The theme song promised they would be there for us. And they were. Not just for the 10 seasons Friends originally aired on NBC. Monica (Courteney Cox), Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), Joey (Matt LeBlanc), Chandler (Matthew Perry), and Ross (David Schwimmer) have been there for us long after “The Last One” aired on May 6, 2004. Thanks to syndicated reruns and streaming platforms people who weren’t even born when the show premiered (or for that matter when it signed off) have found themselves newly discovering the comedy.
Yes there are parts of the show that haven’t aged well. Fat Monica, the show’s general homophobia, and the whitest version of NYC you’ve ever seen—all date the show in an unsavory way. But the fondness for the show and its humor remain. The chemistry among the cast and the way Friends dominated the medium have rarely been matched since.
We all know about “Pivot!” and “We were on a break!” but the reason that Friends has remained part of our pop-culture zeitgeist for so long is that viewers connect to it on a personal level.
In honor of the show now streaming on HBO Max, we asked our writers to pick the Friends episode that means the most to them.
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Ever since I can remember I wanted to be a TV critic. In a high school essay when asked who we would have dinner with if we got the chance, other students chose Jesus or Martin Luther King Jr. or Anne Frank. I chose the TV critic at our local paper. My problem was I thought being a TV critic was a job other people got to do. Not me. So I studied accounting (which I quickly realized wasn’t my strong suit) in college and started writing on the side while I persevered at my boring day job. By some miracle I got hired to write TV reviews for the Boston Herald. Maybe because their existing critics were all set with the Friends phenomenon, reviewing the sixth season premiere of Friends was my second assignment. A VCR tape (!!) of the episode arrived and I got to watch the premiere and find out what happened after Ross and Rachel’s impromptu Vegas wedding before anyone else. I can still remember the butterflies I had in my stomach as I put the tape in the machine. It was the first time I felt like I had made it. That I was doing the career I had always dreamed of doing. The tape, a beloved treasure of bygone era of TV criticism and TV in general, is still in my basement somewhere. Now to find a VCR to play it on.—Amy Amatangelo
When a show runs as long as Friends did (and, in streaming and syndication, still does), at a certain point it becomes a collection of moments not so much strung together as hovering in a clump, like one of those goofy word clouds. In such a cloud, the bright comic flashes nestle alongside the romance and occasional, though unmissable, sour notes. “The One With The Prom Video” is such a cloud all on its own. There are some great jokes and some smart writing, as with Monica’s deeply creepy job interview. But the highs and lows of the episode can be found in that titular video, in which Monica and Rachel wait for Rachel’s bad-news prom date to arrive, while Ross watches mournfully. Longing stares! Ridiculous wigs! And then there’s the kiss, one of the show’s most memorable moments, made more potent by the hushed silence created by the rest of the cast. It’s a moment of rom-com perfection, and it absolutely holds up. But there’s also a slow but steady stream of fat jokes, souring what should otherwise be a champagne sequence. It’s Friends in a nutshell, for better or worse.—Allison Shoemaker
Like many episodes of Friends, “The One Where Old Yeller Dies” is relatively well-balanced in terms of storylines; each character story feels equally important to the narrative. But as interesting as it is to watch Monica’s boyfriend Richard (guest star Tom Selleck) bro out with Joey and Chandler, and Ross learn how uncomfortable Rachel is with baby Ben (and the concept of kids in general), I’ve always been personally haunted by Phoebe’s storyline — a plot-light tale that says so much about her as a character, the way we as people process media, and the kind of darkness a great sitcom can dance with.
Basically, Phoebe finds out that her mother, to quote the episode, “used to not show us the ends of sad movies to shield us from the pain and sadness. You know, before she killed herself.” In the episode, she discovers that Love Story, Brian’s Song, and Terms of Endearment are tragedies in the end. By the closing moments of the episode, she comes to some degree of peace with this knowledge, but it’s that blunt way she phrases the news—and the anger in Lisa Kudrow’s performance—that gives the moment a raw realness which few comedies can nail in such a specific manner. It’s not the major thrust of the episode, but it’s by far one of the show’s most iconic moments.—Liz Shannon Miller
When I think of a Friends episode that has “everything,” I instantly think of “The One Where No One’s Ready.” The episode is made to give everyone something to do, in a way where every particular plot—all contained in the bottle episode structure—is strong and memorable, which wasn’t always the case for Friends. Although, I’d especially give the edge to all things Chandler/Joey here: You’ve got Chandler getting Joey to drink chicken fat, the chair argument, Joey wearing all of Chandler’s clothes, and then, of course, and Joey’s Chandler impression. In fact, that Chandler impression may have been the first time I—at eight years old—really started to process Chandler’s “Chandler-ness” and what made him funny. (Now that I think about it, I may have truly learned the art of sarcasm from Chandler Bing.) It’s also a Friends episode that has Ross at his most neurotic without also being at his most patronizing and belittling or cartoonish, a rarity for the character, especially when it came to all things “Ross and Rachel.”
“The One Where No One’s Ready” is also the first bottle episode of television I can remember watching. Maybe I watched others before, but as I got older and would watch the episode over and over again—as Friends will never not be on TV—I don’t think I really processed the concept or technical logistics of a bottle episode until this particular episode. For all the discussion and thinkpieces about Friends and how it’s aged poorly—Frasier has aged better, by the way—there’s a staggering lack of discussion about the series’ proficiency in terms of structure and its impressive cast chemistry, two things this episode has in spades. And it’s a real-time episode of television that doesn’t point and nudge the audience to have them realize what a big deal that is, which is something even contemporary episodes of television struggle with.—LaToya Ferguson
My middle and high school years were spent as the perennial new kid. Seriously, we moved every year until I graduated, and the thing I always hoped for was to have a real group of friends, like the show. I love The One Where Everybody Finds Out because you see everyone as themselves, and yet also their group dynamic. As Monica and Chandler try to hide their relationship, it is simply inconceivable that Phoebe would really be into Chandler, or that Joey would ever actually break a confidence. The best part is that they are able to manipulate and mess with their friends and in the end, the love is real.
I am happy to report that since college, I have had the same tight-knit group of friends. However, I am sad to report that none of us has ever lived across the street from ugly-naked guy.—Keri Lumm
I’ve seen maybe three episodes of Friends in my life, all over the shoulder of true-blue Friends fans who delight in my confusion. One episode was about them all trying to see each other naked. One definitely had a monkey. But the first one is the only one that’s stuck with me, one that made me think the show was about a scummy group of New Yorkers approaching Seinfeld finale levels of anti-socialness. I later found out that “The One With The Mugging” is from the middle of the show’s ninth season, so I was definitely missing a lot of context for the reveal that Phoebe once mugged her now capital-F Friend Ross. I’m not sure I was missing any for the subplot that ends with Joey pissing all over guest star Jeff Goldblum, but that was the part of the episode that still felt relevant (at least to some nasty part of the internet) in 2019. “The One With The Mugging” probably isn’t the best or most representative episode of Friends, but it’s the one I’ve got—and it’s so desperately and delightfully weird as a standalone entity that I can’t bring myself to give it context. —Jacob Oller
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