from Nick Suss
Sept. 22, 2014, 11:51 a.m.
Friends is the greatest television show of all time. This is an undisputable fact of human history. You can try to argue it but you would be wrong. That’s right. I’m ordering a whack on all you Sopranos fans. Indeed. I am the one who knocks Breaking Bad down out of the top spot. Even all of you Seinfeld fans can stuff your sorries in a sack.
I’m sorry to sound absolutist here, but without a doubt there is no episodic television show that has ever mattered more to me than Friends. The six characters are the six perfect archetypes for what perfect television human beings are. The plots told the story of young adulthood in a way that never before had been achieved and likely never again will be. The show was iconic. It was a phenomenon. And I say this without ever having earned a full appreciation of what the show meant when it was at its peak.
Friends debuted when I was five days old. Five days ago, I celebrated my 20th birthday and I really didn’t care. I was another year older, another number bigger on sheets I had to fill out. But today? Today is actually worthy of my celebration. There is no show worthy of more reverence on its 20th anniversary than Friends. So I’m going to try to honor the show in the best way I can. This is my list of the top 20 Friends episodes of all time. When I first sought out to make this list, it was 51 episodes long. Cutting 31 episodes out is one of the most difficult jobs I’ve ever tried to do for StoriesHouse. But this list is done. It’s tough not to second guess, so I’ll put two or three honorable mentions before we start. But without further ado, here are the 20 Greatest Episodes of Friends of All Time.
Honorable Mentions: The list of episodes that should be made honorable mentions is too long, so I’ll just honor some story arcs that I tried to include in the story but I couldn’t. The main story arc I wish I could’ve included was the story arc of Eddie and his moving in with Chandler. It was one of the funniest strings of three episodes the show ever put out. The friendship of Chandler and Joey was probably the strongest on the show. And that’s saying a lot for a show called Friends. So this arc which pushed the boundaries of their friendship and proved that they cared about each other more than just as roommates was awesome. Another arc I wish I could’ve included was the arc that began Season 6 where Ross and Phoebe shared the secret of Ross and Rachel’s marriage. I cut it because life isn’t fair sometimes. But I’ve often argued that Ross and Phoebe together is the best pairing of two friends and whenever they had an episode together it was must-see television. So organizing an entire season around them sharing information was, much like a stick of gum, perfection. Finally, and I can’t believe that no single episode from this arc made the countdown, but the arc of Monica and Chandler getting married should have been mentioned, especially the episode that introduced us to the much-anticipated arrival of Chandler’s father. These episodes, including the first episode of Season 8 after the wedding, were some of the finest examples of the clustered nature of how this show could take scattered plots and somehow connect them. I’ll say that no matter how many times I’ve seen those episodes, they always make me cheer and make me laugh. But they didn’t make the countdown.
I’ll start this countdown in the same place the show started. This pilot episode was among the greatest pilots of all time, establishing every character well and Ross, Rachel and Monica perfectly. You’ll notice through this countdown that I definitely have a Ross and Rachel bias, so episodes that highlight their “hijinks” to put it nicely will be overvalued. That being said, this episode definitely deserves it. From start to finish it works to establish the conflicts of the show that lasted for seasons and seasons until the rest of the show took over. This is one of the few episodes I can’t pick out a best moment. It was more than a series of moments. It was the show that began it all.
19. The Last One
I’ll just put it this way: As I typed the title of this episode, I thought the phrase “I got off the plane.” Then I got chills. Every time I think of the ending of Friends, I get chills. I don’t quite cry. I have a little more pride than that. But if I didn’t have pride, I’d be bawling every time I thought about leaving keys on a table. Sure, the episode neglected Joey fully which kind of set the stage for that spinoff show that very few people like to talk about, but the other five characters interacted to the perfect finale. I told you I have a Ross and Rachel bias and a Ross and Phoebe bias, so the second half of this episode dominated. Monica and Chandler had their moments and the call backs were great, but this episode boiled down to the denouement of one of the best will-they-won’t-they relationships ever. The fact that they ended up as a will instead of a won’t was just icing on the cake.
18. The One with the List
Let’s get away from beginnings and endings to talk about more beginnings and endings. This episode all boils down to Ross being an idiot, which pretty much could be the best descriptor of nearly every episode of the show. But his idiocy was so well defined in this episode that it has to be mentioned. This is one of the most iconic episodes of the show, one that I included on the list more for its iconic nature than my actual love of the episode. Don’t get me wrong. I love this episode. I just don’t include it in my top-20 favorite episodes. But this list is greatest. And no greatest list would be complete with The List. That would totally be not Rachem.
17. The One Where Chandler Crosses the Line
Of all the episodes I put on this list, this is probably the one that people will disagree with the most. It isn’t a particularly iconic episode, it didn’t add any popular catchphrases to the cultural zeitgeist and it really isn’t among the funniest episodes of the show. But it did capitalize one of my favorite story arcs with a huge capital A. This Season 4 episode takes place in the heart of the Joey-Kathy-Chandler love triangle, a story arc so complex and difficult to deal with that Scrubs failed pretty epically when it tried to add this conflict and How I Met Your Mother wasted five-and-a-half years exploring this concept. Yet Friends does it perfectly in one episode. Of all the Joey and Chandler episodes on this list, this to me is the most Joey and Chandler. Falling in love with your best friend’s girlfriend is such a kitschy sitcom premise, but the fact that Friends actually did it well and made it heartfelt is what made this episode so out-of-the-box. (Yes, that was a Chandler in the Box joke. Nice catch.)
16. The One the Morning After
Sticking with drama over humor for this portion of the list, this is quite arguably the most iconic dramatic moment in the history of the show. If you go back and rewatch the third season in its entirety, this episode was foreshadowed for so long that it might as well have been Buster having his hand bitten off. But it wasn’t so much the build up as the achievement in this episode. I’m a big Cheers fan and I will argue tooth over nail that Sam and Diane breaking up was the worst thing that ever happened to the show. But for Friends, this episode somehow stimulated the next three or four years of the show in a way similar to how the pilot set every episode up to this point in motion. Ross and Rachel may have taken a break, but the show sure didn’t. And this isn’t even to mention the other four friends being trapped in the closet far before R. Kelly made it cool. (Yes, I know it was a bedroom, but I couldn’t make an R. Kelly reference if I said Trapped in the Bedroom.)
15. The One in Barbados
If you aren’t sensing a theme here, you should be. The One in Barbados is another perfect example of an establishing episode, an episode that was great in its own right but should be more remembered for setting in motion some of the greatest episodes in the history of the show. In addition to directly setting up two episodes that will appear later on this list, the One in Barbados gave us The One with Ross’s Grant, the remainder of Phoebe and Mike’s relationship and, well, Monica’s hair. The episode was great in its own right, another sterling example of what could happen when the show went back to the well and tried the My Best Friend’s Girlfriend idea. Except, in this case, that girlfriend was Rachel. This might be the only true Joey episode on the list, but there is a reason for that. Joey was the best supporting character on the show. When given the opportunity, Joey could easily work with any other character but not steal scenes. He didn’t need to. This episode gave him the chance to and it was awesome. Plus, Hank Azaria.
14. The One with the Blackout
Have I typed Ross and Rachel yet? Ross and Rachel. Ross and Rachel. Rachel and Paulo? Every sitcom based on a group of friends or a workplace that I’ve ever watched have used love triangles like sixth graders use Wikipedia. It’s pretty much the crutch of the sitcom industry. But this was the first time Friends went to the well and it was one of the most intriguing. The show introduced its first “Evil Because he Isn’t Ross” character, a tactic they would go back to with Mark and with Russ and with that random guy at the bar in season 9 and, oddly, with Joey, in this episode but it was Ross’s reaction that made this episode a classic. Remember, this was the first time Ross decided to go for it. As far as I know, this was also the first place I ever heard the phrase “friend zone” used and was possibly the last time that an ATM vestibule was a major plot point of anything. As much as love Chandler and his being trapped in an ATM vestibule with Jill Goodacre, this episode boils down to Ross and Ross alone. Which leads us perfectly into our next episode.
13. The One with Ross’s Tan
I argue all the time that Ross is the best character or Friends. People call me crazy, but this episode is walking proof of why. Ross is the only character that if you cut him off from the rest of the group he survives. That is why Ross has the Frasier effect on him: You can name pretty much all of his ex-girlfriends by name but you’d be hard pressed to name more than two for any of the other five friends. This episode is no exception to Ross carrying an episode all by his lonesome. The whole premise of the episode is Ross goes to a tanning salon. That’s it. No more. No less. That somehow translated into 22 minutes of some of the greatest physical gags show on television in the 21st Century. I so, so, so wanted to rank this No. 8 just so I could make puns, but I didn’t. I have some integrity. Also, kudos for breaking up Rachel and Joey in this episode before they go too serious. That was a really good idea. People kind of hated that pairing.
12. The One with All the Poker
While most of the great episodes in sitcom history thrive on their ability to weave many plots together at once, this episode does what very few others could do: Weave multiple plots into one plot. To make matters better, nearly every plot was a Ross and Rachel plot. The other four characters were caricatures of themselves this episode, supplying their quirks as background devices for the mounting conflict that was Ross versus Rachel. I’ll just say it. I’ve probably overrated this episode. But that being said, there is no list that doesn’t include this one. It was yet another example of why the six friends together at once should supersede any individual groupings, even Ross and Rachel or Chandler and Joey. This episode was like the Cold War if the Cold War was hilarious. The risks kept getting higher. The stakes kept getting higher. The conflict rose and rose and rose and rose and rose. Except in the end, no one really one. Except the audience.
11. The One with the Prom Video
I could talk for hours alone about Chandler and Joey being Bracelet Buddies, but that’s not why people love this episode. This episode is the episode where Ross and Rachel became each other’s lobsters. And the big softy in me loves that. But the television enthusiast in me would like to point out that not only did this episode advance the plot necessarily, but it also set up a bevy of callbacks and undertones that shaped the rest of the show. This was the first look we had at the Gellers and Green in youth, the first time we got to see Fat Monica or Rachel with her original nose or Ross as, as Joey put it, Mr. Kotter. It set up the running gag of Monica accidentally walking in on her parents as well, a gag that is really easy but also kind of hard to recognize if you’re not paying attention. But most of all, I mean c’mon. That ending with Phoebe clapping as they embrace. It’s kind of cool. What do you mean? I’m not crying. I told you. I don’t cry during these sorts of things. Sniffle. Let’s just move on.
10. The One with Ross’s Wedding
Let’s begin the top-10 with a Rocky reference. I like to tell people that every time I watch Rocky, I still stand up and cheer even though I can practically choreograph the fight at this point. That’s how I am with this episode. Even though I know what everyone is going to say, I still know that I will scream at the television when Ross takes Rachel instead of Emily. It is one of the most awkward and uncomfortable lines in the history of television, and I’ve watched a lot of awkward and uncomfortable television. To not include this episode in the top-10 would make no sense. It may not be one of the funniest episodes of the show ever, but Monica and Chandler came together and Ross and Emily came apart. For a single episode of television, it did a lot of things right. There are very few shows that have ever ended their best season correctly. Not even Seinfeld’s Season 4 finale lived up to the rest of the season. Friends’ did.
9. The One with the East German Laundry Detergent
The fourth and final Season 1 entry on this list comes to us thanks to the strength of three unconnected and uncommon pairings of friends that introduced Janice and UBERWEISS to the world. Oddly enough, I believe this is the only episode on the list with Janice in it, which surprises me because it might be the least Janice-y Janice episode. But it wasn’t her stellar supporting role that stood out. It was Chandler turning into freak-out-Chandler for the first time. It was Phoebe proving how calm and collected she could be despite the insanity of her nature for the first time. It was Joey uncharacteristically scheming and scheming well. It was Monica rolling with the punches and riffing off of Joey with absurd comic timing. And it was those two other characters being those two other characters. The One with the East German Laundry Detergent is to me the perfect Ross and Rachel relationship episode. There are ones higher on the list, but those are much different than this one. Those focus on why they shouldn’t be together. This episode is the proof that stood for nine-and-a-half more seasons of why Ross and Rachel should have been together. For that and for that alone, this episode cracks the top-10.
8. The One at the Beach
Full disclosure: Every episode on the list between here and No. 1 is practically indistinguishable. There is a definite top-3 to me and definite top-8. The fact that we’ve just entered into the top-8 should mean that if you have any complaints you should start here because this is where I start getting really passionate. And who wouldn’t get passionate about The One at the Beach. It was perfect. How the hell does someone come up with something as phenomenal as Strip Happy Days Game? How does a character as zany as Bonnie blow by like a candle in the wind and still leave such an imprint on the show? How does Phoebe’s entire conflict as a character seem to resolve itself with more questions? This episode was shooting star of smart writing and superb acting. And I won’t even mention the Ross and Rachel arc of this episode. We’ll get there later.
7. The One in Massapequa
Can we just take a minute to argue whether or not Parker is the best guest character in this history of this show? Because I vote yes. I’ve seen every episode of 30 Rock, yet I’m pretty positive that I laughed more at this episode than I did at all of Alec Baldwin’s scenes as Jack Donaghy combined. A lot of the episodes on this countdown are on here because of their dramatic interplays. This isn’t one of them. Monica is hilarious in this episode. Joey is hilarious in this episode. Ross gives us one of my favorite lines ever in his delivery of “What was wrong with Mona?” Then there’s Parker. Parker is the golden rainbow that twinkles with the pigment of one million children’s smiles, or I think that’s how he would describe himself. Positivity is annoying when it’s taken to Parker levels and this episode pokes at that with a Giant Poking Device. I think we all want Parker to slip on a giant booger.
6. The One Where Ross Finds Out
When I think of iconic episodes of Friends, this is where I go. I told you guys I’m not going to cry, but if you want to start crying, now would be the appropriate time. The One Where Ross Finds Out is the episode I use to romanticize what a perfect sitcom world is like. The last scene in Central Perk alone is one of the greatest shots ever shot in sitcom history. But that isn’t to take away from Rachel’s drunken phone message and Ross’s reaction to hearing that message and Rachel’s jumping on Ross’s back and Ross dropping the phone in the sink and delivering the line that his entire character can be reduced to: “You’re over me? When were you… under me?” That line is Peak Ross. This episode is Peak Friends. But, it isn’t the best episode where someone finds out.
5. The One Where Everybody Finds Out
The shining star of the Chandler and Monica story arc, The One Where Everybody Finds Out is that episode where you either love it or you love it more. It’s an episode straight out of the sitcoms of the past, where people choose to play elaborate mind games with each other rather than talk things out, but it’s done so well you don’t even second guess why these supposed best friends are being such dicks to each other. In this episode we learn that Phoebe is very bendy and that Chandler is afraid of bras. We learn that Rachel has a lot of laundry, which we probably could have guess already, and that Chandler and Monica were in love. Awwww. We also were given the line “GET OFF OF MY SISTER,” which alone might be the best delivered line in the show. I didn’t quite know where to put this episode, but I’m glad it slotted top-5. It earned it.
4. The One with the Jellyfish
I put this episode in a class of its own. And I’m not just talking among Friends episodes. It really doesn’t have a counterpart across television. It somehow is the single most quoted episode of Friends ever but also contains a monologue comparable to George’s in the Marine Biologist and works as an establishing episode too, something that not many iconic episodes can do. I will catch a lot of flack for saying this, but I do believe that this episode is the greatest season premiere of all time, across every show I’ve ever watched. It is that good to me. Every line is a well-crafted work of pure genius. Of course, everyone will always remember “We Were on a Break” as they well should, but the ending of this episode with Ross and Rachel’s crowning argument is, well, I’ve ran out of adjectives to describe perfection. Though I will always defend Chandler, Joey and Monica’s deliveries of their day at the beach as the best part of the episode, it’s hard to not associate The One with the Jellyfish with such classics as “You fell asleeeep?” and “FINE BY ME!” and “It’s not that common, it doesn’t happen to every guy and IT IS A BIG DEAL!” Wrap that up with a Chandler line for the ages and you have yourself an episode worthy of our adulation.
3. The One with the Embryos
The best episode in the show’s best season, The One with the Embryos is Friends doing what Friends does best. Remember all the things I said about The One with All the Poker? This episode is just that on steroids. The competition played by the friends minus Phoebe is perhaps the defining moment of the show, proof that these Friends were just like everyone else if everyone else was crazy attractive. These arguments, escalating wagers and inside jokes dominated. I don’t quite know how to put this episode without just listing some of the lines. But there are too many to list. We all have our favorites. From Maurice the Space Cowboy to Big Fat Goalie to Althea to Miss Chanadaler Bong to Transpondster, nearly every line uttered in this episode was iconic. This is one of those episodes that is Must See TV every time it is ran in syndication. Which is a lot. But that doesn’t diminish how funny this episode is. When I mentioned before that when I think of iconic episodes, I think of The One Where Ross Finds Out, when I think of iconic moments I think of this episode where Chandler and Joey come riding into the big apartment on the white dog. It’s moments like those that make this show mean what it means to me.
2. The One Where Ross is Fine
This episode is my favorite episode of television ever. Putting it at No. 2 is one of the more difficult concessions I had to make when building this list. Ross and Rachel and Joey coming together in this episode that would make anyone cringe with happiness is one of the best things the show ever did. This episode might be the funniest in the history of the show, combining the awesomeness of David Schwimmer’s comic range against the foil of Matt LeBlanc’s straight-man-ness. As I mentioned before, Joey is at his best feeding off of other characters and he does so in this episode so well. And yeah, Chandler and Monica have a hysterical story here and Phoebe is just Phoebe, but this episode boils down to Ross and his ability to steal the show. Even in an episode so late in the show’s run, the show proved it could still be funny and even more than that be the funniest show on television. Though we never got to see Ross dancing to the Chicago soundtrack and we only got to imagine the pain of Ross’s crisped hands, we feel everything that happened in that episode. It may well be the best episode of Friends. But I have one more for you.
1. The One Where No One’s Ready
This episode might be the single greatest episode of television ever made. I put it in a class with The Contest and The Chinese Restaurant from Seinfeld and I’ll Be Seeing You from Cheers and any other episode of classic television you want to put it up against. Hell, I’ll even put it up against the finale of M.A.S.H. I’ll probably lose, but that’s how highly I think of this episode. It frames such a perfect story that it manages to interplay six different characters with various motivations and goals on top of one another in a way that I’ve never seen before and I haven’t seen since. The One Where No One’s Ready is a bottle episode unlike any other, one that entirely takes place inside Monica and Rachel’s apartment but still has a fluid movement like some of the fastest episodes of 24. It is a back-and-forth-and-back episode that has literally nothing to do with any other episode of the show but still leaves everything else behind it. Let’s just break down what happens. Ross is nervous because they are running late for a function he needs to be at. Ross is angry because no one but Phoebe is dressed yet. Chandler is sitting in a chair but leaves for the bathroom. When Chandler comes back Joey is sitting in his chair. Chandler doesn’t like this. Meanwhile, Monica and Rachel are both running late. Monica checks her messages and hears a message from Richard. She freaks out. Chandler and Joey continue to argue about the chair. Phoebe’s dress gets the hummus and she needs to change. Rachel can’t figure out what to wear. Smoke comes out of Ross’s ears. Monica continues to freak out. Chandler and Joey have their best series of exchanges ever about complete nothingness. Ross gets angrier. Monica gets breezier. Chandler hides Joey’s tux. Phoebe decides to be political. Could Joey be wearing any more clothes? Rachel dresses down. Ross drinks the fat. Rachel dresses up. Happiness. All of that happens in one episode. They fit so much plot into a character-driven episode yet still left enough room for humor. As a writer, I can’t help but appreciate how difficult it is to make an episode move that quickly without ever actually changing locations. This episode of Friends broke the mold. It told the zany story of six people who really shouldn’t have had anything to do with one another but somehow made it work. Which, in a microcosm, is what the show really was. These people should have had nothing to do with each other. But they made it work. And I’m glad they did. Because Friends means more to me than any other television show ever could. Not even Saturday Night Live means as much to me as Friends, which is something that I never realized until I typed that last sentence. I could write 4,700 words in under two hours on anything else. Not even I care about something else that much. Friends is an institution to me. It’s been around since I was five days old and hopefully will be around for much, much longer. It is the greatest television show of all time. Happy Birthday Friends. And thank you.