It began with a sense of profound concern. The audience had been trained too well, through years of affection for a beloved show, and felt they knew exactly what was to come. Friends had dominated the Nielsen ratings [the US audience measurement system] for more than half a decade, and as the show began the long, slow process of wrapping up, the audience was confident that in the end, they would receive precisely what they wanted.
Ross and Rachel, star-crossed lovers and bickering exes, perpetually on the brink of reconciliation, would wind up together, happily coupled off. And David Crane – who had created these characters, along with Marta Kauffman – was none too pleased about it.
Crane had been committed from the very start of Friends to toeing a fine line between giving the audience the romantic nourishment they craved and finding ways to surprise them. And Crane felt strongly that the field had been tilted too noticeably in favour of Rachel’s reuniting with Ross. Rachel had just discovered she was going to have a baby, with Ross as the father, and it would only have been too easy to have them slide from co-parenting to cohabiting a life together.
Crane wanted to place a barrier in the way of Rachel and Ross’ well-nigh-inevitable happiness, and sought to introduce a new romantic foil. Chandler was off-limits, married to Monica (although wouldn’t that have made for an interesting plot development?), so what if Joey found himself catching feelings for his old friend?
As the series had progressed, Joey had hardened into a comedically convenient dingbat, his ignorance always available to be deployed. Falling in love might jar loose some of his inherent sweetness and vulnerability. And Rachel could do more than wait around for Ross’ return.
Crane’s suggestion did not meet with much enthusiasm from Friends’ writing staff, or from the show’s actors. “You can’t do that!” they insisted to Crane. “It’s like playing with fire!” But Crane was confident he had something. Playing with fire was exciting. There was a reason children had to be warned away from doing it.
Joey had begun to rediscover some of his latent gentlemanliness early in the eighth season, when he proposes to a pregnant Rachel (after first delivering the same proposal, word for word, to Phoebe). Rachel is touched, but turns him down: “You are so, so sweet, but I’m not looking for a husband.” (It is notable, given where she began, that Rachel serves as the most plainspoken feminist voice on Friends.) The brouhaha is settled in relatively short order, and Joey does not truly develop feelings for Rachel until the pivotal episode ‘The One Where Joey Dates Rachel’, midway through the eighth season.
Rachel expresses her pregnancy-fuelled nostalgia for dating, and Joey gallantly agrees to take her out to dinner. The two trade dating stories and compare surefire romantic moves. The mood is playful and light-hearted, but Joey is stunned to discover the existence of his emotions—a foreign country of which he is only dimly aware, like Sri Lanka.
Joey goes out on another date, with a beautiful but fatally dull woman whose romantic repertoire consists of Stephen Baldwin anecdotes. When he returns home early, Rachel is watching Joey’s favorite movie, Cujo, and pulls him into a hug. “Aren’t you scared?” she asks, and the camera pulls in tightly on his face: “Terrified.”
Joey and Rachel’s romance ebbs and flows, like a virus gone dormant but never entirely cured. Joey crushes on an oblivious Rachel, and then Rachel crushes on an oblivious Joey. There is always another person in the way, whether the omnipresent Ross or Joey’s mismatched palaeontologist girlfriend, Charlie (Aisha Tyler). Romance is forever getting closer, and somehow never actually arriving. Eventually, Joey and Rachel make out like middle-schoolers on a Barbadian getaway, spied on by their overly concerned friends.
For Friends, it is sex that is the sole arbiter of romantic reality, and so when Joey and Rachel are at last in agreement that the time has come for them to be together, it is their bodies that betray them. Rachel continually slaps away Joey’s roving hands, even as she encourages his advances, and Joey fumbles with Rachel’s bra strap. This halting encounter, over before it begins, spells an immediate end to their doomed affair.
In some ways, the Rachel-Joey pairing is successful. (Just ask Twitter user Claire Willett, whose 100-tweet argument in favor of them over Rachel and Ross rocketed around the internet in 2017.) Their relationship restores some kindness and humanity to Joey, who becomes a better-rounded character as a result. And Rachel is not merely Ross’ discarded property, but a smart, successful, beautiful woman who attracts her fair share of devoted suitors. So why does their relationship, compelling as it often is, still feel wrong?
In part, it stems from the limitations placed on television series regarding adaptations to their initial slate of promises to the audience. Friends had been predicated on the tormented, yearning relationship between Ross and Rachel. There were times when Rachel and Joey might have been healthier, sweeter, and kinder than Ross and Rachel ever were, but the audience wants what it wants, and Friends was never the show that was going to transform into something entirely different most of the way through its run. And to the extent that it could, it had already spent that capital on the unexpected pairing of Chandler and Monica.
Rachel and Joey could always only ever be a brief interlude in a larger romance, a short detour off the highway of infinitely delayed happiness. That it exists at all is testament to David Crane and Marta Kauffman’s desire to maintain the ideal balance between crowd-pleasing and perverse. That it did not entirely work serves as a reminder that Friends, 800-pound gorilla of mainstream television popularity, could sometimes opt for the experimental and the unpredictable in the hopes of keeping things interesting.
Still Friends: 25 Years of the TV Show That Defined an Era by Saul Austerlitz is out now from Trapeze.