Second Look: Friends Season 3 Episode 20 – “The One with the Dollhouse”

Friends The One with the Dollhouse

Friends Season 3, Episode 20 “The One with the Dollhouse”
Written by Wil Calhoun
Directed by Terry Hughes
Aired April 10, 1997 on NBC

Where the first half of Friends‘s third season was marked by optimism, personal growth, and moving personal examinations, the second half’s been absolutely drenched in acerbic pessimism, pushing every character into some deeply unsatisfying romantic situation, in what’s felt like a bit of an aimless search for direction. “The One with the Dollhouse” is not the comedic balm one would hope it to be: though it’s certainly a bit funnier, and occasionally more thoughtful, than some recent episodes, its trio of stories are weightless excursions, notable only for its moments of humor – and of course, observing the aforementioned tonal shift continuing to take hold of every narrative.

Frankly, there’s just something about the construction of “The One with the Dollhouse” that feels intentionally mean-spirited, two toxic relationship subplots with an undercooked (but funny) runner about former roommates Monica and Phoebe trying to cohabit a dollhouse together. Unlike a couple of recent episodes, “TOW the Dollhouse” is at least more amusing (and in the extended version, noticeably more raunchy, which I appreciate) than some of the episodes in this season’s middle section – but that doesn’t make any of its stories more engaging, ultimately just a half hour willing to paint every one of its characters in remarkably unfavorable light for the sake of laughs.

Friends The One with the Dollhouse

That being said, each of the episode’s three plots have their comedic moments, which save “Dollhouse” from the doldrums of season three’s worst episodes. Well, for two of them: after a lukewarm introduction last week, Kate’s presence on Friends doesn’t get better here, as she admonishes her understudy, sleeps with Joey, and then rejects him for the brilliant (though suddenly dismissive and asshole-ish) director of their play.

I get what the series is doing here – giving Joey some of his just desserts – but the pace of this story is minimizing its ability to impact his character in meaningful ways. Kate feels like an object to tell a story about Joey, but one not really willing to contend with him as a character beyond a rather superficial nod to his hedonistic behavior coming back to bite him – there’s just nothing of substance to breathe life into their dynamics, which “TOW the Dollhouse” does nothing to alleviate.

Take how dismissively Joey treats Laura, the understudy he explicitly starts sleeping with to try and make Kate jealous; outside of a single retort played for a laugh, Joey’s treatment of Laura is treated as a mere punchline, though it’s a really off-putting moment amidst a particularly unflattering storyline. Again, one can easily see what Friends is aiming for here, but the abrupt introduction and execution of this story underwhelms due to the show’s general disinterest in finding depth within the lone Tribbiani son (see Chandler’s romantic arc at the beginning of the season, if the dichotomy isn’t made clear).

Laura getting underdeveloped is expect: more disappointing is how Kate is like most of Joey’s love interests, in that she’s just an object used to reflect something about Joey’s personality (which is why none of them feel worth investing in, at any point in the show’s decade-long run). In this instance, apparently, it’s to remind the audience that he’s a shameless asshole, one whose comeuppance is mistakenly treated as a redemptive moment for the character, in the very moment where it might be hardest to try and be on Joey’s side.

Friends The One with the Dollhouse

It’s a rough story, one of two Friends mainstayss seen in a toxic work environment. Across town, Rachel reluctantly introduces Chandler to her boss Joanna, and has a front seat to the predictable fallout when Chandler ghosts her after one date. I always love a good Chandler/Rachel plot – and though this is not the best of them, with Rachel begging Chandler to fiddle her boss so she doesn’t lose her job (… feels like a HR violation of some sort, no?), their interactions and attempts to negotiate with each other are gold. Rachel’s never one to fall for Chandler’s twitchy antics, mostly because she just doesn’t understand his sense of humor, which I always enjoy – and though I wish this episode gave a little more space for Joanna to be something other than a bitch (or you know, actually interact with Chandler for more than five seconds), I’m pretty much always on board with sexual situations that make Chandler squirm (not the last time this will come up with Joanna, of course).

So while the text of that is just as unsavory as Joey and Kate’s, there’s just so much more energy to the throwaway story of Chandler being unable to not offer a woman he doesn’t like another date. Which is a bummer, because Friends clearly took the opportunity to use some space vacated by Ross/Rachel to explore Joey as a character a bit more; unfortunately, it’s just not interesting, Joey’s sincerity (and LeBlanc’s reliance on puppy dog eyes) no match for Chandler’s willing recognition of his own flaws, and Perry’s always-phenomenal performance as the twitchy jester – which at least makes those parts of “The One with the Dollhouse” more tolerable.

The best story of the episode, oddly enough, is the one that matters the least: and it’s rare where an episode with two romantic stories is outshined by Phoebe Nonsense, which here is building her own DIY dollhouse after she’s disillusioned from playing with Monica’s (inherited) dollhouse and all its stuffy Victorian house rules. Monica and Phoebe are a natural personality clash Friends can always lean on for a quick laugh – “Dollhouse” is no different, with Monica pining over the miniature hardwood floors and Phoebe insisting that the house has a ghost (because, in her words, “nobody wants to have a ghost”).

Friends The One with the Dollhouse

It’s light in a way Friends hasn’t been lately; and though I’m certainly a sucker for a layered, ongoing narrative, a good sitcom throwaway plot is always welcome, and the dollhouse wars is a perfect example of that. It taps into a lot of things Friends does well: turning Phoebe’s sad childhood into humor, using Monica as a catalyst to annoy every other character – and of course, reminding us just how weird Monica and Ross’s relationship as siblings is at times (there’s an insinuation he catches her masturbating in the shower when he throws Phoebe’s burning dollhouse in the shower, which is… a choice).

It’s just unfortunate so much of the episode feels so defeatist; Joey learning his lesson feels like a necessary bitter pill being wasted on a short-lived plot (and with characters like Laura, really only making Joey look worse), and Phoebe’s unrecognizably melted foster puppets feels like a more actively antagonistic version of Friends, one where everyone’s hopes and dreams are twisted into a pile of wreckage for the series to laugh at. Though definitely a throwaway episode (notice the sudden absence of Pete or any meaningful plot line), “The One with the Dollhouse” definitely feels like a part of a larger shift, at least temporarily, into a more dissonant, pessimistic version of Friends – one where the jokes are funnier, but the resolutions are a bit darker and more acidic, a strange era of bitterness for one of television’s most iconic sitcoms.

Grade: C

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Boy, Kate is just unpleasant, from her bitchy comments about Laura, to being so dismissive of Joey – and seemingly in love with a director who fucking hates her (that she just cheated on). And I’m sorry; the “maybe we make the scene into one where we actually fuck” scene is trying to be hot, and it doesn’t work. Without that anchor, Kate is just awful – and Joey’s almost worse, in a lot of ways, which I don’t think the story intends.
  • Bing, in case you didn’t know, is Gaelic for “thy turkey’s done!”
  • Ross: “Your dollhouse is built on an Indian burial ground and a radioactive waste? …That just couldn’t happen.” Phoebe: “Obviously, you don’t know much about the US government.”
  • “She was digging the Chan Chan Man?” Rachel: “that was…. surreal.”
  • Poor Sophie catches so many strays in this episode… lest we forget, however, she darkly gets the last laugh.
  • Joey, recalling Dr. Ramoray’s fate: “They gave me the shaft, all right.”
  • Extended thoughts: “The One with the Dollhouse” is my favorite extended version of the season, for two reasons: Monica, saying “Yeah, well look who’s losing weight now, Aunt Sylvia”, Ross noting the dollhouse should have porno magazines behind the toilet, and a longer version of the Chandler/Joanna scene that helps soften Chandler’s attitude a bit.

Up next: Ross and Rachel make nice, and an iconic duo debut in “The One with a Chick and a Duck”.

Want to share your thoughts? Join the conversation below!