Second Look: Friends Season 3 Episode 4 – “The One with the Metaphorical Tunnel”

Friends The One with the Metaphorical Tunnel

Originally aired 10/10/96
Directed by Steve Zuckerman
Written by Alexa Junge

A lot of mid-90’s comedy stems from the cultural conversation surrounding John Gray’s 1992 book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus – a ridiculous book that sold over 15 million copies in its day. So many comedies, including Friends, of the era about people in their twenties and thirties find themselves in conversation examining the gendered stereotypes the book presents (which mostly boils down to “Men Are Like This, and Women aRe LikE ThIs“). Given that much of sitcom throughout history is written in reflection of generational stereotypes (especially in the modern era), it’s no surprise “The One with the Metaphorical Tunnel” feels like a slightly clumsy reflection on gender roles; it is but one of many hours of comedy written around the simplistic (and occasionally unhinged) observations that came from what was, at the time, a cultural touchstone of sorts.

Friends, as one of the comedies at the forefront of sexuality in the 1990’s (it was one of the first shows with a gay wedding, and was part of a wave of television normalizing casual sex in popular culture), often embroiled itself in these discussions from a comedic angle. Sometimes, it led to some subtly interesting examinations of male vulnerability; in “The One with the Metaphorical Tunnel”, it is Ross struggling to come to terms with his son Ben playing with a Barbie – and also, of course, Chandler being considered ‘feminine’ for developing an emotional attachment to Janice.

Friends The One with the Metaphorical Tunnel

Out of context, it would seem these stories would be natural avenues for Friends to run into trouble; and admittedly, it does feel like the Rachel/Monica/Chandler dynamic is toeing a line with tropes about female emotions… but when paired with the show’s open ridicule for Ross’s exasperation at his son’s choice of toys, Friends feels a little ahead of its time (for being a white-washed portrayal of extremely straight New Yorkers, of course), a bit of an unexpected result given the episode’s premise.

The Ross story, in particular, is an interesting one: through the years, Friends would often use his relationship with Ben to examine various characteristics of its mopey paleontologist (it would even try to do the same with Rachel later on, to much lesser effect). Ben provides perhaps the most interesting prism with which to examine Ross; it comes at the intersection of his vulnerability as a divorcee, a single father (with only partial custody of his son), and someone still trying to find their own confidence as a human being staring down the barrel at 30.

Just because Ross ‘got the girl’ doesn’t mean he’s lost his insecurities; knowing how annoying and pathetic he can be, it makes sense “TOW the Metaphorical Tunnel” draws out so much dramatic turmoil from the innocuous presence of Ben’s Barbie doll. There’s a conflict there that Ross can’t resolve; he realizes he’s only a passive participant in his son’s upbringing, and spends most of the episode fixates on something where he thinks he might have some semblance of control.

I talk about the dark Ross/Rachel cloud hanging over rewatching this season in every review, but I think we gain another important bit of context for Ross’s character here for what is to come; informed by his timid upbringing, Ross is trying to put himself in a place where he can inflict his will on the world – and when that fails, the results can be disastrous. “The One Where No One’s Ready” really establishes that, and how ineffective and damaging his approach to this can really be at times. With Ben, it feels a bit more harmless (though any child psychologist reading that probably just screamed); it doesn’t necessarily make it funny, but it does present a side of Ross worth examining beyond the superficial, easily identifiable characteristics of him trying to shove traditional ideals of masculinity onto his child.

Friends The One with the Metaphorical Tunnel

Friends‘ other examination of gender dynamics in “TOW the Metaphorical Tunnel”, as it so often does, comes with Chandler, who is slowly starting to realize how vulnerable he’s willing to be with Janice – who again: still married, still has a young child, still has not committed to Chandler beyond someone she’s sleeping with. In this episode, it leads to mixed results; it’s always funny to watch Chandler squirm and anticipate his own failure, but Friends’ lack of commitment to defining Janice’s character robs this story of some weight, focusing the solely squarely on what kind of man Chandler wants to be – someone who accepts the complicated relationship of dating a married woman, or a squirmy nerd chasing his girlfriend around a grocery store.

The Janice/Chandler love affair is a story trying to carry a lot of humor and emotion in the same plot (both on a micro and macro level), and that’s a tall task for any character to try and carry, especially one as neurotic as Chandler. Oscillating between jokes about females being intensely emotional, and heartfelt scenes of Chandler trying to take earnest steps in his relationship creates a lot of dissonance, and ultimately undercuts what is some really terrific work by Matthew Perry in channeling Chandler’s existential anxieties (especially when he gives Janice the drawer over dinner; his ability to play awkward and earnest without being thoroughly lame can be surprisingly powerful on this show!).

That being said, Chandler’s willingness to engage with his more emotional side (to “face his fear”, to quote Joey), even in the episode’s weaker moments, provides a nice contrast to Ross’s nonsense; it gives the episode balance, even in the moments where it does feel like it is punching down on Chandler (and women in general) just a bit by hammering away on “crying over ice cream” jokes. What I do like is how it offers a bridge for characters like Rachel and Chandler, whose interactions are mostly limited to cross-talking in most episodes, to connect with each other on a deeper level, something any successful comedy about a collection of close friends has to continue to find, even as it continues its march towards (and eventually far, far past) 100 episodes.

The rest of “The One with the Metaphorical Tunnel” is a Phoebe and Joey story – which, given what this season’s already offered, is as mediocre and weightless as you’d expect. It’s always telling when Friends is struggling to find a Phoebe story, because they’ll often just make her an entirely different person; an agent, her twin, Joey’s dead agent, a mother, a former homeless women…. often, Friends uses a plug-and-play approach to Phoebe’s character under the guise of “she’s bohemian“, and it often makes for unsatisfying, slapstick-y fare, despite Kudrow’s comedic versatility – she draws many more laughs than the often-hacky material around her deserves, once again on full display here.
(/end Phoebe rant)

Friends The One with the Metaphorical Tunnel

When Joey’s agent fails at her job, he employs Phoebe impersonating herself (and a fake assistant), who gets him a commercial job. However, being Joey’s agent means hearing about Joey’s failures, which leads down an emotional road of Joey having to face a bunch of comments and insults he’s definitely heard before – and even occasionally said about himself before. To call the stakes of this story low is a severe understatement; the dramatic tension (or comedic value) of this entire running plot is a net zero on the episode, a strange companion next to Ross’s cultural anxiety or Chandler’s deeply emotional attempts to convince himself that yes, he deserves to be loved. There’s potential in this story, but it’s clear its presence here is but for a few jokes and Kudrow’s performance – which is always welcome, but a consistently weak point of writing through much of the series.

As a whole, the three stories make for a really disorienting watch, never able to consistently attach itself to any of its different emotional beats, all of which just kind of drop off a cliff at the episode’s ending. Chandler’s relationship with Janice is left in limbo (though breaking out the real ice cream is probably a bad sign, despite the declarations of love), and Joey ends up back at square one ignoring the criticisms of his failure; though Phoebe’s transformation offers a tantalizing preview of the flashback episode to come, there’s really not much else to take away from this episode.

And this episode knows it, ending on the tag of Ross’s childhood persona Bee enjoying a tea party in an old home video (featuring a young Monica cleaning up after him, a note I always love), a final, deserved kick in the nards for Ross after spending twenty minutes in fear of his son’s possible future in “show business” (as the episode ironically describes it, breathlessly). “The One with the Metaphorical Tunnel” is the equivalent of Joey resting his head on Monica’s fake boob partway through the episode; comfortable, amusing – but ultimately, weightless in its pursuit of any meaningful truth.

Grade: C+

Other thoughts/observations:

  • The opening tag with Joey as “Kevin” is a great one, both for the quality of the television image, but also for how it comes back later, when Rachel is seen using the “tool” Joey was advertising in his commercial.
  • Little bit of boom mic visible around 5:14 into the episode, which is probably disappointingly absent in its 16:9 presentation.
  • “I gotta buy a vowel, because oh my god!”
  • Comrade Ross logs in: “It’s a toy that protects US oil interests overseas!” Made me wonder if any network TV show of that popularity would be allowed to make even this mild joke in 2021.
  • “Has anyone seen my left boob?” “Man, I love that movie.”
  • “I’m hopeless and awkward and desperate for love!” – Chandler, channeling all of humanity in one sentence.
  • Extended thoughts: lot of dialogue exchanges are slightly longer here, but there’s a visual bit with Joey wearing a fake mustache in a second commercial in the opening tag I loved; also, a mention of Ugly Naked Guy and his dog in a sweater was removed, which is just great flavor!

Up next: Friends first big guest star of the season arrives, and Phoebe finds herself stuck in another farce in “The One with Frank Jr.”.

One thought on “Second Look: Friends Season 3 Episode 4 – “The One with the Metaphorical Tunnel”

  1. >>Comrade Ross logs in: “It’s a toy that protects US oil interests overseas!” Made me wonder if any network TV show of that popularity would be allowed to make even this mild joke in 2021.<<

    Certainly, it's a joke that would likely rub a lot of people the wrong way here in March of 2022, given what's been happening this past month.

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