Earlier this week a twitter thread by Claire Willett defending Rachel and Joey’s relationship in Friends went viral. Willett not only defended the broadly unpopular coupling, but made the case that Joey was a better, more supportive partner for Rachel than Ross was. I’d recommend reading the full thread (Buzzfeed has compiled the highlights).
When you’ve done that, I’ve a few thoughts on what writers can learn from Ross and Joey’s behaviour towards Rachel.
We often mistake epic romance with healthy romance
…in fiction at least. It’s easy to forget that – in the opening scene to Romeo and Juliet – Romeo is heartbroken over Rosaline, who had rejected him before he fell for Juliet. While Romeo and Juliet is a story of teenagers in love separated by an idiotic feud between families, it’s also the story of a double suicide for the sake of a romance between teenager who’ve only just met.
At the beginning of Friends Ross is recently divorced and Rachel has ran away from her wedding. You can see the foundations of a story they could later tell people about how this shows that they were ‘meant to be’. With Joey and Rachel, by contrast, the romance grew out of friendship while living together, at a time when Rachel was pregnant with another man’s baby, which doesn’t seem as romantic in a thirty second anecdote. But looked at in detail, it’s warmer, more human, messier, more relatable.
It raises interesting points about audience sympathy
I’m of an age that Friends made a decent impact on my childhood and teenage years. I was more into Frasier than Friends, and more into Star Trek than sitcoms, but Friends obviously made an impact. In the early years Ross was the Friends character I identified most closely with. But as Ross’ rage issues grew I found the character increasingly repulsive – actively unpleasant – and began to identify more with Chandler. Although all six characters are well-rounded and given an equal amount of screen-time, Ross was originally centred as the most sympathetic – an intelligent, witty, kind-hearted guy who’s looking for a serious relationship, and is committed to being a good father, even after his marriage ended. Clearly the initial intent was to have the audience rooting for Ross, but – to me at least – the show lost this over time.
Writers should look beyond their initial ideas
Obviously the Ross – Rachel romantic plot was one of the early ideas for what Friends would be as a series, playing a major role in the pilot. The idea of a long-running ‘will they, won’t they’ to keep audiences returning is a sitcom staple.
By contrast the Joey – Rachel romance appears to have been invented as an obstacle, in the same way Julie, Emily, Pablo and others were. It’s a bolder step to have that obstacle emerge from within the central group, but at times Ross’ relationship with Emily and even Rachel’s with Pablo seemed like they were good for the Friend in question.
No work of fiction emerges fully formed so some things – individual jokes, key plotlines – will be discovered by the writers as the story is progressing. In the case of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia a key member of the cast wasn’t added until the second season.
The problem was that Joey’s attraction to Rachel was a romance which – while not the writers’ original intent, works. Similarly, it doesn’t appear that the romance between Monica and Chandler was planned from the start, but more likely an idea that grew naturally as the series progressed. The obvious difference being that Monica and Chandler don’t directly get in the way of Ross and Rachel. Arguably their stability and more affectionate arguing make Ross and Rachel look bad, but it’s not a direct obstacle. I don’t know if the Friends writers ever considered embracing the case that Joey was the better romantic choice for Rachel but Willett’s thread shows they should have considered it.
Should they or shouldn’t they?
The ‘will they won’t they’ approach is a staple of sitcoms, but there’s rarely a question of whether the couple in question are healthy for each other. How I Met Your Mother is an interesting comparison to Friends in two ways. Firstly, the central romance (sweet-guy-with-a-good-job Ted competed with womaniser-with-a-heart Barney for Robyn’s affections) parallels a potential competition between Ross and Joey. Secondly HIMYM at various points makes the argument that Ted and Robyn are too different, and that Barney and Robyn drain each other’s energy.
While Ross’ obsessive insistence that “we were on a break” is presented as a character flaw, none of the main characters makes a serious case that he’s bad for Rachel. Friends kept the Ross-Rachel tension going right until the last episode, but the moral that the show was telling was that if they didn’t get together it would be a tragedy that they had had something good and couldn’t make it work.
In contrast, the moral that HIMYM settles on in its finale is that both guys are the ‘right’ guy for Robyn at different stages of her life, and at other times are both bad for her.
There’s a difference between the idea of romance, and the substance of love
Smarter people than me have written about how Romeo was more infatuated with the idea of being in love than he was with Juliet herself – that he tried to woo first Rosaline, then Rosaline’s cousin Juliet.
Rachel is the girl Ross had a teenage crush on. After his first marriage falls apart it’s natural for him to reach for a comfortable idea – Rachel was his equivalent of comfort food. It’s possible for a healthy relationship to grow out of this, but it’s not inevitable. Ross brings a lot of baggage from his failed marriage into the relationship with Rachel (culminating in his irrational jealousy of Mark, and their first break-up).
Are the characters good people?
The creatives behind Seinfeld (and it’s spiritual successor, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) knew how to strike the balance between having characters behave unpleasantly while keeping audience sympathy.
All of the friends in Friends were morally flawed. Rachel ran out on her fiance on their wedding day; Chandler kissed his best friend’s girlfriend; Joey slept with a co-star while she was in a relationship with the director of a play they were both in. It’s important that morally flawed characters are at least aware of doing wrong, otherwise it’s difficult to keep the audience on their side.
This isn’t always the case with Ross, especially in later seasons. He doesn’t take responsibility for his paranoia about Mark. He chases a student he’d briefly dated to Florida to prevent her hooking up with other guys. He lies to Rachel about annulling their marriage. He lies to Rachel about annulling their marriage.
There’s a fan theory that Ross lost custody of Ben, and the evidence does fit. It’s only because the idea is so tonally jarring with the show that the theory seems unlikely. The guy clearly has deep flaws…and that’s okay. If he’s shown trying to let go of his fears, trying to grow and be a better person, he wouldn’t have had the loss of audience sympathy that I (and I’m sure many others) felt towards him. Maybe have Ben Stiller reprise his character from Season 3 and prompt a little self-reflection from Ross. Ben Stiller’s character Tommy and Chandler’s roommate Eddie are broadly drawn as grotesquely short-tempered, but late-series Ross is just as bad, and the audience are presumably meant to like him.
By contrast as Ross regresses over time, Joey grows. He falls for Rachel while she’s pregnant; reacts respectfully to Rachel’s rejection of him; and pursues a more intelligent woman than his usual type in Charlie shortly after this.
As much as I grew to dislike Ross Geller, I don’t totally agree with the more negative reassessment of him, as he does have plenty of positive qualities. But the Friends writers seem to lose control of him over time, reflexively thinking of him as the nice character, even when his behaviour didn’t justify this. As Willett argues, Friends had the opportunity for a really interesting, genre-defying twist ending. There’s a few interesting lessons for writers to bare in mind.