Time for some more fun with Friends on DVD! To put it bluntly, the release pattern of the show has been rather frustrating. While Paramount diligently worked their way through Star Trek: The Original Series a few episodes at a time, at least they did so in a consistent and chronological basis; at least every couple of months - and often more frequently - we could count on four more Trek shows. A lot of people aren’t wild about having to buy 40 DVDs to get the entire span of Trek, but few have complained about the solid presentation of these programs, and it’s nice that we’ll have the series’ entire run before long.
Among others, Fox and HBO have made fans even happier with their presentations. Shows like The Simpsons, The X-Files, The Sopranos and Sex and the City have come out via whole-season boxed sets. These packages also have included some nice extras, and they’ve really set the standard for the DVD issue of TV shows.
Unfortunately, Warner seems content to stick with dribs and drabs “best of” packages for their TV properties. Through DVDs like The Chef Experience and Winter Wonderland, they’ve distributed “theme” discs that have no chronological coherence. These are fun, to be sure, but fans remain disappointed that they can’t get entire seasons, and the sparse release pattern doesn’t help; it was a full year between 2000’s Chef and Christmas in South Park and 2001’s Wonderland and Timmy! sets.
Fans of Friends have encountered similar frustration, at least in the US. Apparently Region 2 viewers can pick up full seasons of the show, but here in Region 1 we’re stuck with these “best of” sets. Adding to the aggravation is the fact that they hit the streets so infrequently. It took about 11 months between the release of 2000’s Volumes 1 and 2 and this new package of Volumes 3 and 4. That’s an awfully long time to wait, especially when the result isn’t anything special.
To be fair, Warner don’t stand alone as distributors of “greatest hits” packages. Rhino insist on doing the same for shows like Get a Life; sure, they released the whole season of Pink Lady …and Jeff, but since the series only lasted six episodes, that wasn’t hard to do. Even Fox have indulged in “best of” sets for Ally McBeal.
Anyway, despite these concerns, I still enjoyed the newest batch of Friends. As I noted in my review of Volumes 1 and 2, I didn’t always like the show; in fact, I loathed it for quite a while. However, I altered my opinion some time ago and I’ve come to really enjoy the program. I don’t know if I agree that these two new releases truly include the best of Friends, but they provide some solid episodes overall, with Volume 4 getting the nod as the better of the two.
Both of the discs include five episodes, though technically they have six, since both DVDs end with two-part broadcasts. As was the case with Volumes 1 and 2, Volume 3 largely consists of older programs. The disc spans the seventh show broadcast, November 1994’s “The One With the Blackout”, and goes through Season Six’s two-part “The One That Could Have Been”, the 136th and 137th episodes aired. The latter represents an outlier, however, as the others cover programs 14 (Season One’s “The One With the Candy Hearts”), 39 (Season Two’s “The One Where Ross and Rachel …You Know”), and 57 (Season Three’s “The One With the Football”).
Volume 4 doesn’t start until Season Four, with episode 81, “The One With Chandler In the Box”, and it progresses to the newest program in the set, Season Six’s two-part “The One With the Proposals”, which was broadcast 145th and 146th. It also includes programs 100 (Season Five’s “The One Hundredth”), 108 (Season Five’s “The One With the Resolutions”), and 130 (Season Six’s “The One Where Ross Got High”).
The main problem with Volume 3 stemmed from the fact that the first couple of seasons weren’t terribly strong, as it took some time for the actors and the writers to really get to the heart of the characters. However, that’s not unusual, as most long-running TV programs don’t find a real groove until they’ve been on for a few years; viewers of the Season One Simpsons boxed set can clearly attest to this fact.
That rule seems to apply mainly to comedies because they’re generally more dependent on character development and performer chemistry and timing than are dramas or other forms of TV entertainment. Comedies focus less on plot and more on character reactions to situations, so it’s very important that the participants develop a sense of unity and clear ideas for their roles. That takes time, and that’s why Friends is much better today than it was seven years ago.
One can see some of that progression in the various episodes collected on the two Best of Friends DVDs in this new set. For Volumes 1 and 2, the first disc’s “Pilot” was unquestionably the worst of the bunch, and Season One’s “The One With the Blackout” also stands as the lamest of the new batch. The concept - in which New York is plunged into a blackout - seems good, and a few solid set-ups occur. Ross (David Schwimmer) decides to finally tell Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) how he feels about her, but this is ruined when she discovers a stray cat, and it gets even worse when she finds the animal’s owner, hunky Italian Paolo (Cosimo Fusco). In the meantime, Chandler (Matthew Perry) gets stuck in an ATM vestibule with Victoria’s Secret model Jill Goodacre (played by herself) and stumbles through the event nervously as he internally debates what to do.
One sign this wasn’t a very good program stems from the fact it’s funniest moment - when we meet bizarre neighbor Mr. Heckles (unnamed here, though, and portrayed by Larry Hankin) - feels like it came from an episode of Seinfeld. “Blackout” was watchable and mildly entertaining, but it seemed clear that the show was still searching for its own identity at this point; the characters hadn’t gelled and it felt tentative.
Similar qualities affected Season One’s “The One With the Candy Hearts”. Though more enjoyable than “Blackout”, “Hearts” feels transitional and not quite there yet. The show revolves around Valentine’s Day. Joey (Matt LeBlanc) has a hot date with Lorraine (Nancy Valen), but she won’t go out with him unless he hooks up her friend. He cons Chandler into doing this; inevitably, things go badly when he discovers his date is an ex-girlfriend, the shrill and obnoxious Janice (Maggie Wheeler).
In the meantime, Ross goes out on his first date after his break-up with now-lesbian ex-wife Carol (Jane Sibbett) as he asks out neighbor Kristen (Heather Medway). Awkwardly, Carol and her lover Susan (Jessica Hecht) end up at the same restaurant, and when Susan gets paged and has to leave, Ross feels bad for Carol. As such, he invites her to join him and Kristen, at which point he pays so much attention to her that Kristen eventually splits.
While all this occurs, the show’s females - Rachel, Monica (Courtney Cox), and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) - find themselves without dates, so they perform a mystical “cleansing ritual” to rid themselves of bad male karma. This goes poorly and they eventually meet some hunky firemen, an experience that brightens their mood much more than the ceremony itself.
To be sure, “Hearts” had some good moments. Wheeler’s Janice was always a funny presence in her Fran Drescher-esque manner, and Friends had good enough sense to use her sparingly; she only showed up a few times over the years, and that kept the character from becoming stale. The “cleansing ritual” was also amusing, and as a whole, this was a decent show; I just wouldn’t classify it as “the best” of the series.
Improvements definitely occurred for Season Two’s “The One Where Ross and Rachel …You Know”. In this show, Ross and Rachel go out on their first official date, where they …you know. In addition, Joey purchases some excellent reclining chairs from which to watch TV, and he and Chandler refuse to leave them. Monica also gets reacquainted with an old - emphasis on old - friend of her parents, eye doctor Richard (Tom Selleck); although he’s the same vintage as her Mom and Dad, she eagerly anticipates a romantic relationship with the aging hunk.
By this point, the actors seemed much more comfortable with the characters, and that confidence made “You Know” more compelling. The Ross and Rachel parts were good from both the comedic and development points of view, and Monica’s moments with Richard were much more successful than they would have been a year earlier; Cox’s comfort with the part showed, and this made the burgeoning relationship more believable and interesting. LeBlanc and Perry offered the program’s funniest moments, however, as their chair obsession became quite entertaining. All in all, “You Know” wasn’t great Friends, but it appeared quite good.
Even better was Season Three’s “The One With the Football”. For this one, the title really sums up the show well, as it revolves almost totally around a game of touch football that largely pits brother vs. sister. Back in their childhood, Ross and Monica competed along with their family to win the “Geller Cup”, and their terrible competitiveness became overwhelming. Things haven’t changed over the years, and both dive into the contest. For the most part, the teams put Ross, Chandler and Rachel - easily the worst player of the bunch - against Monica, Joey - the best player - and Phoebe. When matters heat up, however, the groups split into boy against girl. All the while, Joey and Chandler compete to win the affection of a Dutch woman they encounter.
“Football” seemed like a very simple show, but it worked tremendously well, perhaps because it retained such a basic focus. The character interactions flourished, and the comedy was allowed to breathe in a natural and compelling manner. The best episode on Volume Three, “Football” was a total winner.
While the two-part “The One That Could Have Been” from Season Six wasn’t quite as strong, it still stood as a solid program. This one looks at an alternate reality in which a) Monica stayed fat, b) Rachel married Barry (Mitchell Whitfield), c) Ross and Carol stayed together, d) Joey never got fired from Days of Our Lives, e) Chandler quit his job and tried to make it as a writer, f) Phoebe took a high-pressure job as a stock broker.
This kind of program has a high potential to flop, as it indulges in fantasy. “Make believe” programs can become silly, but “Could Have Been” walks the fine line and keeps from becoming too goofy. A few self-referential moments seemed somewhat inane, but as a whole, the show stayed entertaining and amusing as it took a walk through fantasyland.
Overall, Volume 4 provides a more consistent set of episodes, and it starts very well with Season Four’s “The One With Chandler In a Box”. Set on Thanksgiving, Joey remains mad at Chandler for “stealing” his girlfriend Kathy (Paget “Punky” Brewster). 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 now-ex-girlfriend 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 eye patch, Cox bears a spooky resemblance to “Rebel Rebel” era Bowie, “Box” was a solidly fun and compelling program.
Season Five’s “The One Hundredth” suffered a little from “event episode-itis”, but it still managed to be a good show. On this one, Phoebe finally delivers the triplets she’s housed as the surrogate mother for her brother Frank (Giovanni Ribisi) and his wife Alice (Debra Jo Rupp). Virtually all of the show takes place at the hospital, and it includes additional subplots in which Joey has kidney stones, and Rachel tries to set up herself and Monica with some hot male nurses. The problem stems from the fact that Monica’s now surreptitiously dating Chandler, and some tension results when he tries to act nonchalant, which just angers Monica.
“The One Hundredth” handled some potentially sappy moments well; Kudrow seemed especially touching and endearing as she popped out the kids and dealt with some postpartum sadness. Some of the gags felt forced, such as the doctor who loved Fonzie, but these weren’t too painful. However, I really couldn’t stand Ribisi; he’s one of the most affected performers around, and he seemed quite artificially and unconvincingly goofy as Frank. Kudrow’s oddball status appears pretty natural, but with Ribisi, it seems like you can always see the wheels turn, and his presence hurt the show more than anything else. Ultimately, “One Hundredth” had some good moments, but it wasn’t a great episode.
Coming just eight shows later, Season Five’s “The One With the Resolutions” offered a consistently strong experience. It could have fallen into the “gimmick show” trap, but it neatly avoided that problem. In this one, the gang greets 1999 with a batch of resolutions. Joey will learn to play guitar, and Phoebe offers to teach him; this leads to some tension due to her unconventional methods. Ross plans to do something new each day, which includes asking a cute girl out - successful - and wearing leather pants - not so successful. Monica takes up photography, while Rachel stops gossiping. Phoebe decides to learn to pilot a commercial jet, while Chandler bets he won’t make fun of his pals for a week.
As with many of the show’s best programs, this one’s strongest elements related to those that were somewhat absurd and unrealistic but still close enough to reality to make us accept them. Here this came during Ross’ date with Elizabeth Hornswoggle (Sara Rose Peterson). Ross’ leather pants make him terribly sweaty, and when he drops them in the bathroom to cool down, he finds that he can’t get them up again. This results in a hilarious phone call to Joey, who tries in his lackadaisical and pathetic way to help.
The moments between Joey and Phoebe were less entertaining, and they felt a little phonier. Phoebe’s wackiness often walked a fine line. Kudrow usually kept the character within the bounds of reason, but sometimes she seemed too silly, and the whole guitar lesson aspect of the show came close to that realm. Still, I liked “Resolutions” a lot and thought it was a fine program.
Season Six’s “The One Where Ross Got High” again finds us on Thanksgiving. Monica and Chandler now live together, while Joey rooms with hot dancer Janine (Elle MacPherson). She invites Joey and Ross to a party with herself and some other sexy gals, but they have to put in an appearance at Monica’s dinner first, especially since the Geller parents - Jack (Elliott Gould) and Judy (Christina Pickles) - will be there as well.
The problem revolves around the fact that Monica hasn’t told her parents that she and Chandler are dating, much less that they’re now living together, and it appears that they have a grudge against him. That’s Ross’ fault; during college, his parents caught him smoking pot in his bedroom, which he blamed on Chandler. In this show, all involved try desperately to rehab Chandler’s image with the elder Gellers, as Joey and Ross try to flee the scene to meet up with the babes.
In addition, Rachel - not noted for her domestic skills - makes Thanksgiving dessert. She elects to create an English trifle, but when two pages of the cookbook get stuck together, she combines the dessert with a Shepherd’s pie. To save her the embarrassment of botching the meal, the gang pretend that the mix of meat and sweet tastes great.
While the rest of the show had some good moments, that nasty concoction was what made “High” very entertaining. From the inception of the dessert through the consumption through the methods the folks use to dispose of it, this element of the program showed what Friends does best, and each performer got in on the act. Tops was Joey’s reaction, as he actually liked the disgusting compilation. “High” offered another consistently funny and enjoyable program.
Lastly, Season Six’s two-part “The One With the Proposals” gives us another event episode. Here Chandler decides he’ll finally propose to Monica. He plans to do this during a special dinner, but the moment departs when her ex-boyfriend Richard shows up with a date. They join our couple, and Chandler needs to reschedule the big moment for another day.
However, he fears that Monica has started to suspect he’ll propose. He wants it to be a surprise, so to throw her off his trail, he acts as though he opposes marriage. Inevitably, this messes with Monica’s mind, and when Richard returns and declares that he still loves Monica and wants to marry her, it looks like Chandler may have Binged his way to a flop.
While this occurs, Rachel takes Joey and Phoebe to a charity event at which she hopes to impress her new boss Mr. Thompson (Steve Hytner, better known as Bania from Seinfeld. While there, Phoebe gets trashed at the open bar, and Joey mistakenly bids $20,000 on a sailboat; he thinks it’s a contest to guess the value of the craft and freaks when he learns he needs to pay for the thing. Rachel manages to convince the second-place bidder, Mr. Bowmont (John Apicella), to take it, but after she spins a wonderful tale of all the fun he’ll have on the ship, Joey decides he has to find a way to keep the “Mr. Bowmont”. In a smaller subplot, Ross splits from his much-younger girlfriend Elizabeth (Alexandra Holden) because he thinks she’s too immature for him.
“Proposals” often felt more like a soap opera than an episode of Friends, though I thought it handled the Chandler/Monica/Richard triangle reasonably well. The show indulged in more pathos than we ever would have seen during Seinfeld, but it popped enough comedy into the emotional moments to keep it from becoming insufferable. The Joey bits were easily the funniest, though, and the scenes at the charity event made the episode good. It seemed too hung up on the relationship bits to be tremendously good, but it still appeared to be a fairly solid program.
Actually, those soap opera elements point out a major flaw of these DVDs, at least for those not well-acquainted with the chronology of Friends. From “Blackout” through “Proposals”, we covered a span of 139 episodes and five and a half years. A lot changed within the characters, their circumstances and relationships over that span, but the DVDs only offered a brief snapshot. Supporting characters appeared and disappeared, as did various themes and plot points. We saw relationships end that never started for us, and we watched jobs change and residents move. Many of these issues will confuse anyone who comes to the DVDs cold; if you don’t already know the stories, you’ll probably get lost along the way.
Not that the shows can’t be funny and entertaining in their own right. Frankly, I don’t know how tough it’d be for a newcomer to digest these shows. After all, this isn’t the X-Files or a true soap opera; those kinds of programs require concerted knowledge to make much sense. Friends stands alone pretty well, but the lack of continuity likely would be frustrating for anyone without prior knowledge of the show.
Despite that, I got a kick out of The Best of Friends Volumes 3 and 4. The shows found on these DVDs seemed more consistent and engaging than those on last year’s Volumes 1 and 2. A few relative clunkers still emerged, but for the most part, the programs were funny and entertaining. I’m not wild about the “greatest hits” presentation, but I enjoyed the experience nonetheless.
Friends appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on these single-sided, double-layered DVDs; due to those dimensions, the discs have not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the shows always seemed watchable, the episodes looked somewhat muddy and weren’t as clear as I thought they should have been.
Sharpness was a definite concern. At best, the picture presented a reasonably accurate image, but I never thought it appeared especially crisp or detailed. Instead, the shows usually seemed mildly hazy and dull, without much clarity. Some shimmering and jagged edges appeared as well. Apparently Friends is shot on film, and some source flaws emerged. I saw mild grain throughout some of the shows, and I also detected occasional speckles.
Colors often looked bland and drab. The hues maintained a muddled, brownish appearance during much of both DVDs, and while all colors showed problems, skin tones suffered the most. They alternated between excessive pinkness and a flat brownish look; both of them seemed unnatural. During a few episodes, the colors actually looked pretty vivid and lively, but these segments alternated with blander periods. Black levels were a bit gray and blah, and shadow detail showed similar characteristics.
While still problematic, these two DVDs looked better than Volumes 1 and 2. That’s likely because those discs generally offered older episodes. Some of the more recent shows displayed slightly greater sharpness, but not to any consistent degree. The episodes on The Best of Friends never appeared horribly unattractive, and they could look pretty decent at times, but I found the bland and fuzzy picture to be a disappointment nonetheless.
While the remastered Dolby Digital 5.0 soundtrack of The Best of Friends outdid the picture, it presented a fairly restricted presence. However, I won’t complain about this, since it’s not like Friends provides a slew of opportunities for stellar sonics; it’s a quiet, dialogue-driven show, and the audio emphasizes that fact. Music spread adequately to the side forward speakers, and it also emanated gently from the rears.
Otherwise the track often seemed to be essentially monaural. The laugh track presented a moderately involving presence from all five channels - though mainly from the front - and some mild ambience also came from the sides and the rears. However, the tracks remained strongly oriented toward the front. This was a very modest mix, and appropriately so.
Audio quality was decent but unspectacular. Dialogue generally sounded distinct and natural, but some edginess interfered at times. However, I never noted any problems related to intelligibility. Effects varied mildly but they usually came across as reasonably accurate and realistic, and they showed no signs of distortion, although the laugh track occasionally seemed rough. Music was the strongest component of the mix, as the rock score sounded fairly crisp and demonstrated pretty solid bass response. The high end periodically seemed a little flat, but for the most part, the music was clear and tight. Ultimately, The Best of Friends offered too modest an auditory experience to merit anything above a “C+”, but it nonetheless was fairly satisfying.
While The Best of Friends doesn’t provide a slew of supplements, we do find a few extras here. Most intriguing are some snippets that have been added to each of the episodes. On average, I believe that a typical broadcast show of Friends lasts 22 minutes, but each of these programs pads out that length. The shortest is “The One Hundredth”, which clocks in at 22:40, while the “The One Where Ross Got High” lasts longest at a 25:15. The others average between 23:25 and 25:15 minutes in length; the two double-episodes run 45:30 (“The One That Could Have Been”) and 45:35 (“The One With the Proposals”). It appears that these shows got less padding than those on Volumes 1 and 2, at least some of the time. Both of the two-part episodes found on those discs ran much longer, and “The Pilot” almost went for a full half hour.
Although I’d seen most of these shows prior to my exposure to the DVD, I don’t know them well enough to detect most of the additions. This factor was aided by the editing, which seamlessly integrated the clips into the full product; I challenge anyone to find differences between old and new material. In fact, these episodes moved very smoothly as a whole. Unlike most programs shot for TV - such as the mini-series Nuremberg - cuts for commercial breaks were handled neatly. At times those moments were slightly apparent, but they never seemed abrupt or obvious, and this made the shows flow quite effectively.
Available on both DVDs are “Cast and Crew” listings. We find entries for the six main actors plus producers Kevin S. Bright, Marta Kauffman and David Crane. The bios are decent but unspectacular, and they often appear a bit incomplete. Some of them discuss enterprises completed during the run of Friends, but others omit this information; Matt LeBlanc’s career seems to have halted in 1988! Some of these have been updated from Volumes 1 and 2 - such as to include Schwimmer’s participation in Band of Brothers - but they largely remain the same.
Also available on both discs is a good documentary called The One That Goes Behind the Scenes. This 42-minute and 25-second program follows the creation of “The One After Vegas”, the first episode from the sixth season. It mixes some brief interview segments with a variety of personnel as well as many excellent shots from the set and other “behind the scenes” places such as the room in which the writers collaborate.
It’s a genuinely inclusive show, as it covers the writing, the filming, and post-production, and it does so in a clear and compelling manner. The best aspects came from the set itself, especially when we’d see how the writing process continued even during the shoot; when gags didn’t get the desired response, the crew - including the actors - would work out something new right on the spot. Overall, this was a very interesting and informative program that I really enjoyed.
Although I used to loathe Friends, I gradually came to embrace it, and I enjoyed most of the episodes found on these Best of Friends DVDs. I definitely preferred the shows offered on Volume Four; they were consistently funnier and more entertaining. The episodes on Volume Three were generally good but they didn’t match up with the later shows.
Unfortunately, both DVDs share the same mediocre picture and sound quality; the programs consistently appeared watchable but bland. On the positive side, each of the episodes has footage edited back into it, and this makes for a fun presentation. The additional material was less substantial than on Volumes 1 and 2, but I was still happy to get it, and the inclusion of a fine documentary helped add some good background information. While I’d prefer whole seasons of Friends, these packages remain entertaining and are worth a look for fans of the show.
Note that these two DVDs can be purchased either on their own or as part of two different “deluxe” packages. There’s a 2-disc “Gift Set”, which encloses the two discs in a nice keepcase, and it also lists for about $5 less than the two bought separately. On their own, the volumes retail for $19.98, while the “Gift Set” goes for $34.98. In addition, you can splurge on all four Best of Friends DVDs with the Best of Friends Collection. That sucker goes for $69.98, which is pretty much the same cost you’d find with the two separate “Gift Sets”. I don’t know how the packaging differs, but I’d guess that the four DVDs are packaged in a unique slipcase.