Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Friends – “The One With the Embryos”

Season 4, Episode 12
Original Airdate: January 15. 1998
Writers: Jill Condon & Amy Toomin
Director: Kevin S. Bright
Executive Producers: Kevin S. Bright, Marta Kauffman, David Crane
Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow

Over the decades, the “Game Show” episode has become a touchtone for most long-running comedies. It provides viewers with a chance to see their favorite characters behave surprisingly under immense pressure without there being any real stakes, and often the results are memorable fan favorites. There’s “The Odd Couple” episode entitled “Password,” “The Game Show” on “Maude,” “The Brain Game” on “Popular,” and “Grab That Dough” on “The Golden Girls,” to name a few. But the best version of this chestnut is by far “The One With the Embryos” from “Friends’” fourth season.

After Chandler (Matthew Perry) and Joey (Matt LeBlanc) guess every item in Rachel’s (Jennifer Aniston) shopping bag, Rachel and Monica (Courtney Cox) challenge them to a game of “Who Knows Who Better?” This example of the “Game Show” formula transcends the others for several reasons. First, it keeps the game intimate by having it be, essentially, a variation on “Jeopardy” done by the characters in their home instead of injecting the gloss of an actual game show set. Second, the episode concerns trivia about the characters instead of random facts the viewer has no attachment to. Finally, the storyline blossoms into having legitimate, real stakes (Monica and Rachel must swap apartments with the guys) instead of vague cash prizes that you know they won’t win.

More than that, this episode came at the right moment in the series. The viewers knew the gang enough that the writers, Jill Condon and Amy Toomin, could throw in some sly in-jokes (hey, what is Chandler Bing’s job?) while creating bits of trivia that serve as more than punchlines – they feel like natural extensions of our characters that we just didn’t know about yet.

As with other “Game Show” episodes, watching the characters suffer through immense pressure under the guise of a game is fantastic for the viewer and allowed the actors to do some fascinating things with their characters. Look at the way the group repeatedly becomes exasperated with Ross’ (David Schwimmer) impression of a Game Show host, or Aniston’s awesome reading of the simple line “Ooh, that’s interesting.” However, nothing beats Monica’s completely (purposely) over-the-top shriek of “Nooooo…!” when she loses the game.

Also interesting is how the studio audience feeds off of the energy of the game as if it is a real Game Show. There is applause at the end of every round, and the laughter becomes more gleeful as the game evolves. It’s one of those rare episodes where the audience’s laughter almost morphs into a character – the same way the audience did during “I Love Lucy’s” infamous egg tango.

If all that wasn’t enough, what makes the episode transcendent is the B-story, involving the embryos of the title. Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) has agreed to be a surrogate for her brother and sister-in-law (Giovanni Ribisi and Debra Jo Rupp), and here we follow the implantation of the eggs and the eventual reveal that Phoebe is, indeed, pregnant. What gives the arc some dramatic weight is that this is the only chance they’ll have at trying surrogacy, because all their savings is tied into those eggs (“They are literally putting all their eggs into my basket,” Phoebe opines). Phoebe was always a close cousin of Katherine Hepburn’s character in “Bringing Up Baby,” and here Kudrow gives us some of the best work of her career. There’s a beautiful scene where she’s speaking to the embryos that are about to be implanted. Her speech is some of the best writing in the history of the show, perfectly balancing the sentimental with the laughs:

“Hello tiny embryos. I’m Phoebe Buffay. Hi. I’m hoping to be your uterus for the next nine months. You should know that we’re doing this for Frank and Alice – who you know. You’ve been there. You know, they want you so much, so when you get in there really grab on. Okay? And I promise that I’ll keep you safe and warm until you’re ready to have them take you home. Oh! Also, next time you see me, if I’m screaming, don’t worry, that’s what is supposed to happen.”

There isn’t a joke in the monologue that feels forced, and nothing feels like a punchline. Kudrow’s delivery gives the awesome writing another level of humor and heart. At this point most viewers have seen the series and know there will be that heartbreaking scene in the one-hundredth episode where Phoebe is holding the triplets after giving birth and must give them away, which gives this entire episode a beautiful, bittersweet quality.

The episode also features one of the very best lines in the history of the series. After Phoebe takes a pregnancy test and it’s positive, her brother proudly screams at the top of his lungs: “My sister's gonna have my baby!”

There isn’t a wasted moment in “The One With the Embryos,” and the writers ensure that the aftermath of the game is just as enjoyable as the build-up. At once heartfelt and genuinely funny, this episode underlined what set “Friends” apart from the hundreds of sitcoms that have tried to rip off its formula and characters in the years since its broadcast. Instead of being happy with just taking classic sitcom scenarios and doing a good version of them, the “Friends” writers twisted and toyed with the clichés until they were new and innovative again. It’s also a show that never shied away from taking storytelling risks that could have alienated the core fanbase (pairing Monica and Chandler, turning Ross and Rachel into a triangle with Joey), but because the writers stayed true to their characters (quirks, issues, faults and everything in between) they not only made it work, but made it work wonderfully.

“The One With the Embryos” is available on iTunes, on DVD, on Amazon Instant Video and is probably showing on some channel on your television right now.

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