Originally aired 1/30/1997
Directed by Robby Benson
Written by Michael Borkow
Though Gunther’s talking about someone’s dick when he says “put the mouse back in the house”, it’s a fitting tagline for the central, titular story of “The One Where Monica and Richard Are Just Friends”. Bringing back Tom Selleck is no small thing for Friends at this point – Monica/Richard was the show’s most significant romantic arc of its first two seasons, a rich story with perhaps its most believable romantic pairing. Monica/Richard was a great dynamic Friends had barely explored by the time it had to break them up in disappointing, rushed fashion. Given that, it’s no surprise that his unexpected return sets the stage for “TOW Richard and Monica Are Just Friends”, one of the season three’s most rewarding, emotionally poignant episodes.
Though its debatable how organically Monica and Richard’s breakup came about, the fundamental difference between the two – as well as the age gap exacerbating it – gave Friends a really complex, nuanced relationship it barely had a half dozen episodes to grapple with. “TOW Richard and Monica Are Just Friends”, in many ways, feels like its making up for lost time, dropping the two right back into their old rhythms after they unexpectedly meet at the local video store (how 90’s!). Like every sitcom couple in the history of modern television has, Monica and Richard decide to explore the concept of being ‘friends with benefits’ – though they avoid that distinct title, their arrangement as “racquetball partners” provides an avenue to bring out the emotional richness embedded within Monica (and Courtney Cox, whose performance as Monica shines throughout this episode).
What Friends does really well is make it obvious how compatible a couple they are. A lazier approach would lean on callbacks and audience reactions to make Richard’s appearance exciting and dramatic; though it quickly leads to bedrooms full of roses and wine, the brief Monica/Richard revival is a rather nuanced exploration of love, particularly in what an everlasting emotion it can be. What makes their story so poignant is not how well they work together; in fact, it’s where the two are not compatible that Friends smartly builds their relationship upon.
Sometimes love isn’t enough. Friends would sometimes forget this idea later on in its run, but its allegiance to it in the Monica/Richard story makes for one of the show’s more powerful statements about emotional connection, and why we should cherish it when we find it, even if it isn’t meant to last forever. Timing is everything, both in love and dialogue delivery, which “The One Where Monica and Richard Are Just Friends” displays a consistent mastery of; it makes for a rather harrowing arc across 24 minutes, culminating in one of Friends’ more devastating observations on emotional vulnerability, filtered through two performers who couldn’t capture the dynamic more perfectly.
Though this episode could rely entirely on mustache-less Tom Selleck’s return, “The One Where Monica and Richard Are Just Friends” is another season three episode of Friends with a distinct rejection of sitting on its heels, delivering two equally hilarious side stories that put on full display just how versatile Friends could be as a television series. While Richard and Monica are exploring the serious chasm in their deep-seated desire to reconcile, Joey is reading Little Women and Phoebe’s boyfriend keeps accidentally flashing his nutsack; three stories that couldn’t seem any more dissonant, but are a great showcase for the series’ comedic versatility.
Joey reading Little Women in particular is a stroke of genius; after Rachel learns he’s afraid of The Shining, she challenges him to read her favorite book while she experiences Joey’s favorite scary book for the first time. The result? Joey getting way too invested in Jo and Laurie’s romance (though he has their corresponding genders completely wrong), and gasping in horror at the spoiler of Beth’s death; though it requires Rachel to be sidelined a bit, Joey’s endless cascade of gut-busting reactions is some of the finest purely comedic material you’ll find in season three.
The same goes for Phoebe’s boyfriend and his constantly exposed genitals; however, where Joey is contending with fear of fictional characters, the threat of Robert’s exposed dick and balls all the time is a very real, visceral one for Phoebe and her friends to contend with. Robert is never considered a serious love interest, of course – that would be hard to do with a character whose entire presence is shouting double entendres. And yet! By leaning on the talents of its cast, this story works – whether Chandler, Monica, or eventually Phoebe’s reaction, Robert’s shorts provide a great runner that bring contrast to an episode that otherwise, is a rather somber reflection on how hard it is to fall out of love with someone.
Though it may not be the most deep, harmonic episode of Friends, “The One Where Monica and Richard Are Just Friends” is a highlight of season three, an episode that never once loses momentum, even as it whips back and forth between emotionally (and sexually) charged scenes of Monica and Richard making lasagna together, and a running highlight reel of everyone reacting to the sight of exposed testicles. After all, life is about balance – in this sense, deep reflections on broken love alongside dick jokes are a perfect pairing, one Friends smartly avoids fucking up by keeping it simple and focused. A standout episode, right before the series heads into arguably its most divisive arc ever.
- Ross is starting to get frustrated with Rachel’s long work hours, a seed being planted for episodes to come. The end is nigh!
- I sometimes forget how much sitcom writers had it out for video store employees in 1990’s era sitcoms. Thankfully, the teller here doesn’t get it too badly, beyond “generic douchebag”.
- Choose your favorite Joey reaction: ” These little women… wow!” or “…. Beth is really, really sick.”
- I love Phoebe’s reaction to Ross asking what she’s going to do for Robert, who is taking her on all these athletic endeavors: “I’m going to let him.”
- Joey, avoiding spoilers: “All blank and no blank makes Blank a blank blank!”
- Extended thoughts: this episode is over a minute longer than the broadast/Blu-Ray version, most of which comes from a fantastic, obscure bit about Chandler confusing curiat mariah with Star Trek‘s Kobayashi Maru. There are a few longer shots focused on Monica during her scenes with Richard, as well, which draw attention away from the guest star and more on the emotional arc of its main character (though these are extremely small differences I’m probably reading too far into).
Up next: “Smelly Cat” returns and a Twin Peaks actor pops in for a cameo, in “The One with Phoebe’s Ex-Partner”.