Series: Advent Calendar 2016: Holiday TV Episodes
Season 7 Episode 10
"The One with the Holiday Armadillo"
Originally broadcast December 14, 2000
Friends (er, F*R*I*E*N*D*S) is certainly a cultural phenomenon. It was at the height of its impact when I was in school, at a time in my life when the show's title felt just a teensy bit like it was mocking me. I remember people talking about what happened in the show at school (as I was listening from afar and wondering why they weren't talking to me). The show was a weekly lesson in what would be the new cool inside joke or social trend. I don't really remember what the big deal was (and the title still stings just a little). I don't want to dig into it and dissect what led to such a winning mainstay in our society (mostly because I would rather not revisit that particular period of my personal history). What I will do is talk about one episode that I do remember.
I wonder what show about stuff I don't have is popular with the kids in school these days. There's probably some new show called "Website Audience."
What was the show?
Friends follows along with the (incredibly enviable) lives of six young, cool people living in New York City in the late 90's and early 2000's. We follow along as they go about their lives, having the sort of fun misadventures that most people living in big cities could only dream of (I know that from experience). They hang out in the coffee shop, they hang out in their incredible, spacious apartments, and they very occasionally go to work.
That's really all there is to it. There are no aliens or robots, and nobody is labeled "dysfunctional," so as you might imagine it isn't one of my favorite shows (judgmental title aside). Of course, the way it depicts a group of 20-somethings just hanging out all the time and barely working in one of the most expensive cities in the world is kind of science fiction in itself. Just because it isn't my favorite doesn't mean I can't find stuff to like.
I think two things really make the show successful. First (and probably most blatantly), the show doesn't just show you this group of friends having their good times. The reason my schoolmates (and most of America along with them) were so drawn to the show was that it makes you feel like one of the friends. You are just hanging out with them, joining in their inside jokes and laughing along with them (instead of just listening in from afar wondering why they aren't talking to you). The TV Moguls have tried to replicate this formula with similar "group of cool people" type shows, but they've never really managed to pull it off quite the same way. I think that is in no small part due to the other big success of Friends.
Friends is actually really well written. They created a show about six cool people, and in most episodes most of those six people have their own little adventure throughout the show. The way in which the writers manage to weave these different adventures together is what really makes the show great. Why would we watch a show about people with much better lives than us, unless that show was, entirely on its own, pretty fun to watch? As people have tried to replicate Friends over the years, they always seem to forget that one factor that actually made it successful. You can't just depict cool people living awesome lives - the show has to actually be good, too.
What is the episode?
This is a Ross heavy episode, which might be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you feel about Ross. Here we find him fretting because he has his son (who he has custody of whenever it suits an episode's plot) for Christmas this year, and he wants to make sure that young Ben has an appreciation for Hanukkah, since Ross is Jewish. Ben is immediately not receptive to the idea, which leads to Ross making a predictable spate of Bad Sitcom Choices. Meanwhile Chandler and Monica are celebrating their first Christmas as an engaged couple, which is something to be celebrated (I know that from experience). Finally, Phoebe worries about whether or not Rachel still wants to live with her, because as we all know when you live in New York you have your choice of tons of really amazing apartments.
I don't watch Friends as religiously as I do some of the other selections on my list, but when I do I usually have the same reaction I had while watching this episode. For maybe two thirds of the time, I'll think it's a pretty mediocre show. The storylines are simple and predictable, the characters are all bland (even though the cast is really quite good), and at any given time the stakes are about as low as can be. However, at some point it all clicks and everything comes together. The individual notes, rather flat and lifeless on their own, combine to form an excellent crescendo of melody. The titular scene (led by a sincere and fully committed David Schwimmer) is easily the episode's highlight, and it starts a cascade of excellent jokes that lead us to the conclusion. As is the case with most episodes of Friends, the first fifteen minutes don't do much for me, but the last five more than make up for it. It's like a water slide, but in TV form.
Also, we are finally able to see Hanukkah represented on the list!
Where can you watch it?
It was kind of a big deal that Friends went up on Netflix a couple years ago. I guess people are still pretty excited about it. It's also, as is the custom, available on Amazon via either DVD or Streaming. I know all that because I was Googling how to find the show. That's right, I was only looking for how to find Friends, the show - nothing else.
If I were going to teach a class on Sitcom plot structure, I would probably use quite a few episodes of Friends as the standard by which others are judged. It isn't the best, it isn't the worst, but it's a rock solid example of pacing and story structure from beginning to end. I don't think my school mates were thinking about things like pacing or describing anything as any kind of "crescendo," but you don't have to understand a compelling TV show to be compelled by it.
Now, while we're talking about holidays besides Christmas . . .