Friends: The Complete First Season [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Warner Home Video
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (29th June 2013).
The Film

It’s been almost a decade since the friends of “Friends” stopped showing up at their local hangout, fictional NYC coffee shop Central Perk—or I suppose more accurately, riding the airwaves every Thursday night on NBC. It’s been nearly two decades since they made their first appearance on that network and night in 1994. After 10 seasons, and a whopping 236 episodes, countless award wins and nominations, ratings so good even in re-run syndication that it beats some current series, and consistently sitting near the top many a “greatest” series list, “Friends” has cemented itself in not just the pantheon of primetime television, but the cultural consciousness. It’s been often parodied and has been endlessly imitated by networks and show creators looking for the next “Friends”, ever since Marta Kaufmann and David Crane’s baby literally changed the TV landscape in terms of sitcom style. But nearly every new imitator that appears with each season—every sitcom that tries to pull together a group of twenty something friends; their coffee shop replaced by a bar in more recent replacements (see Clyde’s in “New Girl” (2011-present) and even the pubs (MacLaren’s, and Paddy’s) in two wildly different, but nearly as good, sitcoms that could possibly take the crown as current replacement king. But, in all honesty, even the successful attempts of imitation really only make one thing increasingly clear—there will only ever be one “Friends”.

Writers Kaufmann and Crane created “Friends” in the fall of 1993, as their previous series “Dream On” (1990-1996) was doing well on HBO. When the duo set out to make a new show, a show about nothing—and yes, that was reference to “Seinfeld” (1990-1998); I think we can all get along, and just admit both Jerry and Joey deserve equal airplay (and they got it in the house I grew up in)—they intentionally skewed younger with their cast and characters than was the usual norm for a sitcom. Rather than the aimless 30-somethings of the aforementioned “Seinfeld”, or the equally aged newlyweds of “Mad About You” (1992-1999)—the two shows “Friends” was sandwiched between when it first aired—Kaufmann and Crane populated the screen with 20-somethings. Also unusual was the fact that, unlike both of those other shows—one about friends, the other about (starting a) family, “Friends” took the perspective that, in your twenties—the in-between phase of one’s life; after college, but before settling down to raise kids (or, assuming you never find someone, cats)—your friends are your family. It wasn’t necessarily ground-breaking—there had been sitcoms about 20-somethings trying to make something of themselves before; there’s even a nice nod to “Three’s Company” (1977-1984) in the “Friends” pilot. But it has been perhaps the biggest show, before or since, to say what it said; and its popularity resulted in a shift that changed television. Whether it was because the writing spoke to some universal truth, and tapped into something that people were experiencing, or had experienced, and wanted to watch on screen, or the exact opposite, because it was comically absurd with funny characters and scenarios that were entirely outlandish, the fact remains, “Friends” became a phenomenon.

But before it was one of the most well regarded sitcoms of all time, the series started out inauspiciously enough, with a rogue runaway bride named Rachel Green (Jennifer Anniston) literally arriving in the rain, seeking refuge with her old high school pal, Monica Geller (Courtney Cox). Rachel’s case of cold feet in the catalyst for the series; she shucks off the shackles of her impending marriage to dull dentist Barry, and cuts ties even with her well-to-do parents, chopping up the credit cards her father pays for at a moment of pure catharsis in the earliest episode. Rachel finds, in Monica and her group, friends both old and new that she’s forms a figurative family with in New York City. There’s Monica’s newly divorced brother Ross (David Schwimmer), Ross’ college roommate and Monica’s next-door neighbor Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry), Chandler’s struggling actor roommate Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc), and, last but not least, the loony Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow)… who joined the gang sometime before Rachel… somehow. (Oh, that’s right—she was Monica’s old roommate).

Each character fits a stock form, one that at the time was occasionally prevalent in the sitcom, but would eventually become the mould from which all the imitators were cast. Monica is a controlling—in later seasons, increasingly obsessively compulsive—mom type; Rachel, the beautiful best friend; Phoebe, the hippy-dippy airhead. Ross is an egghead and serial monogamist (mostly); Chandler is the funny one; Joey is a dopey lothario type. Eventually, over the course of the series and its 10 seasons, each stock character became more of their own identity. But, in the first season, these changes are just beginning. Rachel grows from a daddy’s girl—the quintessential Jewish American Princess—to the worst waitress in the world, but at least she’s out on her own. Ross evolves from a sad-sack sap to a lovesick sap, falling desperately for Rachel, who seems blind to his affections. At the start, Ross is an everlasting Eeyore, heartbroken over the loss of the first love of his life, Carol, the only woman he ever had sex with. A major plot element of the first season is Carol’s pregnancy with Ross baby, whom she intends to raise someone else—a woman named Susan.

Season one is a series of firsts—introductions to elements that would build and be called back on in later seasons (including Ugly Naked Guy). Ross and Rachel’s will-they-won’t-they get (back) together relationship is at its earliest; the first of many road blocks and missteps taking form in Rachel’s first post-engagement coupling with a guy named Paulo, an Italian idiot who’s beautiful but boneheaded. Monica has trouble with men, and her dream of one day running her own kitchen as a head chef, and the two plots threads often meet in season one, as they will throughout the first few seasons of the series. Chandler has his first crisis of career, making the choice to change jobs (what he does… it’s something with numbers, I’m sure of it) before slinking back into the business world when that doesn't work out, and, in terms of romance, there’s “OH. MY. GAWD!” Janice (Maggie Wheeler), the bane of his existence—a woman that he can’t seem to get out of his life. Joey is only in the beginnings of his career as an actor, landing bit parts in bad plays. And Phoebe… Phoebe’s just Phoebe.

The first season doesn’t have a ton of memorable gags, subplots or scenarios—but it is a solid outing, and does a lot in terms set up for the characters that fans came to know and love. There's the birth of Ross’s son Ben, the first in a line of babies to appear on the show; the introduction of parents, from the elder Geller’s (Elliot Gould and Christina Pickles) to Chandler’s awful origins; the show even establishes its reliance on a rotating cast of guest stars—the first season includes Noah Wyle and George Clooney (from before he was super famous, and was just a swoon-y TV doctor) in one of the best episodes of the season, the two-part “The One with Two Parts". Like any series in its formative days, there are growing pains, and odd additions and subtractions. The strangest bits that fade out into season two are Ross’s monkey Marcel (Katie)—often used as an over extended joke metaphor for the character's relationships—and the creepy, crotchety downstairs neighbor Mr. Heckles (Larry Hankin). Both seem like last-gasp gimmicks put into a long running series that’s losing rating and on the way out, not a new show that the network has high hopes for. But, overall, the first 24-episode series of "Friends" is a fine season; not its best, but far from its worst.

“Friends: The Complete First Season” includes 24 episodes on two discs. Episodes 1-12 are housed on disc one; episodes 13-24 are on disc two. The episodes are as follows:

- “The Pilot”—Monica and the gang introduce Rachel to the real world after she leaves her fiancé at the altar.

- “The One with the Sonogram”—Ross finds out his estranged lesbian wife and her girlfriend are going to have his baby.

- “The One with the Thumb”—Phoebe discovers a human thumb floating in her can of soda and gets $7000 in compensation.

- “The One with George Stephanopoulos”—The girls spy on the sexy politician across the street.

- “The One with the East German Laundry Detergent”—Ross and Rachel was their dirty laundry in public.

- “The One with the Butt”—Joey finally gets a film role as a stand-in for Al Pacino’s butt.

- “The One with the Blackout”—During a power outage, Rachel falls of the owner of a lost kitten, a dark, attractive, Italian guy. Meanwhile, Chandler is trapped in an automated-teller vestibule with a gorgeous model.

- “The One Where Nana Dies Twice”—Ross and Monica go the bedside of their dead grandmother who momentarily returns to life. Chandler questions his sexual persona when a colleague wants to arrange a date for him with another guy.

- “The One Where Underdog Gets Away”—Monica plans a lovely, quiet thanksgiving feast in her apartment, but plans go awry.

- “The One with the Monkey”—Ross arrive at the gang’s New Year’s Eve party with his new companion, a Capuchin monkey named Marcel, who is more compatible with the group than he is.

“The One with Mrs. Bing”—Chandler’s flamboyant romance-novelist mother (Morgan Fairchild) comes to New York for a visit. Monica and Phoebe cause a traffic accident that puts a guy in a coma.

- “The One with the Dozen Lasagnas”—Rachel’s Italian boyfriend Paolo (Cosimo Fusco) hits on Phoebe in the massage parlor.

- “The One with the Boobies”—Chandler sees Rachel nude and Joey learns that his father is having an affair.

- “The One with the Candy Hearts”—The girls rebel against Valentine’s Day by burning mementos for past relationships.

- “The One with the Stoned Guy”—Ross asks for advice on how to “talk dirty” to women, Monica interviews for a chef’s position, and but restaurant owner (Jon Lovitz) arrives completely stoned out of his mind.

- “The One with the Two Parts”—In this two part episode, Phoebe’s twin sister causes confusion and conflict when Joey is attracted her. Monica and Rachel squabble over two handsome doctors (Noah Wyle and George Clooney).

- “The One with All the Poker”—The girls lose money in a poker game with the boys. After getting advice from a champion poker player, they demand a rematch.

- “The One Where the Monkey Gets Away”—Rachel accidentally lets Ross’ pet monkey escape and a search party forms. Then she discovers that her former best friend in engaged to marry her ex-fiancé.

- “The One with the Evil Orthodontist”—Rachel has a brief encounter with her ex. Riddled with guilt, she decides to confess her evil sins only to discover that Mindy’s been busier than she let on.

- “The One with the Fake Monica”—Monica meets a woman who helps her live out her fantasies. Ross’s monkey becomes sexually mature and drives everyone crazy.

- “The One with the Ick Factor”—Monica discovers she is a cradle snatcher. Meanwhile, Ross’s ex-wife Carol begins to give birth.

- “The One with the Birth”—With Carol in labor, and baby Ben on the way, Ross and friends gather at the hospital; Joey befriends an unmarried pregnant woman.

- “The One Where Rachel Finds Out”—Rachel finds out about Ross’s secret love for her. But yet another surprise awaits her.

Now, for the first time, “Friends” is available in 1080p high definition, looking better than it ever has, following a lengthy, costly, remastering from the original film elements. But there’s something that will probably cause some dismay for disgruntled fans that’ve grown accustomed to the DVD's—the extended episodes contained on those discs are not on the Blu-ray in any form. But, before immediately discounting the Blu-ray set, realize this: 1) the extended episodes were originally compiled as added incentive for buyers of the DVD's. DVDs' that didn’t contain the original NBC broadcast edits in any way. The Blu-ray does include the original cuts, making the set the first time the NBC versions—which are not necessarily the syndicated edits—have been available on home video in the US. 2) Warner claims that when the extended cuts were compiled for home video, they were edited and post-produced in standard definition, on videotape just like the NBC edits. However, unlike the series proper, which had its NBC broadcast video-based edits carefully timed and cataloged, closely noted and kept with the original 35mm film negative that was put in storage after being transferred to video, the extended cuts had no such cataloging. Warner would have to find the extended footage (sometimes this can be a monumental task in itself, and surely would be considering the amount of footage a television series stockpiles over its run, and then recompile it without a roadmap, a task far more difficult than what they faced when redoing the NBC edits for high definition. 3) The remaster project is primarily about bringing the series into the era of HD for syndication—making a new, higher resolution, digital master of the show for streaming, download and, yes, broadcast; which are the major revenue streams for Warner with the series (and the Blu-ray is not… necessarily). So, no, no extended cuts of episodes. But the broadcast versions are now in HD, and of undoubtedly more interest than my assessment of a 20 year old television series—which found its fat-Monica sized fanbase at least fifteen years ago, and has routinely been called one the greatest shows of all time, making any of my musings inanely insignificant—is the question of how “Friends” looks on Blu-ray, and whether or not fans should spend their money on making the upgrade to HD. Read on to find out…

Video

Where to begin? Well, I suppose, as close to the beginning as possible. When it was filmed, like a lot of television in the 90's—in fact, most series from the mid-80's until the advent of HDTV standards that wouldn’t appear until the eve of the millennium—“Friends’” was originally shot on 35mm film, but the footage was immediately transferred to NTSC videotape for editing and eventual mastering, effectively limiting the series’ resolution to the standard definition format it was broadcast in for most of its run. (In part, this is why the original DVD's, especially the early seasons, look so bad; they were from an absurdly low-resolution source that was literally no better, perhaps even slightly worse, than DVD).

Keep in mind, the series was not shot on video; just mastered on video. It originated on 35mm film. And to bring the series into the high definition realm, Warner Brothers has had to go back to the original 35mm film elements and rescan the negative into a digital medium to essentially recompile the entire series from scratch—much like the heavily publicized remastering of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987-1994), which was also shot on film, and originally edited and mastered on videotape in the 80's and 90's. However, unlike “ST: TNG”, which, obviously, had extensive visual effects (that have needed laborious re-compositing and/or re-rendering using more modern CG techniques with each season's Blu-ray release to make the SD-to-HD transition smoother; a costly, time-intensive task that has slowed the release of that series), “Friends”, being a sitcom, had little in the way of elaborate VFX. (The most elaborate special effect in the entire series is probably the time-tested split-screen composite whenever Kudrow appeared on screen as both Phoebe and her twin, Ursula, side-by-side; no need for a CG overhaul there. Just a scan of the appropriate film.) The remaster of “Friends” was, rather than a restorative re-imagining, a much simpler re-cut from the original negatives in the digital realm—taking the film, scanning it, re-editing it, and creating a new digital master—only, this time in HD.

So, how does “Friends” look in HD? The short answer is better… but still not great. The longer answer… well, let’s get the obvious out of the way; the Blu-rays quickly make waste of the DVD's and broadcasts—even the HD-sourced re-runs in syndication. The Blu-rays are without question the best “Friends” has ever looked. And different from how it has ever looked, too, because the 1080p 24/fps (AVC MPEG-4 encoded) high definition transfers are framed in widescreen. Yes, widescreen, despite the fact that the original broadcasts, and DVD's, were framed in 1.33:1. But, before writing off this high definition upgrade as an atrocious crop-job, and forming a mob and marching on Warner Bros pitchfork in hand—or, more likely, writing a tersely worded letter—know this: it once again goes back to the beginning; the source. Unlike some 35mm originated television series of the era, “Friends” was shot in a way—either Super35 or 2-perf 35mm, I have not been able to confirm which—that used less of the standard 35mm film frame when originally shot and composed. Rather than full aperture (which is around 1.37:1), the series was shot at a compromise ratio closer to 1.5:1, nearer the widescreen we’re seeing on the Blu-ray. It's also worth noting that when “Friends” was mastered for the initial SD broadcasts, the footage was cropped, zoomed, and otherwise shrunk down on a shot-by-shot basis from a wider shape to fit into the old square format of pre-HD television—an slight reduction from a larger whole. That whole has been restored in Warner’s HD remaster.

Compared to the older 1.33:1 framed DVD's, the new HD transfers, framed at 1.78:1, show considerably more information on the sides of the frame, and, in most cases, on the top and bottom as well. The opened up framing, even in season one, feels… right. There are occasional errors—a wall ends, the set extending into the studio—but they are fleeting. In most cases the composition feels more natural, and less cramped. From what I gather reading a few sources on the Internet, the series was shot with both ratios in mind—protected and intended to be seen in 4:3, but with the foresight to know that 16:9 was on the horizon (overseas broadcasters began using widescreen much sooner than their American counterparts; even before the advent of HD television).

All of the re-framing, and re-mastering of the source aside, the series is still a simple sitcom—even in high definition, it doesn’t look like anything other than something that was largely shot fast, cheap, and with little artistry on bland soundstage sets that are over (and occasionally under) lit.

The series, especially in its earliest season, has a noticeable inconsistency from episode to episode and even shot to shot—grain levels wildly fluctuate; colors are oversaturated one moment and almost lifelessly dull the next and contrast seemingly follows suit, overblown and hot one minute, flat and natural the next. The increased resolution brings out details in costumes and sets like never before, but HD also makes the camera crew's frequent focus errors even more obvious—one might even call the general blurriness resulting from these focus gaffs egregious, especially on the first disc.

Disappointingly, the first disc is rife with issues that are more damming than a focus puller failing to properly do their job. Every episode on the first disc is an overly dark, dreary and soft affair. The pilot episode, by far the worst looking episode in the first season set—and indeed, the worst looking episode of the series, I'd assume (even on DVD it looked worse-off than the rest)—is an ugly mash of chunky grain and overzealous digital noise reduction, flopping between the two states on an almost shot-by-shot basis. The later episodes on disc one are still murky, dim and disappointing—although better looking than the pilot—occasionally suffering from severe crush and thick haloing.

Things improve moving onto the second disc, which, either coincidentally or precisely because it coincides with the back half of the first season, has a generally more pleasing presentation. Focus is still an occasional issue, and the other inconsistencies in color and contrast still persist—but to a lesser degree. Whether it was a change in crew, the result of a deliberate creative decision while establishing a distinct visual style that evolved over the first season, or simply because Warner took better care in remastering the series after episode 12 (perhaps the film elements of the series were in worse shape than anything later?), the look on season one’s disc two is more in line with what season two (and, presumably, the rest of the series) looks like on Blu-ray. There are traces of noise reduction here and there, spikes in grain in other spots, a hint on ringing in a handful of scenes, blink-and-you-miss-‘em-bouts of noise, a touch of aliasing—usually on tightly pinstriped or checkered plaid shirts—and several other issues that pop up throughout the runtime, but in the grand scheme of things, with so much footage (575 minutes in season one), each passing problem is less a presentation-ruining blunder and more a nagging nuisance that nevertheless keeps Warner’s HD overhaul from attaining perfection.

NOTE: Even with the HD re-master from the original 35mm elements, upconverted standard def inserts appear throughout the series. Presumably, because the upconverted footage is never of the series proper—indeed, all of that, and even the establishing shots of NYC skyline are soured from film and were properly redone in HD—and is always some stock footage, were sourced from standard definition originally. There are a handful of shots, including a at a hockey game Ross, Chandler and Joey go to early in the season, that remain in blocky, low-detail, standard definition.

Audio

An unfortunate consequence of Warner’s decision to cram an entire season on two discs is that “Friends: The Complete First Season” makes its way to blu-ray without any sort of lossless audio. In place of a high-res option is an English Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 kbps) track. To be honest, I doubt a lossless mix would’ve made much of a difference; the series is typical sitcom fare, and even in lossless the show would likely have little sonic prowess beyond intelligible dialog, a sporadic use of song cues, and its boisterous, bombastic, but brief main theme—the annoyingly ear wormy “I’ll Be There for You”, the infamously catchy one-hit wonder by The Rembrandts; the song peaked at 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1995. A more pressing problem than the codec of choice is the series’ noticeable inconstancy in the volume level from episode to episode. Beyond the volume, there's the needless expansion of the original stereo source into surround, which wouldn't really be a problem (season two sounds better), except it's rather poorly done; at times it sounds as though everything is being funneled through all five speakers at once, including the laugh track, which often dominates. Dialogue is occasionally muddled too, like in “The One With the Blackout”—all of Chandler’s internal monologue during his lock-in with Jill Goodacre sounds like it was recorded in a tin can. Sadly, that scene is not the only moment with poor sounding dialogue. In the end, like the video, the soundtracks biggest issues are insignificant anomalies over the course of the runtime. Still, "Friends: The Complete First Season" doesn't earn a very high score here.

A note on the laugh track: unlike many sitcoms of the era, “Friends” was actually recorded in front of a live audience. As much as I hate laugh tracks, “Friends” doesn’t work without one, because, like live stage, the actor’s performances—noticeably, their comedic pauses—are dictated by the audience and their sometimes overpowering laughter. A laugh-track free option wouldn’t work, because the laughter is not canned—its organic, and inherent to the soundtrack.

French Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, German Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, Portuguese Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, Spanish (Castilian) Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, and subtitles in English, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, French, Finnish, German, Norwegian, Spanish, Swedish.

Extras

The DVD release of season one included a few interactive features, a glut of episode promos, and a few bonus trailers, all of which haven’t been ported over to Blu-ray; none of these are a huge loss in my opinion.

A bigger omission is the lack of the DVD's extended episodes. As noted above, Warner’s season one Blu-ray includes only the original NBC broadcast edits, and not the extended cuts produced for the standard def sets in some regions. Because these extended cuts were compiled on videotape, like the series proper, a major remastering would be needed to bring the footage up to HD quality. Given the additional cost and time of the overwhelming task of recompiling the extended cuts—and that’s assume all of the original film elements for the footage could still be found—I can understand why the longer edits were not included. However, I think it unfortunate Warner decided to entirely omit the additional footage from the extended episodes, if not seamlessly branched and upconverted, at least the scenes could’ve been presented as a supplement, in SD.

An UltraViolet digital copy of the entire first season is also included.

DISC ONE:

The series "Pilot" episode includes an optional audio commentary with executive producers Kevin S. Bright, Marta Kaufmann and David Crane. The three participants—whose comments were recorded separately—discuss the birth of the series in a dry, but informative, manner; notes from the network, the differences their show had with anything else on TV at the time, and general comments about how the series came to be are all discussed in this track, which was recorded in 2002 while “Friends” was still on the air.

DISC TWO:

“Friends of ‘Friends’” (1.33:1 480i, 8 minutes 33 seconds) is a featurette focused on the various guest stars in season one. Essentially, it’s just a compilation of clips in which the famous—including Hank Azaria, Jill Goodacre, and George Clooney and Noah Wyle (from their “E.R.” (1994-2009) days)—appeared on the show. It’s kind of a throw away, although if you need a refresher on what “Friends” looked like before the HD remaster, be sure to check this out.

“The One with the Trailer of Season 2” (1.33:1 480i, 1 minute 17 seconds) is just that—a short preview of the second season, which, at the time this trailer was produced, was “coming soon” to DVD.

Packaging

Warner previously released the entire run of “Friends” on Blu-ray in a 21-disc box set at the end of 2012; the set included a coffee table book and was oddly shaped like many of Warner’s Ultimate Collector’s Edition releases. Now, WB is breaking out the single seasons of the show, and releasing them at a slow pace, for those fans who want to have “Friends” on their media shelves, but without the big awkward box, and without having to spend somewhere in the vicinity of $200 in one fell swoop. “Friends: The Complete First Season” is a simple 2-disc set. Each region free BD-50 contains 12 episodes from the first season presented in their original NBC broadcast form; the discs are housed in an eco-Elite keep case with a sturdy cardboard slip-case included in initial pressings. An episode guide has been included.

Overall

The inaugural outing of “Friends” is not its finest hour, but neither is it the series at its worst. When taken as a whole, season one is a stronger offering—and gets the basics of the sitcom right, setting up solid central characters that fans would grow to love before even the first 24 episodes were out. But season one is not the series’ strongest moment either—that’s to come. The Blu-ray release is a mix of triumph and trouble. The series has never looked better; it’s still quite visually underwhelming, and the remastering is plagued by a plethora of problematic anomalies that ultimately add up with frustrating inconsistency. Also an issue is WB's decision to forgo high res audio for lossy Dolby Digital; this will no doubt displease spec whores, but the more pressing concern is the condition of the actual audio mixes themselves, which are equally fraught with inconsistent issues. The 2-disc set is light on supplements, offering only a single commentary and two promotional pieces. Unfortunately, “Friends: The Complete First Season” is not perfect. But, for fans, I think a love for their “Friends” (and its characters, and the many classic episodes that appear even this early in the series) means the flaws can be easily overlooked.

The Film: B+ Video: B- Audio: C Extras: D+ Overall: B-

 


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