Second Look: Friends Season 3 Episode 18 – “The One with the Hypnosis Tape”

Friends The One with the Hypnosis Tape

Friends Season 3, Episode 18 “The One with the Hypnosis Tape”
Written by Seth Kurland
Directed by Robby Benson
Aired March 13, 1997 on NBC

With the slightly awkward transition from “The One with the Morning After” towards normalcy somewhat behind it, one might expect Friends to sit on its heels a bit for a few weeks before heading into the final stretch of its third season. Well, “The One with the Hypnosis Tape”, another early-era Phoebe-centric episode, certainly is something akin to that, a half hour with an extremely random trio of stories: debating a 26-year age gap in Frank Jr.’s new romance, Monica reluctantly dating a millionaire… and Chandler’s hypnosis-induced feminization?

There’s no doubting “The One with the Hypnosis Tape” is one of the weirdest early season Friends episodes, with a script (credited to story editor Seth Kurland, his second credited this season following “The One with the Race Car Bed”) more attuned to the twitchy mannerisms of Chandler and Frank Jr. than something managing the individual rhythms of all six main characters. This is mostly intentional to pull us further away from the Ross/Rachel breakup; after a half-dozen episodes of them bickering, they do not interact in this episode outside of a brief, toxic exchange, which is certainly welcome.

Friends The One with the Hypnosis Tape

But its random mosaic of plots certainly throws Friends normal patterns off – especially as it focuses on the spastic behavior of Chandler and Frank Jr., with much longer shots breaking up the usual quick-paced editing, focused on the former’s increasingly “feminine” mannerisms, and the twitchy movements of the latter.

And then there’s the whole Frank and Alice thing; look, Friends does itself no favors by pointing out the 26-year age gap between the newly engaged couple and their… questionably-close-to-grooming origin story (one can tell by how Alice’s voice trails off detailing the story of how they met in home ec class). Oddly enough, most of the Frank/Alice material works, if only as a weird couple whose cartoonish romance sets the tone for the episode’s other pair of oddly-calibrated stories. It helps Debra Jo Rupp and Giovanni Ribisi are both incredibly gifted, dedicated performers; they inject a lot of layers into the sordid (former) teacher/student relationship through nothing but their mannerisms, their nervous, excited infatuation a necessary balm against the very obvious moral (and legal?) issues at the heart of what is actually the most stable romance in the third season of Friends (boy, that’s odd to consider).

Even more peculiar is how Phoebe, of all characters, is what keeps this story somewhat grounded, recognizing what an odd, likely disastrous decision this could be for them both. She tries to have Ross and Joey talk to Frank Jr. about the value of not getting married too young, and convinces Alice offscreen to end the engagement with her brother. These both fail miserably, of course – Ross and Joey lament their current loneliness, and Alice can’t make it through Phoebe’s prepared breakup speech – but for the first time in many episodes, these failures are in pursuit of something meaningful and positive.

Friends The One with the Hypnosis Tape

It’s a refreshing balm in a bizarre way, following a season where Chandler and Rachel have been cheated on, Monica’s gone through a difficult breakup (twice, kind of), and Phoebe’s most exciting relationship was with her stalker. It’s been a bit of a downer of a year for the crew; although clearly some of my feelings with the episode’s resolution come from knowledge of what’s to come in season four – but I still think the episode pulls this story off, a brief moment where the show’s romantic optimism (you know, Lobster Theory and such) of seasons one and two shine through the show’s increasingly pessimistic stories.

Does it come with some caveats? Like the other two plots of the episode, the answer is undoubtably yes; but unlike with Monica hemming and hawing over dating someone she’s not really that attracted to (Jon Favreau, hot off his acting/writing breakout Swingers) or Chandler being 90’s ‘gay’ because he’s listening to hypnosis tapes for women, Frank and Alice’s love story builds to a satisfying, funny conclusion (almost in spite of itself).

Friends The One with the Hypnosis Tape

Our introduction to Pete Becker is frankly, fucking weird: after we’re introduced to his flirty rapport with Monica at the restaurant she’s working in, “The One with the Hypnosis Tape” sees Pete write a $20,000 check to Monica… just to get her fired up to come yell at him in his office? Friends is a rom-com as much as it is a sit-com, but it sometimes falls victim to building its short guest-star romances out of absolute D-tier plots, the kind you’d see in a mid-January theatrical release in the late 1990’s, and this is a perfect example of it. Pete Becker is an inherently uninteresting character – with the noticeably animated Monica is shrugging her shoulders at the prospect of dating him, the only thing Friends is really engaging with is the idea of Monica dating a rich guy, given Pete’s given none of the charisma or presence offered to Monica’s previous partner – which just makes him feel so slight, even when he’s flying Monica to Italy just to have dinner (which she insists on paying for, since he “paid for the flight”).

The fact this story can’t even register a pulse next to the nonsensical Alice/Frank story doesn’t portend well for Pete as a romantic prospect; that much is obvious, even with the hindsight of knowing we’ll talk more about his character in future episodes. It can’t even draw any energy from the C plot running in the background: Chandler’s attempts to quit smoking, the silly subplot from which “The One with the Hypnosis Tape” oddly draws its title from (for obvious reasons, “The One That Might Have a Touch of Statutory” wasn’t really a viable option), which, not a very convincing introduction for Monica’s first real post-Richard romantic interest.

It’s a high bar to meet – but instead of accepting the challenge or offering up some kind of different, kinetic sexual tension, it all just feels like a big shrug, both onscreen and off – the writer’s don’t seem super interested in forming any kind of tangible bond or tension between the two. Absent of that, the story just feels inserted to fill up space, and offer something a bit more traditional in terms of how it introduced potential romantic interests; it just so happens Pete Becker is an absolutely lifeless character, written thinly and played flatly by Favreau in his brief appearances on-screen.

Friends The One with the Hypnosis Tape

Thankfully, we have the silly, weightless runner of Chandler’s increasingly odd behavior to inject some (undeniably awkward) laughs into the proceedings; one’s mileage may vary on just how funny “Chandler doing stereotypical gay things” (like commenting on outfits or getting excited about a boy) is, but for my money, it’s worth it for everyone’s confused reaction to his odd new mannerisms, even if it’s just another example of Friends making superficial gay jokes just to fill space. Perry, as always, commits completely to the bit, and that alone makes his scenes watchable; at the very least, it breaks up the episode’s structure a bit, isolating the episode’s pair of incredibly bizarre stories of teachers and millionaires trying to be seductive, a comedic salve the episode so desperately needed.

“The One with the Hypnosis Tape” is one of the oddest entries in Friends‘ third season, a trio of wacky premises tied together with the thinnest of threads – but one so incredibly performed in its strangest moments, it almost hides the patchwork nature of the episode. The end result? It’s a bit of a wash; though “Hypnosis Tape” isn’t the most exciting episode in isolation, how it represents a shift in the beginning of the season’s third act is intriguing – and of course, Frank Jr. and Alice’s engagement sets the table for one of Friends best plots to come in the following year.

Grade: C

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Rachel tests how single Monica’s become by asking her to recap the plot of last week’s Walker, Texas Ranger.
  • Apparently while dating Rachel, Ross was hypnotized and smacked his own bare ass cheeks in front of an audience. Despite this, he’s still a hypnosis denier.
  • Chandler jokes: “I would’ve bet good money [Frank Jr.] would be the first one of us to get married.”
  • Gunther enjoys a drag of Chandler’s cigarette, exclaiming “Oh, dark mother, once again I suckle at your smoky teat.” One of my favorite lines of the entire series.
  • Everyone’s horrified reaction to Alice and Frank Jr. having children is justified. Even in 1997, this was an insane thought!
  • There’s a very, very short scene with Phoebe and Alice and a stained tablecloth that feels like it should’ve been 30-40 seconds longer, to at least establish some kind of unique rapport between the two.
  • Frank Jr., trying to understand the breakup: “She said I was too young… but I’m older than I was when we got together!”
  • Joey and Ross apparently agree to be in Frank’s wedding, which unfortuantely is never discussed (nor do we see Frank and Alice’s wedding, unfortunately).
  • Extended thoughts: the extended version is about a minute longer, and it’s worth it for two bits alone: Chandler throwing Joey his keys (in a ‘feminine’ way, of course) and Ross explaining the most boring way to spend a million dollars.

Up next: Mark returns, and Joey gets a romantic subplot (?!) in “The One with the Tiny T-Shirt”.

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