The accused: Friends, “The One With Ross’s Wedding” (Season 4, Episodes 23 and 24)
The crime: Embodying the somewhat rare “double finale fail” with a problematic cliffhanger that emphasizes an even more problematic will-they-or-won’t-they relationship
Television’s failures are supposed to be obvious. From the overhyped non-starters that flop from the very beginning (hello, FlashForward, Lone Star) to the much-discussed clumsy conclusions of series we were convinced had it all planned out (nice to see you again, Battlestar Galactica), the medium’s big busts are right there in front of us. Whether because of low Nielsen ratings, terrible critical and fan response or something else entirely, the reaction to one episode often defines a series’ long-term legacy. But while we are often left wondering what it all means for the medium and for the industry when a series like Lone Star stumbles out of the gate or a series like Battlestar Galactica presents a controversial ending, those discourses tend to focus on disastrous beginnings and ill-conceived endings. But what about those mishaps that are not so obvious, the catastrophes that happen somewhere in the middle? How much impact, both positive and negative, can one bad episode have on an entire series? How do long-running series continue onward in the aftermath of an episodic failure? Is it possible that individual, episodic failures of television’s most respected series tell us more than the failings of a much-hyped about pilot or series finale? And how do we really define “failure” anyway?
These are just a few of the questions that I hope to answer with TV Surveillance’s new bi-weekly feature, #TVFail. In each entry, I will be taking a look at an individual episode of television that is considered a disappointment in some way. Maybe it was panned by critics and audiences, maybe it was lowly rated or maybe it was initially neither but has retroactively lost its more positive reputation. No matter the reason, this is a place where I will talk about the quiet failures of some of television’s best series. Here, I will talk about how and why these individual episodes came to represent “failure” and also discuss whether or not those definitions still apply today. The hope is that this feature will weave textual analysis and contextual and intertextual discourse together to create a compelling space for the discussion of televisual failure.
I’ve discussed some of the issues that arise with season finales here in #TVFail before, but that discussion of the dreadful season one finale of Heroes was centered more in the context of serial dramas, their mythology and audience expectations. Today’s discussion has other season finale-related interests and the problems of the season four finale of Friends is likely more to prevalent in other television series than those of Heroes season one. Whereas Heroes’ “How to Stop an Exploding Man” failed because of what it didn’t do or didn’t show to the waiting-with-baited-breath audience, “The One with Ross’s Wedding” is a substantially flawed offering because of what it does do.
Cliffhangers are kind of the worst. Don’t get me wrong, I love them and I see their purpose in an abstract sense. Creating an intense, perhaps unforeseen moment that suggests even more intense and unforeseen things to come is a lovely way to pull the audience to the edge of their seats and want more of a story and want it immediately. There are a number of series who have done great, insane things with cliffhangers over the years, from the Lost to The Office (tell me that the cliffhangers to seasons two and three didn’t wreck your life). Generally speaking, cliffhangers are useful and can be tremendously fun in the moment.
Nevertheless, what can be outstandingly fun in the moment can come back to bite you in the bottom. There are consequences to pulling out a cliffhanger and if the writers are not pre-prepared to think it through and consider the angles and the aftermath, a fun ending can be completely detrimental to a series’ long-term viability and quality. Throwing out a big cliffhanger just for cliffhangers’ sake is dangerous and following one up by quickly backing or running away from the intensity and arc of that moment is even worse. Screwing with the audience and their perceptions of a story’s realty only goes so far and when doing so begins to negatively impact characters, it just doesn’t seem worth it.
Running away from big cliffhangers isn’t concentrated in one genre, but it feels the most annoying in the sitcom. Most of the time, sitcom cliffhangers are romantically intertwined in some way: Two people kiss for the first time, they get engaged or someone chases someone else down at the airport and the first two things happen. Think Cheers, its season one finale and its season two premiere. After 21 episodes of simmering sexual tension, Sam and Diane finally give in to their urges at the end of season one. It seems like that they have taken their relationship to the next level. Cut to the season two premiere in the fall and Diane is re-thinking that next level as she throws Sam out of her apartment. I don’t think many Cheers fans assumed that the big kiss in “Showdown Part 2” would mean marriage and domesticated bliss for Sam and Diane, but I’d also wager that they didn’t expect or even want to be jerked in opposite directions by the series in back-to-back episodes.
Sam and Diane are much like Friends’ Ross and Rachel and both couples embody the horrible things that happen to good television when problematic cliffhangers are combined with the frustrating plight of the will-they-or-won’t-they unresolved sexual tension couple. On their own, tricky cliffhangers and UST couples present a load of problems for good television, problems that I have discussed in this space previously. But together? Oh no. OH NO. There are some truly dreadful programs, characters and writing out there on television, but few things frustrate me more than the deadly duo of problematic cliffhangers and prolonged romantic coupling.
I know it’s ubiquitous in syndication and there have been dozens of more innovative comedies that came after, but I still pretty much adore Friends. I have no problem saying that. Every time I come across an episode on syndication, I end up watching it. Every time my girlfriend pulls out the DVDs to watch episodes for the 401st time, I join right in. Although I will definitely watch any episode of Friends, I would much prefer to watch episodes from the first three or four seasons.* Friends became much too broad and less respectful of its characters in the later years. While we could easily argue that the series’ descent into mediocrity – though not full-blown terrible territory – came with age, popularity, boredom and all the other things related to complacency, I’d like to take this time to pinpoint on the exact moment where Friends stopped being so great. And it’s this one:
*The primary thing that makes the middle years rock-solid is the Chandler-Monica relationship. They’re the best. But even they couldn’t save the porous final few seasons.
Ross saying Rachel’s name at his wedding to Emily is just so…dumb. As a cliffhanger, completely separated from the context of the series itself and the storylines, having a groom say another woman’s name that isn’t his bride-to-be is still dumb. There is absolutely no context where you could convince me that a situation like this would work.
Again, I understand the desire to create a shocking cliffhanger and I also see that the series’ writers were always looking for ways to pull the rug out from underneath the fans of its primary romantic relationship, but having Ross make such a goofy mistake during one of the most important moments of his life serves those aforementioned masters while destroying the character. This is a great example when the shock value just wasn’t worth it, both because the execution of the moment itself was stupid and because it contributed to the ruination of a fun character.
Ross and Rachel were the mid-nineties answer to Sam and Diane, only with less smoldering sexual tension and more loveable, cutesy longing. Ross basically loved Rachel his entire adult life and in the first two seasons, that knowledge made the will-they-or-won’t-they nonsense very palpable. David Schwimmer played the goofy underdog very well and it was simple and easy to root for him and his unrequited love of Rachel. But after the two of them got together for the first time and then had their big “we were on a break” arguments for what seemed like forever, it started to feel like that the writers weren’t sure how to actually keep the two of them interesting. And unfortunately, they fell victim to the Moonlighting fallacy that says once couples are together, the audience won’t care. In fact, I’m not sure there’s a recent television couple that fell victim to the Moonlighting fallacy more than Friends with Ross and Rachel.
The thing is, I’ve grown to expect the Moonlighting fallacy to be in play. I get it. I think it’s stupid, but I get it. The problem with Ross and Rachel’s relationship and Ross in particular is that the series’ desire to keep him away from Rachel was severely detrimental to the character. The easiest way to keep an UST couple apart is by introducing a third person (making it a lovely triangle, of course) and Friends had no problem going to that well, especially with Ross, over and over again. Even in the first few seasons, it seemed like Ross was bouncing around from woman to woman with no real reasoning behind it other than he was lonely. I’m not saying that Ross shouldn’t have slept around or whatever, but his decision to jump head-first into serious relationships at the drop of a hat made him seem like a dolt.
Rachel wasn’t the most loveable person by the end of the series either, so I guess they were perfect for one another, even though the series spent 10 years destroying the emotion and the chemistry behind the initial spark and intrigue. Ross’s issues in particular were only exacerbated by his saying the wrong name at the wedding and by the later seasons, the series made an uncomfortable amount of jokes at the expense of Ross’ marriage count and failed “serious” relationships. This wasn’t the beginning of Ross’s unfortunate character trait, but it was certainly the pivot point into devolution.*
*Wikipedia tells me that David Schwimmer wasn’t too happy with this storyline or the way that Ross continued to bounce around women for most of the series’ twilight years. I guess his burgeoning post-Friends career is what he gets for speaking up?
As a cliffhanger and as a big piece of the Ross and Rachel puzzle up to the point, the nonsense at the wedding is ridiculous. But when we consider how Friends handled the cliffhanger in subsequent seasons and episodes, “The One With Ross’s Wedding” becomes even more problematic. Season five tried to make the audience think that Emily would actually still go through with her wedding to Ross, even with all her knowledge about his past relations with Rachel, and then quickly ran away from it by having Emily ultimately realize that she couldn’t do it.
Apparently, the actress playing Emily didn’t want to come to the states because she was pregnant and that ultimately impacted how Ross and Emily’s relationship crumbled in season five. However, that seems like something the writers could have foreseen or investigated further before moving forward with the marriage and then running away from it screaming. So instead, Ross ended up with divorce number two and sulked his way through most of season five, making the his relationship with Emily, the to-do about the wedding and his error kind of pointless.
Moreover, it feels like the cliffhanger of “The One With Ross’s Wedding” set a precedent for wonky Friends season enders. Season five (Ross and Rachel drunkenly get married in Vegas), season seven (stray pregnancy test!) and season eight (Rachel saying “Okay” after mistakenly thinking Joey is proposing to her) all had fairly ridiculous cliffhangers that the series didn’t necessarily handle that well in subsequent seasons.* Obviously Friends didn’t have much plot to work with so the only real thing the writers could do was put characters together, break them up or make them pregnant, but the production team eventually decided to trade the immediate impact of a shocking cliffhanger for the longer consequences of that moment.
*Not surprisingly, the series’ best season ender came in season six when Monica and Chandler got engaged. And although “Ross’s Wedding” has an awful cliffhanger, the episode’s reveal that Monica and Chandler had begun sleeping together was very well-done. That relationship just always worked and an argument can made for the fact that it did because there wasn’t ever a whole lot of UST will-they-or-won’t-they nonsense. They were friends, they started sleeping together, it became something more and then they progressed like a relationship should. It’s sort of compelling and unfortunate that the Friends team had a couple proving how ridiculous the Moonlighting effect was right in front of them and yet, they kept going that route with another couple. Perhaps they assumed that they couldn’t have two happy couples? Ugh.
I don’t want to suggest that Friends sucked in its final six seasons because it didn’t. However, the “shocking” cliffhanger in the season four finale failed in the moment and sent failing ripples through the series’ narrative until the very end of the story. Ross was never really the same character after this episode and Friends wasn’t either.