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Pilot Episodes: “Friends”

One of the benefits of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu is that you can easily check out early episodes of television shows to recall what the shows were like at their beginnings.

The first episode is often a “pilot” created as prototypes for the television series being pitched to networks. Most of the time, the network doesn’t pick up the pilot and nothing further happens with the proposed show.

If the network likes the pilot, it will order additional episodes, often a half of a season or a full season. Sometimes, the network will pick up the show, but will order changes. Characters may be dropped, actors may be replaced or storylines may be changed. For instance, the show “Star Trek” was picked up after the first pilot, but the network ordered a second pilot and changed many of the characters.

Later episodes and seasons may vary from the pilot as the show-runners, writers, and actors obtain a better understanding of the characters and what works and what doesn’t work. The show “Happy Days” changed dramatically after its first two seasons, when its ratings dropped. In response, the producers made the comedy broader and the supporting character of Fonzie more of a focus of the show. From there, “Happy Days” became the most popular show on television in 1976-1977.

The changes can be even more evident when the show runs a long time and characters change in order to keep the show interesting.

“Friends” is one such example. At one point, it was the most popular series on television and made its six main actors household names and filthy rich. “Friends” ran ten seasons and is still popular in reruns and on Netflix, enough so, that my twelve-year-old has been watching it.

At the start of the episode, it introduces us to five of the friends (Monica, Ross, Phoebe, Chandler and Joey) as they sit in an NYC coffee shop, Central Perk, discussing various topics. Their conversation is interrupted by Rachel, a runaway bride that used to be BFFs with Monica on Long Island before they lost touch. Rachel has left her fiance on her wedding day and wants to live with Monica in her apartment in the City.

The rest of the episode provides the groundwork for each of the characters. Monica is a chef who has had repeated romantic troubles that the gang kids her about. Ross married young, but is now divorced after his wife discovered that she was a lesbian. Rachel is a spoiled “Daddy’s Girl” with no real practical knowledge of the world. Chandler is a wise-ass who never gets laid. Joey, an actor, has only one problem with getting laid: remembering the names of the women he’s been with. Phoebe is quirky; so quirky that, for a generation of Americans, the name “Phoebe” will likely be synonymous with quirky.

For the most part, the pilot is consistent with the later episodes and seasons of the show. The two main sets shown (Central Perk and Monica’s apartment) remained as major sets for the series. The six main characters also stayed the same as did the actors who played them.

However, there exists some inconsistencies, some jarring and most slight, in the how the characters were portrayed in the pilot.

For instance, what’s up with Joey’s hair and this vest?

2x

This look screams Fonzie or Tony Danza in “Taxi.” It’s certainly different from every other episode where Joey’s look is not so different from Chandler’s or Ross’s look.

Joey is also different in the pilot in that he’s not dumb. He doesn’t utter any stupid or dim-witted lines like the one he made in the second episode when the gang was discussing sex by using music concerts as metaphors. After lengthy round of discussion, Joey asked whether they were still talking about sex. He also didn’t have any moments like in another early episode, where he confused “omnipotent” with “impotent.”

Monica’s characterization is also slightly dissimilar in that she appears to be completely and utterly normal. She has no quirks as she does in later episodes where she is obsessed with order, cleanliness and competition. In this episode, she’s the “straight man” off of which everyone else with their quirks or silly stories plays.

In addition, the viewers could be forgiven to believe that Monica was the main character of the show. She lacks the obvious quirks or weird stories (runaway bride or ex-husband to a lesbian) and is therefore more normal and relatable in the pilot. We see Monica’s apartment but not those of the other friends. Even the title of the episode (“The One Where Monica Gets a Roommate”) suggest that Monica is the lead. Monica’s positioning makes sense as Courtney Cox was, at the time, the most recognizable cast member, as the female lead in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and dancing in the dark with Bruce Springsteen.

Courtney Cox.gif

Other characters have their own small differences in the pilot. In the opening scene, Monica’s brother, Ross, speaks with a Woody Allen-esque affectation that would be incredibly oying if David Schwimmer, who played Ross, had kept up the accent for the entire episode. Otherwise, Ross acts generally in the same way he does in the early seasons of the show. We find out he had a crush on Rachel in high school, which leads into the Ross and Rachel storyline that dominated the show for several seasons.

Phoebe is pretty much the same in the pilot as she would be for the next ten seasons, with perhaps one minor nit. While she would always be quirky, she seems a little more flighty and meeker in this episode that she would act in episodes down the road.

You could say that Rachel is completely different from where she ended up in the series. By then, she’s a mother and a successful fashion executive, but those differences are the growth that her character makes over the course of the season rather than with any inconsistencies in her characterization.

We don’t learn much about Chandler beyond what has been mentioned. We don’t know what he does for a living other than he doesn’t care for it and it involves crunching numbers (and we don’t learn any more for the rest of the show). There is also a hint of some issues with his mother, but other than that, he’s pretty much a blank slate that utters the funniest lines of the episode (which he would continue to do until the end of the series).

The “Friends” pilot was a very strong start for the show, although not an earth-shaking one. However, it did contain the seeds that, after a few episodes, when the writers and cast hit their grooves, would grow to make the show a pop cultural phenomenon and the launching pad to six careers.

 

 

 

 

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