Friends: 7 most controversial episodes that have aged very badly
Judging by the excitement for this week’s long-awaited reunion, it’s safe to say that Friends is one of the most beloved sitcoms out there.
From catchphrases littering our lexicon (‘Could I be wearing any more clothes?’) to The Rachel becoming the go-to haircut for 90s fashionistas, over 10 series, Friends became not just a TV show but a phenomenon that is still drawing in new fans to this day. It kickstarted the careers of those six coffee drinking New Yorkers, became a magnet for A-list cameos and morphed from ratings smash into a binge-watch comfort blanket.
But even the most diehard fans must admit that in between the golden episodes like The One With The Embryos and The One Where No One’s Ready, there are duds that are painful to watch through a 2021 lens – and some were pretty bad back then, too.
While we can accept that certain jokes were considered more acceptable years ago and should sometimes be taken with a pinch of salt, it’s still pretty bleak to think that fat-shaming, homophobia and transphobia were not just one-time errors in Friends, but revisited tropes often soundtracked with a laugh track or providing the entire plot of an episode – eg, episodes that revolved around Chandler having a gay ‘quality’, or mockery of Ross’s lesbian ex-wife.
For every time Friends broke ground with a lesbian wedding, they backpedalled massively with the extreme lack of non-white faces in New York City of all places or making people with mental illnesses the butt of the joke.
Friends will be celebrated by fans when the cast reunites 17 years after the show’s finale to reminisce about the show this week, but ahead of that, we’ve taken a look at some of the episodes they may not be so eager to remember.
The One That Could Have Been
This is the first appearance of ‘Fat Monica’, a plot point that continues to haunt Friends in every ‘Friends is bad, actually’ debate. In flashbacks to the gang’s college years or in this two-parter, which imagines what could have been if they took different paths in life, size six Courtney Cox was dressed up in a fat suit. That’s pretty bad to start off with. But it gets worse when the entire character of Fat Monica is played for laughs.
In this two-parter, Monica is a 30-year-old virgin because… she’s fat. Because fat people can’t get laid, that’s the joke. She worries about someone sitting on her stash of KitKats, she can’t get up from a beanbag, she danced on her own eating donuts (which sounds like a great way to live, not something to be given a laugh track), and in later episodes, caused panic in her father as she asked for food and couldn’t get up from a beanbag.
Throughout the whole series, jokes are made about Monica’s weight, and it’s drilled into us that she became hot when she slimmed down. Throw in ‘Ugly Naked Guy’, and anybody fat in the Friends universe was just a punchline.
The One Where Eddie Won’t Go
In this season two episode, Eddie (Adam Goldberg), Chandler’s new roommate, is held up as a nightmare roommate. He watches him sleep, he accuses him of sleeping with his ex, he dehydrates fruit, and steals the insoles from his shoes. We’ve all been there, we’ve all had situations like this, it’s funny, right?
Well, looking back on this episode, it’s clear that Chandler and Joey are messing with the mind of a mentally ill man for their own benefit. Eddie is just referred to as ‘a big freak of nature’ and a ‘psychopath’, but it’s clear that he has mental issues, having imagined he and Chandler took a trip to Las Vegas together.
To get Eddie out of the apartment, Chandler and Joey pretended they’d never met Eddie and that he had imagined his entire time living with Chandler. And how did the show treat this exploitation of a mentally ill man? With an applause track.
The One With The Metaphorical Tunnel
Ross Geller is probably the most problematic of all of the Friends, due to his terrible treatment of girlfriends and clear discomfort at his ex-wife marrying a woman. His sexist tendencies emerge early on, including this episode where he freaks out at the thought of his son Ben playing with a Barbie.
Ross tries to force his infant son to choose GI Joe instead, because boys cannot be boys if they are playing with toys marketed towards girls.
His insecurity is mocked in the episode, but Ross never quite gives in, even after Monica reveals he used to dress up as a woman as a child.
The One With The Male Nanny
More blatant Ross sexism at play six seasons later, when Freddie Prinze Jr’s male nanny gets the sack for being… too good at his job. Rachel and Ross hire a nanny called Sandy to look after Emma, and it’s clear he’s the perfect choice – he can make madeleines, he serenades the baby with tunes on a recorder, and holds puppet shows. On the downside, he’s a man who Ross considers is overly emotional.
After ranting about how men can’t be nannies and how men should be manly, Ross confronts Sandy, but ends up opening up to him about how his father pressured him to like sports rather than dinosaurs. So that changed his opinion, right? Nah, he sacked him anyway.
The One With The Ick Factor
In a storyline that would nowadays be more fitting of a disturbing drama, this season one episode sees Monica dating a college student and lying about her age, claiming she’s 22 rather than 26. Ethan loses his virginity to Monica, telling her that he has been waiting for the right person, and Monica later fesses up about her age.
Unfortunately, so does Ethan – he is not a college senior, but a 17-year-old high school senior.
Monica later breaks it off because it’s ‘icky’, and while 17 is the age of consent in New York and this relationship wasn’t illegal, it all feels a bit too ‘icky’ to be played for laughs.
The One With Chandler’s Dad
Many jokes are made in Friends about Chandler’s dad, who had an affair with the pool boy. However, when we finally got to meet Chandler’s father in the seventh season, it became clear that not only is Charles a drag queen, but is a transgender woman.
Charles’ gender identity is never confirmed in the show, but Kathleen Turner played the character, and creator Marta Kauffman later confirmed that Chandler’s dad is a trans woman. While many shows made the same errors with their depictions of trans characters, the ‘man in a dress’ trope is really bigged up in this episode and at Chandler and Monica’s wedding.
Kathleen Turner has since said she would turn down the role of Charles were she offered it now, and admits the jokes haven’t aged well.
The One With The Dozen Lasagnas
Thanks to movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up, we’ve come a long way in how assault and harassment are treated (although we obviously still have a long way to go). So it’s pretty shocking that in this season one episode, Phoebe is sexually assaulted and it’s just used as a tactic to move on a break-up storyline.
Rachel’s boyfriend Paolo (Cosimo Fucho) goes to Phoebe for a massage, where he proceeds to grope her bottom while she is working before flashing his penis and propositioning her.
Phoebe frets about how she is going to tell Rachel that her boyfriend is a cheater… but the fact that he assaulted her best friend is never really addressed. Paolo is dumped and his things are thrown onto the street, but not because of his criminal acts.
We have to hope that were this episode to be written in 2021, the groping wouldn’t be given a laugh track.
Friends: The Reunion airs at 8pm on May 27 on Sky One.
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