"Friends" will at last be at your fingertips in its entirety when it becomes available on Netflix on Jan. 1. But where to start? You can, of course, deal with that New Year's hangover by starting from the beginning and trying to watch the entire series run, but if you're more in the mood to get a solid sampling of the episodes that made the show great, here are our picks for the ten to start with, season by season.
Season 1 is mostly appealing because of how adorably young everyone looks. We say, get things off with a bang, and go ahead and try the pilot. Remember how at the beginning of the show, Rachel wasn't part of the gang yet? Hence the title of this episode: "The One Where Monica Gets a Roommate."
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OK, so it's easy to pick out an episode from Season 1, but Season 2 is where the show really starts to hit its stride. There's "The One Where Ross Finds Out," "The One With the Lesbian Wedding," and the one with "Fun Bobby," who Monica realizes is only fun when he's drinking. But if you have to pick just one Season 2 classic, we say go with "The One with the Prom Video," which is the episode where Ross and Rachel first get together (spoiler?), thus embarking on one of television's most famous (if often mocked) relationships. But we also like this one because it's the first to showcase what would be one of the show's favorite wells for jokes: flashbacks to Ross, Rachel, Monica and Chandler as teenagers, complete with terrible hair and a fat suit for CourteneyCox.
Hope you enjoyed Ross and Rachel together! By the end of this season, they're already broken up, after the infamous "we were on a break" fight, where Ross hooks up with the copy shop girl. But instead of diving into that heartbreak, we say, pick an episode from earlier in the season, when times were better between the two of them. Watch "The One Where No One's Ready," which is a strong contender for best episode of the series. The premise is basic: Ross has a big important gala to attend, and no one gets ready in time. But you also have Joey putting on all of Chandler's clothes, multiple people drinking a jar of chicken fat and Monica finishing the world's most awkward voicemail message to an ex with "I'm breezy!" to show off how cool she's being, only to set it as his outgoing message.
While it's tempting to pick one of the later episodes in the season, once Ross names the wrong woman at his wedding, we say watch "The One with the Embryos." Poor Phoebe is separated from the gang in a subplot about getting pregnant with her brother's babies, but for everyone else, this is the episode where Monica, Rachel, Chandler and Joey have a competition to see who knows each other better. Ross acts as quiz master, and you learn that Chandler receives his TV Guide subscription addressed to "Ms. Chanandler Bong." At the end of it, the girls lose their apartment to the boys, but the "Friends" writing staff got to show off an ongoing ability to think of ridiculous trivia about the gang's past.
Monica and Chandler start hooking up at the end of Season 4, but they maintain a secret relationship for a significant portion of Season 5. Which is why we particularly enjoy the episode when everyone catches them at it, called "The One Where Everyone Finds Out." It features Phoebe, Rachel and Joey scheming to get Monica and Chandler to admit they're dating by having Phoebe pretend to pursue Chandler. Worth it for the moment when Chandler and Phoebe go in for the world's most awkward non-kiss, with neither willing to admit they know the truth.
This season builds to Chandler and Monica's engagement, but for true romance points, we prefer the doubleheader "The One That Could Have Been," about what would happen if various early plot points of the show hadn't occurred. Monica is still fat, Rachel married Barry, Ross stayed with Carol, etc. But what's especially cute about it is the show's conclusion that Monica and Chandler would still have gotten together (and not Rachel and Ross), which solidifies something most "Friends" lovers always knew: Monica and Chandler are the show's best couple. Sure, the drama is with Ross and Rachel, but the writers (and actors) mined far more laughs out of the series' most neurotic duo getting together.
Remember Ben? Sometimes, it seemed like the show didn't, but every now and then the writers brought back Ross' son. In "The One with the Holiday Armadillo," Ross decides to teach Ben about Hanukkah, but deciding to do so in costume last minute leaves him stuck dressing up as the "Holiday Armadillo," rather than, say, Santa Claus. It might be fair to say that David Schwimmer ended up doing a lot of the show's most ridiculous jokes — there's the leather pants episode, the teeth whitener, the bad spray tan...
Our pick for Season 8 is a bit of a downer, but at the time, it was just plain funny. We're speaking, of course, of "The One with the Rumor," which maybe didn't have the best gender politics, but milked quite a bit out of having Jennifer Aniston's then-husband, Brad Pitt, guest star as a former high school classmate who hated her. He joins the gang for Thanksgiving, causing Phoebe and Chandler to gawk at how handsome he is (and truly, for the fan of vintage Brad Pitt, this was a good time for him) and Ross to try to frantically cover the fact that he started a nasty rumor about Rachel in high school.
We're going to go with another Thanksgiving episode for Season 9: "The One with Rachel's Other Sister," wherein Christina Applegate joins the gang's Thanksgiving festivities as Amy, Rachel's self-centered, bratty sister. Amy can't be bothered to get anyone's name right, but still thinks she should be the one to get baby Emma if Rachel and Ross die. Poor Chandler is way down the list of potential baby recipients, which bums him out until he stops a slap fight between Rachel and her sister, thus showing off some heretofore unseen parenting skills and bumping himself up the list.
You could watch the finale to wrap up your "Friends" binge-watch, but we recommend instead watching "The One with Princess Consuela Banana Hammock," which is the last episode to really traffic in the goofy hijinks the show was known for — after that, the show really focuses on wrapping up everyone's story lines. This is the one where Phoebe and new husband Mike debate what names they should take now that they're married, leaving Phoebe as Princess Consuela Banana Hammock, and Mike as the simple, yet memorable, Crap Bag. Oh, and Rachel loses her job by applying for a new job at a restaurant where her boss is getting lunch. "Friends": Always a good source of employment advice.