In 2009, TV Guide named “Friends” Number 21 on their list of the Top 50 Shows of all-time, and it could have gone higher. Over 10 seasons fans became incredibly close to this group of twentysomethings that became thirtysomethings right before their eyes, with 51.1 million of them watching the show’s last episode—making it the fourth ranked series finale in TV history. Over the course of those 10 years “Friends” earned 63 Primetime Emmy nominations and remains popular in syndication. It’s as funny and addictive as ever, appealing not just to old viewers, but to an entirely new generation.
So it’s a big deal that Warner Bros. recently released “Friends: The Complete Series” on Blu-ray. It’s a handsome, ultrasturdy, oversized (8 x 11.5 x 2”) box set that features a lenticular hologram of the cast (first season/last season) on the cover and a magnetic side flap. On the inside flap there’s a coffee cup above a white “Friends” logo on a solid black background, and a posed shot of all the actors inside a big frame that they’re holding on the cover of a 36-page full color booklet that rests above a heavy book-style Blu-ray case that has another magnetic end-flap. Each slick double cardboard page accommodates two discs that are tucked inside half-sleeves so they’re more easily accessible and less readily scratched than those crummy full cardboard sleeves. Twenty-one discs are included.
Now, there are always going to be Monica types who prefer that their discs fit uniformly on shelves with all the rest, rather than in an unwieldy case that needs a 12” shelf to accommodate it. And I’ll confess that I’d rather the seasons came in plastic Blu-ray cases. Curiously, no one else seems to be talking about that. Since Warner Bros. has no current plans to issue the seasons separately in HD, and as if to appease anyone who has a problem with that, they’ve included a bonus disc full of brand new materials.
But there are a few controversies surrounding this release. First, some people on the Internet have complained that the new Blu-rays do not contain the same extended episodes as on the DVD releases. Missing are a few lines here and there. Let’s be clear: the episodes in this set are as originally broadcast on NBC between September 22, 1994 and May 5, 2004; they are NOT the same as on the DVD sets. I will say this, though. The jokes in this series fly so fast that for many people this will be a non-issue. I watched Season 8: “The One with the Rumor” on both DVD and the new Blu-ray, and it’s true, there were some lines missing. But the editing on both versions is so smooth that it feels like a final edit either way.
Another issue is the framing and HD presentation. The original series was shot using 35mm film and presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, as was customary for TV series. But when the show went into syndication and made the leap to High Definition, it was broadcast in 1.78:1, with the assumption being that people who care about HD have widescreen HD television sets. Let’s get another thing straight: though presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, these are NOT the same episodes that were broadcast in HD. The 236 episodes were remastered using the original 35mm elements. In fact, some of the shots have been reframed to crop out some of the distractions that turned up in the wider presentation. I have to say, though, that in watching several HD broadcast episodes for comparison, the level of detail and sharpness was stronger in the broadcast episodes. In this set, the visual quality varies considerably according to the episode (more on that later).
But let’s talk about “Friends.”
In the best ensemble shows, every character seems like the star, and that’s certainly the case here. The six men and women have quirks and personalities that you can believe, and a comfortable, fluid relationship among them that makes it seem plausible that they’re really friends. There are smart lines galore in “Friends,” but because those lines seem absolutely in character, audiences never feel conscious of writers manipulating things from behind the scenes.
Audiences had no problem buying the brother-sister tandem of Ross Geller (David Schwimmer), a nerd who got his doctorate and became a professor, and Monica Geller (Courtney Cox), a former fattie who’s obsessive-compulsive. Or Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston) as Monica’s rich friend from high school who, after a disastrous relationship with a doctor, needed to prove to herself that she could work like everyone else and become successful . . . in spite of herself. Or Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry), who uses sarcasm to mask his own insecurities. Even the show’s most overtly comic characters—the not-too-bright, female-crazed wannabe actor Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc) and the ditzy, New Age faux-folk singer Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow)—are believable when you put them in the company of this warm, witty, and caring group.
Unlike “Seinfeld,” which prided itself on being a show about nothing, this group of friends series had plenty of quirky plots and a revolving door of characters who entered into and out of relationships with someone in the group.
In Season 1, fans watched Ross get a monkey, Joey find work as Al Pacino’s butt double, Rachel discover that her Italian boyfriend Paolo has eyes for everyone else, Monica try to find work as a chef (and discover she’s dating someone way too young), and Ross become a father . . . after his ex-wife had left him for another woman. Viewers were introduced to Phoebe’s twin sister and Chandler’s flamboyant romance-novelist mother, and learned that Ross has a “thing” for Rachel—the first in a revolving door of intramural affairs. Yet, some of the funnier episodes involved situations that shed light on the different ways that women and men perceive things, as when Joey tries to give Ross advice on how to talk dirty to women, or Chandler glimpses Rachel when she’s totally nude.
Season 2 finds Ross surprising Rachel with a new girlfriend just as she was about to “go for it” with him, and Phoebe debuting her infamous “Smelly Cat” song. Joey and Chandler mess up their babysitting gig by accidentally leaving Ross’s child on a bus. Phoebe confronts her estranged husband and learns a truth about her father. Rachel on the rebound dates someone who looks eerily like Ross. Joey and Chandler fight and end their stint as roommates (but miss each other). Phoebe gets chicken pox and learns that Old Yeller died, Chandler and Ross are bullied, and Joey gets a lesson in humility after he mouths off to a fan magazine. Meanwhile, Monica falls for an older doctor who just happens to be her father’s good friend.
Season 3 finds Chandler dating the annoying Janice, Phoebe convinced that she somehow killed the ugly naked guy they watch across the street, Rachel quitting Central Perk and finding work in the fashion industry, Ross and Rachel taking a break from each other, Monica backed by a millionaire friend, Joey getting bad reviews (big surprise) and a live chicken, and everyone but Ross invited on a ski trip.
Season 4 gets even quirkier with Phoebe convinced her dead mother is reincarnated in a cat, the guys trying desperate measures when Monica is stung by jellyfish, Joey locking Chandler in a box because he kissed his old girlfriend, and Phoebe’s half-brother asking her if she can be their surrogate. This is the season in which a duck almost messes up Ross’s engagement to Emily and things take another odd turn in London, where the wedding was to have taken place.
Season 5 finds Ross saying Rachel’s name by mistake, Phoebe giving birth to triplets, and everyone finds out that Monica and Chandler had an affair in London. Joey dates someone who punches him, Phoebe impersonates a law officer (and eventually dates the cop whose badge she found), Rachel starts smoking, and the gang goes to Las Vegas.
Season 6 opens with Ross and Rachel discovering they got married, and Phoebe and Joey bonding as they take a road trip. There are more bonds and shake-ups as Monica and Chandler decide to move in together, Rachel’s sister visits, Joey’s new “fling” can’t stand Monica and Chandler, and a psychic tells Phoebe she has only a short time to live. No one could have predicted that Phoebe would be constantly mistaken for a porn star, or that Chandler would confess his inability to cry (something he probably wanted to do when Monica’s ex-boyfriend spoils his proposal).
Season 7 finds Rachel promoted and hiring a little “eye candy” to work under her, while viewers were introduced to the “Holiday Armadillo.” Rachel turns 30, Joey slips up on Days of Our Lives, a Geller cousin proves to be a big distraction, and Rachel tries to convince everyone that she once shared a kiss . . . with a sorority sister. But the big dramatic question involves Chandler and his estranged father, and a surprise that might surface before the big Geller-Bing wedding.
Season 8 begins with the teaser that someone else is pregnant, and who is it, and who’s the father? Phoebe finds herself attracted to her sister’s fiance, Monica gets a stripper to cheer Chandler up, Joey and Rachel date, Chandler is introduced to the bubbly world of baths, and Rachel gives birth.
Season 9 opens with confusion over who’s proposing to Rachel, and much of the humor comes from Rachel’s paranoia over being a new mother. But she’s single and available, and that leads to more awkwardness . . . and humor. Phoebe dates a nice guy named Mike, Rachel dates Gavin, Chandler and Ross have an Internet war, Rachel has sex dreams about Joey, Ross dates a paleontology colleague who’s more interested in Joey, and the season ends with some bed hopping in Barbados.
Season 10 features the Barbados fallout, Monica and Chandler learning they can’t have children together, Rachel throwing a stripper party for Phoebe (starring Danny DeVito), Phoebe gets married in a blizzard, Rachel is fired, and the old gang finally closes this chapter on their lives together. It’s been fun . . . and real.
All 236 episodes were remastered from the original 35mm elements using AVC/MPEG-4 technology, transferred to 50GB region-free Blu-ray discs. But the quality varies according to the episode. Sometimes there’s a noticeable improvement over the DVDs, while other times there seems to be almost as much grain or indistinct edges on the Blu-ray as on standard-def release. Other times it’s an improvement, but not as pristine-looking as the HD broadcast version. I can’t explain why this is, except that in the 1990s TV was still a throwaway medium. Season 1 of “Friends” wasn’t released until 2002, and source materials can vary considerably.
The audio mix is a Dolby Digital 5.1 with 2.0 options in French, German, Portuguese and Spanish. Subtitles are in English SDH, French, Spanish, German SDH, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish. Sometimes the center channel sounds muffled compared to the side speakers, the remedy for which is to simply turn up the volume. It’s not a very rich, full sound, either. But as with the visuals, it’s no doubt the best that could be expected given the original source masters.
Fans should really like the full-color booklet, which acts as a catalogue for you to decide which disc to grab. The collection is arranged according to Season and Disc, with each episode described by airdate, episode number, title, credits, and a mini-summary. Full-color photos from each season appear on each page, along with occasional gems—like a reproduction of the entrance ticket to “Friend’s Like Us,” as the show was originally called, and, before that, “Insomnia Cafe.”
Four hours of brand-new extras are included, along with 16 hours of features ported over from the DVDs. Since fans will be familiar with the other bonus features, I’ll concentrate on the new ones and summarize the old.
Let’s start with the obvious: No new feature includes the big six cast members. Yeah, I know. Go figure. “Friends from the Start” (28 min.) includes people like Elliott Gould (who plays Monica and Ross’s father), but it rings a little hollow to hear them talk about how the show came together when they weren’t there at the very beginning. Creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman are present and accounted for, though, and they round up fellow executive producer Kevin Bright, director James Burrows, and some Warner Bros. honchos . . . but it’s not the same as gathering the six main actors together.
“When Friends Became Family” (29 min.) feels like more of the same, though it’s interesting to hear from such fringe people as Jim Bentley, whose job it was to warm up the live audience before the cast took the stage.
And “The Legacy of Friends” (11 min.) is a Season 10 retrospective that talks about working with an end in sight. Other new features include the more fascinating “Friends on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” which has Leno interviewing the three guys first, then the three women, and then getting all six to share the spotlight. What makes it interesting is that the conversations happen not long after the actors watched the finale.
“Friends Visits The Ellen DeGeneres Show” (16 min.) isn’t as revealing or fun—maybe because she’s missing Matthew Perry, and she talks to the others separately.
“The One Where Rachel Tells Ross” is a time capsule insomuch as this 23-minute version was filmed prior to September 11th but scheduled to air after that national tragedy . . . and it included a bomb joke. Then there’s “The One with Never-Before-Seen Gags” (a new 7-minute gag reel) and a three-minute music video, “I’ll Be There for You,” by The Rembrandts.
As for the ported over features, there are episode commentaries for The Pilot, The One Where No One’s Ready, The One with the Football, The One the Morning After, The One with Chandler in a Box, The One with the Embryos, The One with Ross’s Wedding, The One Hundredth, The One with All the Thanksgiving, The One Where Everybody Finds Out, The One Where Ross Got High, The One That Could Have Been, The One with the Proposal, The One with the Holiday Armadillo, The One with Joey’s New Brain, The One with Monica and Chandler’s Wedding, The One Where Rachel Tells Ross, The One with the Videotape, The One Where Rachel Has a Baby, The One with the Male Nanny, The One with Rachel’s Other Sister, The One in Barbados, The One with the Late Thanksgiving, The One Where the Stripper Cries, and The Last One.
From Season 1 ported over there’s “Friends of Friends” and a Season 2 trailer. From Season 2 there’s another “Friends of Friends” guestbook of guest stars, “The Uncut Version of Smelly Cat,” and “Learn What’s Up with Your Friends?” Season 3 bonus features are another guestbook montage and another “Learn What’s Up with Your Friends?” For Season 4 it’s “Friends Around the World” (an international phenom documentary), another guestbook, and another “What’s Up?”
For Season 5 it’s a “Gunther Spills the Beans” teaser for Season 6, a Discovery Channel documentary on “The One That Goes Behind the Scenes” that’s pretty good, and another good one, “Friends: On Location in London.” Season 6 there’s just another Gunther spilling more beans, another guestbook, and a gag reel. For Season 8 there’s more Gunther, a gag reel, and yet another guestbook. Season 9 had a little more besides Gunther and the gag reel. “Behind the Style: The Look of Friends” brings in costume designer Debra McGuire, hair stylist Jonathan Hanousek, and makeup artist Robin Siegel who dish on the fashion over the years. And a “Phoebe Battles the Pink Robots” music video features Kudrow. Finally, for Season 10 LeBlanc gets a “Joey Joey” music video, we get our last guestbook and gag reel, and “Friends Final Thoughts” features the cast and producers talking about the final days on set.
If I was just rating the series, extended episodes or not, it’s still one of TV’s best. And while I’m not a fan of the oversized box collections, I’d also have to give this one a 9 for quality. But the issue of quality and bonus features come into play. If you have the complete series on DVD, the question of whether to upgrade will depend on how wedded you are to those extended episodes, or how used to seeing near-zero grain on the HD broadcasts. The quality on these new transfers does vary considerably from episode to episode, and the new documentary retrospectives lack the participation of the six stars.
Controversies aside, “Friends: The Complete Series” on Blu-ray is a major release, and Warner Bros. has packaged it lovingly and with fans in mind. Overall, the quality is better than the DVD, and the packaging is almost luxurious. It’s the kind of thing that a “Friends” fan would likely appreciate finding under the Christmas tree. It’s heavy and substantial enough that if you lean it against the trunk it will help keep the tree from toppling.