Directed by Gail Mancuso
Written by Ira Ungerleider
By the time “The One Where No One’s Ready” aired in 1996, the concept of a ‘bottle’ episode was hardly original; hell, Cheers ran for nearly 300 episodes, and its entire first season takes place on the simplistic sets of the titular bar. However, a more appropriate influence is Seinfeld, whose iconic “The Chinese Restaurant” took the bottle episode concept and made it real-time in May 1991, in what’s become perhaps the most influential template for a ‘showy’ sitcom episode to employ – the comedic equivalent of cinema’s recent obsession with “the long take”, one might say.
The bottle episode is also an object of its form, a way to subtly cut corners and save budget for larger, more technically demanding episodes; it is a restriction that offers a certain freedom to play with the very sitcom form, further blurring the lines between film and stage in that special space reserved for the very best of the multi-camera format.
“The One Where No One’s Ready” is the combination of these two creative and budgetary constructions; it is also the series’ 50th episode, an important demarcation for any series grinding its way to the old-school syndication holy grail of 100 episodes. And Friends knows this is a big moment; there’s no telling sign that this episode is aiming for something different when Ross walks in, fully tuxed out a minute into the episode. Immediately, “TOW No One’s Ready” is staking its claim as something different – an energy it would mostly carry through the rest of the episode.
Perhaps the most impressive part of “TOW No One’s Ready” is its technical intricacy; where many episodes of Friends would struggle to juggle the typical three-story structure of an episode, this episode has four plots careening off the walls of Monica and Rachel’s living room. It is a lot of conflict for Friends to handle; throw in the real-time conceit (again, smartly established early when Ross notes they have 26 minutes left to get ready for his gala), and “TOW No One’s Ready” immediately establishes itself as one of the show’s most complicated, and ambitious, episodes.
Friends always had propensity for flashy episodes (a trait it would indulge, to increasingly lesser effect, as the series wore on); however, that flashiness was usually reserved for big plot points, not ambitious script construction – to say it feels surprising within the rhythm of the early season three episodes is an understatement. There’s a sharpness to the writing and the performances that is electric, wasting no time setting up its various premises before letting the chaos take hold.
Where the episode shines is its ability to constantly escalate each story; beginning with Monica’s increasingly unhinged reaction to an old message from Richard, “TOW No One’s Ready” doesn’t fuck around and waste time. The episode is anchored by the constant crescendo of Joey and Chandler’s growing fight over the chair; common conflicts blown up to cartoon size is often a weak point of Friends, but here, it is important in setting the tone of the episode, and appropriately raising the stakes with each increasing shot Chandler and Joey take at each other.
That provides the fuel for the two main stories of the episode, Monica’s freak out and Ross’s frustration with Rachel’s lack of preparedness (the fourth story, Phoebe’s dress, is more a convenient runner than an actual story – but it still has its own distinct beats, ending with her terribly-aged comment about fighting for Christmas). If you take a step back, there aren’t really any stakes in the Chandler/Joey fight except Joey’s ball sweat ending up on Chandler’s clothes; but the emotional tenor of their conflict is important, in providing a runway for the emotional tensions in its A and B stories.
The Ross/Rachel one, though seemingly built on a thin concept, actually provides one of the more interesting examinations of their (soon to be) short-lived relationship, presenting an early case for why America’s lovebirds may not exactly be a match made in heaven. It isn’t subtle, but the friction between their personalities is on stark display for the first time in a long time in “TOW No One’s Ready” – and it leads to one of their more interesting, nuanced conflicts, when Ross finally loses his patience and angrily takes out his frustrations on Rachel when she can’t decide on shoes.
As he throws her shoes and yells in her face, Friends takes a brief turn into the dark, offering a rare glimpse into what can happen when the honeymoon glow begins to wear off in a relationship. Inevitably, our blemishes all rise to the surface, and that adjustment period is a difficult one – one where lines can casually be crossed in the name of passion, whether they be emotional, mental or physical (thankfully, Friends doesn’t go for a full-on plot arc about domestic abuse, because my god, what a nightmare that would’ve been).
It’s such an interesting moment for Friends, at a time where the writers were still comfortable contending with its characters as occasionally unlikable people; though it displays a side of Ross I don’t think many fans of the series want to contend with, it feels like an honest moment for the character. Ross is a man who bottles his frustrations, and when they are released, they’re often done in an unhealthy way; “TOW No One’s Ready” makes no qualms about how unhealthy and bad that is, to it’s credit. But more importantly, it is willing to show that flaw in its main character, offering a vulnerability that a more saccharine approach would’ve avoided – and been a lesser episode for it.
Of course, the impact of that is muted by the quick resolution in the third act, and the heightened comedy of Monica and Chandler’s individual reactions to the events conspiring around them (Monica’s reactions to overwriting Richard’s outgoing message is absolute gold) which limit the impact of what the Ross/Rachel story can achieve emotionally – though it’s worth noting that interconnected nature is absolutely to the episode’s benefit, which hums along at a pace few other episodes of the series could match. But it’s an important moment of revelation in their relationship, the first sign of a chink in the romantic armor the show built around those characters throughout its second season – and one I hadn’t really remembered from previous viewings, which may start to recalibrate my thoughts around the larger conflicts to come as the season continues.
Now, is the resolution an absolute cheese fest? Sure, when Ross dramatically begins to drink the glass of chicken fat and Rachel passionately stops him and agrees to get dressed, it is Friends laying into the schmaltz a bit – but it strangely works, given the general heightened emotional tenor of the episode, and how it reveals a bit of toxicity at the heart of their relationship.
Ross will always look for a way for Rachel to disappoint him, and Rachel will always be waiting and hoping for Ross to make the big (and often unnecessary) dramatic gesture to prove his love; what often read to audiences as romantic feels a little unhealthy, and it is interesting to re-examine the events of this season, understanding the decisions this show would make later on, and how they were informed by easily-overlooked events of prior episodes (and as the show would continue, years). It’s certainly not a promising sign for the health of their relationship, which is still early enough to have sexy exchanges (you can almost hear the echoes of a generation of 90’s teens jizzing in their pants with Rachel’s last line) and enough romance that those red flags would be overlooked.
Two episodes into its third season, and Friends is off to a surprisingly hot start, with a renewed sense of creative vigor, regaining the momentum it felt it was starting to lose during parts of season two. No hot streak lasts forever, of course, but it’s certainly fun to see Friends in the middle of one, especially as the show heads into some of the most important episodes of the entire series.
- No Janice mention this episode? Feels strange after she was such an important plot point in “The One with the Princess Leia Fantasy”.
- The Friends reunion episode contained a dramatic reveal of Joey’s shoulder injury filming this episode – which, for any nerd who listened to audio commentaries on their DVD’s, knew about 15 years ago.
- Friends reunion also contained that godawful “fashion” show, only saved by Matt LeBlanc’s surprise appearance in the iconic outfit. “Could I be wearing any more clothes?”
- “Hey Ross, want some cider?” is one of the great non-sequiturs on Friends. Matt LeBlanc’s delivery of what is a very simple line just kills it for me every time.
- Another all-time favorite line: Phoebe’s “she’s crazy… like a straw.”
- “When we get back, it’s Chair City, and I’m the guy…. sitting in a chair!” Matthew Perry is fucking undefeated on this show. Also see the last line of the episode: “That’s it – give me your underwear.”
- Funny to think of Caller ID as something wealthy people had for their home phones in 1996.
- Rachel receives a voicemail from a sister; we still haven’t met her siblings yet, though she did return from one’s graduation party at the beginning of “The One with Two Parties”.
- Extended Thoughts: as is often the case, this episode is just longer, in ways that don’t really add a ton to the episode. The reaction to the voicemail from Rachel’s sister is a bit extended and it does make the Ross/Rachel exchange a bit more comedic and tense, but I’m stretching a bit thin to find new meaning in this episode’s alterations.
Up next: Friends returns to the Mad About You Extended Universe with “The One with the Jam”.