Second Look: Friends Season 4, Episode 1 – “The One with the Jellyfish”

Friends The One with the Jellyfish

Friends Season 4, Episode 1 “The One with the Jellyfish”
Written by Wil Calhoun
Directed by Shelley Jensen
Aired September 25, 1997 on NBC

Friends‘s third season is one of incredibly creative highs and anxiety-inducing lows – and one that ends on a particularly low note with “The One at the Beach”, an episode “The One with the Jellyfish” has the unfortunate task of cleaning up. And for the most part, “The One with the Jellyfish” is able to make sense of the many disparate parts left in the season finale – unfortunately, the most frustrating part of the episode is also the loudest, dampening the return of the Central Park Six with the underwhelming debut of the ‘new’ Ross/Rachel dynamic.

At least “The One with the Jellyfish” begins in a good place, with Phoebe and her birth mother. After learning Phoebe Abbott was actually part of one of America’s first notable throuples (with her father and adoptive mother), Phoebe A. confesses to her daughter why she gave her up – though as one might expect, those answers couldn’t satisfy even the most optimistic person in New York, and Phoebe eventually storms out, telling her mother she’s going to walk out on her, “just like she did”.

Friends The One with the Jellyfish

Phoebe’s search for family is often played for humor, whether Phoebe’s gay husband, her absent father, her brother – and even her twin sister, who reveals to Phoebe she knew about their mother in Montauk the whole time (and also read, and lost, their mother’s suicide note, a moment of black humor Friends very, very rarely embraced). But Phoebe’s backstory, a rejected child who survived the streets with her optimism and sanity (mostly) intact, of someone who still believed in connecting with people and building a family – even if those, inside or outside her family, still treated her like absolute dogshit.

Despite being the show’s New Age punching bag, Phoebe, alongside Chandler, is Friends‘s most resonant character – and entering her best, most emotionally grounded arc of the entire series with “The One with the Jellyfish”. Even if we’re only getting the prologue of her season four story here, it doesn’t make the episode’s closing moment any less powerful (especially in the wake of some of the less engaging material around it), when Montauk Phoebe comes to Central Perk, to make some attempt at forming a relationship with her daughter, and Phoebe makes the important decision to consider the possibility of forgiveness. Lisa Kudrow and Teri Garr are both phenomenal in their last scene together – and though Phoebe’s mother wouldn’t play a large role specifically in what’s to come for Phoebe, is a critically important stage-setter for her character in these scenes.

Phoebe is the anchor for the season four premiere; and thank goodness, because the other two parts of the episode aren’t exactly bringing the narrative heat. One of them, of course, isn’t designed to be; Chandler, Joey and Monica’s disastrous, urine-filled day the beach is mostly designed as a comedic device to resolve the Monica/Chandler bits in “The One at the Beach” – and in a move that might feel odd to anyone whose seen the rest of the series, it designed to suggest the two would never get together.

Friends The One with the Jellyfish

The conceit is silly one, of course – and one the show couldn’t even show on screen, for obvious reasons. Despite that, the entire bit works, especially when the trio have to tell the rest of the group that Joey tried to pee on Monica’s jellyfish-bitten leg, but couldn’t perform so Chandler had to step up and deliver. Their mimicked behavior and shared horror offers a promising sign for the show’s enduring comedic abilities; while the messy end of season three hardly found room for a good laugh, every line of dialogue in their scenes together is sharp and impeccably paced, and adds an incredible amount of comedy to a story that could feel incredibly pointless in the hands of less capable performers.

The comedic salve that is Chandler’s piss is needed, because the rest of “The One with the Jellyfish” deals with the real narrative fallout of season three – which, need I remind you, featured a petulant Rachel manipulating Ross’s girlfriend Bonnie into shaving her head, knowing he’d no longer be attracted to her. What begins as a promising mirror to “The One with the Princess Leia Fantasy”, with many similar shots of Ross and Rachel talking in a bedroom, exploring each other’s vulnerability… only this time, the circumstances and substance of “The One with the Jellyfish” make this an entirely cringeworthy affair.

Take your pick: Ross trying to fuck Rachel before he breaks up with Bonnie, Rachel writing an 18-page letter (“front and back!“) demanding contrition and fealty and expecting him to read it at 6am, Ross lying about reading it so he can get back to fucking his dream girl… it’s all a complete mess, an undercooked idea indulging in the worst, most superficial aspects of their characters, all in what is clearly designed as nothing but an elaborate tease. Mirroring shots from “Princess Leia Fantasy” ends up working against itself, revealing quickly how falsely the entire plot rings through the episode – that is, until the ending scene, which is a more realistic depiction of where the two might be heading in season four (and that’s without considering the hindsight of knowing the seven years of material that would be gleaned from the events of these bookend episodes).

Friends The One with the Jellyfish

I can certainly appreciate its consistency; “The One with Phoebe’s Husband” showed us Rachel’s propensity to sabotage Ross’s romantic pursuits, and Ross certainly proved last season he’s still being a giant, petty asshole about cheating on his girlfriend. However, more than a dozen episodes removed from “The One with the Morning After”, there’s not a whole lot of convincing reasons for Ross and Rachel to reconcile – and this episode makes absolutely no attempts to find new ones, either making awkward jokes about Ross’s ex-girlfriend having a rape kink, or leaning back into the old dynamic of Ross and Rachel’s piss-poor communication.

Worse, there’s really nothing genuine about it; though the Phoebe and Monica plots are all over the place and tonally discordant with each other, they’re at least grounded in a similar place, exploring the characters of Friends when they’re forced way outside their comfort zones. For both, it is lean into the ones they love (for very, very different reasons) – and though Ross and Rachel briefly make a faux attempt at embodying this idea, the episode is thoroughly unable to make their story land, which is why the entire episode ultimately feels like parts of the previous season’s finale left on the cutting room floor.

If anything, “The One with the Jellyfish” does offer the closure “The One at the Beach”, as a season finale of a blockbuster sitcom, doesn’t. It (seemingly) slams the door shut on Monica and Chandler, gives Phoebe a bit of resolution with her past, and posits Rachel and Ross are no longer America’s dream couple – in isolation, each of these stories reach logical conclusions, and set up season four to have a markedly different dynamic than those preceding it. And while it mostly works, the parts that don’t are so loud and discordant, it dampens everything just enough to keep it from reaching its full potential.

Grade: C+

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Welcome to season four reviews of Friends! This is one of the seasons I was most excited to write about when I started this series waaay back in June 2012, and I’m excited we’re finally here More news to come on those season one and two reviews from the old site – but for now, we’re finally here! Time providing, reviews will publish every Tuesday and Thursday throughout the season.
  • Why does this episode open with Joey recapping the half-finale on the beach? It’s a weird, fourth-wall breaking moment Friends would never do again, in any shape or form.
  • “My mom had killed herself, my dad had run off… I was living in a Gremlin with a guy Syndney, who talked to his hand.” I desperately do NOT want a Friends spinoff, but I consider this to be Friends‘s equivalent to Young Sheldon.
  • Joey, having a thought: “What if you found out your mom wasn’t really your mom, and your new mom turned out to be really hot?”
  • Not to bring real-world logic into TV land, but when Rachel asks Ross what happened… why couldn’t he just say he fell asleep at 6am? Would it really have been that big a deal?
  • Chandler’s already tired of hearing The Line…. oh my friend, we are just getting started.
  • Ursula trying to pass off a handwritten, lazy suicide note is so dumb, but I still laugh every time.
  • “Do it now, do it, do it, do it now!… sometimes at night, I can still hear the sceraming.”
  • I really enjoy the scene between Phoebe and her mother, realizing that even though there’s an enormous gulf between them, everybody has a starting point somewhere with another human, even if it’s just over pizza.
  • Funny to think that in 1997, someone being unable to distinguish “you’re” from “your” was considered to be abnormal.
  • “Don’t worry about me falling asleep… I still have your letter!”
  • May we all find life as Joey does, happy as a clam over the giant hole he’s dug on the beach.
  • Over the closing credits, Monica tells Chandler “I think you’re great, I think you’re sweet and smart, and I love you. But you will always be the guy who peed on me.” I really, really wish they would’ve addressed this line ONE TIME in the course of the 162 episodes remaining in the series.
  • Extended thoughts: a few differences in both versions, but it’s mostly about timing adjustments, which makes the broadcast version feel a bit more energetic than written in the script.
  • Up next: Phoebe finds a cat, and Joey experiences life before Craigslist in “The One with the Cat”.

(Miss season 3? You can read full reviews and episode ranking of the Season 3 Second Look here!)

One thought on “Second Look: Friends Season 4, Episode 1 – “The One with the Jellyfish”

  1. Chandler makes this episode IMO. Matthew Perry’s comedic chops are impeccable, particularly when the gang is back in the apartment and eagerly grilling him, Joey and Monica over what happened on the beach.

    I also really like Perry’s bleached haircut at the start of this season – although it’s kind of jarring if you watch this episode side-by-side with TO At The Beach, since the episode supposedly takes place immediately afterwards and makes no mention of Chandler suddenly finding a barber while Ross and Rachel are reconnecting.

    Small correction btw: Season Two actually opened with Phoebe giving us a fourth-wall breaking montage of the Season One finale.

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