadays treated as consumer products, that it’s important to ‘give the audience what they want’, so it’s reassuring that the biggest television show in the world (which Friends effectively will have been at the time) takes the time to tell the story properly. They let it emerge rather than having Ross burst into the room in the teaser scene and announce what’s going to be the dominant theme of the episode.
With a story that has so much impact on the series’ ongoing story arc, the writers must have started out with the idea of Ross and Rachel breaking up – not only does the story take it’s time emerging, it’s handled really well, being a dramatic and for the most part funny finale to the two-parter.
The Ambassador and Translator subplot is a funny stand alone story, whereas I remembered more than half of the scenes in the Ross-Rachel plot, I had forgotten about this completely. It’s nice to be reminded how routinely funny some of the more forgettable stories were.
Likability of Characters
Likability is important for any series – if the characters are placed in trouble, whether risk of death or emotional trouble, it raises the stakes if the audiece are worried about them – if the audience are indifferent to the characters’ suffering, they’ll be more likely to lose interest.
The main cast of Friends are very likeable – this is in the early days of the show, before Ross became psychotic and Joey was lobotomised. At the time, they were probably the most likeable cast on television.
I’m going to divert a bit into why likeability is important, and how it’s often sacrificed. At the start of the second episode, when the banana first hits the ceiling, Monica looks up briefly, totally concentrating on what Rachel’s saying, not even a hint she was obsessing over the cleanliness of her ceiling while listening to her best friend. This makes sense, as she’s not an awful human being.
In later years, they would probably play the scene with Monica obsessively looking up at the banana while trying to be a good friend, taking the kookiness to the point of being deeply annoying.
Here, there’s a brief, split second look up at first, then the episode returns to it when Phoebe enters.
It might be being a bit unfair by extrapolating what the series would have done, but in later years the show seemed determined to hit every possible comedic button, and usually as hard as possible. Character-based comedy is pretty much about flawed characters, so when you hit those comic buttons really hard, it means you’re making the character a really bad person, and taking away the reasons the audience should like, and sympathise with them.
David Schwimmer carries the majority of the drama here, playing Ross’ insecurity, then guilt. Jennifer Anniston doesn’t have to carry as much of the dramatic heavy lifting, but plays Rachel’s annoyance at needy boyfriend, then anger at being cheated on, very well.
The the two are witty when arguing, tender in first two scenes together – enough to build a sense that they’re interesting people, worth caring about.
Structure of the Universe
Does the fictional universe they’ve built make sense on it’s own terms, or are there things in there that contradict each other?
The universe shown on screen here is pretty consistent. One exception to this is Phoebe giving free massages at the UN – it’s something that’s not mentioned before or again, as far as I can recall.
How I Met Your Mother is really good at this kind of consistency – there’s an episode where Ted, the main character, is excited because he’s found a 1939 penny. At first, it only seems like a throwaway oneliner, a joke on his geekiness and sentimentality, but the show comes back to this in an episode later in the series, with a chain of events are triggered by the incident months earlier.
Of course, the aim of a sitcom is essentially to entertain, so consistent details like this nowhere near as important as in dramatic, plot-driven series like Lost, but it adds to a deeper world.
Now, to undermine the argument I’ve just made, Hancock’s Half Hour and Louis CK’s current show (I’ve not seen either, but know both by reputation) the main character’s job and other details, change from epiosde to episode. This is to allow differing plot options – the facts can change, while the personality of the character remains the same. Essentially in both these shows, the reality of the fictional universe is totally flexible as long as it allows a story to develop.
Both approaches are legitimate, and most shows, particularly long-running shows – are in the same boat as Friends – an essentially consistent universe, with strange developments, long-lost fathers and so on brought up when there’s potentially a story in it.
Obviously the UN work was brought up to allow what is a very funny plot, but it’s an opportunity for other plots spinning off her UN work, which I don’t think the show ever went back to.
Quality of Jokes
The BBC film critic Mark Kermode. He cites 5 big laughs per film as the standard to be met, perhaps 3 should be the level for a half-hour episode of a sitcom – should have an established relationship with the characters, writers and actors should be in a rhythm, know how to write for/how to play the character, etc.
That was the standard I set going in, and…well, I don’t know if it was because I was setting too low a standard, if I enjoyed it more because it was familiar, or just that this was atruly exceptional show at it’s peak, but in my notes, I noted 8 laughs in the first part and 11 in the second – take that for what it’s worth. (Apparently, as I laughed more at the second part, it means I find misery funny.)
The second episode is more tense than normal, but does a great job of combining the humour into the dramatic scenes. I’m not sure how well other sitcoms do this, but my instinct is that I can’t remember another extended argument in a sitcom that was emotionally powerful while being funny as well. I can recall plenty of arguments in sitcoms, but they’re generally comedically flat, being played as complete drama rather than comedy. I’m thinking of Homer and Marge Simpson fighting, or Frasier and Martin in the early years of Frasier.
Seeing people we care about argue isn’t generally entertaining in real life, so it’s a bit of a difficult trick to pull off.
The show, and this two-parter in generally, also manages to hit a variety of different styles of humour – the realistic, slightly dark character humour of the Ross and Rachel plot, and the broader humour of Joey and Chandler’s infatuation, and the Ambassador and Translator plot, to a high standard.
How well does it work as a Pilot?
There’s an idea that every episode of a series should act as a pilot, introducing the characters to a new, first-time viewer. Not always possible, particularly with complicated shows (Lost again a good example). This does make it easier to grow an audience, as viewers who miss the start can come in later, it also makes accessible for occasional viewers.
Everything that the audience need to know is on the screen – Ross & Rachel’s relationship is communicated well – they’re a loving couple going through a rough patch, Ross’ unfounded fears about Rachel’s closeness to Mark being part of this.
The opening scene is a good introduction to Joey, Chandler, Monica and Phoebe – Joey’s love of food, Chandler’s goofily indirect seduction plans, Phoebe’s wholehearted extrovert nature, Monica’s kookiness, there’s a sense of them as people straight away. Everything is easily communicated without being expositional in a way that seems unreal.
What I’d Do Differently
Looking at things analytically, looking at their aims and what they’re trying to do, what would I do differently, to achieve what they’re trying to do, better than they have done?
There’s obviously things I would have done differently, different angles I would have taken, different jokes written and so on, had I tried to write a script with the same ideas. But, in terms of actually improving on what’s been done here, it’s hard to say what would do that. The writers here have set out to create an emotional plot between the two lovers, in which things fall apart but it’s not easy to apportion the blame, with broader plots overlapping with this, and hitting high standards of emotion and humour. It’s really quite hard to pinpoint a weakness in this two-parter.
It would be fun to see a bit more of Joey, Chandler and Chloe in the club – after getting excited about spending time with Copyshop Girl, we see them politely listening as she talks them through the different photocopiers she works with – she’s enthusiastic and energetic but perhaps dull, sexually liberal but not much interesting to say?
Given how long past it’s best Friends stayed on the air, it’s easy to forget just how good it once was.