Friends premiered on NBC on Thursday, September 22, 1994. For 10 years, the core six cast of Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Chandler, Joey, and Ross captivated audiences with their job searches, dating disasters, and navigation of the adult world. The show was fun, fresh and relatable to its main audience: people in their 20s who were also trying to negotiate the same struggles.
Today, almost 24 years later, thanks to syndication and streaming services, the series is beloved by a brand new generation of twentysomethings, looking for their own orange couches at their own Central Perks, and maybe, for a second, wishing for the simpler time of 1994 when you connected with your friends by walking across the hall, and not by hitting send on a cell phone screen.
Friends fanatics have their own lists of favorite episodes, and an arsenal of reasons why such-and-such an episode should have made your list over another. I’ve got that same list, and I’ve got those same reasons for paring down 10 seasons and 236 episodes into a best-of-the-best elite grouping. Some episodes are good, some are funny, but to make “The One With the Top 10 Best Episodes,” they have to do better than that.
10.) The One with Chandler in a Box
Season 4, Episode 8 – Aired November 20, 1997
“The meaning of the box is threefold. One, it gives me time to think about what I did. Two, it proves how much I care about my friendship with Joey. And three, it hurts!” ~ Chandler Bing
Chandler kissed Joey’s girlfriend and now he has to pay. Rachel and Ross are still sniping at each other because they weren’t (though some say they were) on a break. Monica is cooking up a storm because it’s Thanksgiving. That is, until she gets a hunk of ice jammed in her eye and she has to call Richard’s office to get it checked out. Luckily, Dr. Richard Burke is on vacation but Dr. Timothy Burke is in. What could go wrong there? This episode is equal parts crazy and funny, which was the genius of the early seasons of Friends. Plus, we all know the Thanksgiving episodes were some of the best of the entire series.
Why It Works: Monica’s speech about being judgmental. The rest of the crew is so quick to judge Monica about inviting Dr. Timothy Burke over for Thanksgiving dinner, but they’ve all had their fair share of relationship mishaps.
“Fine, judge all you want to, but: married a lesbian; left a man at the altar; fell in love with a gay ice dancer; threw a girl’s wooden leg in the fire; livin’ in a box!” ~ Monica Geller
9.) The One with the Jellyfish
Season 4, Episode 1 – Aired September 25, 1997
“It was five thirty in the morning, and you had rambled on for 18 pages. FRONT AND BACK!” ~ Ross Geller
All is not well on the beachfront. Ross has chosen Rachel over Bonnie and sent her bald head home, but Rachel refuses to be with Ross until he reads her 18 page (FRONT AND BACK) letter, to see if he can take responsibility for their breakup. Phoebe finds out the woman she thought was her mother wasn’t her mother, and her birth mother is still alive. Finally, Monica was stung by a jellyfish, and Joey heard if you pee on a jellyfish sting it stops the pain. If Monica can’t bend that way, who’ll step up to the challenge?
Why It Works: This episode might be called “The One with the Jellyfish” but Ross and Rachel are the real stars here. Their on-again-off-again relationship is a central theme throughout the show. “The One with the Morning After” (which almost made the list, but didn’t) is sad and painful to watch. “The One in Vegas Part 2” and “The One After Vegas” are cringe-worthy to watch. But this encounter, especially in the last few scenes of the episode, is downright hysterical, and maybe some of the best banter writing on the show. Ross’ “Y-O-U-R means Your” insult and Rachel’s not-so-gentle reminder that “it is a big deal” are quality insults.
8.) The One with the Prom Video
Season 2, Episode 14 – Aired February 1, 1996
“He’s her lobster!” ~ Phoebe Buffay
Monica is jobless and almost broke, and Ross convinces her to ask her parents for money. Joey decides to get matching friendship bracelets for himself and Chandler, except the gaudy gold bracelet is something more suited for Chandler’s father’s wardrobe than his own. Ross is still pining after Rachel, and Phoebe convinces him that he and Rachel are lobsters, meaning they’ll stay together forever. Rachel is confused, and in denial about her feelings, that is, until an old home movie makes her see things differently.
Why It Works: Flashbacks, Chandler’s one-liners, Phoebe’s claws, and finalllllly the culmination of all the Ross and Rachel tension we’ve been feeling since Season 1. Without this episode, you don’t have some of the running gags for the rest of the series, like will-they-or-won’t-they Ross and Rachel, and Fat Monica.
7.) The One with the Blackout
Season 1, Episode 7 – Aired November 3, 1994
“On second thought, gum would be perfection.” ~ Chandler Bing
“New York City has no power, and the milk is getting sour.” Monica, Joey, Ross, Phoebe and Rachel are stuck in the apartment. Phoebe entertains with her guitar, Joey plays with candles, and Ross tries to tell Rachel his feelings for her. Things go haywire when a cat jumps onto the balcony and scratches Ross. The girls search the building by candlelight to find its owner, but Rachel finds something else instead. Meanwhile, Chandler is trapped in an ATM vestibule with model Jill Goodacre, and, in true Chandler fashion, makes an idiot out of himself.
Why It Works: Joey’s speech about “The Friend Zone,” and every scene with Chandler. Joey tells Ross he is “the mayor of the zone,” referring to his lack of a relationship with Rachel. We also get the first taste of the too-little-too-late Ross and Rachel adventure that will be a recurring theme into Season 2. Plus, every bit of Chandler’s awkward idiocy is amusing. I don’t know whose idea it was to get him stuck at the ATM with a Victoria’s Secret model, because that sounds like a completely ridiculous idea, but it makes for entertaining TV.
6.) The Last One Parts 1 & 2
Season 10, Episodes 17 & 18 – Aired May 6, 2004
Monica: “Chandler, you’re panicking.”
Chandler: “Uh huh. Join me, won’t you?”
Monica and Chandler are selling the apartment and moving out of the city to start their new life as a family of three. Rachel is leaving New York to take a job in Paris. She and Ross hook up for what might be the last time, Gunther finally confesses his love for her, and poor Emma is about to endure an eight-hour flight with her diet obsessed grandmother. Meanwhile, Erica has gone into labor, early, and Monica and Chandler go to the hospital with her to await the arrival of their baby. But could there BE a bigger surprise waiting for them?
Ross decides he can’t live without Rachel, and pulls the classic “chase her to the airport” move, with the help of Phoebe and her grandmother’s cab. Unfortunately, they go to the wrong airport, so Phoebe devises a plan to cause mass panic and buy them time. Ross does confess his love for Rachel, but it makes no difference.
Meanwhile, Joey has been busy welcoming home Monica and Chandler’s babies, and feeling a little nostalgic. He gets Monica and Chandler Chick and Duck Jr. as a going away present, but they wander into the foosball table and get stuck. The boys allow Monica to destroy the table in an attempt to free the birds, signifying the end of an era for Joey and the Chan-Chan man.
Ross arrives home to find a strange message from Rachel on his answering machine, and an even better surprise behind his front door.
Finally, the gang must say goodbye to the girls’ apartment (and it will always be the girls’ apartment) once and for all.
Why It Works: After a few overall garbage seasons, with Season 5 or 6 marking the end of the good seasons, “The Last One” brought back some of the things original viewers loved about the show. Joey and Chandler’s friendship had been a comedy driving force through the early seasons, and was replaced with a heavy focus on relationships in the later ones. Many of the characters transformed over the years from multifaceted people trying to navigate adult life to caricatures of things like a neurotic OCD monster, a hysterical psycho, a childish idiot, or a crazy intellectual dud. The writing for the final episode toned down some of these slapstick stereotypes to remind us why we even liked these people in the first place. Also, the final scene, giving the apartment its due diligence, was genius.
5.) The One with All the Thanksgivings
Season 5, Episode 8 – Aired November 19, 1998
“More turkey Mr. Chandler?” ~ The foreign house boy
Friends Thanksgiving episodes are classic, especially when most shows on TV put a heavy focus on Halloween, Christmas and New Year’s episodes. The writers of this show capitalized on a holiday that is often overlooked, and they can (probably) be credited with the trend among my generation of having “Friendsgivings” where you do Thanksgiving traditions with your friends a week before you have actual Thanksgiving with your family.
This episode is unique because it’s a Thanksgiving episode about past Thanksgivings. After eating way too much food, the gang gathers in Monica and Rachel’s living room. What starts as the “what are we thankful for” game, turns into retellings of horrific Thanksgivings past, which leaves more than one member of the group with egg on his or her face. Who will be the winner of the worst Thanksgiving ever? Chandler and his nauseating encounter with the house boy? Joey and the turkey stuck on his head? Monica and her not-to-hot transformation and a botched attempt at payback? Or past-life Phoebe and the war?
Why It Works: Flashbacks on this show are usually well done. They help us step back in time to see what portions of the crew were like in their teens and early twenties. Ross and Chandler’s poor attempt at being cool is good comedy, and the fact that past stories bring up new feelings for a secretly dating Monica and Chandler is a great way to bring more of their history to light for the audience, and show that despite Monica’s admission in Season 4 that Chandler will “always be the guy who peed on me,” she didn’t always feel that way, and a relationship between the two of them wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.
4.) The One Where Ross Finds Out
Season 2, Episode 7 – Aired November 9, 1995
“And that my friend is what they call closure.” ~ Rachel Green
After finding out that Ross has feelings for her at the end of Season 1, Rachel has now come to terms with the fact that she also has feelings for Ross. The problem? Ross has a new girlfriend, Julie, and they’re getting a cat. In an attempt to get over Ross, Rachel goes on a date with a man name Michael, gets drunk, and calls Ross to tell him that “I am over YOU!” Meanwhile, Phoebe has to convince her boyfriend to sleep with her and enlists Joey’s help for tactics. Monica is still out of work and needs a project, so she offers to help Chandler try to lose weight.
Why It Works: Who hasn’t been Rachel at one point in their twenties: drunk, and frustrated that the guy or girl you like doesn’t like you back? While not everyone makes a drunk dial to get out those feelings, most people have felt the alcohol-induced surge of “I am over YOU!” Watching Ross process the realization of Rachel’s feelings is equal parts frustrating and funny, and foreshadowing to how he’ll behave later when he becomes jealous of Mark. And, while the focus of the episode is on Ross and Rachel, the rest of the gang is dealing with relatable issues like filling the empty void of unemployment and a fruitless job search, body image issues, and relationship insecurity.
3.) The Pilot
Season 1, Episode 1 – Aired September 22, 1994
“Welcome to the real world. It sucks. You’re gonna love it.” ~ Monica Geller
Where it all began. Chandler has weird dreams. The highlight of Joey’s acting “career” is playing Pinocchio with some low budget theater troupe in the park. Monica is dating Paul the Wine Guy, who is a lying snake. Ross is divorced because his wife is a lesbian. Phoebe’s grandmother is still alive. Rachel blows in like a tornado in her wedding dress, wet and disheveled, looking for her old pal Monica. Life is weird; life is unpredictable; and that’s the beauty of Friends.
Why It Works: I know Seinfeld is marketed as “the show about nothing,” but the early seasons of Friends follow a similar premise, especially Season 1. The set-up for everyone’s stories is handled perfectly. We learn what everyone is going to be searching for throughout the series from day one. Rachel has been spoiled her entire life, and was led to believe she needed to marry rich and run in the same circles as her parents. But she didn’t love Barry, so she escaped to make a life for herself that made her happy. It isn’t going to be easy. She doesn’t know how or where to get a job, but she’s trying. Monica is looking for love in all the wrong places, even after years of bad decisions. She wants it all, and is determined to find it, all while mothering her friends in the meantime. Joey is trying to get his acting career off the ground while simultaneously never growing up. Phoebe is just happy she’s finally found a place she belongs. Chandler is stuck in the rut of adulthood with his nondescript job and bad luck with women, and he copes by making self-deprecating jokes. Ross, has the opposite problem of his friends. He has a career he likes. He had had a wife and was ready to build a family when that dream came crashing down in the wake of his wife’s realization that she no longer liked men. Ross has to figure out how to go backwards and “grab a spoon” to get back into the dating game.
2.) The One with the Embryos
Season 4, Episode 12 – Aired January 15, 1998
“What is Chandler Bing’s job?” ~ Ross Geller
The all-important episode that taught us “Transpondster” isn’t even a word. It’s girls vs. guys when the crew gets in a betting mood. With someone as competitive as Monica in the mix, the stakes are high: if the girls win, Chick and Duck are gone. If the guys win, they get the girls’ apartment. Ross invents a trivia game, complete with a LIGHTNING ROUND, to find out once and for all who knows whom better. Monica’s hand might be “steady as a rock” but will that be enough to keep her apartment?
Meanwhile, elsewhere, Phoebe has agreed to serve as a surrogate for her brother Frank Jr. and his past-her-prime wife Alice. Phoebe gets embryos implanted and waits around for the rest of the episode to see if she’s pregnant. Despite having the episode named after her situation, this part of the story is somewhat irrelevant.
Why It Works: Competitive Monica, and the setup for the apartment feud throughout the rest of the season. While the episode is supposed to be about Phoebe and the embryos (concocted as a scheme to allow Lisa Kudrow to be real-life pregnant during filming), no one cares about that storyline. In an attempt to fill the void for everyone else while Phoebe is off at the doctors office, we get trivia night, which even spawned a real board game with less exciting questions.
1.) The One Where Rachel Finds Out
Season 1, Episode 24 – Aired May 18, 1995
“That’s good. Just keep rubbing your head. That’ll turn back time.” ~ Joey Tribbiani
It’s the Season 1 finale, and Rachel’s birthday! The crew, along with Joey’s new girlfriend, is having a barbecue on the girl’s balcony to celebrate. Everyone is there, except Ross, who had to take a business trip to China. At present time, after opening a fruit basket, a book and Travel Scrabble, Rachel finds that Ross is at the party in spirit, and he left his gift behind: an antique broach like the one her grandmother used to have. Chandler sticks his foot in his mouth by telling the group that this pin is Carol’s “ridiculously expensive crystal duck” all over again. In a “hey, where have I heard this before?” moment, Rachel races to the airport to catch Ross before he leaves, but she’s too late. Instead, Rachel chooses to go pick Ross up at the airport so they can talk, but he doesn’t come back alone. Ross steps off the plane with none other than Julie, and thus, the will-they-won’t-they ball is set in motion.
Why It Works: The cliffhanger ending. We’ve been building and building to this moment all season. We know Ross has a thing for Rachel. Everyone else knew Ross had a thing for Rachel, except Rachel of course. And now, thanks to Chandler’s big mouth, she knows too! And now that she knows, she thinks she might feel the same way, or she could, if they talked things out. This sets the stage for airplanes and airports being key in pivotal points of the Ross and Rachel relationship (see above), and the last scene, with Julie stepping of the plane, makes us wonder “what happens next?”
Did I miss any episodes? Did I get any completely wrong that should have never cracked the Top 50, let alone the Top 10? Do you have a better reasoning as to why one of these episodes has earned it’s rightful spot in “The One with the Top 10 Best Episodes”? Let me know, and keep an eye out for the next episode, “The One with the Top 10 Worst Episodes”.