Second Look: Friends Season 3 Episode 19 – “The One with the Tiny T-Shirt”

Friends The One with the Tiny T-Shirt

Friends Season 3, Episode 19 “The One with the Tiny T-Shirt”
Written by Adam Chase
Directed by Terry Hughes
Aired March 27, 1997 on NBC

After a few weeks of the Ross/Rachel fallout on the back burner, the first scene of “The One with the Tiny T-Shirt” puts Friends‘s third season squarely back into familiar territory. However, Mark showing up in Central Perk to ask Rachel on a date is not quite the central focus one might expect it to be, despite being quite a shocking cold open to the episode; after all, this is not a half hour titled “The One Where Rachel Dates Mark”, a very important wrinkle in understanding its focus on the future of Friends, rather than the past (for better or worse, of course).

Rachel’s reluctant, vague acceptance of Mark’s date proposal is an unintended table setter for a trio of romantic plots – all of which are aiming for completely unearned emotional turns, in their own respective ways. With Mark and Rachel’s invisible ‘connection’ leading the charge, “The One with the Tiny T-Shirt” also features the underwhelming subplots of Joey’s instantaneous crush on his co-star, and Monica trying to force herself into being attracted to Pete – who, much like the show itself, just assumes presence and persistence can will something meaningful out of thin air.

Friends The One with the Tiny T-Shirt

For 20 minutes, “The One with the Tiny T-Shirt” mostly fails to achieve that; given we never see Mark outside of him catalyzing Rachel/Ross drama, all this lead story offers us is a pettier version of Rachel, one who’s only way of finding peace from her painful break-up to Ross. But Friends never really frames Rachel’s behavior as vindictive – or even satisfying, with Mark going from “you’re hot” to “let’s fuck on the couch” in his thirty seconds on-screen, absolving the story of having to give his character any shape – or her decisions any emotional stakes. His behavior allows conveniently avoids contending with Rachel’s actual feelings for Ross, even so far as to justify her decision to even accept the date with Mark.

“I wanted to make him jealous” is something she says, but nothing about her behavior embodies this in any way (even them leaving for their date as Ross and Chandler arrive home is played as incidental, and Rachel later notes she feels guilty for it all, a wholly ridiculous notion unto itself). But Friends clearly isn’t as comfortable making her as unlikable as Ross, and that hesitation saps some of the dramatic texture out of the story.

Unintentionally, Rachel’s confusion at her own decisions pair well with Monica, who is still trying to will herself into getting a lady boner for Pete, in a plot that, for various reasons, already feels dead in the water. Pete’s smirking assurances that Monica will eventually fall for the goofy rich guy who reminds us he’s the goofy rich guy is such empty drivel, leaving the only real internal conflict in the story coming from whether Monica can get horny for money or not (?).

Friends The One with the Tiny T-Shirt

There’s no falling for Pete in spite of herself, no morals she’s clinging to in the face of a wonderful, charismatic man (Becker is anything but) to form a compelling arc for her to become attracted to him. Friends can’t help but make Pete the most boring bachelor to ever exist, and Monica’s debates with various characters about the merits of comfort the past two episodes betray the material – we don’t need hindsight to know that this is not Monica’s story of true love, given the interest and fervor Friends has shown, just this season, in exploring the power of a toxic romance. There’s no tangential spark between the performers, and no actual romance (or even conflict) being constructed in the plot: without it, Pete Becker’s sad, confident sack bachelor is just an uncharismatic misfire, who is clearly just there to fill out time in the season’s back third.

Rachel and Monica’s Adventures in Unattraction unfortunately dominate the emotional tenor of “The One with the Tiny T-Shirt”, to the point the one hopeful romantic plot of the episode – Joey developing a crush on his self-righteous co-star Kate Miller (Dina Meyer) – can’t find any room to breathe, hindered under the lumbering stories of opportunistic friends and snooze-inducing millionaires sucking all the oxygen out of the room. Instead, their on-stage kiss, driven by shared disdain (that’s mostly been off-screen) as the only moment of real, tactile chemistry offered to the audience.

And if we’re being honest, it’s not really that great a scene, neither Joey nor the script of “Tiny T-Shirt” able to translate a random romcom cliche into anything substantial – leaving us only with some very overwrought Joey emoting, once he realizes Kate is dating the unkempt (and seemingly intoxicated?) director of the play.

Friends The One with the Tiny T-Shirt

The trio of stories forming “The One with the Tiny T-Shirt”, are incredibly unengaging: I mean, without the Ross/Rachel fight in the middle of the episode (over trading belongings, and who should keep an old Frankie Goes to Hollywood t-shirt), it’s twenty minutes completely vacant of any driving emotion, only able to engineer a few chuckles when Chandler tries to keep Ross from stopping Rachel’s date, or when we see whatever the fuck Gunther is wearing in the aforementioned cold open. “Tiny T-Shirt” certainly isn’t lacking for funny moments, sure, but everything else in the episode feels so disjointed, so miscalibrated, everything feels small and extremely flat.

Until! Like I said, the first 95% of “The One with the Tiny T-Shirt” is unremarkable television; but when Rachel comes home to find Ross has left a box of her things with Monica, she finds the t-shirt Ross was so angry about, closing the episode as she clutches it to her chest and walks off to her bedroom. In what is largely a pessimistic episode (in the middle of a real pessimistic season), this closing moment doesn’t just act as a refreshing coda, but a giant light post guiding the thought process behind this season’s last handful of episodes (and in one very obvious way, for the rest of the series).

Ross giving Rachel the shirt back is the first non-shitty thing he’s done in about a half-dozen episodes, and injects a rather palpable bit of hope into the narrative; like the other stories in the episode, Ross hasn’t earned happiness or forgiveness – but that final moment is not about that, a small, meaningful gesture Friends smartly recognizes is not a sitcom-style Band-Aid where everything will be ok next week. Bailing him out over Mark being instantly shitty (thus justifying Ross’s paranoia) is another easy resolution Friends sidesteps here, which is a really smart move that offers the writer’s room a lot of unique storytelling potential.

Friends The One with the Tiny T-Shirt

In its own odd way, Friends is trying to find a way to explore the dynamics of a friend group after a traumatic breakup; Ross and Rachel are very slowly, trying to find small concessions they can make so they can co-exist among their friends again, in the hopes of finding peace so they can maybe continue to move forward in life. Of course, those little moments of agreement can be easy to mistake when they’re coming from an ex – and though Friends isn’t quite at the point of engaging with that idea (and oh, how nice would it be if they never had), how it offers Ross a little bit of growth in this moment, without absolving him of being a cheating shit bird and whiny asshole, is a real encouraging moment for the season (whether it would deliver on that promise, is a question to be answered later – wink, wink).

Regardless, the concluding moment of “The One with the Tiny T-Shirt” is a pleasant little salve for an otherwise bitter, underwhelming episode, ending an awkward, unpleasant affair with something audiences can tether themselves to, a tiny smidge of resolution that sets the stage for many of its running plots to follow in the coming episodes (though, no spoiler, Friends‘ mileage with optimism in each of this trio of stories would be short lived).

Grade: C-

Other thoughts/observations:

  • The costuming in this episode is just awful. Phoebe in a button down? Ross in not one, but two hideous jackets? Gunther’s outfit, which is one of the most abhorrent (and abhorrently color-graded) 90’s outfits I’ve ever seen.
  • Chandler can’t get over how successful Pete is: “you’re our age…. you’re our age. You’re our age!”S
  • Man, shout out to Chandler, who really lets Ross hear some uncomfortable truths about Rachel trying to move on. As always, Chandler remains the best friend in the group.
  • Monica makes reference to her last date, Julio, from “The One with All the Jealousy”.
  • Phoebe’s ponderings on the pronunciation of “Spider-man” vs. “Spiderman” is the kind casual, observational pop culture humor today’s television does so poorly.
  • Chandler, to Ross: “If I broke up with you, I’d miss you.”
  • at one point, Pete is talking about how computers will be able to do voice recognition in “a few years”. He wasn’t wrong, but unfortunately, nothing about technology in the past 10-15 years has been that exciting, or even worth joking about.
  • Chandler, after seeing Joey’s celebration dance: “Gloria Estafan was right… eventually, the rhythm is going to get you.”
  • Extended thoughts: There’s a lot of cut jokes from this episode, precisely one I really enjoy: Chandler asking Ross “Is it me, or did subletting my peephole sound kind of dirty?”

Up next: Chandler and Joey’s romantic entanglements evolve, and Phoebe’s ‘creativity’ causes some issues in “The One with the Dollhouse”.

(no seriously, what the fuck is this?)

Friends The One with the Tiny T-Shirt

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