What Two Weeks of Dedicated Viewing Taught Me.
by Bethany Rose
Not that long ago, it seemed like a special occasion was the only time you could or would marathon a show. Holiday weekends still bring day-long blocks of popular shows, but these pre-planned marathons are no longer the only options television fans have. Streaming services, DVRs, and full series box sets make television marathons more accessible and certainly more common than even ten years ago. For someone like me, who still very much remembers dreading summers because of television cliffhangers, and the frustration when a show got preempted or seemed to go on hiatus every two weeks, there is something quite appealing about watching a show all at once. But just because you can doesn't mean you should, and I discovered that not every show works well in the marathon format. When Netflix announced that all 10 seasons of Friends would be available for streaming on January 1st, I was intrigued. I did a marathon of the show and watched over 200 episodes in two weeks.
Watching the series in such a short amount of time led me to question the concept of marathon viewing, while also leading me to critique the series without having some emotional attachment: I knew how everything would turn out, and I'd know it for 10 years.
As usual, there are lots of spoilers to follow. The only exception is in the final section of this article.
Friends is the first lengthy series I marathoned from Season 1, Episode 1 all the way through the final season's episode. I was excited to do a marathon of this show. In the early years of its original run, I was a major fan. I wanted to hang out at a coffee shop with my eclectic yet beautiful group of friends while somewhat easily surviving a sometimes jobless life in the Village. But after the seventh season, my loyalty went quickly downhill. By the time the 10th season rolled around, the only episode I could muster up the enthusiasm to watch was the series finale. Recently, especially after catching a number of syndicated reruns this summer, I wondered why my interest waned. Was it really the show's quality that nosedived, or did outside factors contribute to the break (and we were definitely on a break)? After all, the seventh season ended in May of 2001, meaning that by the time season 8 started, most Americans were viewing the world a bit differently. That May also marked my high school graduation, and I spent the next few months figuring out what my next steps in life would be. So I thought that changes in my life and the world around me had a lot to do with my attention turning elsewhere.
When I first started the Friends marathon, I was pleasantly surprised. I thought a lot of the jokes still held up well, and I couldn't believe how many I remembered as soon as an episode started. I found the Ross and Rachel relationship a lot less frustrating, but perhaps that's because I knew the eventual outcome. Then something strange happened, I got tired and frustrated with the show, but well before season 7's end. I started to hate Monica and Chandler. The couple I had once rooted for now made me squeamish. While watching the remaining seasons, I came to the following conclusions: Monica definitely should have ended up with Richard. Chandler should probably have stayed single. Ross and Rachel should have never had a baby (so sorry, Emma). Phoebe should not have married Mike. And Joey should have acted just a little bit more like someone who finally got a steady gig after years of struggling.
I'll admit that my qualm regarding Joey is the slightest of all, so let's start here. I didn't mind that his character fell for Rachel (it was cute and completely understandable, unlike when Rachel fell for Joey later on). I also understand that in keeping in line with past episodes, Joey would not start a new lifestyle just because of his revived acting career. When he first got a role on Days of Our Lives, he got a new apartment and filled it with some of the gaudiest décor imaginable. When his character was suddenly killed off, he lost it all and had to start from the bottom again, so I wouldn't expect him to do the exact same thing when he started back on Days. Still, I don't think it made sense that I often completely forgot Joey was a working actor. I think Rachel said more about his job than Joey did. Sure, he apparently had secret soap opera parties on the roof, but he spent more time trying to keep his group from changing than he did embracing his career.
I'm not upset (or as upset as Joey was) that marriage, career changes, and parental responsibilities became a part of the show. All the characters were in their 30s by the time the show reached its final stretch, so these changes are some of the most realistic they could have experienced. That doesn't mean the approach to these issues was well executed. That can definitely be said for the rest of the sometimes sudden changes in the show.
Phoebe didn't need to get married, but I am not upset that she did. I am, however, so confused as to why Mike “I even bore Ross” Hannigan got to become Mr. Buffay. Phoebe had way more chemistry with David, the Minsk-bound scientist who sporadically appeared in Phoebe's life and who was finally ready to commit to their relationship. In fact, most of Phoebe's recurring boyfriends made more sense to become her husband. The man who truly loved her and appreciated who she really was would not have made her get rid of Gladys, either. Phoebe was always the friend who stood out from the pack. She definitely belonged in the group, but she also seemed like her character was fully formed well before the group of six formed. She was always “floopy.” This was a woman who faced a tragic loss during her youth, lived on the streets, and never felt the need to adhere to societal conventions. There was so much potential to have one of the friends change in a unique or unexpected way, and it's a shame that none of them, particularly Phoebe, actually did.
I can't believe that I used to love the Monica and Chandler relationship! Those two brought out the worst in each other. Before they dated, she was the woman with the drive to win and have the cleanest apartment, but she was still really likeable and fun. And Chandler was the guy who used humor as a coping/defense mechanism, and couldn't really seem to make any relationship work, so he kept ending up with Janice. But when Monica and Chandler got together, they quickly devolved into caricatures. Monica's need to be the best turned her into a shrieking lunatic. I think she ended up screeching out most of her lines during the last few seasons. Chandler exchanged his sense of a humor for a job as a set decoration. The saddest part about watching them eventually leave for the suburbs was seeing their apartment get stripped.
I also didn't understand Chandler's writing career. I do think his character fit in with the “writer type,” but I'm not sure why it took so long in the series for that idea to even be mentioned, since even early in the show's run he mentioned how his job was only supposed to be a temp job. My only guess is that Chandler had to spend a few seasons being the breadwinner, as Joey's acting career was largely being supplemented by other gigs like perfume sales. So perhaps his job as a “Transponster” was necessary. Or maybe Chandler hated that his mother had a lucrative career writing steamy romance novels, so he wanted to distance himself from her. Still, his sudden discovery that he hated his job and wanted to spend no more time thinking about the “W.E.N.U.S.” made for one of the worst stories of all (more about that in the next section).
Some would argue that the Emma story was jumping the shark. I wouldn't quite call it that. I would call it throwing chum to an aggravated shark (sorry again, Emma). I get it. The end game of the show was to get Ross and Rachel together. So having them be together for too long anytime before the final season wouldn't work. Yet, frustrated audiences weren't sure if they could handle any more of the will they/won't they between Ross and Rachel (especially since most of what kept them apart was really, really stupid stuff), so Emma's arrival was apparently supposed to satiate the audiences' appetite until it was actually time for the couple to be together again. It didn't. Never was there a time I hated the idea of Ross + Rachel more than when they had Emma (can I stop apologizing?). Rachel's journey as a mother made for some of the most uneven character development in what was becoming an increasingly uneven everything development show. I admit that mothers often change, especially as the children get older or when the second child rolls around. But Rachel's changes were so quick and disparate that it was very clear they were only used for convenience of the story or punchlines, making the writing of the last few seasons painfully obvious.
Would Rachel ever let Emma go? No! When she was first born, Emma had to be in Rachel's line of sight at all times. Sweet. Understandable. Not the best for the plot, though, and definitely not a sentiment that would last long. The worst “I can't be apart from Emma” episode was Season 9, Episode 5 “The One with Phoebe's Birthday Dinner.” It was an altogether frustrating episode (again, more on that in the next section), but one of the most frustrating plot points was Rachel's separation anxiety. I completely get that she wasn't ready to have a night away from her new baby, but her maternal instincts turned into an unfunny obsessive like behavior. It was taking all the jokes about being a new mother and rolling them into one terribly unfunny evening. And Ross still just acted really weird. Then by the end of that season, Rach was more than willing to leave the baby and head to Barbados.
Worst Season: Season 9.
The 10th season wasn't spectacular or even a step up by any means, but it was mercifully shorter (especially if you don't count the two-part clip episode that aired just before the two-part finale). Season 10 also brought the end of the show and some resolution. The finale certainly could have been worse. But season 9 is almost unforgivable.
This was the season where Chandler finally realized he was the only one of the friends unhappy with their job. But it doesn't just happen. No, Chandler first has to move to Tulsa. After falling asleep at a meeting, he unwittingly agrees to the move. I guess it wasn't the worst thing that could happen, since it meant his character could stop collecting dust in Monica's apartment, but it added nothing to the show and certainly didn't help his character (even though, yes, it is what helped him start a new career). This story concluded in one of the least satisfying episodes ever. Friends was known for their Thanksgiving episodes, but they usually had some type of Christmas/New Year's episode as well. Even though they still had one more season to go, season 9 featured the final Christmas episode “The One with Christmas in Tulsa.” This episode was awful for two reasons. First of all, Chandler couldn't really realize how miserable he was with the move and his career until a co-worker decided she wants to have an affair with him. OK? Worst of all, the episode is partially a clip show. Yes, the clip show, the dregs of the comedy series, the worst excuse for an actual episode, and yet during the run of Friends clip shows were still common in sitcoms. Still, they definitely didn't need to make this episode one. Instead of reminiscing about past Christmases, the friends could have given us one more new holiday celebration to remember. Anyway, Chandler then returns to New York and spends the rest of the season working his way into advertising.
Returning to “The One with Phoebe's Birthday Dinner,” this episode is one of the worst. Not only did Rach have the humorless story about separation anxiety, but the episode's only success was in showing the audience just how much the show needed to be over. No longer was it about six funny friends. Instead, somewhere along the line it became a show about a disjointed group of people who seemed to only interact with each other because that is what they were used to. While this realization might be close to some real-life friendships, it was incredibly depressing as part of a sitcom. Should the audience really be sad that the show was nearing its end and the friends would likely go their separate ways? If so, this episode did a horrible job of justifying those emotions. This was a group of friends that once banded together to help Ross save his monkey from animal control (“The One Where the Monkey Gets Away”). They were a group that couldn't successfully get ready for an 8 pm event, yet they managed to work through the chaos of all their individual issues in one room, together (“The One Where No One's Ready). But for some reason they couldn't get together for Phoebe's birthday? And when they finally accomplished that, they quickly disbanded. If anything, this episode best illustrates all that went wrong with the show.
Most of the show's season finales left the audience wanting more. Season 1 ended with “The One Where Rachel Finds Out,” in which she finally discovers Ross is in love with her. But he returns from his trip to China with a big surprise. Season 5 ended with Ross and Rachel married. Season 9 ended with “The One in Barbados,” a typical two-part finale. It ended with Rachel and Joey starting a relationship. A lot of fans disliked the Rachel/Joey story. I didn't mind it at first, when Joey started to develop feelings for Rachel, but then the story was dropped and I wasn't really sad that it ended. So having Rachel start to have feelings for Joey felt like a recycled plot (not only of the first Rachel/Joey pairing, but back to even earlier when Rachel wasn't that into Ross until she discovered he liked her).
All the recycled plots and frustrating episodes made me think that nearly everyone involved with the show was more than over it. This is really the only explanation for the episode “The One with the Sharks.” Jumping the shark is, of course, a term associated with a fading show trying to revitalize itself, and I don't necessarily think that season 9 was exactly when the show had its moment, but I think the message that the show was nearly dead in the water was clear with one of this episode's plots. Just in case the actual episode title wasn't enough of a clue, the shark-based portion of the episode was one of the most inexplicable plots ever on the show. When Monica visits Chandler in Tulsa, she thinks she discovers that he enjoys—Shark Porn. Yeah. I don't know.
Best Season: Season 2.
Fans of Ross and Rachel likely enjoyed this season. After Julie was out of the picture, the “lobsters” had a chance to finally be together and actually remained together for the rest of the season. There was enough conflict (including “the list” that was a major peek into just how frustrating that relationship would almost always be) to make things interesting, but enough hope and happiness to reward the audience for their investment in the couple.
While Emma was a dull spot in the show, Friends was actually able to make baby stories work, and the time Chandler and Joey left baby Ben on a bus was hilarious.
The characters did face changes. This was the season Joey first scored a role on Days. Chandler tried living with a new roommate to delightfully disastrous results. Monica got serious with Richard after some mutual flirting at a party. The party was catered by Monica with a little help from Phoebe, and this resulted in an ongoing partnership that eventually (though not in that season) would inspire them to go into business together (a story that then unfortunately ended before it could really take off).
It also broke two of its eventual conventions, but did so much more successfully than season 9 could have dreamed of. Instead of a traditional Thanksgiving episode, “The One with the List” focused more on the potential relationship between Ross and Rachel, with just a side story about “Mockolate” that serves as a reminder of the season. It's still a good episode, and is certainly not as frustrating as a holiday clip show. The season also avoids a two-part cliffhanger finale, and instead offers Rachel some closure from her Barry years while also focusing on Monica's realization that she can never take her relationship with Richard to the places she wants it to go. It was the perfect example of characters being able to step forward without the need for unexpected and contrived, twists.
The Art of the Marathon:
Watching Friends from start to finish in a marathon format is definitely not recommended. The marathon is an interesting thing. I can be kind of a picky viewer. I understand that with any series there are bound to be errors, particularly errors in continuity. So if a plot point in an early episode revolves around how much a character hates the color pink, and then later on in the series that same character gushes on and on about her new pink dress, I don't throw my hands up in frustration. But usually these continuity errors go without notice because weeks, months, or even years go between them, and the errors usually involve insignificant details. That changes when a show is watched as a marathon. Along with continuity issues, there were a lot of seemingly insignificant parts of the show that stood out to me and really started to bother me.
Establishing shots were often used a few times per episode. Two of the most commonly used were an exterior shot of The Apartment (deserving its proper noun status since it served as home to all of the characters for at least some amount of time), and an exterior shot of Central Perk. The Apartment's shot wasn't an issue. It was definitely an exterior of an NYC apartment, and I never even cared that none of the apartments seen in the shot offered the same large window and balcony that Monica's had. Central Perk's shot did start to bother me. In the first season, one of the shots showed a side window of the coffee shop, and sitting nearest the window was a guy. He didn't really stand out. Until I kept seeing him again and again, until that poor man's life turned into some Twilight Zone episode when you realize that he remains there in that very seat, in the same clothes, in the same position, for ten years. He's probably still there to this day. Obviously, what happened was a generic shot was taken and reused throughout the series, but when you watch around ten episodes of the same show per day, you start to notice these things.
There were also a few times in my two weeks spent with the show where my viewing would be interrupted by the dreaded clip show. I am so glad these episodes are nearly (perhaps now totally) extinct. Complain about laugh tracks all you want, but for me clip shows were the worst part about traditional multi-camera sitcoms. For those of you who don't know, clip shows were typically disguised as new episodes. Imagine settling on the couch with a nice bowl of popcorn, ready to tune into a new week of your favorite show, laughing at the cold opening and thinking, “Looks like another good episode.” The credits roll, maybe there's a theme song that you sing along to, and the comedy begins again. And then it happens. At first you don't realize it. A character starts to worry about an upcoming event, or complain about making the same mistake over and over again. Then another character says something like, “You know you've dealt with worse,” or, “You always learn from your mistakes,” and your smile quickly fades. There's a very brief but awkward moment, one where you realize nobody is making a joke or saying anything, everyone is just sitting around looking at one another, and that's it. The next thing you know, the characters have flashed back to a time when they all had different hair and different jobs, and Oh my gosh this new episode is a clip show!! You then watch a show that is 85% recycled material, with a few new scenes scattered throughout, usually lasting no longer than a few lines. I was tempted to skip right over all of the clip show episodes of Friends, but I just had to see the few “new” scenes each offered (I still skipped past the clip parts of the shows). It was annoying.
Ultimately, what I realized is that Friends, though I still think it had some good seasons (I'd even argue that the first 100 episodes are worth rewatching, but I wouldn't recommend going past that), is not a show that is meant to be ingested in whole gulps. If you really want to do a marathon, watch one season, then watch something else for a few weeks. Watching the show in two weeks didn't enrich it in any way; instead, it made the flaws stick out even more, and it made my frustrations with the plot points and the characters bubble to the surface much faster than in the original run.
That's not to say that I don't recommend the idea of a full show marathon at all. I think that the more current a show is, the more likely it is to not only work as a marathon, but it perhaps is best watched in that format. I watched How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM) this way. I didn't watch the show during its original run (save for part of the final season when I'd finally caught up), and I am so glad I waited to watch it as a marathon. HIMYM featured so many connections between episodes, but not just those from the same season. A joke in the first season might have an entirely new meaning when it was referenced again in the fifth season. These connections were often hard to keep up with even though I watched the entire series in only a couple of months, but my recollection of the many jokes, references, and bit characters made their subsequent appearances that much funnier or rewarding.
Arrested Development suffered from airing about ten years too early. Had it received a later release date, I think the idea of making an entire season of it available at one time would have saved it (and its eventual change to this format might have been too late, though I did enjoy watching the fourth season all at once). During its original run, it didn't seem like enough people were tuning into the show weekly, perhaps because many of its sitcom predecessors didn't necessitate it. Though Friends, Frasier, and Seinfeld had some connecting plots or returning elements that were better appreciated or understood when no episodes were missed, it was also pretty safe to miss an episode or two if your VCR was already recording something else. But many of Arrested's jokes actually required having seen all the episodes in order. Imagine tuning into a show and seeing a blue streak of paint on the wall. You'd probably want to know why that was there. And you'd probably be confused or turned off if, by the end of the episode, it was never mentioned and none of the other characters even seemed to acknowledge it. Loyal fans of the show, however, would love that Tobias' blue mark remained.
And the trend seems like it will continue more in the favor of marathons. Contemporary sitcoms and dramas are often made to be watched in quick succession. The marathon is becoming the norm, and I don't think that's a bad thing at all. Just don't be surprised if a marathon viewing of one of your favorite older shows leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.