Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 24, 2003)
Only about three months after the arrival of Season Three of Friends, we get the whole package with Season Four. This covers the 1997-98 term and finds the show as it consolidated its position as one of the top sitcoms.
From here, I’ll offer brief discussions of all the episodes, listed in their broadcast order. The synopses mostly come straight from the package’s liner notes. As a helpful guide, an asterisk denotes shows that also appeared on any of the prior “best of” DVDs that Warner Bros. released before they came to their senses and started to package Friends in season sets.
In addition, apparently all of the episodes include footage cut for their broadcast appearances. This means the running times vary. I’ll include the length of each episode on the DVDs. (For reference, a standard broadcast program lasts about 22 minutes.)
The One With the Jellyfish (23:31): Ross (David Schwimmer) falls asleep while reading Rachel’s (Jennifer Aniston) 18-page letter. When confronted by her, he pretends to agree with what she wrote. Monica (Courtney Cox Arquette) gets stung by a jellyfish and must resort to drastic measures.
“Jellyfish” offers a continuation of a story that ended Season Three. It focuses mostly on the series’ soap opera elements, as we get more about Ross/Rachel and Phoebe’s discovery about her mother. This bogs down the show somewhat and makes it less than terrific.
The One With the Cat (24:00): Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) believes her adoptive mother’s spirit inhabits a stray cat. Joey (Matt Le Blanc) finds the experience of selling his entertainment center not entertaining at all. Monica finally gets to date the big man on her high school campus.
As much as I gripe about soap opera dominated shows, I must admit an affection for those in which Ross and Rachel are on the outs with each other. The venom they aim at each other makes for some very entertaining moments, and a few of those crop up here. The best parts occur when Rachel tells Ross he always has to be right; her taunts are hilarious. The Phoebe bits seem somewhat self-consciously goofy, but the conflicts over Monica’s relationship with the former classmate offer some funny bits.
The One With the Cuffs (22:20): Monica “pulls a Monica” when she caters her mother’s (Christina Pickles) party. Chandler (Matthew Perry) gets himself locked into a compromising position with Rachel’s boss (Alison LaPlaca).
The best parts of this episode don’t appear in the synopsis above and they also fill the least amount of time. Joey gets peddled some encyclopedias, and the depths of his dumbness prove amusing. The Monica subplot actually works better than expected, but the bit with Chandler feels too I Love Lucy for my liking.
The One With the Ballroom Dancing (22:45): The girls get an eviction notice and Joey comes to their rescue by agreeing to give the building superintendent (Michael G. Hagerty) dancing lessons.
That main plot seems a little lame. It starts off well due to Joey’s goofiness, but the bit with the dancing lessons seems dopey. A portion in which Chandler attempts to quit his gym works better, especially since it rings true in a humorous way.
The One With Joey’s New Girlfriend (23:40): Ross and Rachel continue their power games to make each other jealous. Chandler falls hard for Joey’s new girlfriend Kathy (Paget Brewster).
Soap opera alert! This episode launches the Chandler/Joey/Kathy love triangle, and it’s gonna get sappy. I guess it’s necessary, but it seems less than endearing so far. The better parts of the show focus on Phoebe’s cold, which leaves her with a sexy singing voice.
The One With the Dirty Girl (23:12): Ross’ beautiful new girlfriend (Rebecca Romijn) has a disgusting secret. Chandler gets closer to Kathy and buys her a pricey birthday gift. Rachel proudly completes a crossword puzzle without help.
Yes, we get more Joey/Chandler/Kathy goopiness, but the other subplots leaven the drabness. Ross’ section provides the best elements; the poor guy can’t catch a break in the romantic realm, and it’s amusing to see how he gets slapped around in that domain. Overall, it’s a decent episode.
The One Where Chandler Crosses the Line (25:00): Chandler kisses Kathy after thinking Joey has lost interest in her. Encouraged by an awed Phoebe, Ross debuts his keyboard “sound” in public.
It’s always fun to get a glimpse into Ross’ nerdy past, so the bits with his “sound” are very amusing. When we actually hear “the sound”, it’s absolutely hilarious. Along with Rachel’s revelation that she doesn’t need friends to have fun, these elements balance out the soap opera sappiness of the Joey/Chandler/Kathy parts.
*The One With Chandler In a Box (25:15): Set on Thanksgiving, Joey remains mad at Chandler for “stealing” his girlfriend Kathy. This creates a serious rift in the relationship, as Joey won’t entertain any of Chandler’s attempts to reconcile …at least until Chandler agrees to spend the day in a wooden box, a task that recreates a boneheaded move once made by Joey.
While this occurs, Monica gets ice in her eye and has to go to the doctor …who just happens to be the son of her now-ex-boyfriend Richard. Inevitably, she finds Tim (Michael Vartan) attractive, and the two engage in a brief and creepy attempt at love. Additionally, Ross discovers that Rachel invariably returns all the presents she receives, which creates some comic tension.
All in all, “Box” was a very entertaining program. The absurdity of Chandler’s task coupled well with the other plotlines; it seemed strangely real yet still wonderfully silly and funny. Despite the fact that with her odd haircut, poofy clothes and eyepatch, Cox bears a spooky resemblance to “Rebel Rebel” era Bowie, “Box” was a solidly fun and compelling program.
The One Where They’re Going to Party (22:10): When the guys try to be wild and crazy, they reluctantly realize they’d rather act like adults. Monica writes a scathing restaurant review – and gets a job offer as a result.
Wow – an episode with no soap opera elements! “Party” offers a good opportunity to just have some fun, and it does so nicely. It’s amusing to see Chandler and Ross try to act like party animals, and Rachel’s attempts to move ahead at work are also entertaining. “Party” isn’t a great episode, but it’s generally pretty solid.
The One With the Girl From Poughkeepsie (22:33): Ross debates whether to date a faraway beauty or a less desirable woman who lives nearby. Chandler tries to set up a date for Rachel with some co-workers.
Ross’ bits aren’t as amusing as I expected, partly because when never really meet either of the women involved. However, when Joey goes to work for Monica just so she can fire him, we get some good moments, and Chandler’s fumbling of the Rachel situation also seems fun. Chalk this one up as another good program.
The One With Phoebe’s Uterus (24:15): Phoebe’s half-brother Frank Jr. (Giovanni Ribisi) returns with exciting news – and asks a huge favor of Phoebe. Ross gets Joey a job as a museum tour guide.
After a nice holiday from the soap opera, those elements return with a vengeance here. I never could stand Ribisi’s portrayal of Frank, so that mars this program. Since those bits dominate the show, it’s not a terribly good one. Some of the museum pieces redeem it slightly, but it remains blah.
*The One With All the Embryos (23:15): Here we learn that Phoebe has agreed to have her sister-in-laws embryos implanted so she can have their baby. That aspect of the show seemed a little cutesy, and it didn’t help that we got stuck with the ever-annoying Ribisi for another episode.
However, the other storyline featured a debate that pitted Monica and Rachel versus Joey and Chandler. Each side thinks they know the others better, so Ross concocts a quiz to decide the matter. That part of the show provides some terrific laughs, mainly through the questions, but also due to the actors’ reactions; by this time, they all clearly felt very comfortable in the roles, and that let the material succeed.
The One With Rachel’s Crush (22:34): Rachel schemes to get a handsome client (Tate Donovan) to ask her on a date. Chandler’s jealousy causes problems with his girlfriend.
After two straight episodes, at least we don’t get saddled with the obnoxious Ribisi here. Some soap opera elements appear via the Chandler/Kathy dynamic. Still, those parts aren’t all that major, and the rest of the show works pretty well, especially as Monica attempts to regain her status as the building hostess. Also, it might mark the first appearance of Joey’s “how you doin’?” schtick.
The One With Joey’s Dirty Day (22:27): On Joey’s first day on a major movie, one of Hollywood’s legendary stars finds him in a compromising position in his trailer. Rachel regrets asking Ross for a favor when it sparks a new romance.
One soap opera ends between Chandler and Kathy, and another begins, as the Ross/Rachel/Emily dynamic launches. Those elements aren’t bad, but “Day” sounds better on paper than in reality. The sight of Chandler at a strip joint with the show’s females should be great, but it’s pretty bland. Nothing about “Day” seems bad, but it lacks much zing.
The One With All the Rugby (22:20): Chandler’s abrasive ex-girlfriend Janice (Maggie Wheeler) reappears. Monica finds a mysterious switch in Joey and Chandler’s old apartment. Ross tries to impress Emily (Helen Baxendale) by playing rugby.
“Rugby” tells a tale of extremes, as we see the levels to which various characters will go to satisfy various needs. Though she’s my least favorite character, Monica gets the funniest moments here via her obsessiveness. It’s also amusing to watch how pathetic Chandler becomes as he attempts to ditch Janice. “Rugby” presents a generally solid show.
The One With the Fake Party (24:27): To become better acquainted with her crush Joshua, Rachel inadvertently thwarts Ross’ plans. Phoebe’s pregnancy cravings evoke a sympathetic response from Joey.
The Joshua plot got old a few episodes ago, and it hasn’t improved in the meantime. Or maybe it’s just depressing to see a babe like Rachel throw herself at a schlub like Joshua. Still, the show musters some decent laughs and manages to overcome its less compelling parts, especially during an amusing game of Spin the Bottle.
The One With the Free Porn (24:00): Chandler and Joey are glued to their TV after discovering an unscrambled adult cable channel. Monica helps Ross tell his girlfriend he loves her. Phoebe gets some surprising pregnancy news.
Any episode that features Frank Jr. loses some points right off the bat. The rest of the episode seems decent but doesn’t do a lot for me. It’s got some good moments, most of which connect to the free porn, but not much else stands out here.
The One With Rachel’s New Dress (22:27): Rachel takes a provocative pose to get Joshua into a romantic mood – but her plans go awry. Chandler and Joey are at odds to persuade Phoebe to name one of her triplets after them.
“Dress” provides another good but unexceptional episode. The issues between Joey and Chandler offer the most amusement, though Ross’ fears that he’ll lose another lover to lesbianism also works pretty well. “Dress” doesn’t seem remarkable, but it’s pretty solid.
The One With All the Haste (22:00): Drastic developments blight Ross’s relationship with Emily. Monica and Rachel try to win back their old apartment, much to Joey and Chandler’s delight.
That last statement’s kind of odd, for the guys actively oppose the girls’ attempts to regain their old place. Still, those parts of the show provide some good bits and seem satisfying. The Ross/Emily parts are less compelling, though, as they come across like attempts to intensify the soap opera elements without much connection to the characters’ usual behavior.
The One With All the Wedding Dresses (22:30): Distraught over Ross’s engagement, Rachel takes Joshua aside and suggests they also get married. Chandler forces Joey to go to a sleep clinic to stop his loud snoring.
Though “Dresses” inexorably – and lamely – advances the Ross/Rachel showdown coming at the season’s end, it manages to leaven that story with some nice moments. The Joey subplot is fun, as is the girls’ obsession with dresses. And we apparently have seen the last of the insipid Joshua, which makes “Dresses” a-okay in my book.
The One With the Invitation (22:30): Rachel and Ross each reminisce about when they used to date each other. Everyone’s disappointed when Rachel decides not to attend the wedding in England.
So it’s come to this: a clip show. Unless you’re not familiar with the Ross/Rachel backstory, you can skip the first 11 minutes of this program. Actually, you can bypass most of the rest of it as well, as snippets from earlier episodes dominate the whole thing. A few plot points emerge, but the synopsis above pretty much sums up the show, and that makes “Invitation” almost totally superfluous.
The One With the Worst Best Man Ever (23:05): Joey loses Ross’s wedding ring at a bachelor party. Phoebe experiences massive mood swings that frighten Rachel and Monica.
Our last show before a major soap opera episode, “Worst” provides some good stuff. The bachelor party develops fun moments, and Phoebe’s mood swings allow Kudrow to shine, especially when she gets nasty. It’s an amusing program that seems above average.
*The One With Ross’s Wedding (49:42) offers a two-part episode that finishes Season Four with something of a cliffhanger. Here we move to his impending nuptials with British chick Emily. Frankly, I think they made Emily English just so they’d have an excuse to move the show to the UK for an episode; it’s no coincidence that this “special” show appeared during a sweeps period. This one features more than its fair share of soap opera elements, as Rachel has to confront her continued affection for Ross, and Monica and Chandler hook up for the first time. It provides some amusing bits as well, but it focuses too much on soap opera for my liking.
Season Three of Friends seemed like the one that gained a high level of consistency and self-assurance, and the series maintained those attributes through Season Four. The year presented only a few genuinely excellent episodes, but it suffered from very few weak ones. In fact, other than the weak clip show toward the end of the year, I can’t think of a truly bad program from Season Four. Sure, some of the shows seem somewhat flat, but none of them become crummy. Chalk up Season Four as a nicely consistent and entertaining year of Friends.