On Sept. 22, 1994, Friends premiered on NBC, and haircuts, coffeehouses, lobsters, trivia games, pivoting, Thanksgiving, pickup lines and break(-up) lines were never the same again. The sitcom phenom's cultural impact endures and its popularity remains unrivaled, but could we have foreseen all that by the time Chandler (Matthew Perry) shared his Liza Minnelli dream?
In honor of the series' 20th anniversary, Joyce Eng and Sadie Gennis decided to break out the pilot and look back at the one where it all began.
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"The One Where Monica Gets a Roommate": Having left her fiancé Barry at the altar and striving to become independent, Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) moves in with her old pal Monica (Courteney Cox) and winds up becoming a waitress at Central Perk. Monica gets duped into sleeping with Paul the Wine Guy on the first date after he tells her he's been impotent since his divorce. Reeling from his divorce and Carol being a lesbian, Ross (David Schwimmer) eventually works up the courage to tell Rachel about his high school crush on her and floats the idea of asking her out one day.
Sadie: Besides the fashion, what struck me the most was how much I didn't like Joey (Matt LeBlanc), which was a hard pill to swallow. Since I rarely re-watch the first season, I always think of Joey as a lovable, food-obsessed buffoon with a heart of gold. This Joey was just a womanizing stereotype with really, really bad hair!
Joyce: And lots of leather! There are signs of the Joey we know and love in there — he's holding his favorite food at one point (sandwiches, duh) — but yeah, he's a walking stereotype. I don't watch the pilot often because I don't think it's as wonderful and awesome as the show became. There are few chuckles here and there, but nothing outright hilarious, and the — sometimes terrible — sex jokes are coming at a rapid-fire pace (some of which I was too young to understand when it first aired). I'm also not a fan of the opening joke structure: fade-in, set-up, one-liner/punchline, fade-out. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat.
Sadie: The entire thing felt so contrived — from the structure to the clichéd characters to the way they forced the first seeds of a Ross and Rachel romance down our throat with her entrance. And though the pilot is definitely a little heavy on the sex jokes, I do have to give it props for including a healthy portrayal of female sexuality and working in a lesbian relationship (even though it was off-screen at this point) into its first episode. This was 1994 after all!
Joyce: Oh, definitely! Lest we forget the legendary tale of how NBC polled the pilot test audience on whether Monica was a slut for sleeping with Paul the Wine Guy on the first date. Friends was a total breath of fresh air at the time. Besides its rightfully unapologetic, continuous handling of sex and Carol and Susan's relationship, it also dealt with '90s feminism via Rachel, and it was a sitcom that was not about a family or a marriage in 1994 and did not have a singular lead. Now, we can't escape the Friends wannabes.In that sense, I can understand and relate to the opening sequence. They were living up to the title. They're friends — just some twentysomethings hanging out at a coffeehouse, chit-chatting away about (usually) meaningless stuff. We've all done that. I've never tried to translate a telenovela with my friends, but we do have our weird, random games. Maybe if the jokes were better and the editing wasn't so deliberate and practiced, it wouldn't feel so contrived.
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Sadie: I think you're right that one of the best parts of the pilot was how it clearly showed us that these people were real friends! Now, every friend group on TV feels so combative. People are always making jokes at each other's expense or you can tell that while they may all love each other, they might not respect each other. It's nice to be able to see a show about people who just genuinely get along. And as for the '90s feminism, it was fascinating to see how little every character evolved over the series compared to Rachel. She did a total 180, which makes this reminder of who she used to be so much more satisfying, especially when you watch the Season 6 episode where Rachel's sister Jill (Reese Witherspoon) visits. I love how Jill's job hunt-turned-shopping spree mirrors Rachel's in the pilot, but also how even in this first episode, Rachel's likability shines through her spoiled behavior. Jill, on the other hand, was terrible through and through.
Joyce: Yeah, but Jill was the catalyst for apartment pants! Totally agree about Rachel. She's the spark that sets the show in motion, otherwise we would've been stuck in meandering slow-cut perpetuity. We all jump up the second she walks through Central Perk in that wedding dress looking for Monica (and for meaning in life). I love that you can immediately tell she is genuine about trying to cut the cord (and credit cards) and make it on her own. Her call with her dad had endearing depth and showed she wasn't just a Long Island princess. What if she doesn't want to be a shoe?
Sadie: Who doesn't want to be a hat, you know? People tend to really rag on Rachel because she's ditzy or superficial (or because she has chubby ankles), but she's been my favorite for years and I feel like all the Rachel haters out there could learn something from re-watching the pilot. Yeah, she's a bit ditzy and OK, she is superficial. But who cares? She's also so many great things. And badass ladies can like shopping too.
Joyce: And she keeps the things that matter from a relationship! (I would've returned that necklace too.) I also love that she actually got a job to pay the bills by the end of the pilot and the show didn't waste, like, half the season chronicling her job search. She's trying and she means it. That also turned the Gen-X slacker-dom at the time on its head. What did you think of the other four?
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Sadie: Monica, I still loved because, even though it was toned down, you still saw her edge when she stepped on Paul the Wine Guy's watch. However, Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) was completely missing her edge! She was all aura-cleansing, singing weirdness, but without that sharpness that made Pheebs such an interesting and complex character. She was just a clichéd hippie until she offhandedly mentioned her homeless past towards the end. Chandler was all jokes and no heart. And Ross was, well, Ross. He wasn't nearly as weird and geeky as he later became, but I loved that even from this very first episode, he couldn't flirt for the life of him. Today's big lizards in Aruba is tomorrow's gas smells.
Joyce: My only issue with Monica is the suspenders. Those are woeful. Her neat-freak OCD-ness wouldn't become as pronounced for a few seasons, but you already saw it there with, "Shut up and put my table back." I thought the seeds of all of their personas were planted and remained mostly consistent. Phoebe and Chandler were originally meant to be the side characters to break the tension with a joke or interest you in a sarcastic comment, and that is very apparent in the pilot. I think the most developed was Ross, which is partially a byproduct of his story and him grabbing a spoon. I'm not a big Ross and Rachel fan, but I love their Oreo-splitting scene. It's sweet, vulnerable, and it's easy to see why they became the couple.
Sadie: It was always the little things in Friends, like that Oreo-splitting scene, that made this show so great. From the very beginning there were these moments that felt so organic and relatable to me, even when I was just an 8-year-old Midwestern girl who clearly had no idea what they were actually experiencing. That's why I think even 20 years later, this show is still so popular. It speaks to something in fans beyond the jokes or the will-they-won't-they.
Joyce: Totally. When I think of Friends, I think of comfort. I wrote about the show for my college essay (#nerd), basically about how, for the lack of better words, it was always there for me. There is something ineffably reassuring, relaxed (like Frankie says), inviting, warm — and of course, entertaining — about it. That's been there from the beginning, even if the jokes and execution weren't. The interplay between the six and their can't-be-bottled chemistry have always made the show. Had even just one of them not been cast, it wouldn't have been as huge as it was.
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Sadie: Sometimes I even find myself saying things a certain way or doing things in real life that I clearly got from one of the Friends characters. Probably because I spent 10 years of my life with them, not to mention all the years of re-watching the show since it ended. And yet I never get tired of it. Friends just has the perfect mix of episodic and serialized storytelling so that it never feels stale, but always maintains that soothing sense of familiarity. Every time I'm upset or feeling down, everyone knows the best way to make me feel better is to put on Friends. (Except for Season 3. The whole "We were on a break" breakup is too painful to watch when I'm anything but happy.)
Joyce: Which is why they made all future breakups comical, which I don't necessarily agree with, but that's a discussion for another day. One other thing in the pilot I have an issue with is Rachel and Chandler not recognizing each other when they've met before and, as we found out 10 years later, they accidentally kissed. Friends was never great with continuity, and obviously those are all from future episodes, but it sticks in my craw. I would never forget Sir Limps-a-Lot.
Sadie: I do my best to brush off the continuity errors as much as possible because the show is lousy with them. So for this one, I've made up my own excuse, which is that Rachel didn't remember Chandler because he didn't have the Flock of Seagulls hair and she was not blinded by his Miami Vice attire. Though, how anyone could forget the person whose toe they aided in accidentally cutting off I could never really understand.
Joyce: Exactly! I try not to harp on it too much either. I tell myself that Rachel was too frazzled after running out on her wedding. No show is perfect. Friends wasn't perfect and the pilot sure as hell wasn't — I'd give it a B mostly for the effortless, easygoing, lived-in relationships — but it was perfect in achieving what Marta Kauffman and David Crane set out to do: show that your friends are your family. I hung out with them hanging out for 10 years, and I still am. And if I had to, I'd pee on any one of them.
Verdict: Friends didn't have the most auspicious start, but it's clear this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Watch James Michael Tyler, aka Gunther, play Friends trivia below: