The One Where ‘Friends’ First Attempted a Bottle Episode

friends-bottleep‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined.

“Eh, so we’re a little late…”

Friends is a show that gets picked on a lot (and is even gaining steam on the insult train with LeBlanc’s Episodes still mining the sitcom for deprecating material). For as many rabid fans that started frothing at the mouth when the show was recently added to Netflix, there are even more people that vehemently hate the program. Accordingly, Friends is guilty of being generalized on constantly and lumped in with other lazy fodder from the nineties. While a lot of this criticism is accurate, Friends also did try more ambitious episodes of television and occasionally experimented with structure when they had earned the leeway that comes with success and power. Although they never went overboard here or necessarily challenged their audience, bottle episodes were something that Friends was no stranger to, and their obsession with them began early in their third season.

It was long-time director of the series Kevin S. Bright’s idea to resort to a bottle episode, as it would save them money that would allow them to get fancy during the rest of the season. This bottle episode (which, besides the tag, is set entirely in Monica and Rachel’s living room) would hopefully allow them deeper focus by eliminating other distractions like guest stars and just focusing on the core cast. And sure enough, besides our six cast members, only three other speaking roles occur in this episode.

This was a show that was hardly trying to do something ambitious with their bottle episodes. They weren’t dismantling sets or trying to make a commentary on the formula itself. No, this was just a simple, cheap piece of television that was produced because a simple, cheap piece of television was needed. That’s not to say that it’s not a lot of fun, and one of the series’ better episodes, because it is, but it hardly had such lofty goals.

The conceit of this episode revolves around everyone getting ready for Ross’s formal function, with the gang only having 21 minutes before they have to leave, with of course the episode playing out in real-time. Ross is constantly updating his friends and the audience towards how much time they have left to leave as the episode’s actual runtime ticks down in synchronization with it. It’s a nice little touch to keep needling throughout the episode, although not as ambitious as Mad About You’s “The Conversation,” in terms of there being no cuts or commercials present. In spite of the clear differences, a lot of people also thought Friends was cribbing from Seinfeld’s “The Chinese Restaurant” episode, another bottle episode which passed in real-time and didn’t air that much earlier (1991, but it was still in the public consciousness).

What “The One Where No One’s Ready” does do well is that it’s an excellent primer for the cast and their relationships. It’s also a solid example of how group inertia can be slowed down and an accurate depiction of time getting away from you when you’re attempting to leave for something. It’s almost like if you were to put the episode on while you were getting dressed to go out, only to find yourself glued, unable to leave, as you end up finishing the episode, not even realizing where all the time went. It manages to kind of place you in the mindset of the cast, perhaps not perfectly, but a similar illusion is created and it helps sell the episode even harder.

Part of the reason that this episode is so strong and would become such a staple of the show is because it’s an episode all about the relationships between these characters. The entire installment is hinging upon Ross’s excitement for his event and award, and obviously all of these friends of his want to acquiesce. They care about what he thinks of them (even though he’s kind of a huge asshole to everyone here), particularly Rachel, and their actual relationship is really the lynchpin of this episode. But all over the place little micro-plots are brewing at once. None of these are particularly important, and they’re almost of the things that Seinfeld would have a field day with. Phoebe is dealing with a stain and outfit woes, Monica is getting neurotic over an answering machine message she left for her ex, Richard, and in what might be the episode’s most enjoyable plot, Chandler and Joey squabble over the rights to “dibs” on a chair that escalates to outrageous sitcom levels (and also might have popularized the phrase, “going commando.” Ohh, the nineties…).

The episode also makes good use of the show interweaving the several plots that it’s juggling inside the powder keg of an apartment to an impressive degree. For instance, the opening line of the episode references a jar of fat that’s being stored in the fridge. This jar of fat is used as a runner throughout the episode for laughs, but also the object behind the emotional catalyst at the end of the episode between Ross and Rachel. That’s the sort of tight, smart writing that Friends could sometimes be capable of, especially when it was forced to just deal with its basics and not over-complicate things (something that the later seasons would overindulge in). Instead the episode plays with rhyme, the dissection of old adages, and wordplay, as the dialogue zips around at a rapid speed to perfectly counter the gang’s lethargy. It’s also great fun to see the group moving forward and backwards between different stages of readiness as various things happen, constantly toying with the audience and driving Ross into further outrage.

This experiment ended up proving to be so successful for Friends that the show more or less tried to do one of these every season. A lot of the time this would happen in the form of a Thanksgiving episode, but also others like “The One With Monica’s Thunder” and “The One On the Last Night,” showing them that the cast and their chemistry alone would be enough to anchor an episode (and they really are in top form here). These episodes became a tradition as well as many of the cast and producers’ favorite entries. Soon their mindset shifted from, “Should we do this to save some money?” to, “How are we going to do this this time, because we’re obviously going to…”

Friends would morph and change a lot through its ten seasons, but the fact that bottle episodes remained a constant for them is a testament to the power of these sort of episodes. They have the ability to redefine what a sitcom is capable of, but they can also just be the most efficient means of churning out your best possible material. And sometimes that can be as simple as six people caught up in the flux of getting ready to go out.

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