This really should have had a great opening segment. Instead, the writers tried to make it funny. I suppose that might be admirable in a comedy, but this could have been so much more. Actually funny for one, rather than relying on Monica overdoing the mania. Aside from the routine sitcom fare of responding to emotions by bringing up minor etiquette points, Chandler’s Part 1 joke about not wanting to get married because of the government hardly merited a reference back.
In most other Friends episodes, you could ride this weaker material until something else came along. Here, though, was an opportunity missed. By playing it entirely straight, it would have been a scene befitting any good drama. Regardless of Monica and Chandler’s occasional swerves through the ridiculous plots, at heart they were lovable characters if only through familiarity. Even if that was too saccharine, the situation in which they found themselves should have inspired sympathy or better yet empathy. Monica had thought she was in a relationship for which she could forsake all other men. Chandler had come so close to the happiness that sitcom life would otherwise have denied him for another four years. Monica then had to decide whether to stick with a man who would never be who she wanted, whether to try again with a man who had broken her heart and become older, or whether to start again having wasted four years of her life. The last option wasn’t developed in the show, but had it just been considered and discounted it would have added some weight to the dilemma. For his part, Chandler would have lost his best friend and known that it was his fault.
I’m not sure whether it would have been better to paint Richard as a prick or let him ease back into his previous likeable character. To me, he came across more like the former but the writers didn’t seem to be pushing us to that conclusion. He wasn’t as charming as he had been, but he had been helping blind kids in Africa. Obviously noble as this is, I can’t help but dislike a rich person who preys on the impressionable by regaling them with tales of a world exotic to their own, charitable or not. Offering Monica a drink when he heard her complain about Chandler was not a classy move, but it was his class that distinguished him from the others when he first entered the show. In such situations, classy men do not tell Monica that she needs a mature mustachioed professional. They tell her Chandler is a great guy who she should talk to, thus leaving her to imagine how Chandler would react to her bemoaning them and so revealing themselves as suitably mature men, etc.
Strangely enough, Joey’s insertion into the story strengthened it. His initial exchange with Monica (‘It’s like something’s changed.’ ‘Maybe you changed?’ ‘I didn’t change!’ ‘Maybe that’s the problem.’) fell apart somewhat with some convoluted language and was stupidly called back at the end, but he went on deliver the episode’s best line (‘I don’t think us getting our asses kicked is a solution’) and conjured real pathos for Chandler at the end. Chandler seemed genuinely broken as he walked into the apartment, and Joey consoled him with real heart. While it lasted, it was credibly moving. When it didn’t last, Chandler’s tears down his plump face and onto his ridiculous orange shirt were not credibly moving.
The side story about back-up marriages was fluff but nicely echoed the themes of the main story, and was perfectly enjoyable to watch thanks to Jennifer Aniston’s acting. Easy as the likely joke seam was to perceive when Rachel first said she wasn’t jealous, Jennifer Aniston measured her delivery nicely. From the obvious 98% to the unheralded 80%, via her greeting Ross at his door, to her delight at having both Joey and Ross, she carried the merely par idea (with a little help from Phoebe’s shrugged, ‘it’s just a backup’) through its superfluous exposition (‘So, if neither of you are married by the time you’re 40, you’re gonna marry Joey?’) to its inevitable close.
Joey dressing up was wholly unimpressive, however. I don’t know what Rachel’s first joke was, but most viewers could come up with a funnier lazy comment if someone they knew came in wearing a sailor suit (but not me right now). Chandler’s joke was slightly more comprehensible, but not much funnier, although Monica at least managed to do hers well. Clearly upset and pursuing her own story, she still managed to slip in her line in an entirely plausible way. The line wasn’t anything to write down for posterity, but it worked better than the cleverer allusions because it was natural.