(for an audio version of this review, check out the Second Look Audiobook)
Directed by Gail Mancuso
Written by Michael Curtis & Gregory S. Malins
“The One with the Princess Leia Fantasy” is a rather understated opening to a season of Friends; as the series would continue and its season finales would get more dramatic and plot-heavy, subsequent season premieres would find themselves consumed by what came before, and what it would mean for the season to come. Though its third season premiere does have to contend with a heartbroken Monica (recovering from her breakup with Richard in “The One with Barry and Mindy’s Wedding”), it’s mostly just a regular-ass episode of Friends – and a pretty good one at that.
Airing in the fall of 1996, “The One with the Princess Leia Fantasy” found Friends at the forefront of conversations about sex on network television; for the most part, other comedies would only use sex as punchlines, rather than as a gateway to explore various features of its characters. In that sense, “Princess Leia Fantasy” feels more modern than a lot of episodes of Friends usually do; though it disguises itself as an opportunity to tantalize Jennifer Aniston cosplaying as Princess Leia for the show’s now-massive audience, “The One with the Princess Leia Fantasy” is really an episode about male vulnerability, one that subtly pokes at its male protagonists and their various, culture-induced hang ups around talking about sex – or in the case of Chandler and Joey, just displaying the kind of simple emotional honesty that is expected between people who care about each other.
The anchor for this all, surprisingly, is Chandler; though the A and B stories of “TOW the Princess Leia Fantasy” are Ross and Joey-centric, it is Chandler’s presence in them both that allow each story to blossom. In the main story is Ross, who is completely blown away by the fact women talk about sex to each other (“What she likes, what he likes… girth!”), and encouraged by Rachel to have some more open conversations with his male friends. Now, even if this story was bad (or played as regressive, which much of Friends can do, after nearly three decades)it would work, if only for the comedic value of seeing Ross squirming uncomfortably when he finds out Monica and Phoebe know about his fantasy.
But when Chandler gets involved in the story, and the two awkwardly try to have an open conversation about sexual desire, it turns an average story into a great one, an incredibly performed scene highlighting a series starting to find its creative apex. From the intimate blocking (as the conversation proceeds, Chandler and Ross move closer and face each other; Chandler even folds his legs on the couch) to the uncomfortable bits of silence between their lines, this scene is really reaching towards what Friends did at its best with its characters and comedy, riding a line between slapstick comedy and honest portrayals of young adult relationships, and never letting one deter the other.
Chandler’s vulnerability is often a punchline for Friends, but in this season premiere, it is a key device for unlocking the episode’s potential. It is always a smart move to put Chandler into uncomfortable conversations; having him do it with both of his best friends, for equally interesting reasons, is an easy recipe for success – which is surprising to think, considering half of that involves the ever-present Janice, back in Chandler’s life after being revealed as his internet lover at the end of season two.
Instead of focusing on Chandler’s complicated relationship with Janice (at this point, she is still married to the Mattress King, an important detail for later), “TOW the Princess Leia Fantasy” turns its attention instead to Joey, who has to contend with his best friend dating a woman he cannot stand to be around. While this would normally be an easy avenue for some intense Joey misogyny, his conflict here explores something more revealing; Joey wants to be supportive of his friend’s happiness, but he can’t figure out how to do it – and instead of turning this into an excuse for extended farce (aka the lazy way out), Friends has Joey and Chandler confront the issue early in the episode, a wonderful counter to their earlier, extended conflict from season two (and, inadvertently, an interesting preview for their larger drama to come in season four).
There’s a sense of maturity in their discussions here that is not necessarily conveyed by the jokes in each scene, but comes through in the script’s conviction of Chandler as an emotionally honest character. It is refreshing, a welcome change of pace from the vaguely homophobic chastising he often faces, as a result of him being the most emotionally complex male of the series. Sometimes, it is used to ill effect; in “TOW the Princess Leia Fantasy”, it elevates the stories Chandler participates in, offering a more revealing, honest avenue for storytelling and character exploration, than Friends typically displayed week-to-week in its first two seasons.
Now, Friends would never become a wildly consistent series with some of these ideas, but it is easy to see with the third season premiere, to feel the kinetic energy of a show embracing itself as a cultural touchstone. By this time, Friends had blown up to become a phenomenon for NBC, and season three arrived with an anticipatory roar – and even though this season would mark the beginning of the show’s (ever so slight) ratings decline, Friends enters the season on a remarkably confident note, not feeling the pressure to deliver a particularly dramatic season opener, or some other kind of shocking moment to pander to its audience.
Part of that confidence is baked into the show’s evolution; with Ross and Rachel firmly together, this is the most confident part of the series run, not distracted or obsessed with trying to tease the potential future of their relationship. Following the only season finale of the series not to feature some kind of will they/won’t they plotline, Ross and Rachel just kind of exist in season three, a regular couple going through the normal stages of relationships – the kind that can form the backbone of a plot line, but not one that has to drive the emotional tenor of an entire episode, or feel like it needs to justify the unfathomably massive weight of expectation placed on them by the audience. They’re just another part of Friends here, and it makes for a much more relaxed, less petty series.
Of course, the peace enjoyed here is not destined to last; apologies for the 25-year old spoiler, but we’ve only got 12 or 13 more episodes of this, before Friends would fundamentally change itself with a particular plot twist. For now, however, we can bask in a bit of young love, wonderfully shot by Gail Mancuso in the episode’s iconic “well, I do have one fantasy…” scene.
My favorite scene in “TOW the Princess Leia Fantasy”, however, is perhaps its quietest, when Monica’s father comes to console her after hearing of their breakup from a despondent Richard. With so much focus on Ross and Chandler’s romantic pursuits, “Princess Leia” doesn’t leave any room to deal with the fallout of “The One with Barry and Mindy’s Wedding”, save for a single, unsatisfying scene of Phoebe doing Vague Hippy Shit to try and ease Monica’s emotional distress (instead making her have to pee). Instead, Friends embraces the limited opportunity it has in its final moments before the credits roll, when Jack sits down and talks her to sleep (talking about his own troubles with Judy as their relationship matured). As Monica falls asleep and Jack relights the cigar Richard left behind, “Princess Leia Fantasy” closes an understated premiere on a rather quiet, effective moment, a reminder of the support systems we unconsciously surround ourselves with in life, and how they can help us heal.
Friends would go on to have many more season premieres, but none of them happen during the show’s best run of episodes like “TOW the Princess Leia Fantasy” has the fortunate pleasure of doing. Its resistance to being both iconic and/or eventful plays into its favor; after all, it is this very blueprint that so much of comedic television has based itself on over the years – or at least, should have, rather than be distracting by the allure of having its main characters fuck each other. For 24 minutes, however, that dream is alive, a moment where Friends truly earned the recognition as the generation-defining series it was in the process of becoming.
- It took eight and a half years, but welcome back to Friends reviews! For the next twelve weeks, I hope you’ll join along as I revisit one of the most iconic sitcom seasons in modern TV history, with new reviews publishing at 10am EST Tuesdays and Thursdays. (and if you’d like to read a much younger version of myself talk about Friends, you can read my season one and season two reviews here).
- Also – now you can all stop emailing and leaving comments on my old blog to write about season three. We did it!
- The season’s cold open is one of its greatest; the group walks into Central Perk to see their couch taken, which emits one word from Chandler (“huh!”) before everyone quietly leaves and the credits begin.
- Janice in a bright green pants suit is not exactly subtle costuming, but man, it works so well.
- I truly believe “hold me closer, Tony Danza” deserves a more prominent place in the cultural lexicon.
- Watching Chandler’s horror as he realizes his quite literal Freudian slip is watching a comedic performer at his absolute finest; from that to his reaction to Joey’s “Count Rushmore” line, Matthew Perry absolutely kills it in this episode.
- We’re still a season away from Phoebe’s big narrative arc – for now, she’s just here for some bohemian jokes, and a great punchline about a mouse using a pay phone.
- I love the Phoebe/Monica dynamic when the show employs it; Phoebe’s general impatience with Monica’s idiosyncrasies is so wonderful.
- What the fuck is that suit Ross is wearing – he looks like a plantation owner cosplayer for half the episode.
- Extended Thoughts (where I examine the differences between the TV version and the Extended version): the two-minute difference here only adds some middling material – and a really interesting change to how Janice is portrayed in the episode. She only has about 15-20 seconds of additional screen time (mostly alternate takes where she is shown more prominently in a shot or scene) but it adds a more physical presence to the conflict between Joey and Chandler, and makes for a more interesting, fuller exploration of how the three of them interact.
- The extended version also gives us the title of Ross’s presentation: “Statistical Deviations in the Carbon Dating of Fossilized Algae: History or Mystery?”
- Two days before this originally published in January, it was announced that James Michael Tyler (Gunther) had passed of cancer. I’ve never been a Gunther Guy, but kudos to a guy who turned a background role into the only true recurring tertiary character on Friends (and continued to keep the show’s fanbase engaged in later years, as one of the main people involved in the Central Perk coffee house franchise).
Up next – Friends does a bottle episode in “The One Where No One’s Ready”.