5. The one with the flashback
This is, in my opinion, one of the best episodes of Friends. This spot on the list could also have gone to “The one that could have been,” because it shows the importance of the choices the characters make – but this one shows the origins of the group, which is very interesting to watch for someone who might be wondering how such a group of people could find each other.
When Friends begins, the group of 25-ish-year-olds all hang out in a cosy coffee house, drinking lattes and iced teas and talking about very grown-up life stuff. But as we learn in “TOW Flashback,” it wasn’t long ago that they were hanging out at a bar, How I Met Your Mother style, drinking beers and playing pool like “real” young adults.
So what changed? The four friends that at the time made up the core group? Well, no – it was simply the world around them. The bar changed to a coffee house, and the four friends + Joey decided that, eh, they might as well hang around.
It was a small thing, but it says a lot about how and why you change at this time in your life. By your mid-20s you’re not really a rowdy youth, but you’re hardly a real adult, either – so how your life looks can sometimes be very random, and will depend a lot on where you live and who you spend your time with.
I have friends in their 30s who party every weekend and take new conquests home as often as they can. And I have friends in their early 20s who go to knitting societies and are starting to think about buying houses and starting families. This is a very ambiguous, undefined time in your life, and ultimately there’s no right way to be in your 20s – you simply have to make sure that where and who you are is as close to what you want as possible.
4. The one where Rachel quits
Although I’m probably more of a Monica, Rachel’s journey has always been my favourite thing about the series. Look at the extreme transformation she underwent over those 10 years we got to follow her – and without losing her core personality traits (unlike Phoebe, who somewhere along the way became a completely different character).
In the beginning, Rachel was a spoiled brat who only cared about fashion and men. By the end, she still cared about those things, but she was also an accomplished businesswoman, and a single mother on the cusp of ending up with her one true love.
And it all took off in this episode, when she finally let go of the safety net and dived into the career she really wanted. I really, really love this development. Rachel was lost, drifting, but she knew what she loved and she made a career of it. It wasn’t smooth; she went from pouring coffee to untangling coat hangers. She’d later leave the dead-end job she acquired in this episode because a guy thought she was cute and offered her a job out of nowhere – unrealistic? Not really. These days, it seems like landing a good job is little more than dumb luck unless you’ve got 10 years of experience and/or a very good network.
While no one should ever quit a paying job for nothing, Rachel’s commitment to following her dreams is very inspiring. We should all be a little more like that.
3. The one with the fake Monica
While this is a typical season 1 episode – bad lighting, bad staging and peculiar guest star casting – “TOW the Fake Monica” really speaks to me.
Because Monica was very much presented as the main character in the early years of Friends, her struggles always seemed the most realistic; in this episode, she has her identity stolen by a woman who proceeds to do all the things Monica always wanted to do but never got around to. She takes dancing lessons, auditions (badly) for musicals, and generally just lets loose in a way that Monica could never allow herself to do.
By the end of the episode, Fake Monica has been reprimanded, and Monica’s life is back to normal – but in the final scene, we see her go back to dancing class, dance horribly, and tell the demeaning teacher that, “At least I’m doing it.”
Monica’s life may not have been magically altered, and she wasn’t cured of her neuroses (not that she needed to be), but the character’s small awakening was an inspiration – because maybe we can do a few of the things we, for whatever reason, feel that we shouldn’t.
2. The Pilot / The one with George Stephanopoulos
I have to lump these two together, because it’s really the beginning and end of the beginning. There’s two filler episodes in between that establish the characters, but what happens in the Pilot is finally cemented in “TOW George Stephanopolous.”
In the one that started it all, Rachel Green arrives on the doorstep of adulthood, wet and in a wedding dress and looking exactly as out of place in this world as she is. She goes down the rabbit hole, crosses the threshold, enters the void (pick your metaphor), and finds herself way over her head.
By the fourth episode, she’s still just as lost in the real world, but she takes her first real step to making peace with the change. Having a job, paying the bills, cleaning the dishes; she’ll figure that out later. What she really needs – what the series is all about – has fallen into her lap. “I’ve got magic beans,” she says when she watches her five new friends play Twister (behaving, ironically, like children rather than adults). What she means is that she finally begins to believe what Phoebe and Monica have been trying to tell her: real life is weird, it’s overwhelming and it’s terrifying, but it’s going to be fine.
1. The one with Monica and Chandler’s wedding
Although this is not an early episode, it is the most important one on my rewatch list, because it shows how far the characters have come, and how much they’ve grown. Sure, the series finale does that too, but at Chandler and Monica’s wedding, a lot of the coming-of-age stories truly culminate – and everything that happens after that point is just real adult life.
Monica and Chandler, of course, get married (spoiler alert!). I still think this love story is one of the best there’s ever been on television, because it truly grew organically, from the show and the characters. Unlike Ross and Rachel (a pairing I also adore), Chandler/Monica was not originally a part of the series’ DNA, and there was no forced, unnecessary drawing out of their inevitable hook-up. Actually, Monica was meant to end up with Joey. But the writers very wisely recognised that these characters just fit, and the medium-length burn from seasons 4-7 (when they tied the knot) allowed both Monica and Chandler to develop in new and unexpected – but completely believable – ways.
And we lucky viewers got to take that journey with them; we got to watch them go from their season 1 selves to their very mature, and very different season 7 selves. Ready to commit to something that was never meant to be, and yet it was so incredibly right. I think a lot of us can take something away from that.
Then there’s Rachel, of course, who takes a very different but equally important step forward when she discovers that she is pregnant. While the ramifications of this reveal aren’t felt until season 8, when we discover that Ross is the father (er, here’s hoping you’ve all actually seen the show at this point), the fact that it happens in this episode says a lot about where the series is going next: to real, grown up life. Until this wedding, it’s been fun and games. Now, at age 30-something, the six friends enter the next stage of their lives. It’s pretty fantastic to experience (and to know that we’ve still got a good half decade until we need to worry about falling behind).
What episodes of Friends have taught you most about being an adult?