Analysis

The Opening Scene of Friends

When I first started this blog, one of my initial aims was to analyse, to look at films and television from an analytical point of view, to tear things apart and look at why they do, or don’t, work.

As part of the process, I’ve looked at a few pilots, in particular how they introduce the characters, to take some tips for my own script.
In particular, the opening scene of Friends is, in my opinion, excellent. I’m not going to look at the quality of the jokes (I think that analysing humour tends to kill whatever was funny about the line or situation, and besides, that’s not really what interests me here) but at the way the characters are introduced.
First of all, I’d recommend you take a look at the video below, as it really is quite funny:

0:00 – 0:28 The episode (and the series) opens by introducing Central Perk coffee shop first, introducing the setting before the characters, and the sign on the window establishes that this is a coffee house.
Four of the main cast are discussing Monica’s pathetic love life, Joey mocking her while being smooth, Chandler quipping, Phoebe talking sympathetically about her ex-boyfriend’s chalk addiction.
Four of the main characters are fundamentally introduced here – Monica is pretty defensive and has romantic troubles, Phoebe is open-hearted and mixes with slightly weird people, Joey and Chandler are being smooth and quippy respectively, and to an extent playing off each other. Bear in mind that this is within the first twenty eight seconds of a brand new programme, and the audience should have a decent sense of who 67% of the main characters are already. That’s pretty efficient story-telling.
I just want to slow down for a second, and look at what we know about these characters based on just this very brief opening section.
Joey is cool, laid back, though the leather jacket is perhaps slightly overstating his character, making him seem a little bit more like Tony Danza than the character Joey Tribbiani would become.
Phoebe has her hair in pigtails (a girlish look) and is genuinely slightly weird, in a way that’s amusing and intriguing, rather than ‘look at me’ wackiness.
Chandler is quippy, with a fast-paced delivery, and Monica is more emotionally open and honest than the other characters, more open to mockery than doing the mocking.

0:28 – 1:00 The scene cuts forward to later, still at the cafe. Chandler is now telling the story of his dream, which is recognisable but… goes off in a weird direction.
And, while I may be reading a bit too much into the scene here, it also touches on the empathy of the series. The core audience was always, as far as I’m aware, people in their mid-twenties – similar people to the characters – just living a more glamourous and exciting life. It’s a slightly cheap trick, but introducing something – anything – that the audience can identify with, will help to build a bond between viewer and character. Also, Chandler’s dream condition sounds quite painful.

1:00 Ross enters, on the verge of collapsing into tears. Upset at his wife having left him, he’s being miserable and self-hating – hatred driven internally, rather than outward.
Joey’s line – ‘This guy says hello, I want to kill myself’ – shows that this is a group of friends willing to make jokes about even the misery they’re going through, suggesting a strong friendship, with no solid boundaries betwee them.
Concentrating on Ross’ behaviour for a moment, it’s striking how different his behaviour is here to in the later years of the series. His reaction to being left by the woman who had pledged to spend the rest of her life with him, makes him understandably miserable, but he doesn’t seem too angry about it.
Imagine if he acted in a different way. Imagine, to pick a totally random example, his ex-girlfriend, who dumped him after he slept with another woman several years earlier, pointed out that this hurt her, and he responded by, out of nowhere, yelling at her about how technically what he did was okay, because technically they hadn’t been a couple for about six hours when he slept with the other woman.
You wouldn’t like that guy, would you? Of course not, that guy’s a jerk, to put it mildly. So unless you have really bad taste in friends, you’d be annoyed by someone with such poor self-control and lack of perspective.
Here though, Ross, though clearly unhappy, has driven his anger inwards, he’s reluctant to even admit he’s angry at his ex-wife, who’s left him for someone else. The Ross – Rachel plot was the central driving narrative in the first few years. With Ross as the main protagonist of the series, establishing him as sympathetic and likeable early on is pretty important.

1:30 Combining my earlier points about Phoebe and Ross, trying to cheer Ross up, Pheobe ‘cleanses his aura’. Ross is clearly annoyed by it, but doesn’t get too worked up.
Ross doesn’t seem the type to believe in spirituality, but even at his emotionally lowest doesn’t snap at her, plus it helps establish Phoebe’s slightly weird personality a bit further.

1:44 Joey: ‘And you never knew she was a lesbian?’ Ross: ‘Why does everyone fixate on that?’
First of all, it’s a really funny line.
I’m not totally aware of the state of gay acceptance in mid-nineties New York. (In my defence, I was a kid living 300 miles away.) But I’ve read references to Ellen’s ‘coming out’ episode as being a major landmark in gay culture, and that came in 1997, three years after this episode was aired.  The idea plays up the metropolitan, colourful nature of New York, and, to an extent shows how nice a guy Ross is that this seems almost irrelevant to him. Though I’m not sure of the cultural context, it may have helped make the show seem edgy.
There were early plots centring around threesomes and being the other man in an open marriage. In the early years it was a little bit edgy, all things considered.

2:25 ‘I just want to be married again’, then Rachel shows up in a wedding dress. Chandler’s next line (‘And I just want a million dollars!’) shows his irreverence, and he’s mocking the show itself to an extent. I don’t want to get bogged down in how much the quality of the show dipped over time, but I’d say this acts as a sort of promise to the audience, that there’ll be big, interesting events happening in this and future episodes, but that the characters won’t take themselves too seriously.

2:50 Monica takes control when Rachel enters, introduces her to the other characters. This establishes that the two have the previous relationship, Monica’s position as the mother hen of the group, hammers home who the characters are (I don’t think Joey and Chandler were mentioned by name before this).
Having re-watched a few of the first few years of Friends in recent months, most of them in or just after the Tom Selleck era, I’ve started to realise how much Monica is the emotionally vulnerable mother hen of the group, the ‘heart’ of the story, so to speak. In the same way that Michael Bluth is the ‘normal’, relatable character in Arrested Development, surrounded by weirdos, I’d argue that Monica plays a similar role in the early years of Friends. If my memory’s accurate, this only goes as far as series 4 or 5, before the gang start to deviate from their ‘classic’ personas, and become less funny, less interesting characters, with their interesting and relatable quirks being replaced by melodrama and overacting. But in the early years, she is very much the mother hen, the characters who feels, and creates, the most empathy.
Over time she becomes an uptight weirdo, with an OCD problem that would concern Adrian Monk, and I’m not sure that Courtney Cox has ever been particularly funny. But, as much as the friends clearly care for each other, she goes further than the others in the early years in creating empathy. Ross, with his divorce and feelings for Rachel, is the central character plotwise in the first few years, but I’d argue that Monica is the emotional centre of the show.

3:10 Rachel tells her story – why she ran away from the wedding. She’s a bit scatterbrained in her explanation, but gives a good and compelling explanation of why she suddenly came to the realisation she couldn’t marry Barry.
She’s the last of the characters to be properly introduced, and as she’s coming into their lives, it makes sense to introduce the other five main characters – the status quo – first, and have Rachel’s introduction act as the inciting incident, the thing which shatters the status quo and spurs the story into action. As well as her own story, she has an impact on Monica (her old friend who invites her to share her flat) and Ross (who had an unrequited crush on her when younger). While these plotlines aren’t shown in the opening scene, she’s turned to Monica for help, and Ross is being supportive and helpful to her.

 

 

Looking in from a technical point of view, one of the things that surprised me was the quick cuts.
Rather than everything in the conversation following on in real time, the show cuts across the relevant points in a long conversation. This  shows they’re happy to spend a significant portion of time just sitting around in each other’s company, and is more realistic than having the ‘big events’ happen one after another.
I don’t think that I’ve seen this used too often in other sitcoms (or even in Friends) but it’s an interesting device.

Chandler’s material is weird, embarassing, witty but self-effacing.
Joey’s is smooth, he’s stylish in control. His cool is never really undercut, whereas Chandler would find it nearly impossible to build up a sense of cool after what we see of him here. Joey’s also a bit indifferent – whereas Ross goofily and clumsily tries to be supportive to Rachel, Joey just sits there, and makes fun of his goofiness.
Rachel is moving at 100 miles an hour, bit of a scatterbrain, a bit self-involved and spoiled. There’s an episode in one of the later years when Phoebe discovers Rachel had a lesbian affair in college, and is surprised by it, as Rachel is ‘so vanilla’. Eventually she develops this way, but at first she’s definitely a slightly spoiled and emotionally stunted brat, and this is the start of a personal quest for her, a process of personal growth.
Ross is miserable, but drives his frustration and anger against himself (as he’s not yet developed the sub-Adam Sandler anger management problem he’ll have in later years). He doesn’t lash out at his friends – even when he’s clearly a little bit annoyed by Phoebe, he’s still quite nice about it. He wants to wish the woman who’s just broken his heart well, and is being caring towards Rachel (pouring sugar into her coffee) when she tells her story.
Phoebe in later years becomes more generic Hollywood zany girl, as if the writers are thinking up wild and wacky things for her to, rather than look to the root of the character. Here she’s quirky, off-beat, but in a way that feels like a real person.
Monica, I’d say, really only has one funny line where the comedy rests on her performance (rather than being mocked by others). I don’t know if she was originally envisioned as the ‘straight man’ of the group, but she feels like she works that way here.

When a television programme is as well made as Friends was at it’s peak, it’s tempting, even as someone who wants to imitate it’s greatness, to sit back and enjoy, without thinking about why I enjoy it. But, even without looking at the jokes, I think it’s interesting how quickly and how well the characters are introduced here.

Basically those are my thoughts about the opening of Friends.
I’d be interested in reading any further thoughts people have to offer, whether building on what I’ve said or tearing apart my interpretations.

Comedy

A.A. Gill is A.A. Gill-iant

Today I’m bringing in a guest columnist, who is totally a real person and definitely not myself writing under an incredibly transparent pseudonym. As his views are out of step with what he terms ‘the mindlessly politically correct age’, he has asked to be able to hide his real name. Instead, I have assigned him a handle.

The Hateful Misanthrope’s Column

Recently, the masterfully wise AA Gill has pointed out the obvious fact that Mary Beard, presenter of Meet The Romans is too ugly to be on television, to which she, not knowing her place, has replied.
In case you’re not aware of AA Gill, think Jeremy Clarkson, only instead of cars, obsessed with being posh. And slightly more in love with himself, if that’s possible.
In the past he has described the Welsh as

“loquacious, dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls.”

Fantastic! That’s the kind of negative-minded vitriol I can get behind! What a man! What a mind!

Gill has said that Beard

“should be kept away from cameras altogether.”

And only right as well.
When I watch television, I don’t want to be educated. If you put something on the television which implies there are things out there that I don’t know, that makes me feel less intelligent. Instead, I prefer to assume that I know everything there is to know, and despise anyone who tries to tell me otherwise.

I don’t care if her face is warm and open, and helps convey her enthusiasm for her subject. That’s not what television’s for, and that’s not the point of women. Samantha Brick has got the right idea, she realises that the point of women is as decoration, and for us men to fantasise about. Television is about fantasies – the men and male characters on screen are for us to fantasise we are, and the women are there for us to fantasise about being with.
I often watch Bear Grylls, in order to fantasise about what it would be like to live in the wild. Mary Beard is not the kind of person I wish to be, and I certainly don’t wish to be WITH her, so why have her on television at all?

I’m now going to counter the obvious argument you’ll throw at me. You see, that’s how much cleverer than you I am – I can anticipate your argument and counter it before it’s even left your lips. I’m dead smart, I am – like Gill, Simon Cowell, or Piers Morgan.
Media types will talk about USPs, or Unique Selling Points. They will argue that being a Professor of Classics at Cambridge, or whatever that dreadful woman is, means she has access to a level of knowledge on her subject which very few can match.
Well, I say tosh.

I say that, regardless of how much knowledge and insight a person has to offer on a subject, they should be judged on their skin, hair, and clothing.
MEN run the world, and run it badly. That’s the natural order of things. Women are on this Earth to bear our children and keep the Human race going until our inevitable self-made annihilation.
Any woman who tries to learn things, (or any man who tries to run things competently) is going against the natural order of things, and should be knocked back.
Instead of having Beard wandering about the remnants of Rome’s Empire, perhaps they could have hired a reality TV star or daughter of a celebrity to ‘investigate’ something she knows nothing about, but which is obvious to the rest of us?
Maybe Amy Childs or Stacey Dooley ‘investigates’ Roman ruins, comes to realise that people must once have lived without central heating, and cries about how awful it must have been to always be cold.
She could go on a ‘journey’ that would be emotional and cathartic to the plebs, and would allow the rest of us to laugh at her and feel superior.

Samantha Brick, whose skin-deep obsessions fit her  into my ideal of how a woman should act, has argued that

“While there is no denying that Ms Beard is a supremely intelligent and fiercely ambitious woman, there is absolutely no chance of her becoming a successful broadcaster in prime-time slots on flagship TV channels.”

Exactly! There is absolutely no chance of her getting the sort of success she’s recently achieved.

She then compared viewing figures of Mary Beard’s Meet The Romans show to that of The Hairy Bikers’ Bakeathon and The 70s, which are completely fair, like for like comparisons.
I am hostile to learning, so I can’t be sure, but I assume that people will be alive who can look back fondly at Meet The Romans in the same way they do to nostalgia programmes like The 70s.
And any show which has the word ‘bakeathon’ in it’s title must be as intellectually challenging as a detailed historical programme. It certainly won’t the kind of personality driven tosh which often functions as background noise, which people drown out 55 minutes of the hour, before noticing a particularly beautiful looking meal and asking each other if they saw how it was made.

Ms Beard (I assume that no-one could marry her, for who could find her enthusiasm, intelligence, energy and warmth attractive enough to override the fact that she doesn’t wear nail varnish?) should be thrown off the air, and it is only right, in my brilliantly insightful and clearly correct opinion.

Comedy

This is What Happens When Things Get Into the Public Domain

Sherlock Holmes is one of the classic characters of literature, and as such, has had his adventures turned into TV and movies, so people can share his adventures without all that pesky reading.

In fact, he’s suddenly so popular, that several franchises have taken advantage of Holmes being a public domain figure and produced alternate versions. There’s Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ BBC TV version, Guy Ritchie’s films, and now a CBS TV series starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu.
Yes, really, that is an actual thing.

Over at The Leaky Wiki, I’ve uncovered the long term plans for the character:
Every Actor in The World to Play Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson

Analysis, Film & Television Opinion

Life’s Too Short, Revisited (with spoilers)

Spoilers up to S1E6 of Life’s Too Short.
As the show features Warwick Davis playing a fictionalised version of himself, I’ve referred to the character in inverted commas. So, the actor Warwick Davis plays the character ‘Warwick Davis’.
I discuss the use of Davis’ size, and it’s relevance to the plot, but I’m not totally sure what the correct term is, and what’s generally seen as slightly offensive. I’ve used the terms ‘dwarf’ and ‘short person’ – if either of these cause offence, I apologise.

Life’s Too Short aired in the UK in December, and I wrote a review, based on the first two episodes.
After the series finished, I had some thoughts based on the series as a whole that… well, that I didn’t up at the time, based either on being nice or lazy. Take your pick of those two. Having seen adverts for the American airing of the series currently taking place, I’ve decided it could be worth putting finally putting those thoughts down in writing.
You know – for journalistic integrity. Or something like that.

Continue reading “Life’s Too Short, Revisited (with spoilers)”

Comedy

The Phantom Menace? In Three Dimensions? Wow!

I’m going to do something I’ve been planning to for a while – recommend some videos.
I still don’t really know what I’m doing here with the blog, so I’m throwing everything at the wall in the hope that some things stick.

The first is from ‘Honest Trailers’ – they do alternate trailers for films that are…well, more honest.
This is from the 3d release of The Phantom Menace. It’s decent, with one or two good jokes (mainly later on), but not hilarious.

Continue reading “The Phantom Menace? In Three Dimensions? Wow!”

Film & Television Opinion

Suits vs Eternal Law

This new year I’ve been watching two new lawyer based programmes – the American import Suits, and new ITV and Kudos show Eternal Law.

I’d been putting off watching the beginning of Eternal Law, as the concept of angels acting as lawyers seemed a bit gimmicky, and it was only the involvement of Kudos – creators of Hustle, Spooks and Life on Mars – that convinced me to put aside my reservations.

But Eternal Law fleshes out the concept of angels on Earth well. There’s references to their boss, ‘Mr. Mountjoy’; spotting an image of a friend on stained glass; ‘If that’s the Jehovah’s Witnesses, tell them they’re totally wrong’.
It all adds depth to the world, makes it seem more believable.

Suits is a bit more straight forward – a ‘normal’ law programme, albeit well executed, following a genius dropout with no formal training in the law, but the skills to excel.

I don’t know if this guy’s an angel, but I think he has a slug living in his nose

Continue reading “Suits vs Eternal Law”

Comedy, Film & Television Opinion

The Developing World Throws a Hissy Fit, and I Find Someone Foolish Enough to Publish my Writing

Today I make my triumphant return to The Leaky Wiki.
I cover a speech made at the UN yesterday (why a speech would be made at the UN on a Sunday I don’t know, but give me a bit of leeway here).
Unlike previous entries on The Leaky Wiki, there’s no particular backstory you need to know, just to know what ‘the developing world’ is, and that it seems to me like the people at the UN like to talk. A lot.

Anyway, the story is here:
Developing World Objects To The Label Developing World, Finds it Patronising

And, in a quite exciting piece of news (well it excited me at least, and therefore technically counts as exciting, in a linguistic sense) I’m writing for Den of Geek.
My first piece, a defence of the recent reinterpretations of Sherlock Holmes, has gone up this morning.