Originally aired 11/14/1996 on NBC
Directed by Gail Mancuso
Written by Adam Chase
“The One with the Giant Poking Device” is one of my favorite episodes of Friends, a half hour I’d argue stands among the show’s most underrated. It is the show at perhaps its most iconic, able to deliver Gen X sex jokes, traditional sitcom slapstick, and devastating emotional swings with an emphatic confidence. If there is a blueprint the series should’ve followed, it is one similar to this episode – which is able to find thematic balance between stories that, on paper, would seem wildly discordant with each other.
Perhaps the most surprising part is how writer Adam Chase (of shows like Veronica’s Closet and late-era Mom) and the writing team pull these seemingly isolated stories together through its shared theme of honesty. In the foreground, of course, is Chandler breaking up with Janice – after the dramatic reveal at the end of “The One with the Race Car Bed”, this isn’t necessarily a surprising turn of events. But how it plays out once Joey reluctantly reveals Janice’s secret canoodling with the Mattress King, is some of the best writing Friends has to offer, led by undeniably the show’s most versatile performer in Matthew Perry.
Perry is absolutely phenomenal in this episode; his slow path to acceptance bucks the trend we’re used to seeing with his character (for most of the episode, at least). For some time, Chandler’s kind of known that his relationship with Janice would end badly, but the show’s allowed us to invest in his brief bout of anxious happiness; though the commitment was slight (we’re talking eight episodes, not seasons), Janice’s second significant arc on the series is by far her most meaningful. And how Perry conveys it all, from resistance to begrudging acceptance, is pitch perfect, providing an emotional crescendo one wouldn’t expect from a story about Chandler and Janice.
It’s a really touching arc, because it’s messy in a way Friends often executes poorly; but smartly, the show recognized it couldn’t have its most innocent, vulnerable character become a villain before the audience’s eyes. To extricate themselves from the corner they wrote themselves into is difficult; to be able to pull it off, and so nimbly across the course of two episodes, is kind of stunning.
(Also, a big shout out to returning director Gail Mancuso, who really gives equal weight Chandler and Janice’s perspectives and smartly pushes to wider shots in the bigger moments. Wheeler and Perry are just phenomenal in these scenes, and Mancuso smartly steps back and lets them shine.)
With such emotional weight being carried in the Mattress King plot twist in the previous episode, it would make sense for the rest of “The One With the Giant Poking Device” to fade into the background, meaningless asides about Phoebe’s paranoia (she thinks going to the dentist kills people she loves) and Monica hitting Ben’s head on her ceiling that really have no weight in the powerful stories being told alongside them (though “Monica bang” is still something I occasionally say, as I am someone who hits his head on things regularly). Though these stories are really only good for a few quick jokes – Rachel’s “If it’s not against a headboard, it’s really not worth it” is an all-timer – they help to enhance what the Chandler/Janice story is expressing; that honesty is difficult, and though it is freeing, it can be extremely painful.
Yeah, ok, it’s a bit of stretch to fit Phoebe’s silly plot into that story; but there’s something to the freedom with which she expresses that fear, that eventually rallies the group to do a wellness check on Ugly Naked Fat Guy. It’s not much, but it doesn’t really have to be; interspersed with Monica and Rachel’s silly attempts to cover up Ben’s minor accident, these two stories are important in maintaining the central bond between its characters, while still providing room for the episode to still be funny, which it really needs to do, given where it eventually leads; the balance of these stories alongside Chandler’s are important, and could be easily overlooked or misread as lazy thumb-twiddling to fill the space between.
The Chandler story, of course, is that bedrock – and it’s a very powerful one, thanks to the delivery of the episode’s unflinchingly honest dialogue. Chandler, as we’ll learn, will always be in love with Janice in some way – she was kind of the first woman to take him seriously, and was definitely the first woman he dated who wasn’t afraid to be who she was. Though she’d increasingly become a punchline in her subsequent guest appearances as the series continued, she’s an integral part to the growth of his character: with Janice, Chandler finally gets to imagine a future for himself with someone for the first time, one that isn’t just fairy tales (“When I woke up this morning, I was in love”, he tells Joey). For these eight episodes, we see him grasp that dream in his hands for a moment; only to realize, at the last moment, that the dream he’s watching isn’t really his at all, and belongs to another family.
Chandler and Janice’s final scene in Central Perk is one of the show’s most beautiful scenes; Janice bemoaning the loss of her “movie love” is not played for cheese or desperation, instead reaching towards those honest expressions of emotions Friends could occasionally find, with a clarity that would define young adult comedy for a generation. Janice telling Chandler that she loves him and can’t believe they aren’t going to spend the rest of their lives together is a stunning moment; beautifully delivered by Maggie Wheeler, it offers raw insight into the strange, deep emotional bond that’s kept Janice coming back into Chandler’s life.
It’s a story I think most of us can all relate to, the story of the one who was probably the right one, but life never really let us find out, for one circumstance or another. Those moments, relationships, and unfinished stories, no matter how faded they become with time, stick with us – it is difficult to reconcile the certainty of one’s decision, with the uncertainty of loneliness that lies ahead. Watching Chandler go through that – and watching Janice go through the experience alongside him, stuck between two men she loves – is palpable, delivered with craft and nuance Friends often forsakes for the benefit of comedy.
Unfortunately, this is the end of the Janice Litman-Hosenstein we’ve come to know over the first three seasons; her later appearances would have none of the life of season one’s “The One with the Candy Hearts” or “The One Where Heckles Dies”. As a recurring influence in Chandler’s life, she’s provided an integral avenue into defining, and maturing, Chandler as a character in a different way than his friendship with Joey (the primary vehicle for understanding Chandler in early seasons). Without that, it will be a little while before Chandler’s character feels completely whole again; considering that, hats off to Maggie Wheeler for turning a one-note character into an important emotional anchor in some of the show’s early moments of growth.
“The One with the Giant Poking Device” is one of the most memorable episodes of the series, one of those all-too-rare times where everything the series does well is simultaneously visible, operating in sync and crystallizing the features that really made Friends iconic for an entire generation around the world. It may never make its way onto the Greatest Comedy Episodes of All-Time lists, but goddamn “The One With the Giant Poking Device” is a doozy, and leaves an impact that stands to challenge its writers out of their comfort zones, at least for a little while.
- cannot think of a more perfect close to this episode than Phoebe joining Chandler in singing some off-key Lionel Ritchie.
- Another great scene: when Joey tells Chandler he should probably bow out, and not stand in the way of Janice and her family.
- Monica, scrambling to find a distraction from Ben’s head bump: “Take him in there, and do whatever it is you do that makes him go REEEEEEE!”
- Chandler’s ten seconds of begging? Great visualization of the rationalizing we do when faced with the prospect of eternal loneliness, condensed into a few brief moments.
- “Get her a barium enema – those are dead serious!”
- The titular poking device? A contraption devised by Joey out of his and Chandler’s leftover chopsticks.
- after last episode’s awful little bit of homophobia, Joey’s inability to understand homo sapien is a much funnier bit. “I’m not judging!”
- if this is the end for Janice as a serious romantic interest for Chandler – boy, does she go out rocking a fit.
- “I knew I shouldn’t have bought that 12-pack of condoms!”
- After the second or third dick joke of the episode Joey laughs at, Rachel’s had enough: “what are you, 12 today?”
- Ross plays a great prank on Monica to bring out the truth; “he’s usually so good with his alphabet, and suddenly he was missing his E’s and F’s!” Her horrified reaction is everything. Also, Jennifer Aniston can barely hold her shit together in that scene, which is a testament to how well both Cox and Schwimmer held it together in the moment).